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The maladaptation paradox: unintended consequences of climate solutions

In the grand theatre of Earth's ever-evolving climate drama, the protagonists are undoubtedly the adaptable ones.  They are expected to be chameleons who skillfully adjust their hues to harmonise with the ever-shifting backdrop. As our planet undergoes a dramatic climatic makeover, adaptation is the name of the game, the key to thriving in a world of climate chaos. But what happens if, in our quest for survival, we inadvertently grab the script to a completely different play? We enter the realm of maladaptation, a tragicomedy where the solutions intended to help us weather the storm might just end up doing the opposite.

The concept of maladaptation in the context of climate change dates back to the late 1990s. According to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCC), it is defined as the “changes in natural or human systems that inadvertently increase vulnerability to climate stimuli”. It is a measure of adaptation that, instead of successfully reducing vulnerability, actually exacerbates it. These are actions that undermine present and future adaptation capacities. This can be categorised into three primary domains: technological, institutional, and behavioural. Technological maladaptation transpires when innovative technologies intended to aid climate change adaptation inadvertently result in detrimental consequences. For example, air conditioning is often used as a quick solution to cope with heatwaves caused by climate change. However, it can also contribute to greenhouse gas emissions and exacerbate the problem in the long run. Institutional maladaptation on the other hand emerges when policies crafted for climate adaptation exacerbate rather than alleviate challenges. For instance, policies that promote the relocation of coastal communities without their input and consent can lead to social and cultural disruption. Behavioural maladaptation takes shape when individuals become excessively attuned to climate change hazards, rendering them too overwhelmed to effectively adapt. In some cases, people may become so focused on adapting to the impacts of climate change that they overlook the need for mitigation. This can lead to a sense of resignation and make it more difficult to address the root causes of climate change

On further analysis, it is found that the ongoing uncertainty in climate adaptation arises primarily from a combination of factors. Firstly, advancements in climate science can introduce new complexities and uncertainties, particularly when new processes are identified. Secondly, the magnitude of future climate change remains uncertain, hinging on decisions yet to be made concerning greenhouse gas emissions. Finally, the unpredictable attributes of societies that will be shaped by future impacts, decades in advance, add another layer of uncertainty to climate adaptation efforts.

Numerous instances of maladaptation are pervasive on a global scale. To enumerate a few, maladaptation in forests can occur when adaptation measures are not aligned with the values of the local communities. For instance, if a forest is cleared to plant a crop that is not culturally or economically valuable to the local communities, it can lead to maladaptation. An example illustrating efforts to cope with the challenge of rising sea levels is the construction of seawalls by the Maldivian government. Contrarily, this measure resulted in maladaptation, as the seawalls led to erosion and damage to the crucial coral reefs, which are vital for the country's tourism industry. Another stark example of maladaptation is the construction of embankments in Bangladesh, aimed at flood protection but has resulted in adverse consequences. These embankments, while intended to safeguard against flooding, have disrupted natural water flow, leading to the loss of fertile land and displacement of communities. They have also harmed fish habitats, impacting the livelihoods of fishing communities and are still  contributing to the loss of vital wetlands, essential for various plant and animal species. Additionally, traditional and more sustainable flood management practices have been displaced by the current embankment system.

On the home front, a study conducted in the Eastern-Himalayan foothills of West Bengal found that climatic factors do not exclusively drive maladaptation; rather, they can be influenced by factors such as pre-existing vulnerabilities and disregard of socio-cultural norms. The study identified various maladaptive outcomes, including the decline of groundwater levels, heightened emissions of greenhouse gases stemming from diesel-powered irrigation systems, the emergence of pest resistance, increased investment costs, and disruptions to social cohesion arising from cultural practices, among others. Another case in point is the Odisha government's adoption of multiple strategies to tackle the issues linked to escalating sea levels and powerful cyclones along its coastline. These strategies included village rehabilitation, geosynthetic tube structures, solar fish drying units and mangrove planting. They aimed to combat the heightened sea-level rise and cyclone vulnerability, but it proved largely ineffective in assisting vulnerable communities during extreme sea-level events. An illustrative case study is Arakhakuda village, where mangroves were planted. It however failed to provide adequate protection during Cyclone Fani, which caused significant losses to lives and infrastructure with more than 10,000 people killed and properties worth 33,300 crore rupees damaged. Intruding seawater disrupted the lake's salinity balance, leading to a substantial decline in fish catch and prompting local fisherfolk to seek alternative livelihoods, increasing their vulnerability to climate impacts.

To effectively address the challenges of maladaptation, it is imperative that implementing agencies adhere to clear and comprehensive guidelines for designing and executing adaptation projects. These guidelines should prioritise co-designing initiatives in collaboration with local stakeholders, ensuring a deep understanding of the unique context and specific needs of the communities they serve. Additionally, there is a growing need to promote citizen-centric programs by encouraging sustainable and low-consumption lifestyles and adopting circular economy principles. It is vital to shift away from short-sighted solutions that can inadvertently harm more people than they benefit. This entails developing the capacity for long-term planning and reevaluating existing growth models to create more sustainable and resilient societies.

In this context, the innovative maladaptation assessment tool developed by a diverse group in New Zealand serves as an example of how community-led solutions can contribute to the broader goal of effective climate adaptation. By incorporating the perspectives and wisdom of local communities, such tools can enhance the implementation of resilient adaptation strategies. Furthermore, when crafting adaptive strategies, it is essential to embrace a systems thinking and multidisciplinary approach. This holistic perspective helps minimise the potential for unintended and unexpected consequences. 

Effective climate adaptation relies on its implementation being equitable and robust. Acknowledging the flaws in existing adaptation planning procedures represents the pivotal initial stride. We possess the wisdom to forge an alternative course, steering clear of maladaptation and progressing toward a more secure world, yet it necessitates our commitment to that direction. In this ongoing drama of climate change, the next act holds the potential for redemption, for rewriting the script with wisdom, compassion and resilience. The stage is set, and it is up to the stakeholders to play their roles wisely and ensure that adaptation strategies blend with the evolving needs of both humanity and our fragile planet. The choice is ours, and the time to make it is now.

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