UN Report Spotlights Problematic Climate 'Maladaptation'—Here's What It Means

It's a word that describes making a wrong choice and is making things worse.

Seawall being constructed in Australia
Concrete seawall constructed to protect Sydney beachfront homes from coastal erosion.

Brook Mitchell / Getty Images

When understood from the climate scope, maladaptation is a word about making decisions that are supposed to help people adapt to the climate crisis. But, in fact, it makes things worse for everyone.

The recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Working Group II (WGII) report defined the term in its glossary:

"Actions that may lead to increased risk of adverse climate-related outcomes, including via increased GHG emissions, increased vulnerability to climate change, or diminished welfare, now or in the future. Maladaptation is usually an unintended consequence."

It also gave some examples in Chapter 4, "Strengthening and implementing the global response":

"The unintended negative consequences of adaptation that can sometimes occur are known as ‘maladaptation’. Maladaptation can be seen if a particular adaptation option has negative consequences for some (e.g., rainwater harvesting upstream might reduce water availability downstream) or if an adaptation intervention in the present has trade-offs in the future (e.g., desalination plants may improve water availability in the present but have large energy demands over time)."
A graphic showing adaptation in a warming world


Another example is the building of seawalls around communities, which are expensive, use tons of concrete, could encourage people to keep living in dangerous locations, and often get undermined. The IPCC report calls for more sophisticated solutions. Report co-author and ecologist Camille Parmesan said in a press call that “reestablishing wetlands is cheaper and more effective and more resilient to coming climate change than are hard barriers.”

A newspaper headline from The Globe and Mail

Globe And Mail

But there are other, more significant forms of maladaptation. Many of them are being promoted by the fossil fuel industry, as in this headline from an article that includes: "The potential for an alternative option for achieving net zero emissions: transitioning natural gas into a cleaner fuel. Also overlooked is the massive challenge of ripping out the existing pipelines and building a much larger electrical system to replace gas."

The plan for transitioning gas:

"Renewable natural gas can be blended with conventional gas to reduce emissions. Clean hydrogen can also be blended with natural gas: For example, companies in Britain are planning to blend 20 per cent of hydrogen into gas by 2023. This amount will not require any changes to the existing gas distribution or burner equipment."

Leaving 80% natural gas, which is suddenly very expensive and in short supply. Britain is rapidly rethinking this idea.

A black and white graphic showing emissions over a lifetime

Peter Erickson, et al.

We noted before in another jargon discussion on carbon lock-in that every dollar invested in "greener" gas-fired hardware locks the owners in for years. It is a maladaptation, solving nothing.

Climate change consultant Antje Lang published an introduction to maladaptation and lists four clear aspects of it:

  1. It results from intentional adaptation policy and decisions.
  2. There are explicitly negative consequences.
  3. It consists of a spatial element. Maladaptation does not necessarily occur in the geographic space or within the targeted group; it can extend social and geographic boundaries
  4. It consists of a temporal element. Adaptation actions taken today can be maladaptive in the future.​

The example that popped into my head was an electric car. It is certainly a government policy decision to promote them in lieu of alternatives, there are negative consequences because of their embodied carbon, there is certainly a special element as they need parking and their chargers take over sidewalks, and we will be needing to support them with highways and parking for years to come.

Lisa Schipper, one of the contributors to the recent IPCC report, wrote about maladaptation for CarbonBrief in 2021 titled "Why avoiding climate change ‘maladaptation’ is vital." She and her co-authors listed a few examples of maladaptation:

"In Vietnam, for example, hydroelectric dam and forest protection policies to regulate floods in lowlands at first appeared beneficial for reducing vulnerability to specific hazards there. However, on closer inspection, these policies undermined access to land and forest resources for mountain peoples upstream. This meant that the intervention resulted in them becoming more vulnerable to the impacts of climate change."

Most of her examples are from the developing world, but I suspect we are going to see maladaptation everywhere—from fossil fuel companies, car companies, airlines—all trying to adapt while maintaining the status quo as long as possible. Throw carbon offsets and net-zero-by-2050 pledges into the pot. They are all examples of maladaptation. I suspect we will be using this word a lot.

View Article Sources
  1. Beckman, Malin, "Converging and conflicting interests in adaptation to environmental change in central Vietnam." Climate and Development, vol. 3, no. 1, 2011, pp. 32-41. doi:10.3763/cdev.2010.0065