Is adaptation reducing vulnerability or redistributing it?

Aaron Atteridge, Elise Remling

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

116 Citations (Scopus)


As globalization and other pressures intensify the economic, social and biophysical connections between people and places, it seems likely that adaptation responses intended to ameliorate the impacts of climate change might end up shifting risks and vulnerability between people and places. Building on earlier conceptual work in maladaptation and other literature, this article explores the extent to which concerns about vulnerability redistribution have influenced different realms of adaptation practice. The review leads us to conclude that the potential for adaptation to redistribute risk or vulnerability is being given only sparse—and typically superficial—attention by practitioners. Concerns about ‘maladaptation’, and occasionally vulnerability redistribution specifically, are mentioned on the margins but do not significantly influence the way adaptation choices are made or evaluated by policy makers, project planners or international funds. In research, the conceptual work on maladaptation is yet to translate into a significant body of empirical literature on the distributional impacts of real-world adaptation activities, which we argue calls into question our current knowledge base about adaptation. These gaps are troubling, because a process of cascading adaptation endeavors globally seems likely to eventually re-distribute risks or vulnerabilities to communities that are already marginalized and vulnerable. We conclude by discussing the implications that the potential for vulnerability redistribution might have for the governance of adaptation processes, and offer some reflections on how research might contribute to addressing gaps in knowledge and in practice. WIREs Clim Change 2018, 9:e500. doi: 10.1002/wcc.500. This article is categorized under: Vulnerability and Adaptation to Climate Change > Values-Based Approach to Vulnerability and Adaptation.

Original languageEnglish
Article numbere500
Pages (from-to)1-16
Number of pages16
JournalWiley Interdisciplinary Reviews: Climate Change
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - 1 Jan 2018
Externally publishedYes


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