Ill-conceived attempts at climate adaptation threaten to make a bad situation even worse.
On the central Pacific island of Kiribati, the national government built a seawall to protect people from storm surges and sea-level rise—but ended up merely redirecting erosion to an area farther down the coastline. In California, farmers received emergency aid and loans to cover lost income from the intense 2007–2009 drought—but those payments perversely reduced their incentive to adapt to the reality of a drier future climate.
These events illustrate the importance of a new kind of climate crisis, one that receives too little attention. It is clear that, in addition to cutting carbon emissions, countries around the world will have to adapt to the harsh realities of living on a warming planet. What is not so clear is what those adaptations should look like. Done right, adaptation efforts can soften the blow to billions of lives. Done wrong, they can lead to maladaptation, wasting time and money while leaving people just as vulnerable as before, or even more so.