Climate change potentially brings continuous and unpredictable changes in weather patterns. Consequently, it calls for institutions that promote the adaptive capacity of society and allow society to modify its institutions at a rate commensurate with the rate of environmental change. Institutions, traditionally conservative and reactive, will now have to support social actors to proactively respond through planned processes and deliberate steps, but also through cherishing and encouraging spontaneous and autonomous change, as well as allowing for institutional redesign. This paper addresses the question: How can the inherent characteristics of institutions to stimulate the capacity of society to adapt to climate change from local through to national level be assessed? On the basis of a literature review and several brainstorm sessions, this paper presents six dimensions: Variety, learning capacity, room for autonomous change, leadership, availability of resources and fair governance. These dimensions and their 22 criteria form the Adaptive Capacity Wheel. This wheel can help academics and social actors to assess if institutions stimulate the adaptive capacity of society to respond to climate change; and to focus on whether and how institutions need to be redesigned. This paper also briefly demonstrates the application of this Adaptive Capacity Wheel to different institutions. (C) 2010 Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved.