We introduce a new pragmatic procedure called the ‘climate learning ladder’ to structure policy analysis, support reflection and identify critical decisions to support climate adaptation. This tool is the result of the reflexive learning process that occurred while developing innovative appraisal methods in the Alxa League of Inner Mongolia, China, and in the Guadiana river basin in the European Union. Building capacities to cope with climate change requires going beyond simply providing ‘more knowledge’ on climate impacts to policy makers. Instead, climate adaptation can be understood as a multi-step social process in which individuals and organizations need to learn how to (1) manage different framings of the issues at stake while raising awareness of climate risks and opportunities, (2) understand different motives for, and generate adequate incentives or sanctions to ensure, action, (3) develop feasible options and resources for individual and collective transformation and collaboration and (4) institutionalize new rights, responsibilities and feedback learning processes for climate adaptation in the long term. Copyright © 2010 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd and ERP Environment.