Many internationally-funded projects aimed at combating the impacts of climate change can make things worse - by reinforcing, redistributing or creating new sources of vulnerability in developing countries, according to a review led by the Norwegian University of Life Sciences (NMBU) and the University of Oxford.

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

‘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 Oxford’s Environmental Change Institute. ‘Our findings go beyond unintended negative consequences, to suggest that adaptation interventions risk becoming tools for marginalisation and instruments of power abuse.’

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. 

Resettlement policies are among the most extreme cases of top-down interventions which actually introduce vulnerability, the study maintains. Pastoralists, forced to shift to more marginalised livelihoods, and re-located people, who can lose their land rights, can often experience decreased food security and disempowerment.

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

  • Not taking account of what drives vulnerability in specific locations, such as gender inequality, race relations or inequitable access to natural resources.
  • Not involving local people in design and implementation of projects.
  • Adapting existing development projects, without considering whether it actually address the drivers of vulnerability to climate change.
  • Insufficient understanding 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.