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Pollution & HealthThe right way to Adapt to Climate Change, and How Not To

The right way to Adapt to Climate Change, and How Not To

The right way to Adapt to Climate Change, and How Not To

Ben Orlove
|August 21, 2023

The oceanfront, Accra, Ghana. Construction of seawalls just like the one here may hold back the waters for some time, but has a downside: it lures people to areas that remain highly vulnerable to changing climate. (Ghanaian Yaw Afrim Gyebi/SLYCAN Trust)

With the impacts of climate change increasing world wide, efforts to adapt human infrastructure and practices may appear to be an unalloyed good. But there’s such a thing as maladaptation. Much as medications have unwanted side effects, some adaptations end up to do more harm than good, or no less than enough harm that the negative effects should be weighed against the positives.

A recent paper within the journal Nature Climate Change examines this issue and establishes an approach for assessing adaptation activities. One bottom-line result: infrastructure projects basically carry essentially the most risks of maladaptation, while shifts involving changes in food regimen and restoration of natural areas carry the least.

The paper cites, as an illustration, seawalls. It points out that such structures might work no less than for some time, but find yourself luring people to areas which are still exposed to sea-level rise. They can also function dams that trap floodwaters from rivers swollen by heavy rains.

On the identical note, irrigation systems in poor, drought-stricken areas might end up to favor only the farmers wealthy enough to afford them. This could lead on to the concentration of land within the hands of a couple of, or lead farmers to desert subsistence crops and concentrate on a single money crop, reducing their resilience to future climate shocks.

References to maladaptation started to appear within the scholarly literature within the mid-2010s. Since 2020, the term has been used more frequently. Nonetheless, it has generally been treated as the alternative of adaptation, with activities described either as adaptative or maladaptative.

This dichotomy was challenged within the 2022 report on impacts and adaptation from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. That report uses the word “continuum,” suggesting that no motion is entirely good or bad. It could look like splitting hairs to tell apart between a dichotomy and a continuum, however the difference is large. Modern medicine recognizes that drugs can’t be divided into secure and dangerous; quite the risks of unwanted side effects should be fastidiously weighed against the advantages. So too, society must assess the risks posed by adaptation activities.

The brand new study’s lead writer, Diana Reckien of the Netherlands’ University of Twente, and her coauthors, including myself, constructed a measure to locate adaptation activities on the continuum. We examined six aspects.

Three are system-level features: whether an activity will affect ecosystems positively or negatively; whether it’s going to increase or decrease concentrations of greenhouse gases; and whether it does or doesn’t have the potential to guide to transformational changes of social systems.

The opposite three are equity-related considerations: whether the difference advantages, has no effect on, or worsens the situations of marginalized groups—low-income populations, women and girls, and marginalized ethnic groups. The typical rating across these six dimensions provides the placement of an activity on the continuum.

To place some empirical flesh on these conceptual and methodological bones, the study chosen eight sectors that face major climate impacts, including coastal zones, human health and food security. It analyzed three established adaptation responses to every, for a complete of 24 responses. Not one of the results were positioned at one or other end of the continuum, but ranged across much of its breadth.

The strongest potential for successful adaptation is present in the responses based on social and behavioral systems. These include dietary shifts and reduction of food waste, in addition to increasing of social safety nets. The also include options that center on nature and ecosystems, akin to improved farm and fishery practices, and restoration of natural areas.

Infrastructure presented higher risks of maladaptation, akin to unintended flooding. In some instances, insurance programs can also create negative outcomes once they exclude marginalized groups or limit the potential of social transformation by strengthening the established order.

The study emphasizes that the responses aren’t permanently fixed at one point or one other on the continuum, and suggests that the continuum framework could be used to guide adaptation activities away from the maladaptation pole. For instance, insurance and coastal projects can shift toward the positive if designers consider possible negative ecosystem or equity consequences.

We hope this framework will contribute to the primary “global stocktake” of progress on climate motion at COP28 this 12 months, which is able to assess progress on the worldwide goal on adaptation specified by the Paris Agreement of 2015. And hopefully it’s going to contribute to the difference planning happening in local, national and international settings world wide.


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