Can Policy Diffusion Advance Climate Change Adaptation?

Governments and policymakers across the globe need to step up their policy efforts to deal with growing climate impacts such as heavy rainfall, heat waves, and sea-level rise. However, policymakers are not alone in their efforts to adapt to climate change. While jurisdictions may have diverse adaptation needs and capacities, they also share many similarities and ties, which means that they can, and sometimes have to, interact with each other and consider each other’s actions when designing their own adaptation policies. Scholars typically describe these processes of interdependent policy-making as policy diffusion. In fact, many different actors and institutions such as the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate change (IPCC) and municipal networks frequently rely on policy diffusion to advance adaptation.

However, the state of research on adaptation policy diffusion and its underlying mechanisms is remarkably limited. In a new advanced review, a research team from the Institute for Housing and Environment (IWU) and the Technical University of Darmstadt in Germany outlines and evaluates climate adaptation literatures through a policy diffusion lens, presenting successes, but also challenges for research and practice. Results indicate that adaptation policy diffusion can emerge from many different mechanisms at the same and across different levels of governance. For example, jurisdictions can learn from and compete with one another, respond to financial incentives, or simply emulate how others adapt to climate change.

Whether and how these diffusion mechanisms work generates important consequences for adaptation actions and outcomes, including their legitimacy and their ability to reduce vulnerabilities and increase resilience. For example, financial incentives have been a major driving force behind numerous adaptation actions, but cursory or even negative impacts can also emerge when funded solutions ignore local circumstances and/or lack sufficient resources for implementation. Learning mechanisms, which are typically embedded in many climate networks, have been a particularly promising way of advancing adaptation in many cases, yet adaptation studies have come to varying conclusions concerning “who learns what from whom and why”. Additional mechanisms of adaptation policy diffusion may be related to party political ties or shared policy beliefs amongst coalitions of state and non-state actors, but these have yet to be explored in greater detail.

The authors also highlight how existing research has often focused on the diffusion of adaptation plans and strategies, while much less is known about the characteristics of these plans and about additional policy instruments that may also diffuse. Moreover, because the implementation of adaptation plans and policies can vary substantially, future research needs to evaluate the concrete outcomes of diffusion processes and to gain better insights into the extent to which governance by diffusion can meet the adaptation needs and existing capacities of communities.

Recognizing that policy diffusion has the potential to advance adaptation, the authors argue that researchers need to intensify their empirical and conceptual efforts. Doing so will involve developing better measures of adaptation policy activity and success, for example in terms of the effectiveness, efficiency, equity, and legitimacy of adaptation efforts, and working towards better distinguishing the different diffusion mechanisms and their contributions to adaptation policies and outcomes. If these issues can be tackled, researchers will be in a much better position to guide policymakers on how to harness policy diffusion for advancing adaptation.


Written by: Kai Schulze, Nils Bruch, Jonas Schoenefeld

The link to the publication can be found here:

Related News