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Barriers in municipal climate change adaptation: Results from case studies using backcasting

This study aimed to investigate barriers to successful local climate change adaptation due to lack of support from decision makers in organisations other than the municipality in question.
Moira Rice


Adaptation to climate change on the local level is a new challenge that will call for considerable efforts by many municipal authorities. When planning for the next 20–30 years, measures to cope with more extreme weather events such as heatwaves, intense precipitation and rising sea levels are of special importance as regards securing provision of services such as drinking water, sanitation, energy, care and education.

Adaptation to climate change involves planning and crisis preparedness work and many of the issues raised by climate change demand a long-term perspective and challenge traditional values and priorities in local planning. As an example, rising sea levels challenge plans for new housing along the coast in municipalities, but for various reasons such housing is still highly valued and this generates conflicting goals and values within the domain of local decision-making, which may delay climate adaptation work. However, there are also other barriers to smooth local adaptation, e.g. lack of support in terms of financial resources, information, legislation, guidelines, etc. from decision makers in organisations other than the municipality itself. The way in which such “external” decision makers act influences whether climate change adaptation will succeed or fail at the local level.

This study* investigates barriers to successful local climate change adaptation due to lack of support from decision makers in other organisations than the municipality itself. To this end we used a methodology involving backcasting and, together with civil servants from two municipalities in Sweden, developed visions of the ideally adapted local society. These visions showed what local civil servants saw as preferred solutions in order for the municipality to be fully adapted to climate change within 20–30 years. From this process we were able to identify a range of external decision makers upon whose input these municipalities depend for achieving their goals.

The results of the study will hopefully help local decision makers to articulate what kind of support they need from e.g. national and regional governmental agencies, and to develop strategies for negotiating with neighbouring municipalities or private actors at the local level. Although the results cannot be generalised to all municipalities, they may still raise the level of awareness of local needs at Governmental Agencies with a stake in climate change adaptation.

*Below is an abridged version of the background, methods and concluding comments of this article, which was published in Futures in May 2013 (Volume 49,pp 9-21). The full text can be downloaded from the right-hand column of this page or viewed online via ScienceDirect here.

The use of backcasting

The rationale for using backcasting in the study is that according to experience, present trends as regards adaptation to climate change in Sweden will not lead to the attainment of society’s goal of well-adapted municipalities. Backcasting can be useful to help planners free their mind of present entrenchments in order to find novel solutions for the long-term and thus to overcome factors such as goal conflicts, lack of resources, uncertainty and preoccupation with short-term problems.

Backcasting is an approach to futures studies especially designed for planning situations where existing trends or strong inertia seem to preclude the attainment of important societal goals or the resolution of a growing societal problem, such as environmental degradation or the potentially negative impacts of climate change. The idea is to start by looking some 20 years or more into the future and trying to envisage a society where radical goals are realised or a pervasive problem is solved, or at least dealt with in an efficient way. Then one or several paths may be sought that link the present state to the future vision(s) in terms of policy measures. Backcasting is explicitly normative with its focus on desirable futures rather than likely or possible futures.

The aim of this approach is not to suggest a rigid 20-year plan, but to widen the conception of what is possible to achieve in the long-term as an input to planning and discussions in society. It may suggest new perspectives on a problem where we seem to be entrenched by the present framing of the problem. In recent years a version of backcasting presented under the label of participative backcasting has gained ground. Here the involvement of stakeholders in the process of scenario development is a key feature, acknowledging that several studies have shown that lack of considerations for key stakeholders can explain failures in implementing decisions.

Methods and Tools (in brief)

In this study we took the perspective of the local administration in charge of climate change adaptation planning and used a participative approach, in order to ensure that the visions created would be credible. We selected two municipalities in the greater Stockholm area: Salem and Danderyd. The municipalities both face challenges in connection with climate change but are characterised by different socio-economic conditions, and as such have different capabilities to adapt. In a desk-based study the possible local impacts of a changing climate were asessed and for each municipality.

Two workshops were then undertaken. The purpose of the first workshop was to generate ideas for the construction of visions of future well-adapted local societies. This exercise was performed as a structured brainstorming following a presentation of the material about projected climate change and possible impacts. The participants were asked the following focal question:

What will our municipality look like in the year 2030, when the climate and the society have changed, but the services for residents are equally good/better than today?

Based the results from the first workshop, the research team constructed three visions of an adapted future society for Danderyd and Salem, respectively. For each vision a narrative storyline was developed and distributed to the workshop participants before the second workshop. The storylines contained a description of the ideally adapted local societies in 2030, structured under different headings such as built environment, water and sanitation, transportation and care. Before the second workshop, two extreme weather events were also constructed in order to be used as inspiration in the second workshop.

The second workshop had two objectives. The first was to refine the proposed visions constructed based on the results from the first workshop. The second was to use the visions as a means of investigating barriers to successful local climate change adaptation and identifying what actors outside the municipalities need to do in order to become adapted as in the visions. During the second workshop, the two extreme weather events were introduced, after which the participants complemented the visions with more ‘elements’ of adaptation.

See the full text for a summary of the local visions of climate-adapted societies.

Barriers (in brief)

Many barriers for realising the visions of the climate-adapted local communities due to lack of support from external decision makers were identified during the second workshop and through back-office work. The themes that emerged in the two municipalities were very much the same and included: Supply of drinking water, sewage treatment and stormwater disposal; energy supply including cooling; protection of the built environment; and care of the elderly. Findings relevant to each of these areas are summarized in turn in the full text.

Some barriers are assumed to be of great relevance to many municipalities:

  • Municipalities need substantial financial support in order to carry out costly measures such as building barriers against rising sea levels, something which is lacking today.
  • Regional cooperation is necessary for municipalities as regards e.g. drinking water supply and sewage water treatment.
  • A better developed legal and institutional framework is needed in order to facilitate effective local solutions as regards e.g. stormwater disposal, cooling of buildings and making private entrepreneurs adapt their activities and services to climate change.
  • In general, there is a need for local climate forecasts as an input to vulnerability analysis in municipalities and also a need for local weather forecasts and alert systems to give early warnings to local emergency response services.

Differences between municipalities may also impact on their dependence on external support and how they choose to adapt to climate change, for example:

  • There is a significant difference in planning situation between municipalities that are highly integrated into a major urban region and small municipalities at the periphery of a large urban area. In the first case the high degree of integration between the central municipalities of the urban area makes them mutually dependent, making planning complex and preventing individual solutions in many cases. On the other hand, if the municipalities cooperate, they have the power to achieve effective solutions to climate adaptation.
  • Municipalities with a high degree of privatisation of schools, elderly care, etc. will have to find different solutions and need different skills for adaptation than municipalities that essentially run the schools and institutions for elderly care themselves. When care is privatised, good skills in public procurement become very important, including how to write specifications and how to evaluate tenders. If such skills are not sufficient, this is a barrier to adaptation.

Key Messages

  • The approach used in this study adds a vertical dimension to the analysis, i.e. it highlights the interdependence between organisations at various levels in society; local, regional, national and international.
  • This study illustrates how dependent even municipalities with a high degree of autonomy are on decision makers at other levels and locations in society, a feature they presumably share with municipalities in similar societies around the world. This stresses the need for a systems perspective on adaptation, where decision makers at different levels in society are recognised as important for adaptation but in different ways.
  • Although the impact of this methodology was not systematically evaluated, our overall impression was that it served, at least in part, to inspire civil servants to engage in adaptation planning.
  • Some aspects of the methodology need to be improved/dealt with before ‘envisioning ideally adapted municipalities’ is considered as an adaptation tool, for example making clear the disctinct between climate change mitigation and adaptation.
  • This methodology may be of use for revealing to stakeholders, such as decision makers, of their own importance for climate change adaptation beyond the local level. It is our impression that such revelation may be needed, at least in Sweden, where several government agencies remain passive to the needs for adaptation initiatives. One approach could be to create visions using our methodology with all/most municipalities in a region, in order to get a comprehensive picture of the support needed from decision makers beyond the local level.

The use of scenarios (and visions of the future) in the climate change context is currently undergoing a transformation. In response to a request from the IPCC in its fifth assessment report (AR5), the climate and the impacts research communities have established a new process for developing scenarios for climate change research. The aim is to generate a simultaneous analysis of mitigation, impacts and adaptation using a common scenario framework. When such a framework becomes available, exercises such as that presented in this paper can be carried out, allowing for more comparability with other studies.

Suggested citation:

Carlsson-Kanyama, A., Carlsen, H. and Dreborg, K.H. (2013) Barriers in municipal climate change adaptation: Results from case studies using backcasting. Futures. Vol. 49 p.9-21

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