Despite the increasing relevance of cross-border flows of goods, capital and people in shaping risks and opportunities today, we still live in a “bordered” world, where the nation-state plays a key role in planning and governance.

The impacts of climate change will not be limited by national borders, and thus the governance of climate change adaptation should also consider borderless climate risks that cascade through the international system.

In this paper, the authors demonstrate how the notion of borderless climate risks challenges the dominant territorial framing of adaptation and its problem structure. It asks: Why have a territorial framing and the national and subnational scales dominated adaptation governance? How do borderless climate risks challenge this framing and what governance responses are possible?

Drawing on constructivist international relations theory, the paper argues that the epistemic community that has developed to interpret climate change adaptation for decision-makers had certain features (e.g. strong environmental sciences foundation, reliance on place-based case study research) that established and subsequently reinforced the territorial framing. This framing was then reinforced by an international norm that adaptation was primarily a national or local responsibility, which has paradoxically also informed calls for international responsibility for funding adaptation.

It concludes by identifying types of governance responses at three different scales – national and bilateral; transnational; international and regional – and invites more systematic evaluation by the international relations community.

This article is part of a special issue of the journal International Environmental Agreements: Politics, Law and Economics on “Exploring global and transnational governance of climate change adaptation”, edited by Adis Dzebo and Åsa Persson.