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date: 24 January 2020

Climate Change and Amplified Representations of Natural Hazards in Institutional Cultures

Summary and Keywords

Rapid climatic, natural and societal changes are altering the ways natural hazard risks are represented in societies, and in turn disrupting the ways people respond to these hazards. This poses an important challenge to how societies (re-)build institutions for governing or controlling risks. Institutions are systems of rules, norms and decision-making processes that structure our social interaction and practices. They organize how people define, plan for, and manage natural hazard risks; indeed, they create notions of risk. Going deeper, social sciences have defined institutions by the underlying “culture” on which they are built; the symbols, principles, core beliefs, and cognitive scripts that give institutions meaning. The culture structures how institutions represent the intertwined natural and social world that gives rise to natural hazard risks. Cultures work as a script for classing risks; giving people cues on how to understand and interpret the dangerous situations they find themselves in. Modern institutions are increasingly shaped by techno-scientific cultures, defining hazards and risks by their technically framed probability of physical harm, often expressed in terms of loss and damage. This risk quantification, and aspirations for precision, can give a false sense of control. But climatic change is already undermining, and threatening to undo, many of the long-held representations of natural and social order (and risk to this order) that steer institutions.

Current case study research, in different places around the world, shows how climatic change is altering the way institutions interpret the natural hazards they manage in Bangladesh, New Zealand, and Norway for example. Dramatic climate change is confounding institutions’ cultures of risk quantification, and protection, shaking their claims to control natural hazards and undermining public trust in these institutions. One response is that institutions change the ways they define and class hazards, so that ordinary hazards are amplified as extraordinary. Faced with risks that are going beyond their experience and control, some institutions are compelled to unreflexively amplify well-intentioned protection-based responses, with at times unforeseen and disastrous consequences. Cases in Bangladesh and Norway both show how rushed river engineering works can evoke resistance from local communities. Emergency coastal protection can also have deleterious long-term social-ecological impacts, as experience shows in New Zealand.

Scholars and practitioners alike recognize the need for critical reflection on how institutional cultures alter natural hazard risks according to climatic and other changes. This reflection is practical work that affects how people operate in institutions every day. It is structural work, as institutions change their rules as they learn more about risks. And it is work of social change, with social groups inside and outside institutions increasingly vocal in their criticism of changing climate risk framings. Case studies illustrate processes of institutional change, but equally, the resistance of institutions to change their cultures and notions of risk.

Keywords: climate adaptation, institutional cultures, natural hazard framing, co-production. Bangladesh, New Zealand, Norway


This article gives an account of where natural hazard risks originate, and how they change. It is tempting to externalize hazards as natural events, but more than a century of social science research demonstrates how natural hazards equally originate in the social sphere, formulated internally in the institutions we create to control hazards. It is in these institutions that actors interpret which natural processes and impacts are “hazardous,” with this appraisal a social process that is highly cultural and contingent. For instance, as this article will show, it is not uncontroversial to frame a flood as hazardous, when for some people in some places, floods may mean a necessary (even welcome) natural rhythm of renewal and vitality. Similarly, what some institutions may frame as risks derived from social processes, like coastal development causing attrition of the shoreline, others may frame as natural, like coastal erosion. This article is particularly concerned with how institutions’ deep-rooted cultural representations of natural hazard risk can change when faced with the rapid natural and social changes associated with global climate change. How does climate change enter institutional discourse, and change the script for how its members think and act when faced with hazards and risks that appear to morph or suddenly shift over time? Arguably, climate change is already contesting many of the long-held representations of natural and social order (and risk to this order) that steer institutions (Jasanoff, 2010). It is important to understand the extent to which ideas of climate change are assimilated or rejected in institutions’ representations of hazards, and how this influences their practices for managing the associated risks.

This article begins in “Creation of Climate-Related Risks in Modern Institutions” by exploring some of the theory on the social production of risks in institutions. It draws up an architecture of institutions and their “cultural-cognitive” foundations, arguing that these foundations are continuously rebuilt (or co-produced) through their members’ discourse, with some literature suggesting that the discourse around climate change is doing just that. The “Emerging Climate Change Risks in Institutions in Norway, New Zealand, and Bangladesh” section employs this framework to briefly study three unlike cases in Norway, New Zealand and Bangladesh, revealing the different ways in which institutions take on or reject notions of climate change. The “Critically Reflecting on Climate Change’s Disruption of Institutional Cultures” section compares and discusses these cases, and argues for more self-conscious reflection in institutions about how climate change ideas may be disrupting the ways their members interpret and tackle natural hazard risk.

The Creation of Climate-Related Risks in Modern Institutions

Climate-Related Natural Hazard Risks as Naturally and Socially Co-Produced

The past two decades have seen a powerful social discourse emerge about how global climate change is amplifying risks of weather-related natural hazards in the places we live, with advocates for action on climate change enlisting disasters as a leading theme (Pielke, 2014). In Bergen, Norway—where one of the authors lives—the municipality is anticipating climatic change to bring even more intense rainstorms, which have triggered deadly landslides in the city since 2005. On the Coromandel Peninsula, New Zealand—where another author lives—the municipality must face a combination of sea-level rise and storms, which frequently inundates and erodes sections of the low-lying inhabited coastline. While the shape of these natural hazards is unique to each place, global climatic change is increasingly portrayed as the common cause. And while there is a long history of these hazards in each place, recent “unprecedented” disasters are placed in a new climate change category. The rhetoric is that communities must prepare for a class of natural hazards that they have never faced before, and though risk assessments in places like Bergen and the Coromandel are informed by scientific advice (the Hordaland County Climate Profile in Bergen and government adaptation guidance in New Zealand for example), they are also defined by local, highly politicized debates (see also the discussion by Jasanoff, 2010).

What becomes apparent is that climate change is impacting not only on the natural physical climatic processes that expose communities to natural hazards, but also on the social processes by which communities interpret and assess these risks. Seen as such, climate change is more than a natural (albeit human induced) phenomenon; it is defined by interconnected elements traversing and binding social and natural worlds. It can be described as rapidly changing natural and social orders; changes in the natural state of the climate, and in the ways societies interpret and live with these new conditions. Science discovered climate change, and society is making it a matter of concern and care (Boykoff, 2007; Hulme, 2009; Jasanoff, 2010; Mayer, 2012; Miller, 2004). Moreover, experience of climate change is not a discrete phenomenon; it is inextricably linked to the other environmental and social changes experienced in places; from shifting waterways and coastlines to migration. Climate change cuts through the orders of invisible, visible, and virtual risks, between natural and technological risks and between real and socially constructed risk (Ekberg, 2007). It increases global volatility and unprecedented extremeness in nature, and changes the way society normalizes these extremes. Internationally, there are examples of new forms of representation in attempts to reflect new extremes. Australia’s Bureau of Meteorology has had to add a new colour (incandescent purple) to its scale to represent unprecedented extreme heat of over 52°C (Carrington, 2013).

Conceived this way, changing interpretations of hazard risk under climate change can be seen as mutually constituted by both natural and social factors (Jasanoff, 2004; Rayner, 2003). On the one hand, notions of risk are produced by changes in natural climatic processes as they are experienced, measured and modeled (although there remain some uncertainties about these changes; Pielke, 2014). Interacting with these climatic changes, are the other ongoing physical changes to the natural environment, many of which are linked to human activities like deforestation for example (Bala et al., 2007). On the other hand, climate change risks are produced via social processes. Social and economic forces see increased investment in property in areas at risk to natural hazards, along coastlines for instance (Pielke, 2014). Factors like land-use changes, demographic pressures, economic pressures, unsustainable practices, and political debates all have a role in transforming “natural” hazards, such as floods or heat waves, into manufactured hazards. Together, weather-related natural hazard risks are being constitutively “co-produced” according to complex and concurrent influences from both the natural and social world (Jasanoff, 2010; Jasanoff & Wynne, 1998; Miller, 2004).

At the same time (and related), changes are seen in the ways that weather-related risks are interpreted, discussed and acted on—how they are represented—in the institutions responsible for managing these risks, like municipalities (Miller, 2004; Rommetveit, Funtowicz,& Strand, 2010; Wynne, 2010). Specifically, weather-related risks are seen to be (“interactionally”) co-produced by climate science and institutions; risks as hybrid ideas assembled from climate science and extant institutional understandings in evolving and potentially discordant ways. For instance, climate science may project future precipitation, but this science may be appropriated, picked apart and shaped to fit an institutions own knowledge of floods and flood management strategies. And as ideas of risks are produced and become stable in institutions, “risk knowledges” and social order are reinforced. In other words, the framing of natural hazard risk, and how such risks are understood and addressed, is co-produced with and by the institutions invoked to manage these risks. As Jasanoff (2004, p. 2) notes, “the ways in which we know and represent the world (both nature and society) are inseparable from the ways in which we choose to live in it.”

The Processes of Producing Risk in Institutions

This article focuses on the social processes by which climatic change is reconstituting the way people interpret natural hazard risks in institutions. It continues a long tradition of sociological studies about how risks are produced in institutions, spurred by such seminal work as Max Weber’s inquiry into modern institutions, and Ulrich Beck’s “Risk Society” (1992). Beck saw society’s risks, including natural hazards, as created in the institutions supposed to control them. Such institutions define and frame certain natural processes like flooding as harmful and in need of control. Going further, it follows that the perceived magnitude of these risks is related to institutions’ ability to control them, so that a potentially devastating but readily controlled risk, like a coastal storm striking a low-lying coastal settlement, may be perceived as smaller than more uncertain risks, like those associated with projecting changes to future storminess compounded by rising sea levels in coming decades.

In pre-modern times, risks were framed as external to society, as acts of god beyond human control (Beck & Holzer, 2007). Beck and others saw how processes of modernization in institutions in the 20th century has increasingly seen risks technically re-framed as knowable and controllable; as the probability of physical harm, with the associated consequences often expressed in terms of loss and damage. This re-framing work demands the simplification of risks, individually packaged numerically as consequence and likelihood (Renn, Klinke, & van Asselt, 2011). This uncompromising scientific risk frame, for Beck, can trigger crises of trust in institutions. Internal crises emerge when issues characterized by significant uncertainties confound statistical models of risk causing institutional actors to feel like these risks are outside their control. Late modernity has brought a realization that not all risks can be treated in isolation and reduced to probabilities (Aven & Renn, 2009), that there is “extreme non-linearity” and “literally everything depends on everything else” (Ritchey, 2011, p. 7). External crises emerge because these statistical risk models are opaque and inaccessible to the people affected by these risks, such that society does not recognize the risks or feel like the institutions are serving them. Yet, at the same time, looking out from the institutions that govern risks, Beck (1992) saw how this probabilistic framing has permeated other parts of modern society, making it an obsession to calculate the future. In a risk society, risk is systemic to social processes; risk is continuously (re-)defined by actively assessing hazards in relation to future possibilities, without knowing the exact level of risk looked at. Anthony Gidden (2011, p. 24) noted, “Risk is the mobilizing dynamic of a society bent on change that wants to determine its own future rather than leaving it to religion, tradition, or the vagaries of nature.” As risk is manufactured, the future is calculated.

Climate change, and its associated natural hazard risks, can be seen as paradigmatic of this class of risks that are at once shaping and undermining ideas of risk in institutions. Global climate change was discovered by science and has until recently been mainly described and communicated in scientific terms (Hulme, 2009; Miller, 2004). Scholars (see, e.g., Corburn, 2009; Jasanoff & Wynne, 1998; Lovbrand, 2007, 2011; Tribbia & Moser, 2008) have shown that where institutions, from the global to the local scale, have recognized climate change as a risk, they have largely adopted a scientific framing of this risk; quantified in projected ranges of values like average temperature or number of rainy days, accompanied by a statistical level of confidence. But the uncertainties characterizing climate science, particularly at the locality-specific level in the distant future, can undermine the legitimacy of these risk assessments and the institutions that deploy them. For example, debates on the Coromandel Peninsula about the municipality’s decision to maintain public infrastructure on an already eroding “high risk” coastline have called into question the credibility of consultants’ risk analyses in the face of sea-level rise. Many sectors of the local community are seen to eschew quantitative models of erosion risk, choosing instead a “wait and see” approach, despite stark warnings of elevated risk by the scientific community (Mitchell, 2019). This seems to indicate what some other scholars have asserted: adopting a scientific model of climate change can have wider impacts on the rules, norms, and cultural framings of the natural environment and risks used in institutions (Aykut, 2016; Jasanoff, 2010; Mayer, 2012; Miller, 2004). And that these new framings of risk may be aligned or misaligned with local communities’ notions of weather-related natural hazard risk (Ryghaug, 2011).

To better understand how risks are produced in institutions, and the role of climate change in their production, the architecture of institutions needs to be looked at.

Understanding Institutional Architecture and the Production of Climate Change Risks

Institutions are central to avoiding, mitigating, and coping with natural hazards as part of wider efforts to govern or steer social processes of climate adaptation (Bisaro, Roggero, & Villamayor-Tomas, 2018), where adaptation is defined broadly as “the process of adjustment to actual or expected climate and its effects. In human systems, adaptation seeks to moderate or avoid harm or exploit beneficial opportunities” (IPCC, 2014, p. 5). This fundamental challenge implicates the whole range of social institutions, from government organizations to farmers cooperatives, churches to sports clubs and indigenous institutions; all crowded into a governing system. Each institution employs different modes of governance depending on how they structure social interaction and networks, political processes and policy content (Driessen, Dieperink, van Laerhoven, Runhaar, & Verneulen, 2012; Lange, Driessen, Sauer, Bornemann, & Burger, 2013). One all-encompassing definition of these diverse institutions from Scott (2014, p. 56) provides a good point of departure:

Institutions comprise regulative, normative, and cultural-cognitive elements that, together with associated activities and resources, provide stability and meaning to social life.

In climate adaptation research, institutions are mainly studied for their role in building adaptive capacity, and helping communities successfully realize adaptation goals. Relative to adaptive capacity, political ecologists are distilling underlying structures that render institutions—especially resource management institutions—more flexible to surprising climatic change in complex social-ecological systems. Such characteristics include institutions’ embeddedness in a place, cross-scale integration, built-in redundancy and diversity, stakeholder participation, and facilities for learning through action and deliberation across knowledge systems (Armitage, 2005; Chaffin, Gosnell, & Cosens, 2015; Folke, Hahn, Olsson, & Norberg, 2005; Lebel et al., 2006). Relative to “successful adaptation,” some scholars (e.g., Adger, Arnell, & Tompkins, 2005; Moser & Boykoff, 2013; O’Brien, 2009) see adaptation as already embedded in our social life, taking a different colour in the different institutions we move between. Though adaptation and risk functions are traditionally carried out by government institutions through policy and planning work, private sector and civil society institutions have an increasingly active role in shaping risk problems (Tierney, 2012). Adaptation is “made up of actions throughout society, by individuals, groups and governments . . . [it] is a continuous stream of activities, actions, decisions and attitudes that informs decisions about all aspects of life” (Adger et al., 2005, pp. 77–78). Here institutions are assessed for how well they shape decisions that successfully meet adaptation objectives or affect peoples’ ability to successfully navigate climatic change; institutions’ ability to successfully build desirable natural and social orders. Related, this tradition also attempts to lay bare the institutional “barriers” that hinder people in meeting their adaptation objectives. “Success” is specific to people, institution, and place—successful adaptation in one institution may be seen as maladaptive in another. But broad criteria exist, like effectiveness, efficiency, equity, and legitimacy (Adger et al., 2005).

A review by Bisaro et al. (2018) noted that much of the research on institutions for climate adaptation remains focussed on institutional “barriers” to adaptive action. There is a lack of interpretive research on the ideas and culture underpinning these barriers and actions. So, while much is known about how people act on climate change risks in institutions, much less is known about why they do it. Interpreting how climate change disrupts the ways people in institutions frame and understand natural hazard risks demands a model of institutions that highlights the underpinning cultural representations of nature and hazards.

There is a very active area of scholarship on institutions spanning the social and political sciences, especially since movements toward “new institutionalism” in the 1980s (Peters, 2012) instigated several diverse traditions or models for studying institutions (see the mapping work of Hall & Taylor, 1996; Peters, 2012; Rhodes, Binder, & Rockman, 2006; Scott, 2014). Each tradition has a distinctive focus on specific elements of institutions—their rules, their historical development, or their cultural norms for instance—enabling different insights. But these theories are largely overlapping and complimentary and are often used in combination for a more complete and robust analysis (Peters, 2012; Scott, 2014). A focus on culturally constructed cognitive representations of nature and hazards can arguably start from a model of “normative” institutionalism. Often associated with the work of political scientists March and Olsen (1989), the normative tradition is named for its focus on cultural norms, and also labelled sociological institutionalism for its roots in sociological study of institutions and organizations (Peters, 2011).

Normative institutionalism emphasizes the underpinning culture of institutions, which socialize actors into their roles according to a “logic of appropriateness” (March & Olsen, 1989); a collection of values, symbols, organized practices, and routines that prescribe appropriate behaviour for specific actors in specific situations. This logic is deeply embedded in institutional cultures, which provide frames of meaning and a sense of identity and belonging for actors: “common purposes and accounts that give direction and meaning to behaviour, and explain, justify and legitimate behavioural codes” (March & Olsen, 2006). Seen this way, institutions have a highly stable culture, and their main function is to create and sustain shared values among its members (Peters, 2011), such that actors behave according to their sense of duty and obligation to the institutional culture they identify with (March & Olsen, 2006). But beyond values and norms, this perspective also discusses the framings of nature that are “taken as given” and define and simplify “rational” decisions for certain situations. Institutions prescribe “cognitive scripts, categories and models” (Hall & Taylor, 1996) of “what is normal, what must be expected, what can be relied upon, and what makes sense in the community” (March & Olsen, 2006, p. 8). In this way, “Institutions influence behaviour not simply by specifying what one should do but also by specifying what one can imagine oneself doing in a given context” (Hall & Taylor, 1996, p. 948).

While normative institutionalism may place more emphasis on the values steering behaviour, the sociological work under this umbrella arguably has a more sophisticated discussion of the cognitive dimension of culture. There is a longer tradition in sociology of seeing culture as not only affective attitudes or values, but also a network of symbols or scripts of rational behaviour (Hall & Taylor, 1996), with other parallel work on cultural knowledge in anthropology such as Douglas’s (1986) “How institutions think.” Sociological models of institutions, like Scott’s (2014), give more detailed attention to the cognitive side of culture by distinguishing between its normative and cultural-cognitive pillars. The cultural-cognitive pillar recognizes the symbolic representations of “how the world really is,” which mediate the way actors interact with the world; “determining what information will receive attention . . . to how it will be interpreted, thus affecting evaluations, judgements, predictions and inferences” (Scott, 2014, p. 67). Shared representations also ensure actors act by the “logic of appropriateness,” because of the commonly perceived correctness and soundness of the ideas underlying action. Finally, the cultural-cognitive lens allows analysis of how processes of creating cultural representations re-creates (constitutively co-produces) understandings of both natural and social order; what constitutes natural hazards and what are the norms of social action around these hazards (Scott, 2014). It follows that much of the social production of natural hazard risk can be seen in the cultural foundations of institutions.

But how can we account for changes in these deep-rooted cultural representations of nature? Normative institutionalism weakly accounts for cultural change (Peters, 2012; Rhodes et al., 2006), assuming “a superstability to institutions because they are woven into an historical and normative fabric” (Rhodes et al., 2006, p. xvi). The implication is that culture evolves by very slow and unconscious “accretions” by society. Beyond this there is little discussion of what or who initiates cultural change in institutions. Culture is omnipresent; socializing actors but apparently untouchable by them. This conceptual short-fall has triggered related developments in discursive or constructivist institutionalism (Hay, 2006; Peters, 2012). Like normative institutionalism, these models emphasize the informal cultural and discursive ties that bind; “the institution is defined by the ideas of the members, and by their communication among the members” (Peters, 2012, p. 118). But these perspectives are built on change because they see institutions as continuously recreated through actors’ interaction, toward the creation of a common set of internal guiding ideas; like an institution’s norms and cultural-cognitive representations. Institutional actors have agency in re-shaping an institution’s culture from the inside according to their ideas and practices and ways of interacting, while simultaneously, this culture is shaping the way these actors think and interact. Interaction and institutional culture thus mutually or interactionally co-produce each other. Institutional actors can introduce new ideas to institutions that contest established cultural representations, complement each other or conflict. Hay (2006) outlines a constructivist programme for studying institutions, through methods like discourse analysis for example (Drew & Sorjonen, 1997; Peters, 2012).

Constructivist institutionalism thus seeks to identify, detail, and interrogate the extent to which . . . established ideas become codified, serving as cognitive filters through which actors come to interpret environmental signals. Yet, crucially, they are also concerned with the conditions under which such established cognitive filters and paradigms are contested, challenged and replaced.

(Hay, 2006, p. 65)

This section drew an architecture of institutions that reveals their normative and cultural-cognitive foundations. It went on to highlight a tension between theories of institutions as super stable structures (normative institutionalism), and institutions as continuously revised through the interaction and sharing of ideas of people in institutions; a tension between stability and change that is quite real in institutions as the case studies reveal. This architecture helps one look at how new ideas of global climate change can disrupt deep-rooted notions of natural hazards in institutions through the social processes studied by scholars like Beck (1992).

How Climate Change Disrupts Notions of Natural Hazard Risk in Institutional Cultures

This article argues that rapid and linked climate, natural and social changes are altering the ways natural hazard risk are represented in institutions, and in turn altering the ways people respond to these hazards. We argue that climatic change is already undermining, and threatening to undo, many of the long-held representations of natural and social order (and risk to this order) that steer institutions. It asserts that this influence is best described in terms of re-shaping the cultural-cognitive and normative foundations of institutions, and that this social re-shaping process is ongoing “inside institutions,” as actors introduce new ideas of climate change and these ideas confront dominant narratives and may or may not take hold. Processes of change can face significant inertia and resistance from highly stable institutions. And here this conceptual discussion circles on itself, because this process arguably follows a dynamic of co-producing representations; interactionally and constitutively (Bremer & Meisch, 2017). Importantly, in studying institutional change as co-produced, it is equally as revealing to look at what does not change, as what does (see, e.g., the study of Lee, Natarajan, Lock, & Rydin, 2018).

Interactionally, scientific and policy representations of global climate change are being introduced into institutions by various actors, where it becomes a topic of discussion. There is ensuing debate about what climate change may mean for that institution—and how they view natural hazards—and perhaps interaction and practices change as they organize taskforces or meetings for instance. On the one hand, this climate discourse is framed and steered by the established norms and cultural-cognitive representations of nature and hazards in that institution. On the other hand, through this discourse, climate ideas come to re-shape these representations. The institution’s newly re-shaped representation of natural hazards is a hybrid; with the incoming climate science re-appropriated to maintain the integrity of that particular institution’s culture. The science and technology studies literature presents variations on this interactional co-production at all scales. Globally, Dahan and Aykut (2013) describe the negotiation between science and politics that produced the “2 Degree” target at the Copenhagen Conference of Parties. Nationally, Lovbrand (2007) showed how the Swedish government administration translated scientific findings into policy-relevant knowledge and determined what counted as useful facts in the decision process. Around the same time, Ryghaug (2011) showed though that scientific ideas of climate do not always take hold in institutions, with Norwegian policy-makers only minorly influenced by the science, and more influenced by media discourses on climate. Finally, some governance scholars (see, e.g., Kirchhoff, Lemos, & Dessai, 2013; Lemos & Morehouse, 2005) have approached interactional co-production in a different sense, as a more deliberate effort of scientists entering and sitting with institutional actors, to consciously and explicitly re-shape representations of climate and what it means for risk.

Constitutively, these new representations of climate-related natural hazard risks are held in place and legitimated in institutions because they face a fundamental revision of natural and social order. Institutions are experiencing new categories of natural disasters, demanding a statistical and pragmatic revision of “normal” natural rhythms and hazard events. Associated rapid environmental changes mean that the geographic places we live in are fast evolving beyond our experience and established understandings. At the same time, climate change is linked to changes in social orders related to modern society. Attitudes toward controlling nature, a globalized economy and related infrastructure of communication and governance, a global workforce and mass migration, a commodity-society in a neo-liberal economy, and trends to standardization and scientism, are just some of the rapidly accreting layers of modern culture being layered in institutions. In a context of such natural and social flux, new representations of natural hazards “running wild” seem reasonable. And at the same time, these representations mediate how institutional actors understand and interpret “normal” natural and social order. Miller (2004, p. 54) describes how moves to global climate research and governance—encapsulated in the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC)—has changed the representation of climate, “from signifying an aggregation of local weather patterns to signifying an ontological unitary whole, capable of being understood and managed at scales no smaller than the globe itself.” Jasanoff (2010, p. 236) argues that this demands communities dispense with local representations of the weather: “To know climate change as science wishes it to be known, societies must let go of their familiar, comfortable modes of living with nature.” Mayer’s (2012) study examined how the framing of climate change has transformed from a gradually intensifying, long-term challenge into a highly nonlinear danger that threatens national and even global security.

This section did not comprehensively map all the literature relevant to social studies of climate change risk in institutions. Rather, it presented one plausible theoretical narrative that traversed much of the most relevant scholarship and ended in an argument that puts us in a position to apply this narrative to three empirical studies and see what it reveals.

Emerging Climate Change Risks in Institutions in Norway, New Zealand, and Bangladesh

Three very different experiences with natural hazards in three unique contexts will be given, and the impact that climate change ideas have had on the discourse and cultural-cognitive representations of natural hazard risk in the responsible institutions will be analyzed.

Voss Municipality in Norway

The township of Voss is situated in the mountains of Western Norway, where the Vosso river enters the large Vangsvatnet lake. Voss experienced a particularly damaging (200-year) flood in October 2014, which among other widespread damages saw extensive flooding of the new Voss cultural centre. This flood has triggered public debate about the future flooding of the Vosso river under climatic change; a controversy discussed by Bremer et al. (2019). Following the flood, Voss municipality commissioned information on future rainfall, and were informed by the Norwegian Water and Energy Directorate (NVE) of a likely elevated risk of flooding under various climate change projections. After the municipality issued an open call for “solutions to the flooding problem,” some hydroelectric companies proposed channelling water away from the river via tunnels through the mountain range separating the watershed from Hardanger fjord; at once controlling the flood risk and generating carbon-free electricity. The decision-making process on whether to undertake these works is locally and nationally contentious, with the river legally protected for its unique natural, recreational and scenic values.

One prominent moment in the Voss municipality public meetings was the presentation of an alarming fly-through 3D animation, depicting the path and extent of a possible future flood through the centre of Voss, highlighting in red the buildings that face possible damage. The simulation was developed by a consultancy under commission from two hydroelectric companies and showed the expected flooding in a no-action-scenario, without the proposed channelling work. The consultancy used NVE data based on a 200-year flood with a projected 40% increase in extreme rainfall due to future climatic change (projected for the period 2071–2100 compared to 1971–2000), as scaled-down projection from the “business-as-usual” scenario (RCP 8.5) in the Fifth IPCC Assessment Report. The animation was later referred to as a “movie” representing the expert view of the watershed’s future state. But the animation also faced critique from opponents to the channelling works, who condemned it as shock tactics that hid significant uncertainties around the future of the watershed under a new climate. One letter to a local newspaper, for example, asked whether the projections consider uncertainties around how increased rainfall may change vegetation cover, and hence runoff, in the mountains?

The character of the municipality’s public debates provides insights into how climate change science takes part in the discourse about flood risk within that institution, and interactionally co-produces drastically new representations. Flood events, like the record flood of 1918, have shaped the history of Voss, and living with floods is arguably part of the municipality’s cultural-cognitive representation of that place. The past 150-years have seen ongoing efforts to control Vangsvatnet lake levels, particularly by widening the lake outflow, while trying also to maintain certain natural processes like salmon spawning in the Vosso (see, e.g., Andersen, 1996). This controversial balance—controlling the dangerous impacts of floods while preserving the river—has provided a template for debates about floods, and to an extent continued to do so after the 2014 event. However, climate change ideas have become prominent and are changing the way people talk about floods; re-framing a locally well-understood risk as global, uncertain, and extreme. These ideas are mainly techno-scientific and introduced at the invitation of the municipality, from experts like climate scientists at NVE and engineers in the hydroelectric companies. We see how climate change discourse moves the focus from calculable risk to cascading uncertainties about how climatic change may change the weather, landscape and indeed how society itself determines floods’ magnitudes by changing the climate. Finally, the discourse marks a severance from experienced floods toward a focus on projected floods beyond our experience. Though previously established municipality representations of floods may have been made up of symbols like old photos, newspaper articles, river measurements, and flood-marks on the old church; new representations resemble 3D simulations of computer models.

The emerging representations of floods, like the 3D animation, constitutively come out of, and reinforce, changing interpretations of natural and social rhythms in Voss. The 2014 flood—at its height pushing around 800 cubic metres (> 28000 cubic feet)/second down the Vosso—was beyond anything recorded before, exceeding even the 1918 flood. Its magnitude went beyond the risk calculations involved in permitting and building the new cultural centre on the lake edge. This disaster, framed as symptomatic of climate change, symbolizes a new flooding regime beyond experience, measurements and statistical risk probabilities. It legitimates new institutional representations of flooding, new ways of symbolizing the Vosso; from a natural feature to a source of unimaginable danger; in debates people are said to be “for the river, or saving peoples’ lives.” At the same time, this sense of risk is amplified socially. Voss increased development along the lake-front, including the cultural centre, which in turn increases damages during flood events. Looking wider, climate change is changing society’s (and Voss’s community’s) self-image; from humans that live passively with natural rhythms, to being guilty of actively impacting on the fundamental natural processes that cause climatic change and flooding. This major shift in representing floods on the Vosso is reflected in the drastic solution offered, as a stark departure from previous options. Attitudes of attribution and control are manifested in this solution, emphasizing large-scale engineering work with a focus on renewable non-emitting energy as a way of mitigating the changes we have wrought. The 3D animation acts to reinforce these attitudes of fear of a new unknowable natural order on one hand, and hubris toward human-control of the natural environment on the other.

The Thames-Coromandel Municipality in New Zealand

The Thames-Coromandel region is a peninsula located in the northeast of New Zealand’s North Island, with the highest concentration of holiday homes in the country. The same geographical features that make the Coromandel region so attractive contribute to a high level of natural hazard risk: on this steep and rugged peninsula the only areas easily developed and suitable for human settlement are low-lying coastal alluvial fans. Short and steep catchments carry high quantities of sediment during flash floods while inundation, storm surges, and erosion further add to a high-risk profile. There is a long history of natural hazards on the low-lying coastal areas, since European-settlement, with the Maori traditionally reserving these areas for agriculture while living on higher ground.

On January 5, 2018, a high magnitude storm event with a 0.5% return period (one in 200-year event) caused extensive damage to properties and infrastructure on the Coromandel Peninsula, predominantly on the west coast. This extraordinary event was revealing of the Thames-Coromandel municipality’s path-dependent cultural norms, which saw them employ the same set of (normative and cognitive) templates of thought and action for responding to this disaster as they have used for high impact events (of any magnitude) in the past. The local municipality is rooted in a culture of stepwise, siloed and reactive decision-making. A framing of coastal hazard risk and climate change as a static “technical” problem is the result. Similarly, for the New Zealand Transport Authority, tasked with managing State Highway 25 as the only road along the narrow coastal strip, the sole viable option following the storm was deemed to restore and strengthen the peninsula’s “lifeline” as quickly as possible, even though it took over half a year and more than 100,000 tons of rocks to “hold back the sea,” for now.

What does this case reveal about the interactional co-production of representations of natural hazards under projected climate change? Climate change has become a contested topic in the Thames Coromandel municipality’s discourse around coastal risk, with many divergent and contending “voices” entering this institution from other government organizations, the private sector, the diverse communities affected as well as the scientific community. As a policy imperative, the latest coastal hazards and climate change guidance for local government from New Zealand’s Ministry for the Environment (Ministry for the Environment, 2017) as well as recommendations such as those set out by New Zealand’s Climate Change Adaptation Technical Working Group, call for adaptation and proactive addressing of risks associated with climate change. The key message in all these provisions is that communities should prepare for an increase in the magnitude and frequency of extreme events, understand the potential for harm, adapt accordingly, and put an end to engineered, “defend at all costs”-type responses serving narrow, short-term interests.

However, the Thames-Coromandel municipality’s established cultural-cognitive script for understanding and responding to coastal hazards has shown itself very resistant to change, cemented in “protective” institutional responses to dynamic coastal risks. The statutory requirement embedded in the New Zealand Coastal Policy Statement (NZCPS) to take climate change into account in all decision-making tends to be downplayed, and appropriated to support the municipality’s focus on coastal armouring. Despite robust technical analysis that identifies climate change-exacerbated river flooding and coastal flooding as the greatest risk in this part of New Zealand (e.g., Munro, 2007), the municipality uses climate-related science and policy to emphasize “major erosion along several areas of our coastline” (Thames Coromandel District Council, 2014, para. 2), and justify coastal armouring. This reactive approach makes climate change appear manageable; a risk that can be “fixed” and protected against. The result is a continuation of a wait-and-see mindset in relation to coastal hazard risks. Both private property owners and the municipality maintain “hard” coastal defences, including rocks, concrete, and timber structures to hold back the sea. Simultaneously, coastal development continues to be portrayed as progressive and desirable. This also fits a moral template, because even though central government legislation and policy discourages engineered coastal defences, there is a perceived moral obligation by the municipality to look after those who have invested (and continue to invest) in the coast as well as in situ public infrastructure, including airports, roads, parks and reserves, community facilities, and social housing.

Constitutively, reducing coastal risk responses to building seawalls presumes coastal stability that is at odds with obvious rapid social and natural change, compounded by sea-level rise in particular. Seawalls and other “hard” coastal defences perpetuate established institutional practices, and symbolically separate the changing living patterns on the coast (and increased potential for high damages) from the changing conditions of the sea under a changing storm regime. It focuses the municipality’s hazard response to holding the last line of defence, couched in clear cultural symbolism of “war” against changing natural processes. Successive mayors in the municipality (Thames Coromandel District Council, 2014, para. 5) have confirmed this standpoint, highlighting that “protection works need to be done sooner rather than later because every time we wait, we're losing more of our coastline.” The current District Mayor perpetuates this rhetoric: “I’m confident that we’re moving in the right direction with . . . our attempts to manage coastal erosion as effectively as possible” (The Mercury Bay Informer, 2018, para. 8). This seemingly unshakeable institutional representation of coastal hazard risk by the local municipality shapes the way the public perceives risk relative to their coastal lifestyle: instead of wanting to be out of harm’s way there is a seemingly insatiable desire to maximize development along the shoreline, “protect” and “defend” against erosion.

This case study reveals how the municipality’s entrenched ideas of coastal erosion risk are resistant to climate change science and policy; domesticating climate change ideas to fit a long-held cultural-cognitive script. This despite the manifestation of changing risks, along natural and social dimensions, and the emergence of alternative legislative discourses and imperatives that apparently undermine the municipality’s position. Arguably the municipality’s idea of coastal hazard risk is increasingly out of sync with the actual risk experienced, with highly maladaptive consequences. It remains to be seen whether or not, and how, such dissonant framings of risk and institutionalized responses will be resolved.

Sylhet Division in Bangladesh

Bangladesh has taken a lead role amongst climate vulnerable developing countries, investing US$10 billion since the mid-1980s to reduce its vulnerability—mainly in infrastructure, flood management, and climate resilient crops—and the first nation to produce a Climate Change Strategy Action Plan (the BCCSAP) in 2009. Bangladeshi climate adaptation state governance is largely hierarchal, shaped by international agendas and donors, led by central government experts and administrators, and implemented regionally by large government institutions. Scholars like Bremer (2017) and Haque et al. (2017) have looked at the cultural-cognitive representations of river flooding under climatic change that steered the Bangladesh Water Development Board (BWDB) in conducting five river engineering projects in Sylhet Division since 2010. These works were financed under the BCCSAP to manage flooding disaster risk and involved excavating rivers and constructing and armouring embankments to reduce projected increases in flooding.

The engineering projects were conceived, planned, and implemented by experts—hydrological scientists and modellers, and engineers—“in-house” at the BWDB. The projects were thus heavily framed by BWDBs tightly defined cultural-cognitive template, and normative script, that any overtopping of the riverbanks poses a natural hazard risk, and that measures must be taken against this. The BWDB has a traditional focus on applied hydrological science, engineered infrastructure and irrigation, so that the annual rhythms of rainfall and flooding that characterize the area are seen as scientifically-defined, physical problems demanding technical solutions; in this case keeping water within the waterway. In this way, river-water assumes a numerical relationship to the weather and the catchment; measured with river-level monitors and interpreted through hydrological computer models. The BWDB conducted a risk assessment in accordance with their standardized engineering best practice, considering the risk of flooding from the available historical data in designing the height of embankments.

But with little collaboration with local communities or coordination with government agencies, the projects did not take into account the other social representations, knowledges, and practices that have helped Sylhet communities live with flooding for generations. Summer and monsoon floods have always been a part of local peoples’ lives, dictating their agriculture, fisheries, and social rhythms of life; when inundation isolates households and movement is by boat. But the engineering projects neglected the various role of water in society, and any social or environmental implications of the works. In some places the space taken up by the embankments displaced local families and reduced the area of available land, while in other places erosion increased, and land was lost to the river. The overall reduced flooding was not altogether positive because it also reduced the flow of water to the bordering lakes, wetlands, and paddy fields, and obstructed the movement of fish to the local water bodies. This endangered the rice farming and fishing the communities depend on, and further increased local disparity, by being designed to benefit locally powerful actors. And where water did overtop the defences, it could not drain back into the river, meaning large tracts of land were waterlogged. This stark interruption to the ephemeral summer floods destabilized many peoples’ representations of the rhythms in that place; leading to protest and sabotage of some of the riverbank works to “free the floodwaters” (Bremer, 2017).

We can assert that the BWDB has a well-established cultural-cognitive representation of flooding risks, defined by its clear mandate, its hierarchal governance from Dhaka, and the disciplinary and professional boundaries of its members. This sees a highly institutionalized logic of rational ways of thinking and acting when faced with flooding; a logic that is detached from (and at odds with) other ways of understanding and living with floods in the community. This logic is so entrenched that the introduction of climate change ideas have served only to reinforce this established representation, and amplify the scale of works required for scientifically projected future runoff. The BCCSAP has imposed new policy imperatives on the BWDB, and the global climate science community (under global institutions like the IPCC) has contributed to downscale climate projections under various scenarios (see, e.g., Bashar, Stiller-Reeve, Saiful Islam, & Bremer, 2017). But rather than fundamentally change the BWDBs template for addressing floods, these policies and figures seem to have been subsumed into the established logic, while infusing it with a greater sense of urgency. The main discernible change is to the risk calculations, which are revised in light of projected future flood events, and resultantly to an increased magnitude in the riverbank armouring works. Climate change ideas seem to invigorate BWDBs institutional cultural norms, with the technical framing of climate change further legitimizing their technical flood framing. This means the BWDB is even less likely to consider other community representations of floods.

Constitutively, it is interesting that BWDBs technical representation of floods under climate change seems largely insulated from the pervasive changes in nature and society seen in Sylhet. Sylhet is subject to climatic changes, most importantly in rainfall patterns; experienced by local people (Bremer et al., 2017) and corroborated by meteorological science (Bashar et al., 2017). At the same time, climate change is an important topic of discussion in many spheres of society—from the school curriculum to farmers cooperatives and NGOs—so much that Bangladeshis are highly aware of the issue, and it is shaping their identity (Mamun, Stoll, & Whitehead, 2013). Long-existing NGO development programs are re-framed as climate adaptation initiatives, and weather conditions come to be attributed to Western industrialization. Geopolitically, India is damming the rivers that flow down to traverse Sylhet division, and their practices of opening the dam also affect river flows and flooding. Altogether, by hanging on to institutionalized representations of floods, BWDB arguably fails to reflect the historical relationships of Sylhet communities to floods, nor the contemporary changes to these natural and social rhythms. Ideas of climate change, coming from the global scientific community, seem to further entrench BWDBs cultural-cognitive ways of understanding floods as a scientifically and technically defined challenge, and increasingly detach BWDB from other ways of understanding and attributing meaning in that context.

Critically Reflecting on Climate Change’s Disruption of Institutional Cultures

Reflecting on and Comparing the Three Case Studies

The three case study examples have demonstrated that the ideas of climate change introduced to institutions were technically framed by science, engineering, and policy experts, mainly from government departments or the global climate governance community. Related, all three cases saw conflict emerge between the way that the institution represented climate change risks, and other representations in the wider community and in the Coromandel case different spheres of government. In Bangladesh this was most obviously because BWDBs technical framing was detached from cultural and pragmatic meanings attached to nature in the local community, though a similar theme runs through the other cases too. Perhaps more interesting was the different ways in which the established institutional norms and cultural-cognitive representations of hazards were re-shaped by these incoming climate change ideas. In Norway there was quite a dramatic revision in how people in the municipality discussed flooding, reflected in the equally dramatic new responses proposed there. In Bangladesh, there was a more moderate revision to BWDBs representations of floods under climate change, effectively augmenting the current technical parameters that they work within, resulting in more imposing river protection. While in New Zealand, climate change ideas appear to have faced important resistance from the municipality about how to think about and act on natural hazards, with the result that climate change risks are downplayed and responses tend to revolve around business as usual approaches—with a strong reliance on protective works to mitigate coastal hazard risk at the local level despite scientific evidence and policy and guidance provisions to move away from such reliance.

Another reflection is that despite deeply different cultural-cognitive and normative realities in the three different settings, there has been a “one size fits” all reactive protection-based response that is imposed on people and the social-environmental setting in which institutions evolve. The limits of this dominant narrative are becoming increasingly apparent as the complexity, dynamism, and “deep uncertainty” associated with local climate change, and its intersection with wider environmental, socio-cultural, technological, and societal change, becomes more starkly manifest. The upshot may be to recognize the merits of exploring alternative framings and pathways so that contextually (i.e., normatively and culturally) appropriate responses are crafted to navigate the turbulence of our changing world; and that reflexivity, innovation, and flexibility will be needed in the institutional architecture of communities, nations, and societies.

Affecting Critical Reflection on Climate Change Natural Hazards in Institutions

Scholars and practitioners alike recognize a need for critical reflection on institutional cultures as they relate to the shifting terrain of natural hazard risks under climatic and wider global change. This reflection is ongoing. It is practical work that affects how people work in institutions every day. It is structural work, as institutions change their rules as they learn more about risks. It is work of social change, with social groups inside and outside governing institutions increasingly vocal in their criticism of hazards and risk framings in a world of climate, environmental technological, socio-economic, political, and institutional change. All three cases presented in this article saw institutions being questioned from the inside and outside, about how climatic change may impact on the natural hazards communities must live with.


Scott Bremer would like to acknowledge the European Research Council’s Starting Grant (804150) which financed this research. Paul Schneider and Bruce Glavovic would like to acknowledge Massey University and the New Zealand Earthquake Commission for financing this research. Responsibility for the research findings rests with the authors and does not reflect positions or viewpoints of sponsoring organizations.


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