Sixteen Ways to Adapt: A Comparison of State-Level Climate Change Adaptation Strategies in the Federal States of Germany

Climate change adaptation (CCA) strategies aim to reduce or prevent negative climate change impacts and, in some cases, maximise potential benefits. This analysis provides the first systematic assessment of all state adaptation strategies in Germany based on 2 main research questions: how comprehensive are German state CCA strategies, and to what extent do policy approaches and commitments vary within the federal context? Based on a qualitative analysis, this assessment focuses on 5 key themes synthesised from literature on CCA barriers and facilitating factors and climate policy analyses. It finds that state strategies tend to be non-committal sets of recommendations and that there is often a trade-off between the specificity of goals and level of commitment. While federalism allows for flexibility among state responses, the absence of federal mandates and policy standards allows some states to fall behind while others continue to develop their strategies to adapt. 

The Littlest Duckling of the Team: Julie’s PhD journey so far

After earning a master’s degree in Sustainability Economics and Management from the University of Oldenburg with a focus on environmental planning, I spent a few years working for a regional development organization in the Northwest of Germany. One of my tasks there was assisting in a project focused on municipal adaptation to climate change from 2014 to 2016. A ket takeaway from the project was that many smaller, rural communities did not recognize the need or have the capacity to proactively plan for future impacts of climate change. Although most interactions with citizens and stakeholders were positive, one interaction with a group of politicians and practitioners was rather shall we say … disenchanting. While the politicians were eager to learn about solutions and low-hanging fruit to alleviate hotspots during flash flooding, some of the practitioners refused to believe that any of the suggested measures or approaches were realistic or could possibly be effective. It was shortly after that meeting that I saw the job posting for a PhD research position within the Adapt Lock-in project. My first-hand experiences motivated me to learn more about why adaptation to climate change appears to still be struggling as a policy issue, despite decades of research, increasing amounts of data on regional climate change impacts, and federal and state funding for projects.

Closely intertwined with the research goals of the Adapt Lock-in project, my PhD focuses on the systemic forces, both hindering and enabling, state-level policies to adapt to the impacts of climate change in Germany. The following main research questions provide the basis for my research:

  • Scoping and taking stock – How are German state governments and policies addressing climate change impacts and implementing solutions?
  • Searching for explanations – What are the reasons for the varying levels of adaptation policy action?
  • Looking for solutions – Which factors or mechanisms may contribute to more effective climate change adaptation policy and action?

In the first step of my research, I conducted an analysis of the climate change adaptation strategies of all of the sixteen states of Germany to explore the range of approaches and the extent of their policy commitments.  State governments are suggested to be key leverage points for enabling adaptation actions. Clear commitments can increase collaboration and innovations in local adaptation efforts (Jurgilevich et al. 2019; Vogel et al. 2020). In federalist systems, such as Germany, state governments wield the authority over various policy sectors and the power to instigate adaptation action through their jurisdiction over the municipalities. Compared to local governments, state governments are equipped with larger administrations, more financial resources, and a broader scope than single municipalities. This combination of authority and resources provides state governments with the capacity to formulate policies that effectively address regional climate change impacts.

An eager Julie does her first research interview at the Federal Ministry of Environment

In search of a deeper understanding of the policy dynamics at play, I’ve chosen to lead the research in our project case studies exploring policy responses to the following risks related to the following climate change impacts:

  • Heat stress impacts on human health (in Bavaria)
  • Extreme weather event impacts on mental health (in Saxony-Anhalt)
  • Coastal risks, such as sea-level rise and coastal erosion (in Schleswig-Holstein)

These cases studies were selected based on several criteria, though other combinations would also be fruitful for comparison: a mix of states appearing to be “leaders” and “laggards”, the recency of the available documents and data, the geographic distribution throughout Germany, and the states’ respective exposure to relevant climate change parameters. To some extent, the choice of case studies was also influenced by the availability of information on climate adaptation policies and initiatives and statements and opinions from the screening interviews with stakeholders at the federal level.

My research will be nested within the medium-sized case population of the project and focus primarily on the case studies from Germany. This small comparison allows a deeper analysis of two or three cases within the same national context. By drawing on data from documents and interviews with key stakeholders, the goal is to understand the processes which link different relevant factors to the outcome, in this case, limited policy changes to address cross-sectoral issues at the state level. For more in-depth analyses of one or two cases, I plan to use process-tracing to analyze processes, sequences, and conjunctures of events within the cases, rather than the outcomes alone. In both within-case and cross-case inferences this method is often viewed as an appropriate approach for causal research and the search for explanations of outcomes.

I’m thankful to be included in the Adapt Lock-in research team as the only PhD student. As an early career researcher, I’ve been able to learn a lot from the team already and have fun discussing ideas and findings at eye level (from my perspective at least!),while making jokes and drinking wine together during our first in-person meetings in the Netherlands and digitally in times of the pandemic!

The Adapt Lock-in Team getting used to life on Zoom!

Team Zoom Photo
Team Zoom Photo