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date: 20 October 2017

Adaptive Governance

This is an advance summary of a forthcoming article in the Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Climate Science. Please check back later for the full article.

Adaptive governance is defined by a focus on decentralized decision making, procedurally rational policy, and intensive natural and social science. Decentralization factors a large and complex problem like global climate change into many smaller problems, each more tractable for policy and scientific purposes. These smaller problems are not delimited by scientific discipline but are focused on a particular organization, community, or region as a whole. In any specific context, procedurally rational policy is an adaptation to profound uncertainties arising from system complexity and human cognitive constraints, among other scarce resources. Continuous appraisal of incremental actions dominate over projections, targets, and timetables. Intensive science assumes that contexts evolve. Hence it is centered on particular contexts considered comprehensively from multiple disciplinary standpoints. Progress in adaptive governance depends on politics to integrate or balance the valid and appropriate interests of all participants in the process. Progress is gauged by the extent to which participants in each context clarify and secure their common interest.

Versions of adaptive governance emerged in response to the limitations of scientific management, the dominant pattern of governance in the 20th century. In scientific management, technically rational policies, based on extensive science and enacted by a central authority, are intended to rise above politics to realize targets and timetables efficiently. This approach was manifest, in the years around 1990, in the framing of climate change as a globally irreducible problem. It was to be addressed through the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change to assess climate science for the Parties to the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change, the Kyoto Protocol prescribing national targets and timetables for reductions in greenhouse gas emissions, and through related means. The limitations of this approach were recognized after the Conference of the Parties in Copenhagen in 2009, and as the concentration of greenhouse gas emissions in the atmosphere continued to increase. But progress in response to our many climate-related problems does not require a central global authority.

Some organizations, communities, and regions have significantly reduced their greenhouse gas emissions or their losses and vulnerability to the impacts of climate change and variability. Thus they have integrated or balanced these climate-policy interests with their many other interests and circumstances. Any policy that appears to have worked satisfactorily anywhere in their networks tends to be diffused for possible adaptation in similar circumstances elsewhere. Their progress supports demands on higher-level authorities to reallocate resources in support of strategies that have worked consistently at lower levels. The scholarly literature on adaptive governance and climate change is most constructive, for both policy and scientific purposes, when it takes the standpoints and experiences of these leading organizations, communities, and regions into account—for example, by providing third-party evaluations of what worked and what didn’t, by identifying bottlenecks in the process of diffusion, and the like. Climate change may be the primary concern of scholars, but it is just one set of considerations to be integrated with many others in the on-going process of development in each context. The context matters.