Critical barriers to adaptation to climate change include the timely detection and agreed definition of problems requiring adaptive action. In the context of local scale coastal management in north-western Europe, challenges to problem detection and identification are exacerbated by the diffuse nature of administrative, sectoral, and legal rights and other professional governance obligations. Yet, if adaptation is to progress in a manner that is both locally legitimate and in accord with national policies, climate signals must be detected and climate impact problems framed in similar ways by two key groups; local scale ‘bottom-up’ experts and decision makers, and national scale ‘top–down’ scientists and policy makers. With reference to case study sites in Ireland and Scotland, we employ participatory modelling with coastal stakeholders using Fuzzy Cognitive Mapping (FCM) to trial its potential in measuring and assessing stakeholder perceptions of climate vulnerability both individually and collectively. We found that FCM not only offers insight into the existing detection and framing of climate signals in coastal decision making but also provides a structured communication platform from which climate problems might be coherently integrated into future coastal management deliberations as the adaptation process matures.