A Critical Exploration of Adaptation Heuristics

Johanna Nalau, Elnaz Torabi, Naomi Edwards, Michael Howes, Ed Morgan
Posted on: 11/15/2022 -

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A large body of knowledge has been evolving to guide efforts in how we adapt to climate change. This knowledge is underpinned by a set of standardised rules of thumb (heuristics) that define what climate adaptation is and what it means. For example, it is widely accepted that adaptation is a local issue that is best achieved by urgent anticipatory action by using participatory processes. Yet, the validity and relevance of these heuristics have rarely been tested or questioned. If these heuristics are not based on sound empirical evidence, their inclusion and use in scientific studies, policy development, planning and implementation processes can generate inappropriate solutions for highly complex problems.

This research critically examines and tests a set of common climate adaptation heuristics and investigates the extent to which they correspond to with the lived experiences of practitioners who are engaged in climate adaptation planning in Queensland, Australia.

The findings provide new insights into the applicability of adaptation heuristics, and point to several new rules of thumb that underpin climate adaptation in practice. For example, adaptation was mainly seen as a regional/transboundary issue with broader stakeholder involvement that is best pursued through an incremental ‘learn-as-we-go’ approach. Retaining flexibility in the policy- and decision-making systems was preferred as were no-regret, value- and risk-based approaches. Future research is needed to explore further the different types of heuristics and how these best support adaptation science, policy, planning and decision-making processes.


Johanna Nalau, Elnaz Torabi, Naomi Edwards, Michael Howes, Ed Morgan (2021). A critical exploration of adaptation heuristics. Climate Risk Management, 32: 100292.