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Maladaptation – when our response to climate change goes wrong

Most of the world accepts the need to combat climate change, but not all attempts to tackle it are successful. Indeed, some have the exact opposite impact thanks to maladaptation. Here’s what happens.

Adaptation efforts to reduce the impact of global warming involve adjusting ecological, social and/or economic systems in response to actual or expected climate issues and events. Maladaptation, on the other hand, refers to when such efforts go wrong.

The latest United Nations assessment of climate impacts defines maladaptation as “actions that may lead to increased risk of adverse climate-related outcomes, including via increased greenhouse gas emissions, increased or shifted vulnerability to climate change, more inequitable outcomes, or diminished welfare, now or in the future”.

Although generally unintended, the danger of maladaptation is that it can create a “long-term lock-in of vulnerability, exposure and risks that are difficult and costly to change”. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) also warns that the “adaptation gap” would continue to grow at current rates of adaptation and planning.

To put it more simply, maladaptation is “when we try to address a changing risk and inadvertently actually increase risk”, according to Maarten van Aalst, co-author of the IPCC report and Professor of Climate and Disaster Resilience at the University of Twente.

Good intentions gone awry

Here are five examples of where well-intended attempts at combating climate change had unintended consequences.

1) Fortifications built to mitigate erosion on islands in the Maldives led to irreversible changes to the natural coastal system due to lack of planning to such a degree that the only remaining future response to rising sea levels is further construction of sea defences.

2) In the African island nation of São Tomé and Príncipe, an externally-funded agricultural modernisation project designed to increase productivity was only offered to landowners, effectively depriving the landless, who are more exposed to climate change risks.

3) Hydroelectric dam and forest protection policies in parts of central Vietnam successfully regulated floods in lowland areas but limited access to land for those in the mountains. This, in turn, affected the latter’s capacity to manage risk and adapt to climate change.

4) In Bangladesh, flood control measures were found to have eliminated floodplains that were a source of food and income, among other issues. However, this also more severely impacted women than men, as they could no longer find food or resources to sell.

5) During the 2006-2009 drought in California, the agricultural sector kept production high thanks to resilience measures such as more groundwater pumping and crop insurance schemes. But this was later found to have increased the vulnerability of other systems by lessening water security, increasing emissions, and reducing incentives to adapt.

The impact of these measures is still seen in California today with the region suffering from further droughts. Yet, this has also raised the importance of proper climate adaptation strategies in the state. These include investments in building back-up supplies, the augmenting of existing supplies with groundwater recharge programs, recycling and reusing wastewater and introducing water meters to aid conservation. Authorities are also aiming for more collaboration with external experts and representatives from indigenous tribes to ensure a more holistic approach to the problem.

What can we do to prevent maladaptation?

Dr Lisa Schipper, Environmental Social Science Research Fellow at the Environmental Change Institute at the University of Oxford and another of the IPCC report’s authors, stresses that just because there is a lot of evidence of maladaptation, it should not be misunderstood as saying that all adaptation doesn’t work. “What this is, is evidence that we’re not doing adaptation correctly,” she explains.

Maladaptation tends to have one of three consequences, according to Schipper: it reinforces existing vulnerabilities, as seen in São Tomé and Príncipe; redistributes vulnerability, like in Vietnam; or can inadvertently introduce longer-term risk, as in California.

To prevent adaptation projects going wrong, all actors – from the grassroots and NGOs to governments – must be involved in any initiative’s design and implementation. Local context is key, and planning must recognise that many people don’t really understand what dimensions of their life can be adjusted to address climate risk.

Planning also needs to consider the local context when it comes to understanding the health of the local ecosystem, with people who live, work, and rely on it generally best placed to understand it, adds Schipper.

Prof van Aalst agrees, saying: “There are many reasons why that local involvement is important. I’d say a critical one, from a governance perspective, is that we often see that the most vulnerable groups don’t have much of a say – so the priorities being set for adaptation don’t necessarily respond to their highest needs.”

“If you put more decision-making and resources into their hands, it’s more likely to respond to their biggest priorities and less likely to ignore their needs, while serving other adaptation priorities. So that reduces the risk of maladaptation.”

There are also issues surrounding the monitoring and financing of projects. Many adaptation projects are tied in with existing development schemes, for example, but they should instead be new to really be effective. Meanwhile, climate financing could consider how a project reduces vulnerability instead of total amount invested, suggests Schipper.

Adaptation can be done correctly

However, while maladaptation remains a concern, taking such measures should provide optimism for the future when it comes to tackling climate change and reducing the vulnerability of the most affected communities.

One at least partly successful example of more transformative adaptation is in the Netherlands, which is historically renowned for being well protected from high sea levels. Rather than building more dikes, its ‘Room for the river’ initiative initially sought to restore the natural flood plain of four rivers to mitigate the risk of flooding.

However, now drought and heat are a bigger risk than precipitation – so a system that once aimed to get rid of water, now needs to be optimised to retain water, outlines Prof van Aalst. This has led to further climate adaptation measures being taken, such as reconnecting old streams back to a river to improve irrigation.

Overall, Schipper stresses that there’s “still huge potential for adaptation to be done correctly”, adding: “I think that, since we have quite a good sense of what’s going wrong, we should be able to address those issues.

“At the climate change meetings, the countries are asking this, they want to know how to fix things,” she adds. “And all the development actors are really aware that things need to be addressed too.”

Written by

Natalie Marchant