This is a summary, expansion of an article on the Resilience web site called “Why avoiding climate change ‘maladaptation’ is vital” which is in turn a summary of an academic article. It is, I think, important, although I suspect would not surprise workers in the field.

I’ve been talking about complex maladaptive systems for a while, and this paper I’m summarising attempts to show some of the ways that maladaptive systems can be made worse as an unintended consequence of climate development actions. In other words, it points out that attempts to provide increased capacity for adaptation to climate change can make some people who are vulnerable to climate change, even more vulnerable. The article does not seem to use ideas of complex systems which could be helpful to it.

However, it is worth looking at what they find are the main causes of increasing maladaption.

Problem of Evaluation

Their first assertion is an obvious consequence of working with complex systems. It is hard to know in advance what a successful adaptation will look like, and hard to measure adaptation, as it is ongoing. Adaptation is dependent on circumstances, and the circumstances are changing, as well as impossible to describe fully. So we may not know in advance if the project will work. We only truly know if an arrangement is adaptive, if it succeeds or fails in the future. Ongoing attention is required.

This is rendered even more complicated as evaluations are interpretations and tend to become political. Who is making the evaluation and what is relevant to them, or irrelevant to them? If the people who evaluate the program are the same people who benefit from it, then they may be likely to ignore the problems it creates for others.

However, this inevitable problem with complex systems, does not mean we cannot predict likely causes of failure.

Increasing Maladaption

First: when adaptation reinforces existing vulnerability.

This seems a largely political issue. Those who are most vulnerable, are often the ones with less access to power and visibility. They tend to be discounted or unseen, for those reasons. Those with power, ‘education’ and training tend to be able to get themselves noticed and set the adaptation agenda, or take advantage of that agenda. In this probably normal case, the intervention is likely to reinforce inequalities and vulnerabilities in the society.

In São Tomé and Príncipe.. an externally funded adaptation intervention – that aimed to increase productivity through agricultural modernisation – was only offered to those who had land, ignoring the landless. The landless are often considered more vulnerable to climate change precisely because their livelihoods are less secure. Therefore, such an approach marginalised them even further [and probably made them relatively more vulnerable, and less capable of supporting themselves in changing circumstances.].

In other words it is often useful to look at the dynamics which have produced both the problems the different levels of vulnerability in the first place. Not looking for these differences will likely reinforce them.

While it may seem that it is a small price to pay to have some small(?) number of people suffer to benefit the (supposed) vast majority, what we should know from complex systems theory is that the small number of people can serve vital functions for the system as a whole, and so there is no guarantee the system will work as well without them. It may become more vulnerable in general, and is unlikely those high in the hierarchy have that knowledge.

In cases studied by colleagues of mine, renewable energy farms in India, can give landholders rent, but deprive the landless of any form of income, because they are now prevented from working the land belonging to the landholders – this will render them malnourished, open to disease, restless or forced into the cities – which may not help the community as a whole. Farming skills, traditions and community bonding rituals will probably decline, also leading to greater vulnerability for the whole community in the long run. In some cases, it appears that fake contracts can be issued and people who think they have leased out their land find they have officially sold it.

Second: adaptation projects can redistribute vulnerability

Perhaps some people who were not that vulnerable are now made vulnerable by the project. We can also expect that these people are probably marginal to the hierarchies, and to the aims of the changes being made.

In Vietnam.. hydroelectric dam and forest protection policies to regulate floods in lowlands at first appeared beneficial for reducing vulnerability to specific hazards there. However… these policies undermined access to land and forest resources for mountain peoples upstream.

Again this kind of result is common outside development projects. For example, with mining. People who could use the land on, or nearby, the mine, no longer can use the land or are poisoned by the mine, becoming intensely vulnerable. Similarly hydroelectric projects can change ecologies and displace people from independent sources of survival. It is important to remember that these kind of ‘unintended’ effects are not unique to climate projects. They are common to all kinds of business and development projects; they are likely common to any kind of process which generates a hierarchy of benefits and disbenefits. The main difference is that people in climate adaptation projects are more likely to be troubled by the consequences.

Third: projects can create new sources of vulnerability and dependency, or intensify old causes of vulnerability should the system fail

The project encourages dangerous behaviour, if the system fails.

irrigation may bring short-term benefits by ensuring farmers a harvest, but if drought frequency is going to increase then the water table will continue to decline. Thus, encouraging reliance on water that is not guaranteed will bring about maladaptation [and probably conflict over water. Few water supplies can be guaranteed in a changing climate. Water supplies are also often important with solar energy, as the panels have to be clean to function at their best – this is shy deserts are not always the best place for solar farms.]

italics added

The investment costs, in time, energy or finance may produce lock-in. It may leave people without energy or money reserves in times of trouble, or when the new system collapses.\

in Bangladesh… construction of levees to protect people from tropical cyclones, storm surges and sea level rise can create a false sense of security and encourage more development in high flood-risk areas.[which increases the likelihood of severe crisis if the levees fail]

I have no idea how you avoid this. Putting in levees to protect those already living there, seems like a good idea, but it will encourage people to move in. I guess if you build the levees you cannot stop maintaining them. So it has to be thought of as a continuing use of resources.

Four: Retrofitting to fit previous developmental work, by the organisation, the community or others

This is undeveloped in the Resilience article, but it is a form of lock-in and seems a normal human trait to try and build on what you have built previously. It is what you know, Powerful people have probably benefited from it and will encourage continuing with it. They will agitate through their friends and associates to continue in a similar line. Previous projects make make certain actions easier, and other actions more difficult. You have to be prepared to admit mistakes, and say that money was wasted. Recognising complex systems means recognising that previous work is perhaps no longer useful, or no longer the way ahead, as it did not work out exactly as expected.

The project changes the situation and traps people into vulnerability, or continuing with a project which would be better abandoned.


Some main causes of problems can be listed:

  • The projects ignore social diversity of experience, livelihood and risk, and the ways that these are distributed
  • The projects get caught in the social hierarchies (local and non-local) and reinforce existing inequities of risk.
  • Vulnerable people are ignored or not perceived until too late, and the likely and actual effects of the project on them are ignored.
  • The projects reinforce hierarchies of knowledge, because the ‘educated’ know how to deal with bureaucracies. law and form filling, again increasing the possible vulnerabilities of those towards the bottom of the hierarchy.
  • The effectiveness of the project can depend on it being evaluated positively by those high in the hierarchy.
  • The projects support previous development work, or work by the organisation introducing them, rather than adaptation. Lock in of development.
  • The projects take energy, money and attention from other, or related, problems.
  • Short term benefits may increase the risk of long term crash.


Rather disappointingly they present very few solutions.

Co-design is good, but if it gets caught in politics, or the organisations ignorance of those people likely to be affected in harmful ways, then nothing changes. I would imagine that workers in the field would already be aware of the problems of political capture.

Focusing on the effectiveness of money that is available is liable to get caught up in neoliberal assumptions (such as generating private profit is good, or the market generates the best result), rather than in functional adaptation and resilience for everyone. Who is to evaluate the effectiveness of the money being used? This gets into the usual problems. Money is not irrelevant, but it cannot be the dominating factor, otherwise there will always be pressure to cut back on expenditure, and deliver a cheap project which may fall down later, when it is someone else’s problem and expense.

I’d suggest that ethnography and surveys be used to find out, who is likely to loose, by working out how the population survives, and has adapted to the local ecology. Who seems likely to be left out, to become more vulnerable? and so on – and that will often require detective work, as vulnerable people may have learnt to avoid “officials.”

All projects should consider the effects of possible changes in the weather. This is not a determinate prediction, but if it seems that water will become scarce then a project which depends upon plentiful water, such as hydro power or coal mines, are probably not a good idea. Conservation of water is more important in that situation. This issue of changing climate should be obvious in climate projects, but it often seems not.

The realisation that unintended consequences of human action are normal and should be expected, leads to the obvious point that people should look for them, and modify their adaptation policies as a result. If you don’t look for them you probably won’t observe them until too late.


One of the real problems is the common ‘positive thinking paradigm’, in which you ignore problems, because recognising problems supposedly creates problems, or it would stop you from progressing the only way you know how.

This can be seen in the common idea of complex adaptive systems.. Yes complex systems are evolutionary and adapt, they just don’t have to adapt in the best possible way for humans. Deserts are often the results of adaptation, and are hostile to most city dwelling civilisations, unless they have contacts elsewhere. From the human point of view, complex systems can be maladaptive. If climate resilience projects are needed, then the chances are high that we are dealing with maladaptive systems somewhere.

The same kind of thing occurs with neoliberal markets. The most efficient results of the market does not have to be in the long term interests of humans, or even the interests of players in that market. The interactions which make up ‘the market’ are a mere subset of the interactions in the world’s ecologies. It is the ecology of the planet as a whole that determines what is ‘rational’ and what will flourish, not the market alone.

That is why the idea of maladaptive systems, and the normality of unintended consequences are important.

Clearly I need to read the proper article, and will make changes if necessary.