22 July 2022

What is maladaptation and why does it matter?

Dr. Helen Beddow

By Dr. Helen Beddow

What is maladaptation and why does it matter?

Adaptation is key in the current climate crisis. We need to adapt efficiently in order to protect the planet and our core infrastructures – so much so that according to the United Nations, global adaptation spending could hit $500 billion a year by 2050. With so much at stake, what are the dangers of getting adaptation wrong, what is maladaptation and why does it matter?

The general definition of maladaptation is poor or insufficient adaptation. In a climate change context, maladaptation refers to actions intended to reduce the impacts of climate change that actually create more risk and vulnerability – it can literally do more harm than good. An example of this could be a company wishing to plant trees to sequester carbon, but doing so in a location prone to wildfire. Consequently, when the trees start burning, they release more carbon into the atmosphere than they have had a chance to absorb. A hotspot for carbon offsets, the Californian wildfires in 2021 are a tragic example of what can happen when strategies fail to account for climate risk.

Maladaptation is a major pitfall to avoid when addressing the climate change crisis. By issuing warnings around maladaptation, climate scientists intend to raise awareness about its potential to worsen the climate risk it's designed to alleviate.

The dangers surrounding maladaptation

The world’s leading scientists highlight a multitude of issues relating to adaptation: humans are not adapting to climate change events quickly enough, there’s not enough investment in preparing for climate hazards, and even when there are funds the budget is often incorrectly allocated, causing further harm. Some responses to climate change result in creating new impacts and risks, and climate actions that don't incorporate adaptation or plan for physical risk.

Maladaptation featured heavily in a recent adaptation report by the United Nations-backed Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). It’s not only intensifying climate change that’s increasing risk exposure to assets - but also decisions being made without the right climate intelligence to inform them. The report states with high confidence that non-climatic factors, such as where we’ve chosen to place infrastructure, contributes to the exposure of a greater number of assets to extreme climate hazards and increases the magnitude of losses.

We must act - by making climate informed decisions

The paper, Maladaptation: When Adaptation to Climate Change Goes Very Wrong by Dr. Lisa F. Schipper from the Environmental Change Institute at the University of Oxford covers the subject intensively:

“Adapting to climate change is necessary to ensure that the impacts will not overwhelm societies and ecosystems around the world. But planning adaptation is an exercise in uncertainty, and built on imperfect information, many adaptation strategies fail. Some go even further, creating conditions that actually worsen the situation; this is called maladaptation. Aside from wasting time and money, maladaptation is a process through which people become even more vulnerable to climate change…Until adaptation projects directly address the drivers of vulnerability, however, maladaptation will continue to be a risk…”.

- Dr. Lisa Schipper

How do companies avoid maladaptation?

McKinsey’s research outlines that in a “business-as-usual” climate scenario, average global temperatures are estimated to jump between 1.5 and 5 °C by 2050 and the AR6 report from the IPCC illustrates how adaptation plays a pivotal role in climate risk reduction. Every company must have a climate adaptation strategy in place. To do this, businesses must first discover which climate risks are likely to impact their assets, so that they can make informed decisions on how to positively adapt.

Creating effective adaptation strategies is only possible if governments and organizations understand climate-related risks at the level of individual assets they own, manage or rely upon. Without this insight, decision-makers cannot determine which countermeasures - such as building sea walls or planting forest-based carbon offsets - will effectively de-risk their projects.

Previously, understanding climate-related risks at the asset level has been almost impossible due to the complexity of climate data. However, advances in earth science and machine learning have made discovering and analyzing climate-related risks to individual assets possible, through a cutting-edge capability called climate Intelligence (CI).

Climate intelligence, which global analyst firm IDC called CI “a strategic priority for organizations worldwide”, is asset-level intelligence for decision-making. By leveraging CI through products like EarthScan™, companies can access a clear, science-backed, and shared view of climate risk, and for decades to come. Using CI to put climate at the core of every decision can guide companies away from making maladaptive mistakes, and instead, lead them towards architecting the effective adaptation strategies we need to build a more resilient future for our planet.

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