Why popular support tools on climate change adaptation have difficulties in reaching local policy‐makers: Qualitative insights from the UK and Germany

Submitted by Julia Barrott 2nd May 2018 10:54


Policy support for climate change adaptation has grown rapidly and respective tools (such as online guides and handbooks) have been documented and categorized repeatedly in recent years. Nevertheless, we still know little about how relevant their target groups find them for their work.

This paper* aims to address this gap with case studies on two well‐known support tools: the “Adaptation Wizard” from the UK and the “Klimalotse” from Germany. After showing how adaptation support tools have spread in recent years, the authors analyze qualitatively how relevant regional and local policy‐makers concerned with adaptation find the two tools. One of their main findings is the following discrepancy: while both tools offer support in developing and implementing comprehensive adaptation plans, local policy‐makers find this irrelevant and expect support in coping with imminent climate change impacts, for example, by single adaptation measures. Consequently, the local policy‐makers interviewed hardly use the two tools but seek more specific support, in particular regarding vulnerability and cost–benefit assessments. The paper concludes that policy support tools lack relevance when their well‐intended attempt to enlighten target groups is too remote from what the latter expect.

This paper was originally published in Environmental Policy and Governance on 1 March 2018.

*Download the full paper from the right-hand column. Key findings on each tool and the overal lessons learned are summarised below; see the full text for more detail.

Tools for decision support

Decision support tools have spread virus‐like and the literature on science policy interfaces has exploded in recent decades. The following three basic insights of this research stream helped us to frame the report’s case studies:

  • First, despite the countless proclamations of a knowledge based society and subsequent calls for evidence‐based policy‐making, it became increasingly clear that knowledge does not transfer easily between science and policy‐making for several reasons.
  • Second, science policy scholars recognized that the rare direct use of scientific knowledge in policy‐making represents neither a pathology of policy‐making nor a misuse of science. They recognized this as the normal condition of knowledge societies because policy‐making is not primarily about solving problems based on scientific evidence, but rather a messy political power struggle between different types of evidence, values, ideologies and economic interests held by a broad variety of actors.
  • Third, to improve the knowledge‐base of policy‐making, researchers must take the needs and expectations of policy‐makers into account, and they have to communicate their findings convincingly.

The Adaptation Wizard and the Klimalotse are guideline‐like support tools that are available online and that are accompanied by additional resources such as information on climate change and more specific decision support tools.

Key findings

Climate Change Adaptation Wizard

In 1997, the UK was among the first countries to launch a government‐sponsored program focusing on climate change impacts and adaptation (i.e., UKCIP). While the framework was praised as academically sound, it was also criticized as too theoretical and technically demanding for the target groups. Consequently, UKCIP developed the framework further and launched an online adaptation support tool in 2004: the Adaptation Wizard (since revised three times). Based on dialogue with a small group of potential stakeholders and the limited scientific literature available in the mid‐2000s, the Wizard outlines an ideal–typical risk‐based planning process and suggests various resources for each stage of that process.

  • We found that the Adaptation Wizard seems to be more relevant to adaptation experts and scholars around the world than among local authorities in the UK.
    • We derive this finding from the difficulties we had in finding local policy‐makers who were familiar with the Wizard. Although several national and regional gatekeepers supported us in our search for local interview partners, we could not find a single local administration which had used the Wizard extensively. 
  • While those who have developed the Wizard state that it provides valuable knowledge on climate change impacts and adaptation options (NUK1, NUK2), other interviewees suggest that key target groups of the tool see it more critically.
    • Representatives of Climate UK regional partnerships, for example, reported that local authorities never used it extensively, either before or after the abolition of National Indicator 188 (RUK2, confirmed by an e‐mail from the Local Government Association). This was mainly due to the Wizard being “sort of complicated and academic” (RUK2) or “a bit too heavy on the theory” (RUK1).
    • This critique is confirmed by local interviewees who understand the tool as providing extensive guidance on how to develop comprehensive adaptation strategy processes.
    • Some interviewees also criticized that parts of the Wizard demand too much input from users. If, for example, users want to learn something about their community's vulnerability to climate change, the Wizard requires them to provide extensive data on severe weather events they often do not have (LUK1).
  • When asked about how to improve the Wizard, several regional and local interviewees mentioned their needs in general, and they referred to experiences with more specific support tools, such as UKCIP's Local Climate Impacts Profile (LCLIP; part of the Wizard's tool portfolio) and the Severe Weather Impacts Monitoring System (SWIMS).
    • LCLIP helps to translate information on extreme weather events into likely impacts.
    • SWIMS helps to estimate their costs and to prioritize adequate adaptation actions.
    • Both tools are comparatively simple to use and produce outputs that are relatively easy to apply (e.g., short reports, briefing notes, presentations).
    • According to our interviewees, they both helped to meet the national reporting requirements in place until 2011 (RUK1) and (still) help communities to facilitate climate change adaptation (RUK1, LUK2, LUK3).


The Klimalotse is an interactive online guidance tool hosted by the German Federal Environment Agency UBA (Umweltbundesamt) since 2010, and revised in 2014. Because the tool aims to address all actors irrespective of their adaptation expertise, its modules proceed from basics to advanced support.

  • Results reiterate what we have found already for the UK: administrators from small‐ and medium‐sized communities neither demand nor extensively use support tools that guide them through comprehensive adaptation processes. Instead, they prefer more specific project‐based support.
  • While providers and developers of the Klimalotse regard the tool as an appropriate response to local needs, the regional and local actors we interviewed were more critical.
    • First, they criticized that the tool failed to reach local authorities who are not already working on climate change adaptation, inter alia because neither existing networks and communication channels (RG2, LG3) nor personal contacts (LG1) were used systematically to disseminate the tool.
    • Second, four interviewees suggested that the Klimalotse is an overly abstract, complex and demanding tool that aims to guide users through comprehensive adaptation processes instead of informing hands‐on about local adaptation.
    • Third, several of the regional and local interviewees pointed out that the Klimalotse is regarded as an environmental policy tool irrelevant for other sectors. As long as the dissemination of the tool relies mostly on environment‐related actors and networks it is unlikely to appeal to non-environmental sectors relevant for adaptation (LG1, LG2).

Although our interviewees did not use the Klimalotse extensively, they were able to identify a few strengths.

  • First, they assumed that other local actors who were unfamiliar with but interested in adaptation might value the step‐by‐step introduction provided by the tool (NG1, NG2, LG1, LG2).
  • Second, they assume that those who have worked on adaptation before find some support for assessing their vulnerability to climate change (NG2), or they use the tool to better structure applications for federal funding (NG1, NG2, RG1).
  • Third, those who address adaptation by joining research projects use the tool to consolidate their adaptation efforts once the projects are terminated (NG1).
  • Although, in particular, local interviewees doubted that online tools can facilitate local adaptation, they made several recommendations on how to improve the Klimalotse and other support tools.
    • First, they called for less theoretical and more practical support that can be understood easily by local administrators (LG3), among them easy‐to‐use blueprints for cost–benefit analyses (LG1), self‐assessments and benchmarking tools that help to prioritize and justify single adaptation projects (LG1, LG2).
    • Second, they expect knowledge brokerage not only from science to policy‐makers but also among the latter, for example, by exchanging good adaptation practices (LG2, LG3). In addition, one local actor argued that support tools should be disseminated in particular to those local policy‐makers who are not already familiar with the issue, for example, through on‐site trainings that use existing networks (LG3).

Lessons Learnt

  • Based on the empirical data of these two cases, the paper concludes that both tools clearly go beyond what local actors expect, but that they nevertheless fail to enlighten them because what the tools promote appears to be incompatible with the adaptation capacities of small communities.
    • This suggests that enlightening policy support must not ignore but build on and address the needs and capacities of target groups.
    • Policy makers can be enlightened through support tools only if these tools take into account where they stand in their role and what they are willing to engage on.
    • In addition, the UK case also highlights that support tools are not stand‐alone products, but need to be delivered with supporting activities.
  • The relevance of support tools certainly depends on how well tool characteristics mirror target group needs, but it also depends on accompanying (national) policies that shape the demand for enlightening support.
    • Communities were interested in adaptation support (not necessarily the Wizard) as long as national legislation required them to report on local adaptation, and once this requirement ceased to exist their interest in adaptation faded.
    • This implies that adaptation policy support tools do not have the power to promote comprehensive adaptation processes (at least not in small communities), unless they are accompanied by adequate national (or regional) policies.
    • If support tools are too remote from target group needs (also because accompanying policies shaping these needs are not in place), they perpetuate the notorious dilemma of decision support, namely that policy‐makers find respective tools irrelevant for their work while scientists complain that their outputs remain unused.
    • Close collaboration between support tool providers/developers and potential users are likely to improve not only the contents of support tools but also their uptake among target groups.