Coping with the wicked problem of climate adaptation across scales: The Five R Governance Capabilities

C.J.A.M. Termeer*, A. Dewulf, S.I. Karlsson-Vinkhuyzen, M. Vink, M. van Vliet

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleAcademicpeer-review

26 Citations (Scopus)


Adapting social-ecological systems to the projected effects of climate change is not only a complex technical matter but above all a demanding governance issue. As climate change has all the characteristics of a wicked problem, conventional strategies of governance do not seem to work. However, most conventional governance institutions are poorly equipped to enable, or at least tolerate, innovative strategies. This paper analyses the various strategies used to cope with the wicked problem of climate adaptation across scales, and the institutional conditions that enable or constrain such strategies. For this, it relies on a theoretical framework consisting of five governance capabilities that are considered crucial for coping with wicked problems: reflexivity, resilience, responsiveness, revitalization and rescaling. This framework is used to analyse the governance of adaptation to climate change at three different levels: the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change and its activities to assist adaptation; the European Union and its climate adaptation strategy; and the Netherlands and its Delta Program. The results show that conventional governance strategies are rather absent and that mixtures of reflexive, resilient, responsive, revitalizing and rescaling strategies were visible at all levels, although not equally well developed and important. In contrast to the literature, we found many examples of enabling institutional conditions. The constraining conditions, which were also present, tend to lead more to postponement than to obstruction of decision-making processes.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)11-19
JournalLandscape and Urban Planning
Publication statusPublished - 2016


  • Adaptation to climate change
  • Enabling institutions
  • Governance capabilities
  • Governance strategies
  • Social-ecological systems
  • Wicked problems

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