Clara Chiu
Climate & Energy
Environmental Justice
Erin LeGoff
Spring 2022

The Making of Maladaptation

When projects to reduce the impacts of climate change make things worse

Authors: Clara Chiu and Erin LeGoff, both COL ‘21

Many projects that seek to adapt to climate change—while well intentioned—are actually making people more vulnerable to its impacts, a phenomenon known as “maladaptation.” Given that people most frequently experience climate change through droughts, floods, hurricanes, etc., the majority of adaptation responses and consequent maladaptive outcomes relate to water.

Why do projects that set out to do good unintentionally make matters worse? How can we stop this from occurring?

As important as understanding maladaptation is to our ability to combat climate change, there is distinct disagreement on what exactly maladaptation is, how we should conceptualize it, and which metrics should be used to measure it. Finding some sort of consensus is a crucial first step to mitigating it in our response to climate change.

Photo by Michael Krahn

Challenges in Conceptualizing Maladaptation

Maladaptation is generally defined as interventions that leave people or places in a worse-off position than if no planned adaptation had occurred. The concept slowly gained recognition within environmental circles in the twenty years since it was coined, fueled recently by a groundbreaking article in the journal World Development on how commonly internationally-funded adaptation projects backfire. 

However, the literature is unclear about how broadly the term should be applied. For example, if a new technology is brought to a community for an adaptation project and works as intended, but the technology required resource exploitation elsewhere, should that project be considered maladaptive? 

Additionally, since maladaptation exists on a spectrum, there is no clear-cut understanding as to when an adaptation project goes from simply being ineffective (also known as a “benign adaptation”) to actually being maladaptive. 

There is also no predominant framework to analyze maladaptation, and existing frameworks can be difficult to reconcile. For example, the World Development article categorizes maladaptation based on whether a project reinforces, redistributes, or creates vulnerabilities. But vulnerability itself can be assessed from different perspectives. Social vulnerability frameworks, for instance, consider impacts in areas such as gender, class, and ethnicity, whereas environmental vulnerability can be assessed by its effects on different environmental sectors, from agriculture, to energy, to sanitation. From an economic perspective, indicators such as income inequality and GDP growth can expose financial vulnerabilities as maladaptive outcomes.

Photo by Cristina Gottardi

Other frameworks focus on the “how,” distinguishing between the active processes through which adaptations can become maladaptive. Mr. David Michel, Senior Researcher at Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, identifies two such phenomena: the rebound effect and the backdraft effect. 

The rebound effect occurs when gains from the use of more efficient technology are reduced or offset entirely due to behavioral or other responses. For example, a more efficient drip irrigation system may be introduced to farmers with the intention of reducing water use, but this new efficiency may lead the farmer to produce even more crops, putting a further strain on water and land resources.

The backdraft effect, in comparison, may negatively impact sectors other than the intended target. For example, green technologies may require scarce materials, or excessive water to extract or refine. 

To further complicate analysis, maladaptation can be thought of temporally (as in success in the short term but harm over the long term), across different geographies, or include impacts on culture, institutions, among other elements.

Practical Challenges in Measuring Maladaptation

Measuring and evaluating the success or failure of an adaptation project presents yet another challenge. Each project has a unique goal, cultural context, and timeframe that will determine its own criteria for success. 

But often maladaptations arise out of the criteria not considered in the project design. A short-term irrigation project, for example, may achieve its desired goal of improving crop yields upon completion but erode the soil over the long term.

Since there is no fixed criteria for maladaptation indicators, many agree that evaluation must be recurring and continuous—an adaptive process itself. At the bare minimum, practitioners should “do no harm.” Unfortunately, this can be a misnomer, since a project that has no apparent harmful effects in the present may have the risk of severe harm in the future, arguably a worse maladaptation than an easily identifiable problem. 

Takeaways for Practitioners

Given that these systems are constantly interacting and evolving, so too must the policies meant to address them, a process known as “adaptive policymaking.” The implementation of the policy will give rise to a new situation that will, in turn, require a new policy approach. Mr. Michel explains that, essentially, decision-makers must understand successful adaptation not as a static endpoint, but rather as an iterative process that incorporates feedback as changes occur. 

Decision-makers must understand successful adaptation not as a static endpoint, but rather as an iterative process that incorporates feedback as changes occur.

David Michel

In designing adaptation projects, practitioners must ask themselves who is defining success, according to climate change researcher Dr. Megan Mills-Novoa. If the ultimate purpose is to help vulnerable populations confront the escalating impacts of climate change, it is crucial to incorporate the perspectives of those the project is designed to help. To date, very little work has been done to ask local people about their experiences or how they would define adaptation success and failure. 

Even so, institutions financing adaptation initiatives will still play a powerful role in spearheading these changes. Dr. Sandra Ruckstuhl, Advisor at the International Water Management Institute, explains that institutions can provide leadership by deploying a common risk framework, monitoring and evaluation systems, and foresight analysis. By implementing these strategies, development organizations can better account for and respond to intended and unintended impacts. 

Climate change adaptation is a predictive exercise, by definition, argues Dr. Lisa Schipper, researcher at the University of Oxford’s Environmental Change Institute. The uncertainty of future climate variability means there is no way to fully mitigate the risks of maladaptation when designing an adaptation project. Therefore, recognizing this uncertainty is critical to creating flexible, long-term solutions. 

As we respond to the changing climate with more adaptation projects, we also run the risk of maladaptations becoming more frequent and severe. Thus, practitioners must make themselves aware of potential maladaptive outcomes when designing, implementing, and evaluating climate change adaptation projects. Rather than intimidating us, this newfound awareness should empower us to take bold, transformative climate action going forward.

Clara Chiu and Erin LeGoff received their master’s degrees in Conflict Resolution from Georgetown University in August 2021. For their capstone project, they partnered with the International Water Management Institute to study global water insecurity and build a typology of maladaptation. 

Clara Chiu
climate change
Erin LeGoff