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Ronald D. Brunner and Amanda H. Lynch

Adaptive governance is defined by a focus on decentralized decision-making structures and procedurally rational policy, supported by intensive natural and social science. Decentralized decision-making structures allow a large, complex problem like global climate change to be factored into many smaller problems, each more tractable for policy and scientific purposes. Many smaller problems can be addressed separately and concurrently by smaller communities. Procedurally rational policy in each community is an adaptation to profound uncertainties, inherent in complex systems and cognitive constraints, that limit predictability. Hence planning to meet projected targets and timetables is secondary to continuing appraisal of incremental steps toward long-term goals: What has and hasn’t worked compared to a historical baseline, and why? Each step in such trial-and-error processes depends on politics to balance, if not integrate, the interests of multiple participants to advance their common interest—the point of governance in a free society. Intensive science recognizes that each community is unique because the interests, interactions, and environmental responses of its participants are multiple and coevolve. Hence, inquiry focuses on case studies of particular contexts considered comprehensively and in some detail. Varieties of adaptive governance emerged in response to the limitations of scientific management, the dominant pattern of governance in the 20th century. In scientific management, central authorities sought technically rational policies supported by predictive science to rise above politics and thereby realize policy goals more efficiently from the top down. This approach was manifest in the framing of climate change as an “irreducibly global” problem in the years around 1990. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) was established to assess science for the Conference of the Parties (COP) to the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). The parties negotiated the Kyoto Protocol that attempted to prescribe legally binding targets and timetables for national reductions in greenhouse gas emissions. But progress under the protocol fell far short of realizing the ultimate objective in Article 1 of the UNFCCC, “stabilization of greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere at a level that would prevent dangerous anthropogenic interference in the climate system.” As concentrations continued to increase, the COP recognized the limitations of this approach in Copenhagen in 2009 and authorized nationally determined contributions to greenhouse gas reductions in the Paris Agreement in 2015. Adaptive governance is a promising but underutilized approach to advancing common interests in response to climate impacts. The interests affected by climate, and their relative priorities, differ from one community to the next, but typically they include protecting life and limb, property and prosperity, other human artifacts, and ecosystem services, while minimizing costs. Adaptive governance is promising because some communities have made significant progress in reducing their losses and vulnerability to climate impacts in the course of advancing their common interests. In doing so, they provide field-tested models for similar communities to consider. Policies that have worked anywhere in a network tend to be diffused for possible adaptation elsewhere in that network. Policies that have worked consistently intensify and justify collective action from the bottom up to reallocate supporting resources from the top down. Researchers can help realize the potential of adaptive governance on larger scales by recognizing it as a complementary approach in climate policy—not a substitute for scientific management, the historical baseline.


Luis E. Hestres and Jill E. Hopke

The past two decades have transformed how interest groups, social movement organizations, and individuals engage in collective action. Meanwhile, the climate change advocacy landscape, previously dominated by well-established environmental organizations, now accommodates new ones focused exclusively on this issue. What binds these closely related trends is the rapid diffusion of communication technologies like the internet and portable devices such as smartphones and tablets. Before the diffusion of digital and mobile technologies, collective action, whether channeled through interest groups or social movement organizations, consisted of amassing and expending resources—money, staff, time, etc.—on behalf of a cause via top-down organizations. These resource expenditures often took the form of elite persuasion: media outreach, policy and scientific expertise, legal action, and lobbying. But broad diffusion of digital technologies has enabled alternatives to this model to flourish. In some cases, digital communication technologies have simply made the collective action process faster and more cost-effective for organizations; in other cases, these same technologies now allow individuals to eschew traditional advocacy groups and instead rely on digital platforms to self-organize. New political organizations have also emerged whose scope and influence would not be possible without digital technologies. Journalism has also felt the impact of technological diffusion. Within networked environments, digital news platforms are reconfiguring traditional news production, giving rise to new paradigms of journalism. At the same time, climate change and related issues are increasingly becoming the backdrop to news stories on topics as varied as politics and international relations, science and the environment, economics and inequality, and popular culture. Digital communication technologies have significantly reduced the barriers for collective action—a trend that in many cases has meant a reduced role for traditional brick-and-mortar advocacy organizations and their preferred strategies. This trend is already changing the types of advocacy efforts that reach decision-makers, which may help determine the policies that they are willing to consider and adopt on a range of issues—including climate change. In short, widespread adoption of digital media has fueled broad changes in both collective action and climate change advocacy. Examples of advocacy organizations and campaigns that embody this trend include 350.org, the Climate Reality Project, and the Guardian’s “Keep It in the Ground” campaign. 350.org was co-founded in 2007 by environmentalist and author Bill McKibben and several of his former students from Middlebury College in Vermont. The Climate Reality project was founded under another name by former U.S. Vice President and Nobel Prize winner Al Gore. The Guardian’s “Keep It in the Ground” fossil fuel divestment campaign, which is a partnership with 350.org and its Go Fossil Free Campaign, was launched in March 2015 at the behest of outgoing editor-in-chief Alan Rusbridger.