Rethinking barriers to adaptation

Published on
May 14, 2014


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: 108-118 (online first).


Many of the possible barriers in the governance of climate change adaptation have already been identified and catalogued in the academic literature. Thus far it has proven to be difficult to provide meaningful recommendations on how to deal with these barriers. In this paper we propose a different perspective, with different epistemological assumptions about cause and effect than most existing barrier studies, to analyze why adaptation is often challenging.

Using the mechanismic framework, we study how the idea for an innovative ‘‘Water Plaza’’ was realized in the city of Rotterdam, the Netherlands. Mechanisms are understood as patterns of interaction between actors that bring about change in the governance process that lead to policy impasses. Our analysis reveals three mechanisms that explain the impasses in the first Water Plaza pilot project: the risk-innovation mechanism, the frame polarization mechanism, and the conflict infection mechanism.

Only after several substantive changes in the project design, location choice, and process architecture was the project of Water Plaza’s revitalized. We discuss how the short-sighted ideas about cause–effect relationships, reflected in the superficial identification of barriers, may prove to be counterproductive; if there is high uncertainty about the risks of an innovation, the solution of offering more certainty is not very helpful and could, as it happened in the case study, trigger other mechanisms, creating an even tighter deadlock.

Our study also suggests that when adaptation is considered as something innovative, the chances will increase that the risk-innovation mechanism will occur. We conclude that unearthing mechanisms offers new opportunities and different types of strategic interventions in practice than most existing studies have offered.