Why we need to rethink ‘maladaptation’

By Lindsey Jones 29 June 2015

Urban poor communities built stilt houses in Dhaka, Bangladesh, to cope with flooding brought about by climate change. There is concern that actions taken to respond to climate change may end up increasing people’s vulnerability now or in the future. Photo by: Development Planning Unit / University College London / CC BY

Devex – “Maladaptation” is a hot topic in the climate change community. With increasing global attention and finance being poured into adaptation, people are understandably concerned that actions taken to respond to climate change may end up increasing people’s vulnerability now or in the future.

But what does maladaptation actually look like? One example comes from Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, where city planners drew up and started to implement many infrastructure projects to help mitigate the risk of flooding. The design of these infrastructural investments was based on the best information and predictions of future climate and development trends available at the time.

However, more recent research suggests that climate change and urbanization will be larger than the Vietnamese anticipated, and in some cases, go beyond the maximum thresholds considered during the projects’ design phase. As a result, city planners are concerned that the very same infrastructure designed to protect people from flooding could in fact lower resilience and make them far more vulnerable in the future.

Lots of processes can cause maladaptation: poor use of climate information in the design of critical long-term infrastructure, promoting projects that lock people into unsustainable livelihood practices, or failing to factor in the implications of wider development challenges into adaptation projects — such as cultural marginalization of vulnerable groups.

Yet, while we all agree that maladaptation is bad, there is little consensus on what constitutes maladaptation. As a result, we have few — if any — suitable decision support tools to identify and screen for maladaptation. To address this, a new report published by the Pathways to Resilience in Semi-arid Economies research project explores some of the methodological challenges in classifying maladaptation.

So let’s look at four difficult questions and qualities that we need to consider before we are able to assess whether an adaption strategy is maladaptive.

Why is identifying maladaptation so tricky?

First, it’s almost impossible to say whether an adaptation strategy has been “successful” or not: Success can mean different things to different people and without a clear idea of what is and — more importantly — isn’t successful, it is difficult to say an adaptation strategy has been a “success.” Therefore any assessment of maladaptation is inevitably going to be subjective.

Second, at what point do we evaluate maladaptation? What may appear to be successful at a certain point in time may eventually turn out to be harmful to climate risk in the future.

Third, we have to take into account how effective alternative options would have been — something few have considered when it comes to maladaptation. What if you live in an area where all viable adaptation strategies are likely to make people worse off to future climate risk? Perhaps all available strategies will have a heavy cost on society? Our current way of thinking about maladaptation suggests that each of these strategies is likely to be maladaptive. But that doesn’t seem right. Surely an adaptation strategy should be considered partially — or even entirely — successful if it is the best available and reasonable strategy compared with all other options, even if this results in a slight increase in risk?

Fourth, climate risks are changing and evolve over time. This means the baseline we measure progress against is constantly shifting. Yet another reason for confusion and head-scratching!

As these problems showcase, we have a lot of methodological challenges to contend with. But that doesn’t mean that decision-makers should ignore maladaptation. Far from it: If we don’t help decision-makers recognize the risks in promoting maladaptation, and provide them with simple tools to support policymaking, the risk is millions of people’s livelihoods — and lives — will suffer in the long term.

A framework for characterizing maladaptation: 4 cornerstones

So how do we frame maladaptation in a way that recognizes these challenges but is simple enough to use in practice?

In an attempt to offer some solutions, our research proposes a way of framing maladaptation that brings us back to the basics by identifying four building blocks of maladaptation.

The first two relate to what we might consider to be overarching characteristics of maladaptation or the bits that we’re worried about adaptation having a negative impact on:

● Climate risk: At its simplest, we should consider an adaptation strategy to be maladaptive if it contributes negatively to the ability of people and communities to deal with and respond to climate change. No surprises here, as this is perhaps the component most commonly associated with maladaptation.

● Risk of diminished well-being: In our report we extend the traditional domain of maladaptation considerably by arguing that it’s not sufficient to look simply at climate risk, as adaptation strategies can also have a significant negative impact on people’s livelihoods, culture and economic and social well-being. Therefore, a strategy should also be considered maladaptive if there are large negative effects — unintended or otherwise — on people’s well-being.

We also identify two further building blocks that can be thought of as lenses for looking at how adaptation might affect the two characteristics above:

● Distribution: Adaptation strategies can, if poorly implemented, strengthen some people’s ability to deal with climate risk while making it worse for others to adapt; indeed, winners and losers are somewhat inevitable. We therefore need to be careful to look at the impact that any adaptation strategy has on both collective levels of climate risk and well-being. For example, have levels of both increased or been impacted overall? And what about their distribution — has inequality risen as a result?

So, if an adaptation strategy has a large negative impact on the distribution of risk across a system, or if the distribution of impacts on economic and social well-being is significantly uneven, this strategy should be considered maladaptive.

● Time: Time is a factor that cuts across all aspects that we’ve mentioned so far, whether that’s risk, well-being or distribution. Put simply, maladaptation occurs when short-term costs or gains outweigh longer-term costs or gains during the period of time of interest. But knowing when to decide on the final outcome is difficult: Maladaptation can occur long after a project has finished. It would be more useful to identify processes that could lead to maladaptation, rather than evaluating maladaptive outcomes at some arbitrarily distant point in time.

While the framework hasn’t got all the answers, it helps us to better classify what should and shouldn’t be called maladaptation. Perhaps what is most important is that we concentrate on identifying what the “symptoms” of maladaptation are or the types of activities that are likely to lead to maladaptive outcomes. These could be poor enabling environments for adaptation, a failure to set up adequate institutions and address power issues, or simply bad planning and management of adaptation strategies. Doing so will help decision-makers and impact evaluators to flag dangerous strategies as early as possible.

Maladaptation isn’t the only thing we should be interested in

Lastly, our research points out that while maladaptation receives considerable policy attention, very little concern goes into addressing the risk that wider development decisions also affect the four building blocks of maladaptation. Yet, most development activities fail to consider climate change in their activities. This means they can’t be considered as adaptation strategies — nor, by that logic, can they be considered maladaptation. Given the considerable impact that social protection schemes, agricultural reform policies or women’s empowerment programs can have on people’s ability to deal with climate change, this is short-sighted.

But it doesn’t really matter what you call it — “maladaptation,” “maladaptation-like” or even “mal-development.” What’s most important is that we get better at ensuring that our current actions don’t increase the risks that climate change poses and don’t negatively impact on our well-being now — or in the future.

However we’re not even close to achieving that goal at the moment. Doing so requires us to move away from abstract discussions of maladaptation, and to plunge straight into the details of how to identify it, screen against it, and prevent it from happening in the first place — however much of a conceptual minefield that might seem.

About the author


Lindsey Jones

Lindsey is a research fellow working on issues including climate change, adaptation and development. His background lies in international development and global environmental governance. He has previously worked with the U.N. Development Program in Nepal and the World Food Program. Lindsey has an M.S. in environmental policy from the University of Oxford and has experience working in southern and eastern Africa.


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