The idea of maladaptation has evolved in response to climate change from adaptation that fails to adaptive behaviors that deplete resources, limit future alternatives, exacerbate the issue for vulnerable people, or shift the burden of solving problems on future generations. A measure of adaptation is considered maladaptive if it fails to meet the objectives of social fairness, sustainable development, and the eradication of poverty, particularly if it unfairly burdens the weak.

Maladaptation is one of the primary topics in the IPCC report of 2022. Maladaptation was defined by the IPCC in 2014 as “actions that may lead to increased risk of adverse climate-related outcomes, increased vulnerability to climate change, or diminished welfare, now or in the future.”

To understand what is maladaptation, it is important to first understand what is adaptation.

What is adaptation?

The phrases adaptation and maladaptation, which are employed in climate change study and policy, come from evolutionary biology.  In essence, genetic mutations arise spontaneously in every generation of a species, and a natural selection process, imposed by the outside environment, determines whether those mutations and, as a result, species, are successful or unsuccessful. The concept can be used to explain how microbes, plants, animals, ecosystems, and even human behaviour operate. Evolvability, or the ability to keep evolving through new adaptations when environmental conditions change, is a crucial component of successful adaptation.

While the term adaptation has its roots in evolutionary biology, the phrase was first used to describe successful human reactions to environmental change in disaster management. In that area, all human responses to a disaster are considered adaptations to the new situation, including actions taken to lessen or stop the disaster’s cause. In discussions surrounding the UNFCCC, the division of what was once called abatement and adaptation took shape. One justification for separating them was that, if adaptation were an easier option, negotiators would be diverted from reaching an agreement on pathways for abatement or mitigation. Another rationale is that rich nations would only back initiatives that have global goals, such lowering atmospheric carbon dioxide, as opposed to regionally oriented adaptive goals.

What is Maladaptation?

As climate change negotiations advanced, experts looked at how and why some adaptation measures fail, especially those that waste a significant amount of time, money, or other resources. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) of the United Nations recognized the value of precise, clear phrasing as these perspectives evolved. According to the panel’s 2001 definition, a maladaptation is “… an adaptation that does not succeed in reducing vulnerability but increases it instead,” which differs from how the term is used in biology or behavioral science.

An unsuccessful adaptation could simply indicate that an action did not succeed and be considered neutral. However, a maladaptation occurs when a planned adaptation makes other groups and sectors more vulnerable, now and in the future.

Maladaptation thought is still evolving, however one significant study looked at the issue from an outcomes perspective and identified five forms of maladaptation as compared to alternative options. This analysis defines maladaptations as acts that raise greenhouse gas emissions, disproportionately burden the most vulnerable, have high opportunity costs, diminish the incentives to adapt, or create routes that restrict the options open to future generations.  In their Fifth Assessment Report from 2014, the IPCC expanded and further outlined these criteria. Managing the effects of climate change should become less scary as the idea of adaptation vs maladaptation becomes more evident and we are better able to discern between them.

How does Maladaptation affect?

First, when adaptation increases existing vulnerability. The distribution of power in decision-making can become more unequal as a result of adaptation initiatives.

For instance, in So Tomé and Prncipe, a foreign-funded adaptation intervention that aimed to boost production through agricultural modernization was only made available to people who already owned property, omitting the landless. Because their means of subsistence are less secure, the landless are frequently seen as being more susceptible to climate change. Therefore, such a strategy further marginalized them.

More commonly, adaptation policies fail to alter the social and political dynamics that have produced different levels of vulnerability patterns in the first place. 

The second is when vulnerability is redistributed as a result of adaptation. Both adaptation and aid projects have the potential to negatively affect other areas.

For instance, hydroelectric dams and efforts to maintain forests to control floods in lowlands in Vietnam first seemed advantageous for lowering sensitivity to specific dangers there. On closer scrutiny, these laws, however, restricted the mountain peoples upstream’s access to land and forest resources. This indicated that they were now more susceptible to the effects of climate change as a result of the intervention.

Projects that produce new sources of vulnerability are the third way that adaptation can go awry. Some adaptation initiatives unintentionally generate longer-term dangers by concentrating on short-term change.

Irrigation may be a feasible solution if there is an immediate need to boost agricultural productivity in drought-affected areas. By guaranteeing farmers a harvest, irrigation can offer short-term benefits, but as the frequency of droughts rises, the water table will continue to fall. Therefore, fostering reliance on water sources that are not secure will result in maladaptation.

Additionally, these activities may further bury people in their situations and ways of life by giving them a false sense of security. For instance, in the case of irrigation, the large initial capital expenses can prevent individuals from having the resources to try different means of making a living when the water runs out.

How Maladaptation can be Avoided?

Decisions made by governmental and private sector players as well as by civil society should take climate change impacts more seriously, according to the IPCC’s Global Warming of 1.5°C report. Policy advisers and decision makers at various levels and in a wide range of institutions could be broadening their consideration to avoid climate change maladaptations in their planning, as opposed to narrowing the concept of maladaptation to unfortunate and complicated outcomes of actions formally labelled as adaptation.

The goal of addressing climate change is to create a future that is worth living in and is superior to the one that too many people are currently experiencing. An essential part of this vision is addressing the underlying causes of conflicts, wars, insecurities, poverty, and migration. Because we are adaptive beings by nature, the human species has always made adjustments to shifting circumstances. A reliable strategy for directing our adaptations is learning through trial and error. We are a species that employs foresight and makes plans ahead of time, though. By avoiding maladaptations, we may learn from both our own mistakes and those made by people and groups around the world.

According to the evidence, maladaptation can be prevented by explicitly identifying who will benefit and who will suffer as well as how the costs and rewards might be more fairly distributed for all social groups. Maladaptation can be avoided by avoiding path dependence and lock-ins in favour of evolvability.  Otherwise, in biological terms, we will find we are at a dead end.

Sources: https://wedocs.unep.org/bitstream/handle/20.500.11822/27545/Frontiers1819_ch5.pdf

https://www.carbonbrief.org/guest-post-why-avoiding-climate-change-maladaptation-is- vital

https://doi.org/10.1002/wcc.409

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