Climate Responses That Backfire Are a Growing Problem, IPCC Says

Climate Responses That Backfire Are a Growing Problem, IPCC Says

Not only are humans not adapting fast enough to hazards created by climate change, many of the relatively limited dollars they are putting toward preparing for a warmer future are being misspent, according to the world’s leading scientists. 

The term “maladaptation” runs throughout the report put out Monday by the United Nations-backed Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) — a notable shift from the last such report to evaluate human responses to climate change, released in 2014.

As the inevitability of some climate impacts has grown, adaptation has come to be viewed as desperately necessary. But the report flagged well-intentioned projects gone wrong, such as sea walls meant to protect against rising oceans that make those just beyond their borders more exposed to flooding; irrigation that counteracts drought to keep food growing, but at the same time depletes precious groundwater; and tree planting in ecosystems that were never meant to be forested.

All of it was intended to help. “Most often, maladaptation is an unintended consequence,” the report found.

Climate Responses That Backfire Are a Growing Problem, IPCC Says

Lisa Schipper, an environmental social scientist at the University of Oxford who is lead author of a chapter in the report, says the reason maladaptation is only now being flagged is that climate adaptation itself is such a new field.

“I would say the last 15 years is really when we’ve kind of been implementing these projects,” she said in an interview. “Since then the bulk of the analysis has come through and, unfortunately, rather than making people better off so that they are adapted to climate change, they actually seem to be making people worse off in various ways.” 

People and communities are still planning for their current conditions and not grasping how much worse things could get in just a few decades, said Stephanie Roe, global lead scientist for climate and energy at the nonprofit World Wildlife Fund. There is “myopic thinking” about the frequency of what were once rare events when now “once-in-100-year events happen every 10 years or even more frequently,” said Roe. 

In keeping with the unequal effects of climate change overall, poorly planned or executed adaptation projects place a disproportionate burden on the vulnerable — especially Indigenous peoples, ethnic minorities, low-income households, and those living in informal settlements—thereby “reinforcing and entrenching existing inequities,” the report warned.

This is because marginalized people are often left out of development conversations, said Diana Liverman, a geographer at the University of Arizona who studies the human dimension of climate change and is not an author of the IPCC report. “A really important lesson from this report is about including local people, and not just sort of dumping adaptation projects on them. And also asking questions like, ‘Will this project create more inequities?’” 

Many human adaptations to climate change revolve around water, the IPCC found, which is not surprising, since 44% of all disaster events since 1970 have been related to flooding

But “hard infrastructure” against floods is particularly precarious, the authors argue. It can lock communities into one solution. A sea wall may push water to those just beyond its limits and exacerbate flooding and erosion. Sea walls often cut off people like fisherman from their livelihoods. They can create a false sense of security, because a wall that holds water back now may be ineffective as the Earth gets warmer and waters rise higher. 

Schipper offers one example: sea walls built on Vanua Levu Island, Fiji. The walls had “unanticipated negative outcomes,” researchers found, because they trapped water along their landward sides and ended up causing flooding rather than relieving it. 

The IPCC suggests that “soft” development is less subject to maladaptation. So instead of building a sea wall, a town might invest in moving population onto higher ground and restoring mangrove forests or marshlands that could buffer the coast from storm surge. Natural systems can evolve with changing conditions and also provide refuge for animal and plant species, which are facing record risks of extinction. “We may not always be aware of how important maintaining biospheric integrity is to helping us adapt to climate change,” said Liverman. 

Getting adaptation right is going to become more critical as projects grow more common and larger, said Maarten van Aalst, director of the Red Cross Red Crescent Climate Centre and a climate scientist at the University of Twente in the Netherlands. 

“We’re worried that as climate change escalates and responses will be needed at bigger and bigger scales, these responses may become significant risk drivers themselves,” he said.  

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