With the delayed UN climate talks coming up this year, COP26 president Alok Sharma recently launched a “Race to Resilience” to underscore the urgency of adapting to climate change.
However, in our new study – published in the journal World Development – we come to the unsettling conclusion that many adaptation projects can make people more, rather than less, vulnerable to climate change. This is known as “maladaptation”.
Academics and practitioners have spent many years promoting the idea that adaptation can reinforce sustainable development (pdf) and even offer a way to rethink development in light of the changing climate. So, is adaptation at an impasse?
No. In fact, we argue that adaptation is needed more than ever, but that it should be rethought.
Over the past decade, in the justified rush to provide assistance in the face of climate change impacts across the globe, many existing development aid institutions and approaches have been quickly re-purposed for the provision of “adaptation aid”.
But our analysis suggests that the timescales, participants and ultimate purpose of adaptation are often confused – resulting in well-intentioned, but misguided, investments that are backfiring to make climate change worse for many people.
The reality is that it is very difficult to give easy blueprints for “successful adaptation” – or how to measure it. This is because adaptation is a long-term process and is dependent on specific circumstances.
While a clear picture of successful adaptation may be difficult to pin down, our findings suggest that we can identify what it looks like when things go wrong with adaptation planning – and how not to make those mistakes in future.
What is ‘maladaptation’?
Understanding what processes lead to maladaptation and how to avoid it remains the subject of intense discussion.
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