Due to its cyclical planning process, River Basin Management Planning (RBMP) offers a route for adaptive management of a complex human–environment system. Considering how stakeholders speak about climate change provides a lens to examine social learning within RBMP. The paper explores how climate change emerged as a topic during our research and the trajectory of the social learning process. Participants were aware of the challenges that climate change might pose for achieving Good Ecological Status (GES), but as the deadline for the plans drew nearer the focus shifted from long-term issues to the current state of the environment and delivery of objectives. The degree of ‘climate proofing’ in RBMP depends on choices in future planning phases. We reflect on the potential for this to occur, putting our findings into the context of literature on social learning and adaptive management processes. Copyright © 2009 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd and ERP Environment.