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A Critical Exploration of Adaptation Heuristics

Explore the validity and relevance of heuristics (rules of thumb used for decision-making) used by climate change adaptation practitioners.
Multiple Authors
a green coastline with trees and a path next to a blue ocean


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. Heuristics are mental shortcuts that enable more rapid decisions on policy/project design, development and implementation, and directly impact on which methods or implementation strategies are seen as legitimate. 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 with the lived experiences of practitioners who are engaged in climate adaptation planning in Queensland, Australia.

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Heuristics: Importance and Concerns

Heuristics are critical in progressing adaptation decision-making and actions. For example, the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) provides a Pocket Guide to Adaptation that assists new negotiators to easily grasp what adaptation is, its key concepts, and main adaptation negotiation items. Similar guides have emerged, such as the recent World Bank’s guide on Adaptation Principles that intends to assist in the process of designing adaptation strategies and the ISO Standard [ISO 14090: 2019] for adaptation. All of these aim to speed decision-making and understanding of adaptation, and are part of reinforcing particular ways of thinking about adaptation.

However, there are three reasons why we should worry about adaptation heuristics. Firstly, once formulated, they begin to steer and inform research priorities, policy debates, and funding agency guidelines and may cause increased burdens on certain actors or misdirect resources. Second, following untested decision-making heuristics may be both costly and risky for the lives and livelihoods of vulnerable people. Not challenging embedded assumptions can steer us towards particular policy pathways even when they are not optimal. Third, there is the challenge of changing assumptions, especially when they get embedded into decision-making and become unchallenged ‘expert knowledge’ within an organisation or institution.

A critical examination of existing adaptation heuristics is crucial as the adaptation science agenda moves forward.


This study’s main objective was to evaluate the relevance and usefulness of eight adaptation heuristics (Table 1) based on practitioners’ experiences in Queensland, Australia. We focused specifically on two key questions:

1) To what extent do the recognised adaptation heuristics apply in an operational and practical contexts?

2) Are there other potential heuristics recognised by practitioners?

In this context, we used an exploratory small-scale research design that was specifically focused on reflexivity. We created a space for reflection using a workshop format during the Queensland Coastal Conference, that was held on the Gold Coast, Queensland, Australia in August 2019. The conference provided an excellent opportunity to attract a wide range of government and private sector practitioners, including coastal engineers, planners and consultants, as well as researchers.

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Prior to the workshop, the research team (authors) met to co-design a format that would capture multiple perspectives on heuristics through individual and group reflections. The session started with an initial presentation by the lead author explaining the prevalence of adaptation heuristics, how these heuristics are constructed in everyday language and outlined workshop activities. The presentation introduced the eight previously identified adaptation heuristics. The participants were first prompted to reflect on their own decision-making processes and which heuristics they identify/use. They then moved into a shared reflective exercise (collective discussion) with the group.

For our analysis, we undertook a systematic and iterative data analysis approach of the information obtained from the workshops. This included a series of steps: data familiarisation (defining principles, assumptions, and heuristics), identification of deductive / theory-driven codes, identification of inductive / data-driven codes (Fereday et al. 2006; based on the missing principles / assumptions identified by the participants), identification of other themes (reflective notes, memos) and creating concept maps, development of the project codebook, and data coding and review.


The overall results present an intriguing array of experience-based insights into why, how and when particular adaptation heuristics make sense (are useful) and when these do not correspond with the reality on the ground. The results are summarized in Table 2.

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Lessons Learned and Conclusions: The Value of Reflection

Given the exploratory nature of our research, the aim was to enable the participants to dig deep through reflection and allow insights to emerge from the process. To our surprise, many participants expressed relief in being able to reflect on the heuristics. Comments such as “I can never talk about these things at work” or referring to our session as “therapy” provided evidence of the benefit that creating these kinds of spaces has. This allowed the participants to take time to truly reflect at a deeper level how some of these heuristics are useful, identify the contexts where they are not, and examine their own thoughts about the practice of climate adaptation. Within policymaking and decision-making there is little time or opportunity to challenge existing assumptions and do second order thinking and creating such spaces remains critical to improve our thinking about adaptation.

Adaptation heuristics are necessary to progress the adaptation science agenda and they can bring coherence and coordination to the adaptation science enterprise by proposing a set of commonly agreed ways of thinking about adaptation. Yet, if these heuristics are faulty, they can lead to inappropriate solutions being applied to highly complex issues. Our findings show how adaptation heuristics were perceived, debated and reflected upon by a group of climate adaptation practitioners in Queensland, Australia. Instead of simple agreements, we found diverse perceptions and multiple interpretations in defining the scale and speed of climate adaptation planning and implementation, including a set of experience-based ideas that practitioners view as useful decision guides to support decision-and policymaking practices on the ground.

Capturing this kind of experience-based knowledge on which heuristics are helpful and in what context will become even more crucial in the future as climate adaptation moves more rapidly towards broader implementation. By opening up spaces for collaborative reflection, we can increase the adaptation mindshare, which is the capacity of people to think in a more reflective manner about adaptation and its underlying components and dimensions. Future research is needed to identify the full range of adaptation heuristics beyond these initial eight, and whether, when and how these can work as robust guides for decisions in science, policy and practice. This can hopefully generate a global conversation as to what we collectively believe to be true of the field that we work in and lead towards more innovations in the way we develop knowledge about and for climate change adaptation.

Suggested Citation:

Nalau, al. (2021) ‘A critical exploration of adaptation heuristics’,Climate Risk Management, 32, p. 100292. doi:10.1016/j.crm.2021.100292.

Copyright Statement

© 2021 The Author(s). Published by Elsevier B.V. This is an open access article under the CC BY-NC-ND license (, which permits unrestricted, non-commercial use, distribution and reproduction in any medium, providing that the work is properly cited.

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