Adaptation to climate change has often been dubbed a “wicked problem” due to high levels of uncertainty, intersections with other policy issues, its multi-scale nature, and the absence of one-size-fits-all solutions. Even single climate change parameters such as heat, present complex challenges for policymakers.
Reducing the negative impacts of more frequent and intense extreme temperatures requires policy action and implementation across multiple sectors, including public health, planning, the building sector, labor protection, and even education. There are increasing calls for state-level action to coordinate and advance policy efforts for the prevention of heat stress and responses to dangerously high temperatures. Despite this need for increased and concerted action in multiple policy areas, anticipatory measures for reducing heat stress in the context of climate change are rarely a high priority among policy-makers and often limited to single sectors. In Germany, an aging population and increasing urbanization are contributing to the increasing vulnerability.
With this paper, we shed light on the state of policy responses to climate-induced heat stress with a particular focus on more complex factors preventing more pro-active adaptation activities and progress. In particular, we depart from the established notion of ‘barriers to adaptation’ and analyze how complex, self-reinforcing lock-in mechanisms explain the persistent nature of established institutions in the face of crises. In this perspective, institutional, infrastructural and behavioral factors interact and form self-reinforcing feedback cycles that favor incumbent policy solutions and ideas over their alternatives, systematically reinforcing the status quo.
This paper examines a single case study focused on policy changes to adapt to increasing heat stress in the state of Bavaria in Germany. Process-tracing is the central method of this paper, which is an approach used for in-depth, qualitative analysis of case studies and aims to reveal plausible causal mechanisms that explain a situation as it unfolds. 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 a cross-sectoral issue at the state level.
Results highlight complex interactions between institutions, actors, and natural, built, and planned environments, that in their interaction favor business as usual policies and practices, systematically disadvantaging more widespread, proactive adaptation activities. We argue that an improved understanding of policy lock-ins has the potential to ‘unlock’ new pathways and levers for policy change, through which adaptation may become better embedded in key climate-sensitive policy sectors. With the emphasis on adaptation to climate change as necessary for protecting public health, we highlight the role of adaptive and preventative policies for societal resilience in the face of complex challenges. Therefore, this contribution provides an important stepping-stone for future theoretical and practical advancement.