What Is Maladaptation?

by Melinda Söderström

The advancing climate crisis makes adaptation necessary. Climate change adaptation aims to minimise the potential harm caused by the climate crisis [1]. However, adaptation does not always achieve its goals, and something that was meant to reduce vulnerabilities and harm can end up making the situation worse [2], [3]. This is called maladaptation. This article will explore what maladaptation is, why it happens, and how it can be avoided.

What is maladaptation?

Maladaptation has been researched since the 1990s [4] and is commonly mentioned in policy, such as in national adaptation plans [5]. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has also discussed the risks of maladaptation [1], [6]. Despite this recognition, the research is still in the early stages and there is still a lack of clarity surrounding the concept and how to utilize it in policy [5], [7].

Different types of maladaptation exist such as ‘rebound vulnerability’ which is a situation whereby the vulnerability of the intended target is increased rather than reduced [2]. Maladaptation can also shift vulnerability so that it increases elsewhere or in the future [2]. Eroding sustainable development by increasing greenhouse gas emissions, for example, is a type of maladaptation, too [2].

Why does maladaptation happen?

Maladaptation often stems from short-sighted, fragmented, and non-inclusive policies [1]. Different adaptive actions have varying risks of maladaptation. Modifying the environment by building  seawalls to reduce exposure to rising sea levels has a higher risk, while strengthening public health services to increase adaptive capacity has a lower risk [8]. Seawalls, which are hard engineered shoreline protection structures, are commonly built on small islands where sea-level rise and flooding are existential threats [9]. However, particularly on small islands, seawalls have failed to resolve coastal erosion and instead tend to be maladaptive, exacerbating flooding and erosion [9].

Even adaptation done with the best intentions can end up being maladaptive. Deliberative decisions ignoring long-term implications or disregarding how certain groups of people are going to be affected can also result in maladaptation [6]. Instead, we need to advocate for ‘just adaptation’ which aims to advance the principles of climate justice through adaptive measures. It speaks to the notion of ‘climate justice’ which recognises that marginalised individuals and communities – as a result of ethnicity, income, gender and other factors – are least responsible for the climate crisis yet often more exposed to its adverse effects [11].

Urban greening – which increases the amount of vegetation in cities through parks and green roofs – is an example of an adaptation strategy that has the risk of being maladaptive by exacerbating existing injustices [12]. It has been called a win-win strategy for urban climate change adaptation as it can benefit both the environment and humans, by cooling surface temperatures, managing water runoff, and reducing pollution [12]–[14]. However, these benefits are not always distributed equally. The projects have a risk of favouring high-income residents and increasing vulnerability among marginalised groups [14]–[16] as they tend to bee concentrated in wealthy areas or lead to increased housing prices thereby forcing low-income households to relocate [14], [15], [17]. This process called green climate gentrification affects particularly lower-income, immigrant, and racialised residents and worsens existing injustices [14], [18]. It is not the only example of unjust adaptation; questions of justice are also present in the case of seawalls on small islands, for example, if they are constructed by outside actors with little regard for the local context or traditional knowledge [9].

How to avoid maladaptation?

In order to avoid maladaptation, the IPCC recommends adaptation that is flexible, inclusive, multi-sectoral and has a long-term focus [19]. Knowledge co-production, which is the collaboration of multiple types of knowledge systems, like scientific and local knowledge, is one way of enhancing inclusion and just adaptation [20], [21]. There is also a need to address the structural barriers in adaptation planning that result in maladaptive outcomes, such as funding that favours short-term, technological fixes [22]. It is also important to recognise that the line between  successful adaptation and maladaptation is not clear-cut but instead adaptation sits along a spectrum meaning a measure can be effective in some ways and maladaptive in others [3], [23]. Evaluation of the success of adaptation measures is typically focused on whether the measures are implemented because tracking their outcomes is challenging – however, this is quite shortsighted as it is essential to monitor their effect to really determine whether they are maladaptive or not [5].

As adaptation becomes increasingly necessary, so does understanding the risks of maladaptation. As discussed, the failure of adaptation can stem from various factors, including structural barriers, and can increase the vulnerability of the intended target but also of external actors. A more holistic and inclusive approach to adaptation is necessary to ensure it succeeds in fulfilling its intended purpose: ensuring a safer and prosperous future for everyone. 


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