We’ve all been in a situation where trying to help merely makes the outcomes worse. But, when this happens on a large scale with the climate crisis, things can get disastrous fast.

One of the main focuses of the 2022 IPCC report is exactly that: maladaptation. Back in 2014, the IPCC defined maladaptation as “actions that may lead to increased risk of adverse climate-related outcomes, increased vulnerability to climate change, or diminished welfare, now or in the future.” But to really understand the practice, we first need to understand adaptation—and why we so desperately need it.

As the climate changes at an increasingly quicker rate, people are becoming more vulnerable to risks like flooding and extreme heat, says Luna Khirfan, an associate professor in the school of planning at Canada’s University of Waterloo. “So when we adapt, what we try to do is to limit the negative impact of these hazards by decreasing the exposure and decreasing the vulnerability, and consequently, decreasing the risk,” she adds.

But because climate change is unprecedented and unfolding in real time, political leaders and everyday people are improvising solutions, says Lisa Schipper, a research fellow at the Environmental Change Institute at the University of Oxford. And some of their adaptation attempts are plain wrong.

“One thing that we’re seeing is that when we plan too quickly and we plan in ways that locks us into certain kinds of trajectories of development, then we risk these adaptation strategies backfiring so that we become more vulnerable to climate change,” Schipper explains.

How can we adapt better?

The main thing that planners and leaders can do to avoid maladaptation is to listen to all groups of people—whether it be undocumented immigrants, women, or religious minorities. That means stepping outside of the NGOs and other organizations that typically make the climate-planning decisions, getting on the ground, and collecting local feedback to determine what the real root of the problem is. This is outlined as well in the recent IPCC report, which stresses a holistic view of increasing ecological stewardship, education, and inclusion in coming mitigation and adaptation techniques.

Reversing maladaptation won’t be easy, though. It requires a serious look at malpractices in current programs, like the climate financing from wealthy nations that continues to fall through. It’s also important to remember that no one strategy will fit everywhere—that’s the whole point of adaptation. What works in Rwanda might be a total disaster in Thailand, Schipper says.