This paper adopts two perspectives. The first is a framing process aimed at defining and examining the conditions for adopting adaptive coastal governance. The second applies to relevant themes of changing coastal policy, central to the testing of adaptive coastal governance, namely cooperative science, risk-sensitive planning, socially fair insurance cover and effective ways to design, finance and engage with local communities over actual coastal change. We illuminate both missions through case studies in North Norfolk (England) and Portugal, all notably affected by coastal change. In England and Portugal, there is a broad understanding and acceptance of the likely effects of climate change. This recognition encourages debates over risk-averse planning, the design of proactive insurance cover, creative relocation of endangered property and new ways of predicting and paying for coastal adjustment. Yet, moving from a basic willingness to engage with coastal change to actual practices of landscape adjustment through such policy shifts is proving very difficult. In this research, we find that coastal landscapes are lived experiences, resigned acceptances of inevitable change and hopeful imaginings. Coastal management institutions are not geared to resolving this incompatibility and this paper explains why.