By  Robbert Biesbroek, Wageningen University and Research Centre, the Netherlands

Over the past years, a series of reports by the World Economic Forum have identified “failure to adapt to climate change” as being of highest concern to society. But in practice, what does adaptation to climate change mean?  What makes adaptation particularly challenging for those policymakers, consultants, businesses and other practitioners working on adaptation in practice? An often heard answer is, “Because there are barriers to adaptation.”

The storm surge barrier Oosterschelde nearby Neeltje Jans in The Netherlands. With its low elevation and long coastline, the Netherlands is particularly sensitive to sea level rise, and has taken an early start to climate adaptation planning (Photo: Shutterstock)

The storm surge barrier Oosterschelde nearby Neeltje Jans in The Netherlands. With its low elevation and long coastline, the Netherlands is particularly sensitive to sea level rise, and has taken an early start to climate adaptation planning (Photo: Shutterstock)

In a recent study, we identified numerous examples of barriers to adaptation encountered by practitioners across the globe. These barriers to adaptation emerge from all angles and direction; they can be institutional (e.g. “rigid rules and norms”) resources (e.g. “lack of money”, “uncertain knowledge”) social (e.g. “no shared problem understanding”), cognitive (e.g. “ignorance”, “apathy”).

As scholars, we have proven to be very good in making lists of barriers to adaptation, but rather poor in understanding where these barriers come from, what the concept of “barriers” means to practitioners, why barriers are mentioned at all, or how barriers can be dealt with in an meaningful way. In a follow-up study, colleagues and I argued that listing barriers in isolation from their decision-making context is an interesting first step, but has hardly provided insights in the openings needed to adequately deal with them. In fact, they often lead to a linear argumentative logic – “Not enough money? Then we need more money or we need to spend the money we do have more wisely!” Such superficial advice is not particularly useful to practice.

By delving deeper in the questions of why adaptation is challenging, we found that what practitioners mention as barriers are mere simplifications of what really happened. Barriers become metaphors that capture people’s lived experience and evaluation of the process into easy to communicate messages – e.g. “no money.” We can argue about whether this is truly a barrier, because their interpretation stems from a complex and dynamic chain of events that only makes sense to those that were actively involved. By putting labels on these events, they automatically become static, therefore lacking the necessary insights in the dynamics that caused the process to become challenging and provide the necessary openings to intervene. We concluded that using barriers as units of analysis to explain why adaptation is challenging is therefore flawed: the analytical challenge is to go beyond barriers in search of the explanatory causal processes, or so-called causal mechanisms.

An example: In our study, we identified 24 different barriers encountered by practitioners during the design and implementation of an innovative adaptation measure for temporal water storage in the city center of Rotterdam, the Netherlands. By going beyond  this list, we uncovered three underlying mechanisms that explain why the first attempt to implement the so-called “water plaza” failed. One mechanisms, we called the risk-innovation mechanism—which is basically a miscommunication about risk that leads to public outcry.

An illustration of the proposed water plaza that failed in the Netherlands.  (image: de urbanisten)

An illustration of the proposed water plaza in the Netherlands. (Image: De Urbanisten)

In this case, the government took a technocratic stance in communicating the risks and benefits of the project.  Meanwhile the citizens, as mutual bearers of the risks, wanted to negotiate about what levels of risk were acceptable. By taking such stance the government avoided a moral debate about the risk of the innovation (the innovation was “adaptation”), but the result was angry citizens who to rebelled against the project and the municipal government. This analysis provided openings to change communication strategies – an intervention the project team used successfully in next stages of the process.

Insights from this study have broader implications. It explains, for example, why existing guidelines to support practitioners to overcome barriers to adaptation have not worked well: As I explored more deeply in my thesis, these guidelines are simply not tailored to the real reasons why adaptation is challenging. We can continue to make endless lists of barriers, but to advance theoretically and conceptually, and to provide meaningful strategies to intervene in practice, we need to rethink how we use the concept of “barriers to adaptation” and start searching for underlying causal mechanisms.

Robbert Biesbroek completed his PhD in January 2014, supervised by IIASA Director General and CEO Prof. Dr. Pavel Kabat. 

Note: This article gives the views of the author, and not the position of the Nexus blog, nor of the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis.


(1) Biesbroek, G. R., Klostermann, J. E. M., Termeer, C. J. A. M., & Kabat, P. (2013). On the nature of barriers to climate change adaptation. Regional Environmental Change, 13(5), 1119-1129.

(2) Biesbroek, G. R., Termeer, C. J. A. M., Klostermann, J. E. M., & Kabat, P. (2014). Rethinking barriers to adaptation: mechanism based explanation of impasses in the governance of an innovative adaptation measure. Global Environmental Change 26, (1) 108-118

(3) Biesbroek, G. R. (2014). Challenging barriers in the governance of climate change adaptation. Ph.D. thesis, Wageningen: Wageningen University.

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