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Ill-conceived attempts at climate adaptation threaten to make a bad situation even worse.

By E. Lisa F. Schipper

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On the central Pacific island of Kiribati, the national government built a seawall to protect people from storm surges and sea-level rise—but ended up merely redirecting erosion to an area farther down the coastline. In California, farmers received emergency aid and loans to cover lost income from the intense 2007–2009 drought—but those payments perversely reduced their incentive to adapt to the reality of a drier future climate.

These events illustrate the importance of a new kind of climate crisis, one that receives too little attention. It is clear that, in addition to cutting carbon emissions, countries around the world will have to adapt to the harsh realities of living on a warming planet. What is not so clear is what those adaptations should look like. Done right, adaptation efforts can soften the blow to billions of lives. Done wrong, they can lead to maladaptation, wasting time and money while leaving people just as vulnerable as before, or even more so.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) recently reported that nearly every nation has some sort of adaptation plan and that many specific efforts are already underway. Unfortunately, early attempts at climate adaptation have been broadly under-researched, underfunded, and inconsistent. A meta-study of more than 1,600 academic articles on adaptation, published in conjunction with that IPCC report (Climate Change 2022: Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability), finds that most of those efforts have not been attempts at systemic change, nor have they resulted in risk reduction. Each misstep comes at significant human cost.

At a nuts-and-bolts level, planners and engineers understand what needs to be done to adapt to the climate crisis, such as elevating bridges to avoid floods, using more resilient materials for construction, designing urban spaces that provide protection from extreme heat, training health workers to recognize signs of heat stress and dehydration, and switching to drought-resistant crops. Adaptation is far from straightforward, though, because there is no simple way to define what a successful outcome looks like.

Is adaptation a success as soon as a project has been completed? Or is it only years later, after the climate has changed, that we can assess outcomes? Why stop there, even, since the climate will continue to change and human behavior is likely to change as well? To pick one example: A higher bridge may be designed to prevent deaths caused by flooding. But it could end up encouraging people to live closer to the river, leaving them more exposed to floods if the climate changes more intensely than expected later on.

Although we cannot guarantee or even perfectly define success, we can do a lot better at learning about the mechanisms that lead to failure. Maladaptations are as varied as adaptations, but they fall into three main categories:

We have the knowledge to chart a new path, away from maladaptation and toward a safer world—but we need to follow it.

Built maladaptation, involving infrastructure and the built world. Infrastructure projects tend to be politically popular because they offer visible evidence that money is being put to good use. But infrastructure projects also have a high risk of going wrong because they are large and inflexible: Once built, there aren’t many options for making changes. There are already hundreds of seawalls and other forms of defense that were built to protect coastal and riverine areas but that (like the case in Kiribati) led to maladaptation instead.

Institutional maladaptation, involving policies, laws, rules, and organizational structures. Like the California drought response, these initiatives may backfire because they limit people’s options or create adverse incentives. Researchers have observed this in many parts of the world. If farmers no longer have to worry about the weather to ensure income, they begin to lose sight of risk and risk mitigation and pay less attention to long-term strategies for the farming community as a whole.

Behavioral maladaptation, which occurs when people become so sensitive to the hazards of climate change that they are too overwhelmed to adapt. One study, in Ghana, found that many farmers abandoned their fields in search of wage labor during drought periods; then, when rains were good, there were not enough workers available to ensure a successful harvest. Or farmers may sell off their machinery or livestock when times are tough but then have insufficient wealth to replace them. Consequently, they end up worse off, often permanently.

The behavioral factor feeds into the other two forms of maladaptation as well. For instance, in Bangladesh levees were constructed to protect people from cyclones and storm surges, but the levees ended up creating a false sense of security that encouraged more construction and population growth in high-risk areas. Disasters have since caused even more deaths along the Jamuna River floodplain—a collision of institutional and behavioral factors.

Maladaptation is never an intended outcome, but that doesn’t mean it is unavoidable. Recent research offers clear guidance on what causes maladaptation and identifies three general principles for how to avert it:

Consult with affected populations. In many cases the negative consequences of maladaptation were knowable and preventable but happened anyway because the policymakers designing the adaptation didn’t consult with the people who were going to be most impacted by it. Returning to Bangladesh, flood-control efforts there have also blocked floodwaters that nourish local plants and aquatic life. One study found that women who made a living catching food resources like snails were well aware that their livelihood was endangered, but the project teams did not take their needs into account.

This example highlights the fact that planners are especially prone to overlook potential harm to marginalized groups. Why was the project team not concerned about the livelihoods of the women living near the floodplain in Bangladesh? It’s likely that the planners never even asked the women about their lives, challenges, and worries in the course of the decision-making process. If they had, they would have known about the women’s vulnerability and could have lessened the impact of the levees or provided alternative livelihood options. The obvious solution is to follow well-known, well-documented steps to ensure inclusion and equity among the affected people.

Develop local solutions. Many adaptation projects are just reworked versions of existing templates—ones that were developed for different places and populations and that do not take local circumstances (including vulnerability contexts) into account. Some adaptation plans are designed to involve participants and beneficiaries who own land. That approach excludes the poorest who do not own land; it may also exclude women, who in many countries are barred from being landowners. In this way, a well-intended program to include local stakeholders could end up disregarding the needs of the poorest and most vulnerable populations. Other adaptation plans involve relocating people away from a flood zone; these can erode social networks and introduce new conflicts. It is important to recognize that there isn’t a single blueprint for adaptation.

In a related issue, the people who plan and design adaptation projects often live far from the people they are trying to help. Decisions about local adaptation often are made at higher levels of government and may be shaped by development-assistance programs located in another part of the world. If the project leaders do not know the context, they certainly do not know the relevant groups they should be consulting. Projects, plans, and programs to adapt to climate change need to be carefully designed for their specific circumstances.

Look at climate impacts in context. Many adaptation plans focus on the impacts of climate change alone, without considering problems that already exist. It is necessary to understand what factors are making people sensitive to climate change in the first place. Where there is significant discrimination based on ethnicity, some groups are forced to live in more hazardous areas, such as informal settlements. Marginalized people also have fewer options for addressing problems as they arise, potentially pushing them further into poverty or exclusion. An adaptation strategy that addresses only immediate hazards may not help with the root cause of a problem and could even make it worse.

Maladaptation happens in developed countries just as readily as anywhere else. For instance, countless attempts to control flooding in the United States have backfired and made people worse off, as happened when the levee system in New Orleans failed catastrophically during Hurricane Katrina. In Europe, changes to Nordic agriculture made in response to climate shifts may be leading to soil loss, economic loss, and increased greenhouse gas emissions.

All of these issues and problems are things we understand and can address. More deliberate, inclusive planning could introduce ideas for adaptation strategies that outsiders have not even thought of. Local participation, development, and implementation will give individuals more of a stake and help bring about successful outcomes—not just to enable project managers to tick a box but to ensure that climate change is less damaging to people around the world. Making these changes will require major shifts in the top-down thinking that is prevalent within government agencies, international institutions like the World Bank, and large philanthropies and nongovernmental organizations.

The survival of our society depends on our ability to adapt to more frequent storms, more intense heat waves, longer droughts, higher sea levels, and all of the consequences that they bring. Given that each increment of global warming further limits our ability to adapt effectively, waiting is out of the question. It may seem contradictory, then, to suggest that we spend more time and resources on planning, consulting with local groups, and understanding the context that makes people vulnerable to climate change. Yet that is exactly what must happen in order to avoid maladaptation: We need an updated style of planning that brings together experts from different fields, encourages experimentation and collaboration, and includes marginalized populations in the process.

Responsibility for adaptation rarely falls on a single individual, but everyone reading this essay has a stake. You can make your voice heard as an activist, as a donor, or simply as a voter. Individuals can help reduce the likelihood of maladaptation by being alert to local projects. Watch for notices of community meetings, which all too often are sparsely attended. You don’t need detailed technical knowledge to scrutinize adaptation projects effectively. What you do need is an understanding of how decisions for those projects are made and what the expected outcomes are. You can ask: Who will be affected? Whose voices are being listened to, and whose are not? What adverse outcomes have not been considered? What is at stake, and who is at risk, if the project fails?

Climate adaptation will work if undertaken in a fair and robust way. Recognizing the flaws in current planning processes for adaptation is a crucial first step. We have the knowledge to chart a new path, away from maladaptation and toward a safer world—but we need to follow it.

July 14, 2022