Mitigation and Adaptation Strategies for Global Change

, Volume 19, Issue 7, pp 1011–1032

Analytical lenses on barriers in the governance of climate change adaptation


    • Earth System Science groupWageningen University and Research Centre
    • Public Administration and Policy groupWageningen University and Research Centre
  • Catrien J. A. M. Termeer
    • Public Administration and Policy groupWageningen University and Research Centre
  • Judith E. M. Klostermann
    • Alterra
  • Pavel Kabat
    • Earth System Science groupWageningen University and Research Centre
    • International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis (IIASA)
Original Article

DOI: 10.1007/s11027-013-9457-z

Cite this article as:
Biesbroek, G.R., Termeer, C.J.A.M., Klostermann, J.E.M. et al. Mitig Adapt Strateg Glob Change (2014) 19: 1011. doi:10.1007/s11027-013-9457-z


Barriers to adaptation have become an important concept in scientific and political discussions in the governance of climate change adaptation. Over the past years, these discussions have been dominated by one analytical lens in examining barriers and proposing ways to overcome them: the problem solving lens. In this paper, we aim to demonstrate theoretically and empirically that the choice of analytical lens influences how barriers to adaptation are constructed and the intervention strategies proposed. Drawing from recent governance literature, we explore the rationale of three dominant philosophies in the study of governance: the optimist, the realist, and the pessimist philosophy. Next, we demonstrate how these philosophies are operationalized and guide scientific inquiry on barriers to adaptation through four empirically rooted analytical lenses: i) governance as problem solving, ii) governance as competing values and interests, iii) governance as institutional interaction, and iv) governance as dealing with structural constraints. We investigate the Dutch government’s Spatial Adaptation to Climate Change programme through each of the four lenses. We discuss how each analytical lens frames barriers in a specific way, identifies different causes of barriers, leads to competing interpretations of key events, and presents other types of interventions to overcome barriers. We conclude that it is necessary to increase analytical variety in order to critically engage in theoretical debates about barriers and to empower policy practitioners in their search for successful intervention strategies to implement adaptation measures.


Analytical lensBarriersClimate change adaptationGovernanceInterventionsPluralism

1 Introduction

In recent years, there has been much scientific debate about social barriers and limits to successful adaptation to climate change (Adger et al. 2009a; Dovers and Hezri 2010; Berrang-Ford et al. 2011; Biesbroek et al. 2011; Ford and Berrang-Ford 2011). Substantive research has already been conducted on barriers to transforming human behaviour towards more sustainable lifestyles and adaptive action (O’Neill and Hulme 2009; Shove 2010; Gifford et al. 2011; Pelling 2011). More recently, scholars have started to investigate barriers that could hinder the governance process of developing and implementing climate change adaptation strategies, policies, and plans (Burch 2010a; Moser and Ekstrom 2010; Measham et al. 2011). Although these debates are still in their infancy, numerous barriers to the governance of adaptation to climate change have been catalogued and more seem to be added with each new study (Biesbroek et al. 2013). This list of what is thought to be a barrier to adaptation is extensive and ranges from behavioural and cognitive variables to large scale socio-cultural processes.

A review of existing studies on barriers to adaptation shows that one analytical lens is dominant in examining and explaining barriers to adaptation (Biesbroek et al. 2013). This lens is close to what Bovens and ‘t Hart (1996) in their study on policy fiascos call the problem solving lens. Through this lens, the governance of adaptation is seen as the purposeful efforts of selecting the best options to solve the problem of climate change impacts as effectively and efficiently as possible. Properly designed and implemented governance arrangements are the key instruments to deliver successful adaptation. Barriers are seen as anomalous phenomena that need to be identified and removed in order to adapt successfully. Barriers are explained by failures in the design and execution of the governance process, actors’ incompetence, and faulty institutions. The solutions to overcome them are generally found in optimizing the governance process.

Although the dominant problem solving lens is an invaluable framework for answering certain questions, the adaptation literature increasingly recognizes that other lenses, underpinned by other ontological and epistemological assumptions about governance, provide alternative—and in some cases more suitable—ways to study complex and erratic governance processes (O’Brien 2009; Burch 2010b; O’Brien and Wolf 2010; Rijke et al. 2012). Research in other fields has demonstrated that choosing one analytical lens, and thereby consciously or unconsciously neglecting others, inevitably leads to bias in research findings (MacCoun 1998; Shepherd and Challenger 2013). One dominant analytical lens also means that an array of alternative interpretations of barriers and possible interventions are overlooked. Despite this recognition, there has been hardly any debate about the ontological and epistemological assumptions or analytical lenses that guide the scientific inquiry on the governance of climate change adaptation (O’Brien et al. 2007; O’Brien and Hochachka 2010).

In this paper, we aim to demonstrate, both theoretically and empirically, that the choice of analytical lens influences how barriers to adaptation are constructed and the intervention strategies proposed. Building upon the work of Bovens and ‘t Hart (1996), we start by discussing three dominant philosophical understandings of governance in which the analytical lenses are rooted. These philosophies of governance are operationalized through four analytical lenses on barriers to the governance of adaptation. To examine how different kinds of knowledge on barriers may be derived through different lenses, we investigate the Dutch Spatial Adaptation to Climate Change (ARK) programme through each of the four analytical lenses. The paper ends with a discussion on the advantages and disadvantages of using different lenses and the implications for scientific research and policy practice.

It is important to note that it is not the overall position of this paper to favour one analytical lens over the others, nor do we suggest that there is a superior lens; all lenses can provide valid information when used to answer appropriate research questions. Throughout this article we use the term ‘barriers’ even though, as will become apparent in the next sections, this term is closely connected to the problem solving lens.

2 Philosophies of governance

Various concepts, such as research paradigms, research traditions, worldviews, and scientific discourse, have been used to describe the heuristic frameworks in the social sciences for describing and analysing real-world phenomena (Kuhn 1970; Morgan 1980). These have been discussed extensively to demonstrate similarities and differences in the assumptions about the essence of the phenomena under study (ontology), the grounds and scope of knowledge (epistemology), and the ways to obtain knowledge about the real world (methodology), for example positivism, post-positivism, interpretivism, constructivism, or critical theory paradigms (Guba and Lincon 1994; Stone 2001; Lewis and Kelemen 2002). Similar claims are made in the study of public policy and governance; although broad consensus exists that the term ‘governance’ refers to the alternative ways of steering and managing parts of society (Torfing et al. 2012), a great variety of theories and frameworks have been proposed to analyse governance, each taking specific ontological assumptions on the nature of governance as their point of departure (Rhodes 1997; Stoker 1998; Rhodes 2007). Bovens and ‘t Hart (1996) categorize the literature on policy fiascos into three ‘philosophies’ of governance that regulate scientific inquiry by providing guidance on the knowledge that is valued and the knowledge claims that are made: the optimist, the realist, and the pessimist. It is beyond the scope of this paper to elaborate extensively on the notion of philosophies of governance, but we use it here as it is most often understood: the sets of shared beliefs by communities of researchers about the essence of governance, the expectations about good governance, the logic of how governance works, and how to evaluate the process and outcome of governance. These philosophical traditions are not true or false, neither can they be proved nor disapproved (Shepherd and Challenger 2013), yet they play a pivotal role in how we analyse and explain barriers to the governance of adaptation. Table 1 provides a short summary of the three philosophies.
Table 1

Summary of the optimist, realist and pessimist philosophies on governance

2.1 Optimist philosophy of governance

Bovens and ‘t Hart (1996) argue that the optimist philosophy has ideological linkages to the Lasswellian tradition of the policy sciences: to search for an objective, scientific approach to explain social phenomena and to design better and more successful policies to deal with them. Governance is viewed as the efforts to solve societal problems; climate change is a notoriously complex problem which can only be solved successfully by implementing several technical, social, and organizational adaptation options. Each solution will have its specific advantages and disadvantages, depending on the social context and ultimate goal of adaptation. Some adaptation options require small adjustments, whereas others require major transformations (Kates et al. 2012). The challenge is for governance actors to select, within the context and with the available uncertain knowledge, the best (set of) options to adapt to climate change impacts. Governments play an important role in the governance process as initiators, providing guidance, making resources available, and building institutions. As Bovens and ‘t Hart formulate it “…they [the optimists] firmly believe in the machinery of governance” (1996, p95) to solve these societal problems. Barriers are seen as unusual errors in this machinery, and the optimist aims to identify the barriers that emerge in order to overcome them. Governance is essentially seen as information processing and making choices to serve the greater good (Hedger et al. 2006). The substantial societal complexity and information uncertainty needs to be reduced to select the right policies and make the most cost-effective decisions. The optimist therefore reverts to functional and procedural rationality. Success in solving a problem is determined by how the governance process itself is designed and facilitated: the structures, processes, and means through which decisions are made. Values and objectives of individual actors are not central to the analysis since values cannot be measured objectively. Even if they are included, the actors’ goals and values are presumed to be fixed, at least for the purpose of the analysis (March and Olsen 1989). The goal of adaptation to climate change is hardly debated, but is seen as the starting point for the analysis. Processual and programmatic success (McConnell 2010) is considered to be the precondition for successful adaptation. For analytical purposes, the governance process is depicted in rationalized, sequential stages: agenda setting, policy formulation, decision making, implementation, and evaluation. Separating the different stages of the policy process shows how each stage differs in the sort of activities and actors involved, the expertise required, and procedures to govern it (Jann and Wegrich 2007). This separation of stages is important for optimizing the process through, for example, policy learning (Huntjens et al. 2012).

2.2 Realist philosophy of governance

The realist philosophy has its roots in the garbage can logic of the policy process: decision making is not about problem solving, but about haphazardly coupling problems and solutions (Cohen et al. 1972). The inconsistent and ill-defined preferences of actors, who come and go throughout the process, create a chaotic and unpredictable image of governance (Duit and Galaz 2008; van Buuren and Gerrits 2008). The erratic nature of decision making is further increased by societal complexity and the wickedness of many societal problems for which there is no shared problem definition and no clear best solution (Weber 2008; Weber and Khademian 2008; Lazarus 2009; Levin et al. 2012). In the realist perspective, governance is considered to be a fragile activity, with labyrinths of struggles, disagreements, and power play between interdependent actors. Governing complex issues thus means accepting setbacks, reversals, and miscommunications (Bovens and ‘t Hart 1996). The realist does not literally refer to barriers but rather to the conflicts, impasses, or struggles that are inherent in governing complex problems. Societal complexity makes government no longer the dominant actor in the governance of adaptation. Instead, governance includes a pluriform set of interdependent actors from within and outside government who interact to reach negotiated agreements (Koppenjan and Klijn 2004). The fabrics of governance are the processes of interaction between actors and the institutional structures of formal and informal rules that enable and constrain these interactions. Management, communication, and leadership are key principles in the realist assumptions in an attempt to prevent the governance process from escalating. After all, with the multitude of actors involved, not all ideas and goals can be realized, and worldviews are bound to clash (Kooiman and Jentoft 2009). The realist is therefore particularly interested in understanding the causes of conflict or temporary stagnations in interactions (Torfing et al. 2012). Rather than reducing complexity through rationalization, the realist underlines that complexity should not be reduced but rather embraced. Complexity is important to understand the causes of conflicts and impasses (Klijn 2008), and a precondition to finding openings for revitalizing governance processes. To take complexity into account, governance is analytically depicted through processual approaches (Pettigrew 1997; Teisman 2000).

2.3 Pessimist philosophy of governance

The pessimist philosophy of governance assumes that most of today’s societal problems have become more complex and interrelated across spatial and temporal scales. Climate change is one of the monstrous problems society faces and the ultimate price to pay for technological and social progress. Governments play only a marginal role in solving these complex puzzles. Increasing globalization and liberalization of markets blur the boundaries between domestic and international policies, and between the free-market economy and the democratic political system. Nested governance systems emerge that have become less predictable, highly complex, and inherently flawed. It is often unclear who is in the driver’s seat and who can be held accountable for what. The governance system is controlled by the wealthy and powerful, leaving other actors to decide whether to serve those interests or the interests of a broader public in a more equitable way. In this philosophy, barriers are considered to be the explanatory variables of why governance continues to fail; tensions and contradictions in the socio-economic, political, and institutional subsystems create structural imperatives, leading to repeated patterns of governance failure (Jessop 2003). Although the barriers, as causes of failure, are often well-known, they can hardly be avoided or removed. Whereas the realist assumes that insightful management of governance processes can still result in successful outcomes, the pessimist argues that, no matter how elaborate the efforts to manage the governance system, the risk of failure is structural (Perrow 1984, cited in Bovens and ‘t Hart (1996); Pressman and Wildavsky 1984; Jessop 1998). The best we can do is engage in a process of trial and error as forms of social experimentations on adaptation and hope that this will be sufficient to be prepared for future challenges. Analytically, the pessimist is only interested in understanding the sources of barriers that cause recurring failures of the governance of adaptation. Whereas the optimist attempts to decrease social complexity by assuming rationality, the pessimist embraces systems thinking and analysing at higher levels of abstraction in order to simplify social complexity. Although this may result in losing some detail, it allows the pessimist to follow a holistic approach to gain insights into the system as a whole and the interconnectedness between system parts in search of explanations for failure.

3 Methodology

The optimist, realist, and pessimist philosophies of governance provide the broader ontological roots from which to start scientific inquiry on barriers to adaptation. These three philosophies are operationalized into one or more analytical lenses, each with a distinct research focus, theoretical orientation, and methodological approach to investigate barriers to adaptation. In section 4, we present four analytical lenses constructed by Bovens and ‘t Hart (1996) and updated by the results of a systematic review of 81 studies on barriers to adaptation (Biesbroek et al. 2013).

To demonstrate the influence of analytical lenses on how barriers are understood, we investigate the ARK programme through each of the four lenses. The ARK case study was selected for three reasons. 1) The ARK programme faced considerable delays, thereby providing rich empirical material for exploring barriers through different analytical lenses. 2) The increasing number of governmental programmes on climate change adaptation make the ARK programme a timely and relevant study object (EUROSAI 2012). 3) Real-time access to information created a longitudinal data set from which the analysis could be conducted. The primary data source for the analysis is two rounds of interviews with seven key policy actors conducted during the period 2008–2012. During the semi-structured interviews, which lasted between 1 and 2.5 hours, the interviewees were asked a range of questions about their experiences in the ARK process and to reflect upon four topics: the barriers encountered in the process and how it was attempted to overcome them (problem solving lens), the relation between colleagues within and across departments (competing values and interests lens), the enabling and constraining conditions of the institutional and network setting (institutional interaction lens), and whether parts of the governmental system constrained the ARK programme (structural constraints lens). The choice of topics and their pairing with the four lenses were based on pragmatic considerations as well as on the understanding that each lens requires specific diagnostic questions (Allison and Zelikow 1999). At the end of each interview, interviewees were asked to evaluate the outcomes of the ARK programme as either successful or unsuccessful, and explain why. In addition to the interviews, background information was collected by analysing published and unpublished governmental documents and the results of a recent evaluation study of the ARK programme, see for example Court of Audit (2012). Secondary documents were used to corroborate the findings, see for example Swart et al. (2009, annex 6), Keskitalo (2010, chapter 7), van den Berg and Coenen (2012), Uittenbroek et al. (online first).

An introduction to the case study: the Spatial Adaptation to Climate Change (ARK) programme

In 2005, a motion was adopted by the Dutch Senate to promote long-term thinking in Dutch spatial planning. The motion was named after the first author, and member of the Senate, Lemstra. Soon after this motion, it was decided to install the ARK programme with the objective of climate proofing the Netherlands (Kabat et al. 2005). The acronym ARK was a subtle reminder for the Dutch public of Noah’s Ark. The programme included four of the (at that time) 13 Dutch ministries, and the umbrella organizations for the 12 provinces, more than 400 municipalities, and 26 water boards. Although the overall aim was to climate proof the Netherlands, three sequential objectives were defined: (1) increase awareness of climate change, build networks, and formulate a strategy, (2) develop and distribute knowledge on adaptation, (3) develop instruments and guidance, and stimulate bottom-up innovations. The programme, chaired by the Ministry of Housing, Spatial Planning, and the Environment (VROM), started on February 2006 and was expected to be completed by the end of 2014 (ARK 2006). In the autumn of 2007, the ARK programme produced the first National Adaptation Strategy (NAS), which describes the broad vision for climate change adaptation in the Netherlands. More detailed measures and executive actions were expected in the 2008 National Adaptation Agenda (VROM 2007a), but the Agenda was never published. In parallel, the Cabinet installed in September 2007 a State Commission to investigate the influence of climate change on long-term water safety (Deltacommittee 2008). The Delta Programme, established in 2008 to ensure the implementation of the advice from the Delta Committee and coordinated by the Ministry of Transport, Public Works, and Water management (VenW), was operational at the beginning of 2009. In the Delta Programme, the Dutch government reformulated its policy priorities and restricted them more or less to the water domain. After the parliamentary elections in September 2010, the Ministries VenW and VROM were merged into a new ministry: the Ministry of Infrastructure and the Environment (IenM). In 2011, a Delta Law passed through the Senate, providing a long-term legal basis and budget for the Delta Programme (PBL 2012). At the beginning of 2012, the last sign of the ARK programme—the website—was shut down.

4 Four analytical lenses on barriers to the governance of adaptation

The four analytical lenses presented in sections 4.1 to 4.4 are summarized in Table 2. As the reader will notice, two analytical lenses start from the same philosophical underpinning: the competing values and institutional interaction lenses are both rooted in the realist philosophy. Their difference pertains to the level of analysis; whereas the former focuses on the actor level, the latter focuses on the institutional environment. We explore each lens theoretically and investigate the ARK case analysis through each of the four lenses.
Table 2

Four analytical lenses for studying barriers in the governance of adaptation


Governance as problem solving

Governance as competing values and interests

Governance as institutional interaction

Governance as dealing with structural constraints

Governance philosophy





Possible sources of barriers

Human, organizational, and management error

Diverging frames, ideologies, and preferences

Institutional misfits across scales and sectors

Structural error, blurred by the interactive complexity of the system

Governance design flaws

Conflicting perspectives on problems and solutions

Failing, lacking, eroding, or unshared institutional rules, checks, and balances

Decoupling between temporal, spatial, and functional components of the system

Examples from ARK programme

Lack of knowledge for decision making, lack of resources, lack of skills, lack of policy instruments for implementation

Disagreement on the key problems and solutions, conflicting interests and policy agendas, meta-cultural frame conflicts, strategic struggles, reframing of adaptation debate

Institutional voids to support ARK programme, fragmented networks and policy games, low political leadership

Short-termism favoured over long-term climate change, changes in context, technocracy in government, intergovernmental efforts as window-dressing

Possible ways of intervening

Educate people, reorganize, optimization of the governance process

Search for openings in interaction through frame reflection and negotiation

Search for openings through institutional design for process and outcome

Expose the capitalist system as structurally flawed and reduce dependence on the system

Examples from ARK programme

Collect more knowledge through Routeplanner project, start new research programmes, avoid decision making, merge with Delta Programme

None attempted

None attempted

None attempted

4.1 Lens 1: Governance as problem solving

The problem solving lens is firmly rooted in the optimist philosophy of finding the best solutions to manage climate change impacts. In general, the causes of barriers are found in the execution of the governance process or in the incompetence of actors and institutions involved. If designed well, the self-correcting mechanisms in the governance process will have the capacity to deal with slips and mistakes of individual actors, leading eventually to achieving the predefined goals (Bovens and ‘t Hart 1996). Causes at actor level include lack of training, knowledge, capacity, or skills, resulting in bad judgements, wrong choices, or carelessness (Boer 2010; Moser and Ekstrom 2010; Lemieux and Scott 2011; Flugman et al. 2012). Other causes are found in the execution of the governance process; for example, the social and organizational processes were distorted, resources were not available, or constraints resulted from faulty institutions (Næss et al. 2005; Storbjörk 2007; Moser et al. 2008). Although barriers themselves can be a variety of factors, the sources of barriers are often seen as ‘the lack of’ something; for example the lack of resources to invest in adaptation, the lack of policy guidance to implement adaptation across scales, or the lack of knowledge and information (Burch 2010b; Biesbroek et al. 2013). The scientific and procedural rationalistic assumptions of problem solving are reflected in how the barriers are analysed; the first and foremost question is ‘which’ barriers have occurred. The analyst will treat the set of identified barriers as stable and discrete entities that emerge in empirical reality and that can be observed and described as objectively as possible. Barriers are identified with the aim of developing a comprehensive framework to analyse the barriers to the governance of adaptation to support practitioners to adapt successfully. Whether or not barriers have occurred can be inferred from the difference between the intended and observed outcome: if the outcome was less efficient or effective, took longer to realize, or was more costly than anticipated, this suggests the presence of barriers (Moser and Ekstrom 2010).

When barriers occur, they need to be removed by optimizing the process using the right resources, knowledge, and/or skills. Once a barrier has been identified, it is often approached with an intervention that mirrors the barrier identified (Brown and Farrelly 2009); Faulty institutions need to be replaced with better institutions, uninformed staff need to be educated, granted access to better information, or new knowledgeable staff need to be hired, the lack of resources requires access to, and mobilization of, alternative resources. Ideally, the solutions should result in win-win situations for all the actors involved.

Problem solving lens on the ARK programme

We asked the ARK interviewees whether they encountered barriers, and if so which barriers, in the different stages of the policy process. The respondents informed us about the several managerial, organizational, and resource barriers that had emerged. First of all, the lack of existing knowledge on impacts, vulnerabilities, and adaptation (IVA) posed a barrier to the programme team selecting the most effective adaptation options during the policy formulation stage. Although some work on IVA had already been done (MNP 2006), it was either outdated, highly fragmented, or considered too scientific by the programme team. This had been foreseen by the programme team and therefore a project, entitled Routeplanner (2006), was established to collect all available knowledge from the on-going Dutch research programmes on climate change. However, the reports came too late in the process and quick decisions needed to be made to prevent substantial delays (Interview 5). In addition, during the policy formulation stage it became apparent that only a small budget was available, much of which was in terms of man hours. As a result, those working on the project team had limited time to spend. In addition, several interviewees (Interview 1, 4) noted that some project members were not sufficiently skilled or knowledgeable to participate in these discussions. To prevent further delays, the programme team decided to develop the NAS without making explicit policy choices. After the decision-making stage, it became more apparent that the ARK programme had neither the legislative instruments nor the resources to implement the NAS. As one interviewee (2) from the programme team remarked, “the ministry [VROM] depended on the power of persuasion” rather than the “…financial and legislative powers of [the Ministry of] VenW” (our translation). After the NAS was published, it was unclear how to proceed; the lack of clear choices and the lack of knowledge in earlier stages had clearly delayed implementation of the programme. In the third year of the ARK programme, climate change adaptation started to disappear from the political agenda and became replaced with concerns about long-term water safety. As all interviewees remarked, the newly established Delta Committee and Delta Programme created an inefficient and unnecessary overlap with the objectives of the ARK programme. Integrating the ARK into the Delta Programme was therefore considered a win-win situation; several of the barriers relating to legislative instruments, resources, and knowledge were overcome by integrating with the Delta Programme, and the main objectives of the ARK agenda were still implemented through the Delta-sub-programme New Developments and Infrastructure (Court of Audit 2012).

4.2 Lens 2: Governance as competing values and interests

The second perspective can be positioned in the realist philosophy and focuses on competing values and interests. This perspective is based on the understanding that truth is composed of multiple local realities that can only be perceived subjectively (Bevir 2009). Frames or belief systems determine what actors consider to be of value and how actors give meaning to their environment (Schon and Rein 1994; Kaplan 2008). Which choices actors make is strongly influenced by personal preferences, core values, and beliefs: their knowledge and awareness of climate change, their attribution of climate change impacts as an urgent threat, and their personal motivations to act (Schwartz 1994; Scharpf 1997; Weible et al. 2009; Gifford et al. 2011). Different frames lead to fundamentally different descriptions of the same problem and possible solutions (Tversky and Kahneman 1981; Eisenhardt and Zbaracki 1992). Several scholars have called for such value-based approaches to understanding adaptation (Adger et al. 2009b; O’Brien and Wolf 2010). The competing values and interests perspective emphasizes the articulation and negotiation of competing norms, values, and ideas (Bovens and ‘t Hart 1996). In this lens, governance is about managing competing values and interests and preventing them from escalating. Emphasis is on the cognitive and social causes of impasses and deadlocks: the mutually incompatible ways in which actors interpret their environment, and the disagreement in their normative convictions and arguments. Whereas these values are the moral/normative convictions of actors, interests refer to material interests such as financial resources (Kouzakova et al. 2012). In both cases, conflicts can result from the strategic efforts of actors to protect their ideas, values, and interests, their anticipation of the behaviour of other actors, and the associated power play (Eisenhardt and Zbaracki 1992; March 1994). Kaplan (2008) describes these strategic struggles as ‘frame contests’ in which winning and losing means getting closer or creating more distance relative to one’s own value system. Conflicting values and interests can result in asymmetrical argumentation structures (Koppenjan and Klijn 2004), dialogues of the deaf, and cognitive fixations (Termeer and Kessener 2007).

These impasses and policy deadlocks make reflection on the existing practices impossible; in these cases, more resources or efforts are not sufficient to revitalize the process and may even prove counterproductive. It is necessary to understand the cognitive and social causes of the impasse, and the remaining dynamic in the process can be used as an opening for revitalization (Termeer and Kessener 2007). Several such intervention strategies can be identified, for example working towards mutually satisfactory compromises, alternating between competing values over time, structural separation by assigning the pursuit of each value to a separate organization, and avoiding simplistic decisions by focusing on analogical reasoning and situated judgement (Schon and Rein 1994; Thacher and Rein 2004; Shmueli et al. 2006; Stewart 2006).

Conflicting values and interests lens on the ARK programme

In analysing the case from this lens, we started by identifying conflicting value positions and normative notions underlying the labyrinth of choices, actions, and the chain of events in the ARK case. The interviewees were asked to reflect on the similarities and differences in value positions and interests among the ARK project members, and whether these differences had escalated at some point during the process. Three interviewees suggested that a key impasse emerged after the publication of the NAS, although the causes thereof were found much earlier in the process. First of all, although there was a shared agreement among project members that climate change posed a serious threat to long-term investments, there was little agreement among individual members on the solutions that were needed. Additional research and assessments through the Routeplanner project provided little help to overcome this problem, but rather strengthened the conflicting positions. The intention of the ARK programme was to have a cooperative process in which many departments were represented, illustrating the cross-boundary impacts of climate change and a broad governmental commitment to act. However, when the programme progressed, project members felt increasingly forced to represent their governmental departments, as several project members feared that the goals of adaptation would conflict with their departmental policy objectives. Rather than choosing cooperative strategies, many actors on the ARK team aimed at defending their values and interests. The actors had hidden agendas that were unclear to the other actors (Interview 4). The defensive strategies undermined the discussions about content and resulted in limited and passive commitments from most actors (Court of Audit 2012). In addition, interviewee 4 remarked that there was an asymmetrical exchange of arguments between the key actors, particularly VROM and VenW, about the direction of national adaptation policy. The project team included actors from different institutional and cultural backgrounds, including technocrats, engineers, and planners, and actors with strongly diverging political rationalities (Vink et al. online first). Their competing worldviews clashed on several occasions, most noticeably when VenW project members questioned the role, intentions, and legitimacy of the VROM actions, and vice versa, creating distrust on both sides. This caused a significant impasse. Two interviewees also suggested that installing the Delta Committee was a strategic move orchestrated by VenW to take over the adaptation agenda and break through the impasse. To do so, the Delta Commissioner strategically reframed the larger part of the political debate towards long-term water safety (Interviews 1, 3). These intentional strategic framing contests eventually led to favouring the values, interests, and ideas of VenW over those of VROM.

4.3 Lens 3: Governance as institutional interaction

The institutional interaction lens, also embedded in the realist philosophy of governance, stresses the organizational complexity of governing adaptation and the enabling and constraining conditions of the institutions involved. Institutions are formal and informal practices and procedures that were once new and contested but through socialization have become institutionalized and are now seen as normal, sensible, and logical (March and Olsen 1989; Scott 2008b). For example, institutions are solidifications of cultural discourse through shared beliefs and stories that create collective behaviours about climate change risk (Adger et al. 2012), or the legislative and bureaucratic system of regulatory mechanisms that influence human choice. Institutions have frequently been identified as key barriers to adaptation, particularly because adaptation requires flexibility and change, whereas stability and rigidity are inherent in institutions (Næss et al. 2005; Dovers and Hezri 2010; Harries and Penning-Rowsell 2011; Lebel et al. 2011; Storbjörk and Hedrén 2011; Termeer et al. 2012). In this perspective, governance is often depicted as strategic ‘policy games’ that take place in loosely tied networks and policy arenas (Scharpf 1997; Sorensen and Torfing 2009). In these games, actors try to anticipate how the governance process is likely to proceed, how other actors are going to behave, and whether actors should try to prevent or, instead, steer towards conflict (Sabatier et al. 1987; Scharpf 1997; Stevenson and Greenberg 2000). Impasses can therefore result from failing, lacking, eroding, or unshared institutional rules or scripts (March and Olsen 1989), and institutional conflicts can emerge when new ideas, collective values, or beliefs are not aligned with or clash with the prevailing institutional environment (Hargadon and Douglas 2001). In addition, path dependencies, lock-in effects, and the inertia of institutions make them difficult to change (Giddens 1984; March and Olsen 1996; Pierson 2000). Also, institutions may not have the adaptive capacity to respond to climate change adaptation (Næss et al. 2005; Gupta et al. 2010) or there may be no dedicated institutions in place—all of which blurs responsibility, legitimacy, and coordination across scales (Hajer 2003). Finally, lack of institutional leadership and management of the policy games can cause processes to stagnate (Koppenjan and Klijn 2004).

Intervention strategies for barriers through the institutional interactions lens can include clarification and deliberation about the rules of the game (Klijn 2001), designing new institutions or changing existing institutions (Mahoney and Thelen 2010), intensified network management, or changes in the network configuration (Koppenjan and Klijn 2004).

Institutional interactions lens on the ARK programme

The analysis started by mapping the network composition, policy arenas and games, and institutions across governance scales, in an attempt to understand the complex institutional setting of the ARK programme. Interviewees were asked to reflect on how the ARK project was positioned in the network of organizations that worked on adaptation, and whether this influenced how the programme functioned. All interviewees argued that the political aim of the programme was to mainstream adaptation in existing spatially relevant policies (e.g. nature, agriculture, water, infrastructure). This meant crossing a range of institutional boundaries, and this, consequently, created conflicts among actors from different institutional contexts. In addition, the newness of adaptation as a social and political problem and the lack of dedicated institutions posed considerable challenges for the programme. This institutional void was visible, for example, in the limited shared ideas on how to handle the conflicts and disagreements that were bound to emerge during the programme. As interviewee 4 noted, there was limited coordination and management between the different networks and arenas, both horizontally (between government departments) and vertically (between scales of government), resulting in an unclear and fragmented image of the emerging policy arenas in which adaptation was also discussed. These arenas were, at best, loosely coupled. Decisions made by the Delta Committee, the competing policy arena, had a direct impact on the ARK arena by taking over the most vital part of the adaptation agenda, namely, water safety and freshwater supply, thereby reducing ARK’s institutional legitimacy. In fact, there was an institutional misfit between the two main actor groups. The Ministry of VROM had a strong integrative policy tradition and depended upon persuasion, long-term vision, and linking of different sources of knowledge to develop and implement policy. The Ministry of VenW, with a sectoral approach focusing on solving water problems, had strong political and legislative instruments, with substantive resources to implement policies. Probably because of these asymmetric power relations, VenW questioned the legitimacy of VROM as ARK programme coordinator. Finally, two interviewees (3, 4) mentioned the limited leadership in the programme and weak political leadership by the responsible minister, arguing that strong leadership was necessary to manage the complex process of the ARK programme. These institutional conditions caused the process to stagnate and reach an impasse about the way to go forward. Merging the two ministries was not seen as a solution because “…the cultural differences between the [two former] ministries still hamper the implementation of the ARK ambitions in the Delta Programme” (Interviewee 4, our translation).

4.4 Lens 4: Governance as dealing with structural constraints

The fourth and final lens is embedded in the pessimist philosophy. This lens can be frequently found in debates about climate change mitigation, but have only recently emerged in discussions on adaptation (Fieldman 2011). Governance in this perspective is seen as dealing with structural constraints in regulating social activities. There are fundamental dilemmas in our society as a result of clashing logics; for example, we are locked into our capitalist system, which created the problem of climate change in the first place, yet we revert to the capitalist system to find solutions (Bailey and Wilson 2009). The choice is either to gain political legitimacy through increased public spending for short-term benefits, or to depart from the profitable economic activities that lead to the uncertain and long-term impacts of climate change. Examples of similar dilemmas are all around, for instance in natural resource depletion (Dietz et al. 2003). This lens questions the functioning of human society as a whole, whereas the other lenses take this overall system for granted. Bovens and ‘t Hart (1996) argue that discussions on large-scale system failure take place at two levels. Macro level theorists argue that constraints are the result of flaws in the generic properties of the system. For example, Fieldman (2011) describes how neoliberalism and capitalism increase individual and social vulnerability and exposure to climate-induced risk through several nested and interrelated subsystems. Other examples include literature on issues ranging from collective failure of market mechanisms to the provision of adaptation as a public good on the basis of non-rivalry, non-excludability, or externalities. Macro level theorists stress the failure of the democratic system and the limits of democratic mechanisms to govern adaptation in a highly political international arena where vested interests limit consensual decision making. Others have focused on subsystem properties and the interactions between subsystems, arguing that cascading effects of barriers lead to catalytic failure of the system as a whole.

It is nearly impossible to overcome structural constraints. It would require a radical departure from what has been done before, since improving the performance of parts of our system does not improve the performance of the system as a whole. However, only collective efforts of the powerful few will be able to change the overall logic of the system in order to prevent recurring failures. Dealing with structural constrains, therefore, means accepting that the failure of the present system is unavoidable. We can, at most, mitigate the influence of barriers on a smaller scale for temporary relief.

Structural constraints lens on the ARK programme

The analysis from the structural constraints perspective started by asking interviewees whether they believed our societal system was able to adapt to climate change or whether there were system constraints that posed limits on what we could do. From this structural constraints lens, the first and foremost argument is that the firm belief in the capitalist economic system places the market above all else, thus making climate change an ‘inconvenient truth.’ The slightest signal that climate change may not be certain or may not be seriously detrimental causes political actors to drop the subject altogether and go for short-term economic profits again. This is exactly what happened during the ARK programme. Although the science had not changed, national public opinion became more sceptical about the realness and importance of climate change, further influenced by the errors in the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Fourth Assessment Report, Climate Gate, and several cold winters in a row (interviewee 1). Second, all interviewees suggested that the social impacts of the economic and financial crisis had become more pressing, pushing adaptation from the political agenda. Third, as stressed by interviewee 4, by 2008 the Dutch political landscape had started to change from a centre coalition to a right-wing coalition, and a large populist political party questioned whether climate change was real and happening. As a result, the political focus was limited to what the Dutch are famous for and could potentially sell abroad: the development of new water safety technologies. This marketing of knowledge is also central in the NAS (VROM 2007b). In addition, designing deliberative governance arrangements, such as the efforts to include the different sectors and levels by organizing meetings and workshops to strengthen the legitimacy of the ARK programme, were merely window-dressing in an attempt to overcome governmental ‘pillarization’. Instead, dominant interests in the water sector played a major role in determining the future of the adaptation agenda. The ARK programme did not revolve around content, but around politics. Fourth, the Dutch government was dominated by technocratic reductionists and ‘optimists’ that were unable to ‘solve’ the complex problem of climate change adaptation. This combination of factors made the failure of the ARK programme very likely.

5 Discussion: what have we gained from using different analytical lenses?

Most of the studies on adaptation to climate change have hardly engaged in fruitful debates about the philosophical roots of the governance of adaptation, perhaps because of the relative newness of the topic (Ford et al. 2011). However, particularly in generative research, articulating and understanding the embedded assumptions about the nature of governance is of central concern for interpreting and engaging with research findings. In this section, we discuss what our analysis of different philosophies and analytical lenses contributes to our understanding and study of barriers to adaptation.

5.1 Comparing analytical lenses

Comparing the four lenses allows us to distil several new insights about barriers to adaptation.

First of all, we find that each governance philosophy has its own linguistics to describe the struggle to develop and implement climate change adaptation measures. Arguably, the concept ‘barriers to adaptation’ is a ‘disciplined imagination’ (Cornelissen 2006): an analytical construct created within the optimist tradition to understand complex situations. For the optimist, the concept of barriers is an aggregated artefact composed of multiple factors that is placed in the context of purposeful responses to a societal problem. As discussed, the realist does not use the term ‘barrier’ but refers to ‘conflicts,’ ‘struggles,’ and ‘delays’ as unavoidable causes of temporary impasses. In fact, in the realist perspective, the concept of ‘barriers’ is part of the political language of naming, blaming, and shaming (Edelman 1977). The pessimist does not refer to ‘barriers’ either, because the search is geared towards explaining the recurring sources of systemic failure (Pressman and Wildavsky 1984). Different linguistic descriptions of the same phenomenon do not necessarily mean conceptual weakness, as long as the phenomenon under study is well defined (Pfeffer 1993). However, we argue that if the discussions on barriers to adaptation are to progress theoretically, awareness of the existence of alternative framings of barriers and reflexive engagement with alternative framings become important prerequisites (Weick 1999).

Second, as Allison and Zelikow (1999) demonstrate, analytical lenses start from different questions. For example, the problem solving lens focuses on the question of ‘which’ barriers have emerged during each stage in the process in order to explain outcomes, whereas questions asked by the two realist lenses are geared towards the dynamics in the process in an attempt to understand the value positions, interests, and institutions that could reveal ‘why’ impasses have emerged. The fact that different questions underlie each lens is an important observation as this suggests that not all analytical lenses are equally suited to analyse specific phenomena. Also, each question demands specific types of knowledge. For example, collecting the data using the competing values and interests lens proved most difficult and on several occasions became very sensitive and personal. Making inferences through the competing values and interests lens was also more difficult compared to the optimist perspective because of the subjective nature of the collected data.

In addition, different lenses can lead to competing interpretations of the phenomenon studied. For example, the problem solving lens sees the Delta Programme as a natural successor of the ARK programme (win-win), whereas the competing values and interests lens describes the process as a strategic struggle between two ministries in which one side won at the expense of the other. The structural constraints lens creates an even darker view, stressing that the return to water safety in the Delta Programme is an exemplar of the risk avoidance and short-termism that prevails in capitalist politics. The possibility of arriving at conflicting conclusions does not seem an attractive perspective for a researcher, but it is considered to be an important step in scientific progress (Laudan et al. 1986; Scott 2008a). Conflicting claims lead to healthy scientific discussions, stimulate creativity, and initiate conceptual leaps about barriers to adaptation (Allison and Zelikow 1999). Broadening the scope of analytical lenses leads to alternative interpretations of the studied phenomenon; this is valuable, for example, in evaluating adaptation policy, see Court of Audit (2012).

Fourth, the boundaries of what is being studied differ between lenses. Whereas the problem solving lens focused primarily on the organization and functioning of the governance process, the competing values and interests and institutional interaction lenses tried to open-up this black box by investigating the actor (competing values and interests) or network and institutional (institutional interaction) dimensions of the process. The structural constraints perspective placed the ARK case in a much wider systems perspective in search of the causes of barriers, and this resulted in new variables not identified by the other lenses.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, the analysis of the ARK case reveals that not only researchers, but also those researched, i.e. practitioners, have presumptions about how the world works, and they will act accordingly. Members of the ARK programme were essentially optimists, aiming to solve the problem of climate change impacts as effectively and efficiently as possible. Because of this mind-set, the interventions that they proposed when confronted with the limited progress of the ARK programme fitted this lens. They considered lack of knowledge as one of the main barriers, and therefore the proposed solution was to acquire more knowledge. This also shows that each lens has its own types of barriers and, because barriers and interventions are directly entwined, specific types of interventions. The ARK project members therefore never considered, for example, alternating between competing values over time (competing values and interests type of interventions) simply because competing values were not considered as the barrier. Whether or not for example the competing values and interests type of analysis would have resulted in other, more successful interventions in the ARK case remains a matter for speculation, but it would certainly have increased the choice options for policy practitioners (O’Brien et al. 2007). This of course presupposes an understanding that there are different worldviews and an acceptance that alternative lenses may yield a better understanding of the sources of barriers and how to overcome them.

5.2 Best philosophy? Best analytical lens?

In this paper, we have argued that there are three philosophies and even more analytical lenses. But if there are multiple philosophies, is it possible to choose the most relevant one for analysing barriers? There are, unfortunately, no universal standards for selecting the best perspective. How researchers see the world and how they analyse social phenomena is often hardly a conscious choice but defined by cultural and theoretical traditions, by research institutions, financers of research, and personal ideological preferences. In fact, scholars from each philosophy have vented criticisms about the others’ contributions in explaining governance processes (Shepherd and Challenger 2013). For example, researchers from the realist philosophy argue that optimists have an oversimplified and unrealistic view on governance (Stone 2001), with limited explanatory power and a lack of theories of the governance process as a whole (Sabatier 2007). The realists argue that their perspective is more valuable in complex governance situations with unclear societal problems and policy objectives (Teisman and Klijn 2008). The optimists, on the other hand, argue that the realist perspective has limited prognostic value, making it a challenge to predict when and where barriers might emerge. In addition, the realist perspective is considered to be too abstract and of little value in policy practice. The optimist perspective is still seen as a valuable structuring heuristic and therefore remains popular in policy studies and policy advice to improve decision making on adaptation to climate change (Moser and Ekstrom 2010). The pessimists stress that reductionist thinking in both the optimist and the realist tradition derives barriers from the properties of system parts, whereas holistic and synthetic thinking is needed to derive barriers from properties of the system as a whole. The absence of universal standards also holds true for the choice of analytical lens within each philosophy; all lenses have their assumptions, theoretical blind spots, and methodological difficulties in studying barriers to adaptation. Which analytical lens is best ultimately depends on the objective of the investigation.

5.3 Unitary perspective or analytical pluralism?

Because there are no universal standards for selecting the best philosophy, broadly two options remain: choosing one philosophy in a coherent and consistent way, or choosing multiple philosophies, see Shepherd and Challenger (2013) for a more nuanced distinction. Those in favour of unitary approaches assert that incommensurable ontological and epistemological differences between lenses demand a choice of one perspective over others. Opting for a unitary philosophy allows for a consistent research design and protects research integrity (Jackson and Carter 1991). Contrastingly, proponents of the pluralism approach argue that research developed in one philosophy could complement knowledge gained from other philosophies (Gioia and Pitre 1990; Lewis and Kelemen 2002). According to these authors, the traditional task of science to progressively move towards a unitary perspective on elusive concepts such as barriers to adaptation is pointless (Allison and Zelikow 1999; Esbjörn-Hargens 2010; O’Brien and Hochachka 2010). Instead, engaging in a multi-, or pluralist, perspective allows analysts to complement, engage, and utilize insights from different angles (Sil and Katzenstein 2010). Others have pleaded for theoretical pluralism: combining different analytical lenses within one philosophy or among philosophies to increase understanding of social phenomena (Termeer and Dewulf 2012). Such pluralist-type enquiry encourages greater reflexivity on the researcher’s own perspective and on the impact of this perspective on research outcomes (Lewis and Kelemen 2002). Reflexive engagement with fundamentally different analytical lenses may shed light on which lens has the most leverage to keep the adaptation process in motion (O’Brien et al. 2007). Although pluralism can increase our understanding of barriers, several concerns about this approach have been mentioned in the literature, including the idiosyncratic combination of variables and concepts from different epistemologies and the resulting indeterminacy in the interpretation of results (Sil and Katzenstein 2010), or the incommensurability of multiple explanations (Bovens and ‘t Hart 1995). How to utilize a pluralist approach without violating the underpinnings of each philosophy is not well researched in the literature (Shepherd and Challenger 2013).

5.4 Eclecticism in existing studies on barriers to adaptation

We stated in the introduction to this paper that most of the research conducted on adaptation to climate change starts from the problem solving lens in analysing barriers (Biesbroek et al. 2013). Reality is, as always, a bit more nuanced; most studies on climate change adaptation follow a pragmatic eclectic approach and combine different ontological and epistemological ideas in studying barriers to adaptation. Studies tend to start from realist philosophies on the multifaceted nature of governance and the complex social process in which actors from different backgrounds try to reach agreements on adaptation measures (Adger et al. 2005; Keskitalo 2010; Moser and Ekstrom 2010; Tryhorn and Lynch 2010; Juhola and Westerhoff 2011; Hanger et al. 2013). However, when the research approach is operationalized, the realist assumptions are replaced by concepts and methodologies from the problem solving lens (Mozumder et al. 2011; Regmi and Hanaoka 2011; Biesbroek et al. 2013). Although there is no obvious explanation for this observation, we postulate that: i) many researchers are not conscious of their perspectives and the influence these have on studying barriers, making them unaware of this problem; ii) research on adaptation aims to be practice focused and socially relevant. Practitioners are mainly optimists, and this legitimizes the choice of the problem solving lens; iii) most of the research on adaptation is inductive and generative and not very theory driven so therefore strongly influenced by the researcher; iv) there are many problem solving policy frameworks available to analyse adaptation processes, but hardly any analytical frameworks that guide realist and pessimist types of inquiry in analysing barriers to climate change adaptation. In our opinion, these eclectic combinations are rather troublesome; implicitly mixing and matching parts of different philosophies in one study can lead to conflicts between the types of barriers identified and the interventions needed to overcome them.

6 Conclusions

Research on barriers to the governance of adaptation is a social science endeavour (Von Storch and Stehr 1997; Rayner and Malone 1998; Adger et al. 2009a; Jasanoff 2010; Moser and Ekstrom 2010). As with any social research, those researching social phenomena should critically engage with the philosophies that underlie their research in order to make valid knowledge claims. As discussed at length in this paper, these assumptions, whether made consciously or not, dictate what is researched and influence the nature of the knowledge claims that are constructed (Mauthner and Doucet 2003). We want to emphasize two observations.

First of all, although explicit reference to theoretical frameworks is becoming more common, most studies on the barriers to the governance of adaptation are still implicit in their ontological and epistemological assumptions (O’Brien et al. 2007; Biesbroek et al. 2013). We argue that this greatly hampers the transparency and integrity of research as these (implicit) assumptions determine what is analysed and how this is interpreted. The signalled pragmatist eclecticism in these studies also demonstrates the pre-paradigmatic state of the field. We hope that this paper contributes to raising paradigm consciousness about the role of philosophies of governance and the influence of analytical lenses on research results.

Second, we postulate that multiple and complex phenomena, such as barriers, can best be understood through various analytical orientations and perspectives of reality for at least two reasons. First, it allows for intellectual diversity, competing claims, and alternative understandings. Scientific progress benefits from healthy disagreement between researchers. Recognizing the consequences of analytical lenses would already constitute such progress (c.f. Laudan et al. 1986). Second, pluralism increases the reflexivity of researchers and practitioners, and this in turn widens our view towards a more diversified set of interventions to deal with barriers in policy practice. Careful application of these intervention strategies, in turn, will provide additional opportunities to study and understand the adaptation process in practice.


An earlier version of this paper was presented at the Barriers to Adaptation to Climate Change Workshop (18–21 September 2012, Berlin, Germany). We are grateful for the funding provided by the Dutch national Climate Changes Spatial Planning research programme and the Strategic Knowledge Development Programme of Wageningen UR on Climate Change (Kennisbasis 2 thema Klimaatverandering) financed by the Dutch Ministry of Economic Affairs, Agriculture, and Innovation. We thank the interviewees for providing us with valuable data for the case analysis. The views expressed in this article are those of the authors and any errors or omissions remain our own responsibility.

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© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 2013