This is a story of unintended consequences, like many others. You know, when you have the best intentions, but something goes wrong? When the results of planned actions or policies backfire somehow and you wonder “why didn’t I think of that?”
Well, planning failures are like that, especially the variety that fall into the category of “maladaptation.” And when it relates to climate change, maladaptive policies often backfire in very specific ways.
Defining maladaptation in the context of climate change
While the term maladaptation can be used in a variety of contexts, maladaptation as a concept related to climate change has been around since the late 20th century. When we talk specifically about climate change, there are some points that stand out.
One definition of maladaptation is “a process that results in increased vulnerability to climate variability and change, directly or indirectly, and/or significantly undermines capacities or opportunities for present and future adaptation.”
An editorial on the peer-reviewed journal Global Environmental Change defines it as “action taken ostensibly to avoid or reduce vulnerability to climate change that impacts adversely on, or increases the vulnerability of other systems, sectors, or social groups.”
This same editorial lists five types of maladaptation to climate change: (1) Increasing emissions of greenhouse gases; (2) Disproportionately burdening the most vulnerable; (3) High opportunity costs, where the economic, social, or environmental cost of the approaches are high relative to alternatives; (4) Reducing incentive to adapt; and (5) Path dependency, where there are capital and institutions committed to trajectories that are difficult to change in the future.
We see that the common themes of maladaptation are increased vulnerability and reduced capacity to adapt, usually relating to unintended sectors or communities. Of course nobody wants these to happen, but as we see from the attention the subject is getting, it does happen. Is there anything that can be done to avoid maladaptive policies or actions?
Why does maladaptation happen?
It is not easy to evaluate if a policy or measure will turn maladaptive. Many interactions and factors can affect a policy or measure, including global and local economic and political conditions. However, a foremost common theme is that reactive measures, taken in the short term to fix an immediate problem, have a high potential of being maladaptive. Therefore, those should be avoided whenever possible.
Speaking of time, a big issue in maladaptation is the time frame used for both planning and for results to show up. When an adaptation policy or strategy is undertaken, its results are not immediately realized—especially when dealing with climate change, which is a slow, gradual process. Many years may pass until results are seen, and it may be that when that happens, some negative aspects are also unveiled that were not accounted for or expected in the first place.
Another point is that sometimes the only possible adaptive measure will inevitably lead to some unwanted consequences, and the decision is made with full awareness of this fact—because things would be worse without the measure. As hard as that is, sometimes there are no other options, and one should strive to monitor outcomes, and change actions as possible to minimize the unintended consequences.
One must also keep in mind that it is not always easy to account for all possible consequences of an action or policy, and many times it is hard to even identify if something went wrong. So the best practice is to keep some things in mind to try to avoid the unintended consequences. But what exactly should one keep in mind?
Start by addressing climate uncertainty and risk
It is a whole new world out there. Experts speak of stationarity (or its demise thereof) and of a “new normal” that should define and inform adaptation policies and measures. One cannot plan for the climate of the past, or build in the floodplain that was deemed safe 100 years ago. The beach houses should really be built further up, away from the surf. However, when it comes to making decisions such as these, on which climate impacts can have a large influence, often one hears the argument that the uncertainty of future climate makes it hard to identify risks, and consequently decide what to do to reduce them.
But uncertainty itself can be used in adaptation planning in a very logical and useful way, mainly because what we are uncertain of is the extent of future climate change, not its existence. In fact, it has been argued that when it comes to climate adaptation, uncertainty is one of the risks for which one must prepare. Based on that, a variety of guidelines for various types of investments on adaptation measures has been suggested for robust decision-making under uncertainty. One such document addresses investments under a range of risk scenarios, leading to an informed assessment of a project’s vulnerability, cost-effectiveness and robustness, and flexibility of future performance depending on scenario.
The IPCC itself published an excellent document identifying the importance of scientific understanding, risk perception, and intuitive thinking when it comes to decision making under uncertainty (about climate change). It also highlights the limitation of cost-benefit and cost-effectiveness analyses, and the importance of decision-makers’ responses to key uncertainties in subsequent policies and instruments to adapt to and mitigate climate change.
So, there is uncertainty: use it as part of your decision making!
Then focus on what can be done to avoid maladaptation
There has been a lot of attention, both in the gray and peer-reviewed literature, turned to maladaptation to climate change. Seeing that it is so hard to identify, many publications focus on lists of principles, guidelines, or considerations to avoid maladaptive policies or practices. Below are a few examples.
One recent review states that the more guidelines or principles an adaptation policy, plan, or project addresses (and it lists 11 of them, divided into two frameworks, the Pathways Framework and the Precautionary Framework, see figure below from another publication by same author), the lower the risk of maladaptation.
A June 2015 report lists reasons for maladaptive measures meant to adapt to changes in the context of climate change:
- Inaction as maladaptation: a deliberate non-action that increases risks and negative outcomes is maladaptation.
- Interventions that do not have a primary focus on climate change can also constitute maladaptation.
- Discounting the future: only time will tell the success or failure of an intervention or policy.
- Shifting baselines and counterfactuals: accounting for the fact that systems are always changing.
- Distributional aspects of adaptation: the fact that an intervention may not uniformly reduce risks for all social groups.
It goes on to present a very useful evaluative framework to assess maladaptation, intended not to identify and quantify maladaptation, but rather “clarify the main constituents of maladaptation and help identify strategies likely to lead to maladaptive outcomes early.”
A recent blog comments on the same report above, and describes two useful examples of maladaptation to climate change: (1) the Fort Lauderdale shoreline and roadway project, where reasons #2 and #3 from the report are at play. Instead of focusing the resources on the actual infrastructure to minimize flooding, the city is also building aesthetic improvements that may not be usable or adequate in a future timeframe; and (2) Canada’s oil sands, which the author attributes to reason #1, where policies adopted to offset greenhouse gas emissions based on the purchase of carbon credits have actually led to an increase in net emissions.
Inequality of results is a common maladaptation consequence
Another recent piece states that poor use of climate information in the design of critical long-term infrastructure is one of the factors that can lead to maladaptation in a climate change and development context. Among other factors, this can lead to a maladaptive consequence such as cultural marginalization of vulnerable groups. It goes on to identify four “building blocks” of maladaptation in the context of equity and equality:
- 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.
- Risk of diminished well-being: A strategy should also be considered maladaptive if there are large negative effects—unintended or otherwise—on people’s well-being.
- Distribution: Evaluate the impact that any adaptation strategy has on both collective levels of climate risk and well-being. 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: 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.
UCS has also put together a framework and principles for resilient, science-based adaptation to climate change that has an important focus on equity and climate justice. In addition to the use of rigorous science as a general rule, the recommendations focus on equitable outcomes and the use of ample common sense in the adaptation planning process. The document specifically calls for a matching of the scope of planning to the magnitude of projected change, and for creating opportunities for a revision and change of course—essential steps for reducing the risk of future maladaptation.
Remember that there are limits to adaptation
Last but not least, one must keep in mind that climate adaptation has limits, and not every climate risk can be averted or reduced in a successful way. Some may be better addressed than others, and therefore efforts on mitigation should not be slowed down.
Policies that aim to reduce greenhouse gas emissions should work in tandem with climate adaptation policies, so as to ensure a successful and significant progress in the fight against and adaptation to climate change, and hopefully also reduce the potential for policies and measures that lead to unintended consequences.