Climate adaptation policy lock-ins: Towards better understanding, and transformation, of limited adaptation action?

16:15 Tuesday 28 May

SS013 • OC075

Room S2


Torsten Grothmann (Germany) 1; Dave Huitema (Netherlands) 2; Angela Oels (Netherlands) 2; Bernd Siebenhüner (Germany) 1; Tim Rayner (United Kingdom) 3; John Turnpenny (United Kingdom) 3

1 - University of Oldenburg; 2 - Open University of the Netherlands; 3 - University of East Anglia


Adapting to worsening impacts of climate change is one of the biggest global challenges. Yet, limited action on the part of public authorities still prevails. Institutions, infrastructures, technologies and societal behaviours appear resistant to change. Understanding the causes of adaptation inaction and selective action requires better knowledge of the way societies are governed. The existing literature often overlooks this however, going no further than describing ‘barriers to change’.


In the recently started project ADAPT-LOCKIN we focus on ‘lock-ins’ as a particular conceptual approach to understanding path dependencies and rigidities in policy processes and thereby discover dynamics that create and sustain adaptation barriers. Taking an empirical, but theoretically reflective, comparative research design, we will examine three policy sectors central to climate adaptation – water management, health care, and biodiversity and nature conservation – in three countries: Germany, Netherlands, and the UK.


Drawing on Seto et al. (2016) we hypothesize three types of lock-in as distinct but connected causes of limited adaptation action. First, infrastructural and technological lock-ins are revealed through (the often long lifespan of) the physical infrastructure in contemporary societies. Second, institutional lock-ins refer to the rules and policies involved in climate adaptation and other related fields. Third, behavioural lock-ins refer to patterns and habits in human behaviour, at both the individual and collective levels.


By this cross-disciplinary analysis of lock-ins we can identify root causes of limited adaptation action that go beyond the rather superficial identification of adaptation barriers. Thereby we can show that adaptation policy has to broaden its action frame to address infrastructural and technological as well as institutional and behavioural lock-ins, so that more effective and transformative adaptation policies can be realised.