Why projects to adapt to climate change backfire

The paper, published today in World Development, examined 33 empirical studies documenting projects with evidence of maladaptation, to understand how and why this had happened. Twenty critical adaptation scholars around the world contributed to the collection and analysis of cases.

‘The fact that adaption projects are making people even worse off in the face of climate change than they were before is worrying,’ said Dr Lisa Schipper, Environmental Social Science Research Fellow at the Environmental Change Institute, University of Oxford. ‘Our findings go beyond unintended negative consequences, to suggest that adaptation interventions risk becoming tools for marginalisation and instruments of power abuse.’

Despite good intentions and benefits to some groups, adaptation interventions examined often had negative consequences for already marginalised communities.

Resettlement policies are among the most extreme cases of top-down interventions introducing vulnerability, the study maintains. For example, pastoralists who are forced to settle and shift to more marginalised livelihoods or people who are relocated losing their land rights – often leading to decreased food security, disempowerment and exacerbated vulnerability for this group.

The study identifies four key issues that are responsible for unintended negative consequences of climate change adaptation projects:

(1) A shallow understanding of what drives vulnerability in specific locations, such as gender inequality, race relations or inequitable access to natural resources caused by systemic or historical drivers.

(2) Not involving local people in design and implementation of projects.

(3) Integrating adaptation into existing development projects without considering whether the development projects actually address the drivers of vulnerability to climate change in the first place.

(4) Insufficient understanding in conceptual and practical terms of what ‘successful’ adaptation looks like.

‘To overcome these challenges and ensure funding is actually helping marginalised people, it is crucial for the international funding community to engage more deeply with the drivers of local and global vulnerability such as poverty or unequal power dynamics’, said Dr Siri Eriksen, Professor of International Environment and Development Studies, NMBU.

‘Simply calling for more climate finance is not helpful if projects are leading to elite capture of funds and ‘accumulation by adaptation’ making marginalised people even worse off in the face of climate change than they were before.’

Unless adaptation is rethought, the findings show, new projects are likely to repeat the same patterns that worsen vulnerability to climate change. It points to the importance of learning from the critiques directed at development aid over the past decade, including the need to explicitly tackle issues of colonialism and marginalisation.   


Eriksen, S., E.L.F. Schipper, M. Scoville-Simonds, K. Vincent, H.N. Adam, N. Brooks, B. Harding, D. Khatri, L. Lenaerts, D. Liverman, M. Mills-Novoa, M. Mosberg, S. Movik, B. Muok, A. Nightingale, H. Ojha, L. Sygna, M. Taylor, C. Vogel, J. J. West (2021) ‘Adaptation interventions and their effect on vulnerability in developing countries: Help, hindrance or irrelevance?’ _World Development DOI:https://doi.org/10.1016/j.oneear.2020.09.014 

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Published 22. January 2021 - 10:09 - Updated 22. January 2021 - 11:03