The negative spin-off: exploring the issue of increased risk as a result of adaptation activities

This paper defines and explains five key dimensions of maladaptation which it refers to as “the problem of increasing risks from adaptation activities”.

The paper highlights that as adaptation activities are complex and difficult to deploy, they might often run the risk of not achieving their intended objectives, and also result in negative spin-off effects that might instead increase vulnerability in the long run. The authors put forth five different types of pathways that can result in maladaptation, explained through the case study of water management in Melbourne, Australia.

  1. Increase the emissions of greenhouse gases: this first type of maladaptation is well known, with the most oft-cited example being the increased use of energy-intensive airconditioners in response to the health impacts of heat-waves.
  2. Increase the vulnerability of those that are at high risk already: adaptation actions are maladaptive if, in meeting the needs of one sector or group, they increase the vulnerability of those most at risk, such as minority groups or low-income households.
  3. Increase the costs of those that have high socio-economic and environmental costs, compared to alternative options: approaches may be maladaptive if their economic, social, or environmental costs are high relative to alternatives.
  4. Reduce incentives to adapt: if adaptation actions reduce incentives to adapt, for example by encouraging unnecessary dependence on others, stimulating rent-seeking behaviour, or penalising early actors, then such actions are maladaptive.
  5. Lead to path dependency, thus being less flexible to change: a major issue with large infrastructural developments is the way they commit capital and institutions to trajectories that are difficult to change in the future. 

The paper concludes that these five pathways to maladaptation offer a basis by which adaptation decisions can be screened for their possible adverse effects. The authors note that each implies a question and a line of investigation that diligent policy makers could ask and seek answers to before committing resources to adaptation decisions.

The authors state that the desalinisation and pipeline projects that Melbourne has committed to in response to water stress exhibit all five types of maladaptation. They argue that these projects might have been avoided were the five criteria for identifying maladaptations applied and highlight that a key lesson from this case is that maladaptation is likely given the time lag between changes in climate and changes in institutions.

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