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New Directions in Earth System Governance Research


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The Earth System Governance project is a global research alliance that explores novel, effective governance mechanisms to cope with the current transitions in the biogeochemical systems of the planet. A decade after its inception, this article offers an overview of the project's new research framework (which is built upon a review of existing earth system governance research), the goal of which is to continue to stimulate a pluralistic, vibrant and relevant research community. This framework is composed of contextual conditions (transformations, inequality, Anthropocene and diversity), which capture what is being observed empirically, and five sets of research lenses (architecture and agency, democracy and power, justice and allocation, anticipation and imagination, and adaptiveness and reflexivity). Ultimately the goal is to guide and inspire the systematic study of how societies prepare for accelerated climate change and wider earth system change, as well as policy responses.
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New directions in earth system governance research
Sarah Burch
, Aarti Gupta
, Cristina Y.A. Inoue
, Agni Kalfagianni
, Åsa Persson
Andrea K. Gerlak
, Atsushi Ishii
, James Patterson
, Jonathan Pickering
Michelle Scobie
, Jeroen Van der Heijden
, Joost Vervoort
, Carolina Adler
Michael Bloomeld
, Riyante Djalante
, John Dryzek
, Victor Galaz
Christopher Gordon
ee Harmon
, Sikina Jinnah
, Rakhyun E. Kim
Lennart Olsson
, Judith Van Leeuwen
, Vasna Ramasar
, Paul Wapner
Ruben Zondervan
Department of Geography and Environmental Management, University of Waterloo, EV1-231 200 University Ave W, Waterloo, Ontario, N2L 3G1, Canada
Department of Social Sciences, Environmental Policy Group, Wageningen University, Hollandseweg 1 6706 KN, Wageningen, the Netherlands
Institute of International Relations Universidade de Brasilia Campus Universit
ario Darcy Ribeiro, Pr
edio do Instituto de Relaç~
oes Internacionais, Asa Norte
CEP 70.910-900, Brasília, DF, Brazil
Utrecht University, Copernicus Institute of Sustainable Development, Vening Meineszgebouw A, Princetonlaan 8A 3585CB Utrecht, the Netherlands
Stockholm Environment Institute, Linn
egatan 87D, Box 24218, SE-104 51, Stockholm, Sweden
Department of Thematic Studies, Link
oping University, SE-581 83, Link
oping, Sweden
University of Arizona, USA, School of Geography &Development &Udall Center for Studies in Public Policy, USA
Address: School of Geography and Development, 1064 E. Lowell Street, South 4th oor, University of Arizona, Tucson, AZ, 85721-0137, USA
Centre for Northeast Asian Studies, Tohoku University, 41 Kawauchi, Aoba, Sendai, Miyagi, 980-8576, Japan
Copernicus Institute of Sustainable Development, Faculty of Geosciences, Utrecht University, Vening, Meineszgebouw A, Princetonlaan, 8A 3585CB, Utrecht,
the Netherlands
Centre for Deliberative Democracy and Global Governance, University of Canberra, ACT 2601, Australia
Institute of International Relations, The University of the West Indies, St Augustine, Trinidad and Tobago
School of Government, Victoria University of Wellington, 23 Lambton, Quay Wellington, 6011, New Zealand
Copernicus Institute of Sustainable Development, Faculty of Geosciences, Utrecht University, Vening Meineszgebouw A, Princetonlaan, 8A 3585CB, Utrecht,
the Netherlands
Mountain Research Initiative, c/o Institute of Geography, University of Bern, Hallerstrasse 12, Bern 3012, Switzerland
Department of Social and Policy Sciences, University of Bath, Bath, BA2 7AY, United Kingdom
United Nations University eInstitute for the Advanced Study of Sustainability (UNU-IAS), 5-53-70 Jingumae, Shibuya-ku, Tokyo, 150-8925, Japan
Stockholm Resilience Centre, Stockholm University, Kr
aftriket 2B, SE-10691, Sweden
Beijer Institute of Ecological Economics, Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, P.O. Box 50005, SE-104 05 Stockholm, Sweden
Institute for Environment and Sanitation Studies, College of Basic and Applied Sciences, University of Ghana, Legon, Accra, Ghana
Minnesota State University-Moorhead, USA, Department of Leadership and Learning, 1104 7
Ave S, Moorhead, MN, 56563, USA
Departments of Politics and Environmental Studies, University of California, Santa Cruz, 1156 High St., Mailstop: Environmental Studies, Santa Cruz, CA,
95064, USA
Copernicus Institute of Sustainable Development, Utrecht University, Princetonlaan 8a, 3584, CB, Utrecht, the Netherlands
Lund University Centre for Sustainability Studies, Lund University, Box 170, S-22100, Lund, Sweden
Environmental Policy Group, Wageningen University, Hollandseweg 1, 6706 KN Wageningen, the Netherlands
Department of Human Geography, Lund University Centre for Sustainability Studies, Lund University, S
olvegatan 10, Lund, 22100, Sweden
American University, USA, School of International Service, 4400 Massachusetts Avenue, NW, Washington DC, 20016, USA
International Project Ofce, Earth System Governance Project, Utrecht University, P.O. Box 80115, 3508TC, Utrecht, the Netherlands
article info
Article history:
Received 20 February 2019
Received in revised form
The Earth System Governance project is a global research alliance that explores novel, effective gover-
nance mechanisms to cope with the current transitions in the biogeochemical systems of the planet. A
decade after its inception, this article offers an overview of the project's new research framework (which
*Corresponding author.
E-mail addresses: (S. Burch), (A. Gupta), (C.Y.A. Inoue), (A. Kalfagianni), asa.persson@sei.
org (Å. Persson), (A. Ishii), (J. Patterson), (J. Pickering),
(M. Scobie), (J. Van der Heijden), (J. Vervoort), (C. Adler),
(M. Bloomeld), (R. Djalante), (J. Dryzek), (C. Gordon), (R. Harmon), (S. Jinnah), (R.E. Kim), (L. Olsson), (J. Van Leeuwen),
(V. Ramasar), (P. Wapner), (R. Zondervan).
Contents lists available at ScienceDirect
Earth System Governance
journal homepage:
2589-8116/©2019 The Authors. Published by Elsevier B.V. This is an open access article under the CC BY-NC-ND license (
Earth System Governance xxx (xxxx) xxx
Please cite this article as: Burch, S et al., New directions in earth system governance research, Earth System Governance,
17 April 2019
Accepted 18 April 2019
Available online xxx
Research networks
Earth system
is built upon a review of existing earth system governance research), the goal of which is to continue to
stimulate a pluralistic, vibrant and relevant research community. This framework is composed of
contextual conditions (transformations, inequality, Anthropocene and diversity), which capture what is
being observed empirically, and ve sets of research lenses (architecture and agency, democracy and
power, justice and allocation, anticipation and imagination, and adaptiveness and reexivity). Ultimately
the goal is to guide and inspire the systematic study of how societies prepare for accelerated climate
change and wider earth system change, as well as policy responses.
©2019 The Authors. Published by Elsevier B.V. This is an open access article under the CC BY-NC-ND
license (
1. Introduction
The Earth System Governance (ESG) Project was launched in
2009 and has become the largest social science network in the area
of governance and global environmental change. As presented in its
ten-year Science and Implementation Plan (Biermann et al., 2009a),
this global research alliance explores political solutions and novel,
more effective governance mechanisms to cope with the current
transitions in the biogeochemical systems of the planet. The Sci-
ence and Implementation Plan proposed to coordinate research
using a framework of ve analytical problems: Accountability,
Adaptiveness, Agency, Allocation and access, and Architecture (the
ve As), with crosscutting themes of knowledge, norms, power and
A decade after its inception, a new Science and Implementation
plan was prepared and released to the community in November
2018. This plan explores the innovations, opportunities and com-
plexities emerging in earth system governance with the goal of
stimulating a diverse, vibrant and relevant research community in
this eld. While the plan offers an extensive exploration of the
methodological pluralism that has come to characterize this com-
munity, and specic guidance on implementation of the network,
this article focuses squarely on the plan's research framework. We
build on past work, but a particular need has also been identied to
more prominently incorporate concepts like democracy, power,
anticipation and imagination in the analytical framework. Ulti-
mately, we hope to spark the development of new research ques-
tions that will guide scholarship in the decade to come, rather than
prescribing them.
The aim of this plan is to learn from past achievements and
simultaneously take the next step in our efforts to understand
emerging and existing problems and solutions related to global
environmental change. This plan also aims to expand the global
mobilization of researchers, stimulate and facilitate research
collaboration, and effectively communicate and engage with
This article rst presents the evolving context of governance
challenges, followed by three sections that develop a research
framework out of which exciting new questions and methodologies
can emerge. It concludes by considering this framework in the
context of the pluralistic forms of knowledge that can come to bear
on ESG research, and the evolving role of researchers in relation to
society. Ultimately the aim of this paper is to foster creative
collaboration, innovative thinking, and solutions-oriented research
to tackle the complex landscape of global socio-environmental
2. An evolving constellation of governance challenges
The world has changed tremendously over the last decade.
While successes have been secured in promoting human develop-
ment and reversing some environmentally unsustainable trends
(Pinker, 2018), new problems have emerged, longstanding
problems remain inadequately addressed and many diverse prob-
lems are becoming ever more tightly intertwined. Since the rst
science and implementation plan for earth system governance
research was launched a decade ago (Biermann et al., 2009a), global
shifts in interconnected social, political, economic, technological
and environmental systems have reshaped the empirical context
for earth system governance research in profound ways. For this
reason, this plan presents a research framework t for the coming
The scale and rate of change in both natural and human systems
is also accelerating. Some global indicators have improved in recent
years efor example, the growth of fossil fuel carbon dioxide
emissions seems to have slowed down (Global Carbon Project,
2017), the number of oil spills has dropped (ITOPF, 2018) and the
spatial extent of marine and terrestrial protected areas has
increased globally (United Nations Environment Programme,
2016a). Even so, many others demonstrate rapid change and
cause for concern, like atmospheric carbon dioxide concentration
(NOAA, 2017), biodiversity loss (IUCN, 2017) and global sh stock
depletion (FAO, 2016), and global plastic waste (Geyer et al., 2017).
Compared with 1990, natural disasters are more frequent and have
higher costs (Guha-Sapir, 2017), as well as non-economic losses.
While there has been relative decoupling of carbon dioxide emis-
sions with economic growth at the global level (World Bank, 2018),
the fact that the global economy has grown faster means that there
has not yet been an absolute decoupling.
Global trends, however mask local problems and uneven dis-
tribution of environmental pressures and impacts, including food
insecurity, water stress and vulnerability to natural hazards. Air
pollution is having dire human health and environmental effects,
not least in growing urban areas in the developing world (Watts
et al., 2015).
Over the past decade, the governance response to growing
problem awareness at the global level has frequently been to in-
crease the level of ambition of targets, as seen for example with the
2010 Aichi targets on biodiversity, the 2015 Paris climate target to
limit global warming to 2
C and preferably 1.5
C degrees and the
2015 UN Sustainable Development Goals. Concrete mechanisms to
achieve these kinds of targets, however, have generally become less
specied and more uncertain, leading to studies of governance
through goals(Kanie and Biermann, 2017). There appears to have
been a general shift away from hard lawframeworks towards
voluntary, pledge-and-reviewapproaches. While this shift could
be seen as a symptom of a general decline in multilateralism, the
new approaches can also be seen as all-hands-on-deckand crowd-
sourced models where both state and non-state actors contribute
and can be held to account by their respective constituencies (Chan
et al., 2015).
In either case, in the coming decade the onus is on states and
sub-national actors, as national plans and domestic action to ach-
ieve the targets need to be implemented. It remains to be seen to
what extent such a large-scale and society-wide implementation
effort will develop new governance approaches, and to what extent
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it will rely on traditional policy tools such as taxation, regulation,
and public and private investment or a mix thereof. It also remains
to be seen how domestic implementation will be characterized by
multi-level governance, and how power and authority will be
congured among national, sub-national and non-state actors.
This is particularly important in view of changing social and
political dynamics. Income inequality is falling globally but
increasing in many parts of the world, both developed and devel-
oping (ISSC, 2016;Picketty, 2014). The level of human development
is higher globally than ever before, largely due to poverty reduction
strategies in China, India and elsewhere (UNDP, 2016). Many of the
world's cities and regions now stand on the brink of making major
infrastructure investments (NCE, 2016) and, taking up this chal-
lenge, some of them increasingly assert themselves as key agents
for change for low-carbon transitions. The next couple of decades is
likely to see a tremendous wave of global infrastructure invest-
ment, both within and beyond cities, which will have profound
impacts on the biosphere (Elmqvist et al., 2013), with critical im-
plications for addressing climate change and the UN Sustainable
Development Goals. Migration and mobility, shifting geopolitics
and trade patterns, rapid and sometimes disruptive technological
change, and globally networked risks(Galaz et al., 2017) also
signify the changing circumstances within which earth system
governance is embedded.
The empirical context for earth system governance is thus
rapidly changing and becoming more complex and dynamic than a
decade ago. Considering interconnections and global variation in
impacts and progress, there is no simple list of empirical areas and
problems that should guide the next generation of earth system
governance research. Future research should focus on emerging
problems, as well as longstanding, intractable ones. Multiple levels
of earth system governance and interactions between environ-
mental and societal problems will require examination and critical
engagement. To respond to this shifting landscape, the community
of Earth System Governance scholars has convened to generate an
innovative and exible analytical framework that aims to acts as a
source of mobilization, coordination and stability in the joint
research effort.
3. A new earth system governance research framework
This plan sets out a revised and updated research framework,
which recognizes that multiple world views coexist and that
drivers and directions of change are often messy and dynamic. To
account for this complexity, this framework is composed of
contextual conditions, which capture what is being observed
empirically, and the research lenses offer analytical power by
engaging with these conditions that cannot be ignored and
fundamentally shape ESG scholarship (see Fig. 1).
The four contextual conditions that comprise the rst part of the
framework are: transformations, inequality, Anthropocene and di-
versity. Against the backdrop of our complex and dynamic trends
across the world, these represent meta-level conditions that dene
the research context we observe at the outset of the second decade
of earth system governance research. These four conditions
encompass and distil broader patterns of change. A common de-
nominator is that all four are subject to extensive empirical
research and to scientic and societal debate. Note that not all
future earth system governance research is expected to actively and
explicitly relate to one or several of these four conditions, and they
are not intended to be exclusive entry points. Instead, they are
intended to help provide a common language for the research
context in which the Earth System Governance Project operates and
to stimulate interesting and relevant research questions, when
brought together with the second part of the framework.
The second, and core, part of the framework are the ve sets of
research lenses: architecture and agency, democracy and power,
justice and allocation, anticipation and imagination, and adap-
tiveness and reexivity. These lenses together provide a multifac-
eted view of earth system governance. Individually, they relate to
established or emerging research elds, with roots in various social
scientic disciplines. The lenses were intentionally coupled to
enrich analysis of earth system governance, by highlighting not
only similarities but also productive tensions between the two
paired concepts. Individual lenses can be paired in myriad ways and
new pairings can lead to new research questions. These pairs of
research lenses have been identied as the most pertinent and
productive when starting this new phase of earth system gover-
nance research, as well as representing distinct clusters of earth
system governance research activity. However, researchers are
encouraged to use the framework to consider alternative pairings,
in an effort to generate novel and relevant research questions.
4. Contextual conditions
This section discusses one part of the framework: the context
within which earth system governance research takes place. We
expect that our analytical concerns, our normative commitments,
our critical interrogations of our specic research topics will
necessarily engage with this context. We identify four key condi-
tions that characterize this context: (a) the numerous political,
technological and socio-economic transformations that are shaping
and being shaped by governance processes; (b) the increasing and
multifaceted inequalities across and within countries and socio-
economic groups; (c) the tremendous as well as contested impact
of human beings on the entire planet and the changing human-
nature relationship captured by the notion of the Anthropocene;
and (d) the opportunities and challenges offered by the diversity
and pluralism of human societies in knowledge, culture and iden-
tities in addressing sustainability challenges in the contemporary
world. These do not represent the universe of relevant contextual
conditions but rather emerging and powerful trends that are
particularly relevant in this eld. Below we conceptualize these
four conditions and draw the links between each of them and earth
system governance research.
4.1. Transformations
Social science enquiry has long been concerned with under-
standing many different forms of change in human society. Yet, the
deepening urgency of major global sustainability and human
development challenges is now catapulting a focus on trans-
formative change to the forefront of earth system governance
scholarship. Transformations are both processes as well as condi-
tions for earth system governance research: here we consider their
role as conditions in order to highlight the deeply dynamic and
uncertain contemporary contexts that governance research must
grapple with, descriptively, analytically and normatively.
We dene transformations as shifts that involve fundamental
changes in structural, functional, relational and cognitive di-
mensions of linked socio-technical-ecological systems (de Haan
and Rotmans, 2011;Feola, 2014;Hackmann and Clair, 2012;
O'Brien, 2012). This includes both pervasive global changes in hu-
man societies (e.g. urbanization, climate change, economic glob-
alization, digitization), but also efforts to (re)imagine and
intentionally pursue desirable (sustainable) futures in a wide range
of ways. The study of transformations can be approached in several
ways: analytically (e.g. what actually happens, and how and why),
normatively (e.g. as a good/desirable thing to do) or critically (e.g.
who is deciding, shaping, and beneting from certain
S. Burch et al. / Earth System Governance xxx (xxxx) xxx 3
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transformations and why). Crucially, transformations imply
changes in power relations (e.g. challenging, disrupting or
entrenching), and thus are deeply contested, political phenomena.
Overall the role of governance in sustainability transformations
remains underdeveloped and often ambiguous. Different angles
may include:
Governance for transformations (i.e. governance that creates the
conditions for transformation in socio-technical-ecological
systems to emerge),
Governance of transformations (i.e. governance to actively
trigger and steer a transformation process), or
Transformations in governance (i.e. transformative change in
governance regimes).
All three angles are important, but have different implications
for understanding.
governance in relation to sustainability transformations.
The last decade of earth system governance research exploring
forms, effects and
complexity of governance lays an outstanding foundation for
novel efforts to understand transformations in governance systems
and human societies looking forward over the next decade.
Moreover, earth system governance scholars take as a departure
point that sustainability problems are deeply political, and sus-
tainability transformations must also be seen this way
(Meadowcroft, 2011;Scoones et al., 2015;Smith and Stirling, 2010).
Transformations will be increasingly salient in many areas of earth
system governance, including global governance systems (e.g.
Biermann et al., 2012), responding to the Anthropocene (Dryzek,
2016;Galaz, 2014), and shaping the unfolding wave of global ur-
banization in sustainable directions. Furthermore, earth system
governance scholars are ideally placed to draw on insights from
other bodies of social science theory such as policy, institutional,
economic and societal change to effectively leverage and build on
existing knowledge about transformations in the social sciences.
Interestingly, a dichotomy is increasingly drawn in the literature
between incrementaland transformativechange (e.g. Kates et al.,
2012), which can be useful as asimple heuristic, but is likely to belie
a more complex reality. For example, Duit et al. (2010: p367) argue
that at the end of the day, governance solutions for many of those
problems rooted in complex systems dynamics will, as always,
consist in incrementally implemented, heterogenic, and piecemeal
mixes of policy instruments, institutions, networks and organiza-
tions. Earth system governance scholars need to understand how
both incremental and more radical change interrelate.
The deeply political nature of transformations, furthermore,
poses challenges for governance such as dealing with redistribu-
tional impacts,powerful vested interests, the short-termismof policy
and political cycles that discourages longer-term agendas, institu-
tional fragmentation and decits in representation. It also links
closely to the other key contextual conditions of inequality, the
Anthropocene and diversity. It raises questions about sources of
agency, the role of the state, emergence and embedding of new
norms, and tensionsbetween singular or plural transformation goals.
Yet, earth system governance also needsto consider contextsthat are
under-studied to date, such as authoritarian regimes and politically
unstable settings (including those experiencing civil conict); cur-
rent theories may be vastly underprepared to explain such settings.
Lastly, tensions are evident in the ways scholars talk about the
potential for shaping transformations, versus the open-ended,
emergent, and to a large degree unpredictable nature of actual
transformations in practice. This is reected through the UN Sus-
tainable Development Goals, which may be useful as a high-level
driver, but at the same time should not create a cockpitview
where it is assumed that top-down steering by governments and
intergovernmental organizations alone can address global prob-
lems(Hajer et al., 2015: p 1652). Ultimately, it is vital to under-
stand the interplay between top-down and bottom-up efforts for
sustainability transformations (e.g. Westley et al., 2011).
Fig. 1. Earth System Governance research framework, including intersecting contextual conditions and research lenses.
S. Burch et al. / Earth System Governance xxx (xxxx) xxx4
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4.2. Inequality
Inequality is becoming a central academic and political
discourse after decades of neglect (Klinsky et al., 2017;Milanovic,
2011;Oxfam, 2016;Picketty, 2014;United Nations Development
Programme (UNDP), 2013;WSSR, 2016). Inequality pervades
almost all spheres of social life, from income distribution to gender,
education, to the burdens of environmental harm or unequal access
to opportunity or resources across different countries and socio-
economic groups (Ragin and Fiss, 2017). Thus, inequality is multi-
faceted as well as intersectional, i.e. one form of inequality may
inuence and reinforce another (Ragin and Fiss, 2017). Against this
context, scholars face the challenge to develop research that
sharpens our understanding of inequality as a theoretical concept
and its concrete implications for earth system governance, while
also acknowledging that the research community itself may be
hampered by inequality.
Inequality in earth system governance is often the outcome of
unjust procedural and distributive justice systems (Deutz, 2014;
Ikeme, 2003). International, global and national justice systems
have increased inequalities (Klinke, 2014;Spagnuolo, 2011) and
disempowerment (Gupta et al., 2015). Inequality is the seed, driver
and consequence of unjust social and ecological systems
(Wilkinson and Pickett, 2009,2011). Poor governance in resource
allocation and distribution systems leads to unfair distribution of
environmental rights, duties, risks, hazards and harms. Earth sys-
tem governance research is challenged to discover how inequality
is embedded in the complex interactions of governance (actors,
sectors, interests, forums, scales, technologies, etc.); within un-
predictable natural systems; and in the context of competing eco-
nomic (Ehresman and Okereke, 2015) and political pressures to
allocate limited resources. Environmental inequality is also
embedded in the diffuse and often contradictory processes, forces,
outcomes of global and national politics (Hyle, 2016), nance,
taxation and subsidies, and broader development trajectories (Gup
ta and Vegelin, 2016).
Earth system governance architectures (Biermann et al., 2009b)
ea research lens that we explore in more detail below - have the
potential to challenge inequalities if adequately inclusive in their
construction (Andersson and Agrawal, 2011). If not, these archi-
tectures risk locking in existing inequalities. Democratic gover-
nance systems that seek to distribute power among different actor
groups in ways that curtail the power of any single individual or
interest group can potentially reduce inequalities among in-
dividuals and groups. But democratic institutions may also be
permeated with and entrench power inequalities among the
various interest groups.
Although the body of research on inequality and sustainability
governance is growing, more studies are necessary to understand
how structural inequalities, power imbalances and intersecting
axes of privilege and marginalization shape vulnerabilities to global
environmental change and are shaped by them. Likewise, attention
to the relationship between the intersecting forms of discrimina-
tion on the basis of age, class, race, caste, ethnicity, indigeneity,
religion, (dis)ability and earth system governance needs to be
strengthened (Olsson et al., 2014).
4.3. Anthropocene
The Anthropocene refers to the idea that the earth has entered a
new geological epoch characterized by humanity's collective
transformation of the earth system (Steffen et al., 2007). Pro-
ponents of the Anthropocene concept point to rapid changes in the
world's population, patterns of material production and con-
sumption, and consequential environmental degradation,
particularly since the Great Accelerationthat began around 1945
with the end of World War II (Steffen et al., 2015a). These changes,
proponents argue, have moved the earth system beyond the pa-
rameters of the Holocene epoch, which began around 11,700 years
ago when the last ice age ended. Whether or not it achieves ofcial
geological recognition, the Anthropocene has already come to serve
as a fruitful but contested contextual condition for understanding
ongoing changes in the earth system.
The distinctive character of the Anthropocene gives rise to the
possibility that previous modes of governing environmental change
may no longer be t for purpose (Galaz, 2014). Importantly, the
Anthropocene idea reinforces the need to think not only about
environmental governance in general, but specically about earth
system governance (Biermann, 2014). Pattberg and Zelli (2016)
argue that the Anthropocene involves three major challenges for
earth system governance: urgency, responsibility and complexity.
These three challenges are not new to environmental governance
but become particularly pressing when combined under the con-
ditions of the Anthropocene.
The transformations embodied by the Anthropocene raise
important dilemmas about how to safeguard other values such as
justice and democracy when urgent action is required, and how to
build and maintain political support for radical technological and
economic change. A related dilemma is to ascertain whether it is
possible to overhaul institutions completely within the time
available. One critique is that [t]he fundamental challenges to
societal organization posed by the Anthropocene are, paradoxically,
to be countered by many of the same institutions that have allowed
the recent human conquest of the natural world(L
ovbrand et al.,
2015:214), such as unregulated capitalist markets or governments
that prioritize economic growth over environmental imperatives
(see also Dryzek, 2016). The urgency of responding to the planetary
instability associated with the Anthropocene also raises questions
about what kinds of governance responses should be prioritized:
should societies aim to restore the earth system to the more stable
conditions that prevailed in the Holocene epoch (see Rockstr
et al., 2009)? Or, given that many changes are now irreversible, is
the task for governance to nd new benchmarks and focus on how
societies can adapt to the inevitability of an altered earth system
(Dryzek and Pickering, forthcoming)?
Assigning responsibility for reducing risks to the earth system,
and for remedying environmental loss and damage, becomes ever
more difcult because unsustainable patterns of consumption are
driven by a wide range of actors across many countries, including
producers, consumers, investors and governments. Thus it is
necessary to rethink, possibly through constructing new theories of
justice, how subjects and objects of ethical responsibilities are re-
dened in the Anthropocene (Meisch, 2016;Schmidt et al., 2016)
and to develop new forms of legal and policy instruments for
attributing responsibilities for action (Kim and Bosselmann, 2015;
Young et al., 2017;Stephens, 2017).
Complexity reaches beyond questions of responsibility to include
the multifarious interactions between society and non-human
nature, and the possibility of non-linear changes (or state shifts)
in the earth system (Underdal, 2010;Young, 2017). Wissenburg
(2016) stresses that the Anthropocene brings together several
different types of complexity, including the natural complexity of
the planet's ecology, the psycho-social complexity of humans and
their institutions, and the political or moral complexity of bringing
both together in a meaningful way. This multi-faceted view of the
earth system as a complex, interconnected system places consid-
erable importance on understanding and governing key processes
that regulate the system, including the climate, biodiversity, land
use and global chemical ows.
Finally, complexity highlights the importance of science-policy
S. Burch et al. / Earth System Governance xxx (xxxx) xxx 5
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interactions in governing the Anthropocene. Scientic expertise is
crucial for understanding earth system processes and anticipating
potential state shifts. The idea of planetary boundaries (Rockstr
et al., 2009) has been widely discussed both as a way of under-
standing how these processes interact to characterize the Anthro-
pocene, as well as a guide for policymakers on what is needed to
avoid dangerous thresholds in the earth system. However, some
critics raise the concern that the Anthropocene could imply dele-
gating too much power to experts and other elites at the expense of
democratic processes (Leach et al., 2013;Baskin, 2015). Thus
ovbrand et al. (2015:214), building on the work of Swyngedouw
(2013), warn of the dangers of a post-political ontology ea
socio-political arrangement that replaces ideological contestation
and struggles by techno-managerial planningewhich may
obscure the possibility of political transformation of societies.
4.4. Diversity
As a contextual condition, diversity inuences governance
research and practice. We consider governance to refer to modern
forms of steering (as per Biermann et al., 2009a), thus it is impor-
tant to consider that the different directions to which societies can
be steered are results not only from power struggles but also from
diversity in world views, knowledge systems, values and norms, as
well as in ecosystems. Moreover, as earth system governance re-
searchers live and work in different contexts and come from
different disciplinary backgrounds, such facts inuence how we
produce, validate and diffuse knowledge, as well as the way we
teach and educate youths and are involved in governance capacity
Below, we explore diversity as an ontological standpoint and
empirical condition for governance of earth systems, emphasizing
that diversity is a norm that calls for participation of different actors
in governance processes, but also and most importantly that di-
versity in norms, world views and knowledge systems affects
Earth system governance research should give prominence to
the drivers and nature of diverse and (often) conicting norms.
Norms are accepted standards, principles of behaviour or claims as
to how things ought to be. Norms may be constitutive (creating
standards or principles), regulatory (establishing laws and regu-
lating behaviour), prescriptive (directing acceptable types of ac-
tion) or visionary (prescribing a desired state of affairs). Norms are
dynamic and have life cycles efrom emergence to demise or
rebirth (Finnemore and Kathryn, 2005). Norm life cycles are
inuenced by other norms, actor interests, contexts, etc. The un-
derlying sources, dynamics, tensions and consequences of norma-
tive diversity and the contestation of norms contribute to the
formation, longevity and demise of governance architectures and
environmental policies.
Normative diversity relates to desired or contested governance
outcomes. Diversity also connects to desired methodologies of
governance that inuence outcomes: the inclusion of actors, voices
and knowledge systems that are traditionally excluded, consensus,
deliberation (Dryzek and Pickering, 2017), coproduction, top down
and bottom up, scenario building, imagining futures, decentral-
ization (Dennis et al., 2016), inclusive conservation (Matulis and
Moyer, 2017), community management (Van Putten et al., 2016),
science in governance (Nilsson, 2017;Montana, 2017;Matulis and
Moyer, 2017), etc. In this direction, we need to identify, under-
stand and theorize normative diversity and how it interacts with
governance practice and research in different ecological contexts. It
is important to consider how societies and ecosystems are inter-
twined, and that diverse socio-ecological systems require specic
Ultimately, diversity means that there are multiple knowledge
systems. The earth system governance community provides a
forum for exchange among different forms of knowledge from
different (and not mutually exclusive nor homogenous) groups or
sectors that can contribute to earth system knowledge. These
include, but are not limited to, the scientic community, policy-
makers, civil society, think tanks, businesses, indigenous peoples
and the global poor. Teng
o et al. (2014: 589) argue that it is
necessary to promote dialogue among different knowledge systems
for improved policy and to support mechanisms for learning and
decision-making. The challenge here is to balance the breadth and
depth of the various forms of knowledge from various groups or
sectors with a desire to present timely answers to pressing envi-
ronmental problems. While including all viewpoints, all voices and
all interests may provide for high levels of equality, it is unlikely to
result in an efcient process of decision-making or knowledge
creation. Yet, excluding viewpoints, voices and interests from di-
alogues will result in power imbalances. Earth system governance
research is challenged to seek forms of knowledge creation and
governance solutions that are as inclusive as possible within the
functional boundaries of their research projects.
While diversity in norms and knowledge systems can be an
asset, it can also hamper just and ecologically sound governance.
Rather than relying on the dominant or most abundant knowledge,
policymakers, civil society and the business sector may select
different understandings of phenomena to support their views and
interests. Diversity in knowledge allows policymakers and the
business sector to use the knowledge that best suits their interests
in making decisions. Different understandings in the science
community of, for instance, the risks of climate change have long
fuelled climate skepticism as well as hampered policy action
(Hoffmann, 2015). But even a similar piece of knowledge may
transfer differently and may be used differently merely because of
diversity in the subject and medium of communication. A scholar's
gender, nationality, institutional afliation and so on, may give
them more or less credibility in the eyes of receivers. Likewise,
diversity in communication channels ea peer-reviewed journal
article, a blog post, a video clip, a one-on-one discussion, etc. emay
affect how knowledge is received and used (Lauring, 2009).
Diversity in knowledge systems means that governance as a set
of rules and practices, or institutions, is a result of a process or
processes that reect diverse values and world views. The chal-
lenge is how to create and maintain decision-making processes that
are at the same time inclusive and efcient. We need to better
analyse, theorize and criticize how diversity affects earth system
governance practice.
5. Research lenses
In this section, we elaborate upon the ve sets of interconnected
research lenses that constitute the central element of the Earth
System Governance Research Framework. This section builds on
the elaboration in the previous section of the contextual conditions
that constitute part of the research framework. This section dis-
cusses each coupled research lens by rst introducing each one
then elaborates upon the current understanding and knowledge.
We then explore longstanding and emerging interlinkages and
productive tensions between each set of coupled concepts, and
how each coupled research lens engages with and can be consid-
ered in light of our four contextual conditions. We conclude by
identifying some timely research questions in each case.
5.1. Architecture and agency
This research lens focuses on understanding the institutional
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frameworks and actors implicated in earth system governance and
how these institutions and actors resist or respond to change and
evolve over time. It combines two previously separate elements of
the original Earth System Governance project research framework:
Architecture and Agency. Over the last decade, researchers study-
ing governance have increasingly highlighted the interaction be-
tween architecture and agency within governance systems.
Combining these topics as a coupled research lens offers new op-
portunities for understanding dynamics and change in governance
systems and the actors herein, as a key ambition of the new Earth
System Governance Science and Implementation Plan.
We dene governance architecture as the interlocking web of
widely shared principles, institutions and practices that shape de-
cisions at all levels in a given area of earth system governance
(Biermann et al., 2009a: 31). This has been an important focus of
earth system governance research over the last decade. Three
themes that have been particularly prominent are: fragmentation,
complexity and polycentricity.
Fragmentation research has studied patterns of integration and
decentralization in global environmental governance (Biermann
et al., 2009b;Biermann, 2014;Keohane and Victor, 2011;Zelli
and van Asselt, 2013;Zürn and Faude, 2013). It has considered
the growing prominence of privategovernance (e.g. CSR, self-
regulation, certication; Auld et al., 2015;van der Ven, 2015), the
role of partnerships between state and non-state actors (Kramarz,
2016;Pattberg, 2010;Pattberg and Widerberg, 2016;Szulecki
et al., 2011), and implications for the legitimacy of global gover-
nance systems (B
ackstrand and Kyls
ater, 2014;Karlsson-
Vinkhuyzen and McGee, 2013). More recently, scholars have
turned to considering how to respond to fragmentation, including
ways of managing fragmented governance systems (van Asselt and
Zelli, 2014), particularly through attention to interactions between
different regimes within and beyond the environmental domain
(Jinnah, 2014;Jinnah and Lindsay, 2016;van Asselt, 2014).
Complexity is also an important lens for analysing governance
systems, from local to global scales (Duit et al., 2010;Duit and
Galaz, 2008;Oberthür and Stokke, 2011;Underdal, 2010;Zelli
and Pattberg, 2016). Complexity has long been a dening feature
of environmental governance, and it is now becoming an explicit
topic of analytical study in earth system governance research,
especially in light of increasing interest in regime complexes
(Abbott, 2012;Keohane and Victor, 2011;Orsini et al., 2013) and
network analysis (Kim, 2013). Complexity in governance architec-
tures is likely to continue to be a key theoretical topic in earth
system governance research, particularly with continued attention
to institutional interplay between environmental and non-
environmental domains (e.g. global trade, security, technology;
Jinnah, 2014;van Asselt, 2014) and increasing attention to systemic
global risks resulting from these cross-sectoral, cross-scale in-
terdependencies (Galaz, 2014;Galaz et al., 2017,2016,2014;van
Asselt, 2014;van Asselt and Zelli, 2014).
Polycentricity is a topic that is rapidly gaining prominence in
scholarly debates about environmental governance. Originally
proposed in the 1960s and 1970s (Aligica and Tarko, 2012), research
on polycentricity has recently been experiencing resurgent interest
in several domains of earth system governance, including climate
change (Dorsch and Flachsland, 2017;Jordan et al., 2015;Ostrom,
2009,2010a), water (Huitema et al., 2009;Pahl-Wostl and
Knieper, 2014), biodiversity (Morrison, 2017;Nagendra and
Ostrom, 2012) and regarding the interplay of multiple domains
(Galaz et al., 2012). Polycentricity refers to governance systems
involving multiple coordinated but independent centres of
decision-making across sectors and scales (Aligica and Tarko, 2012;
Ostrom, 2010). Polycentricity is salient to earth system governance
research for analysing whether and how fragmented and complex
governance systems may come to successfully govern environ-
mental issues (van Leeuwen, 2016). It also resonates with the
concepts of regime complexes (Abbott, 2012;Keohane and Victor,
2011) and orchestration (Abbott and Snidal, 2010), although iden-
tifying exactly how these ideas relate and interact requires further
A key starting point for questions of agency is: who are agents
in earth system governance and what roles do they play? Who
acts, and in whose name, and to further what aims? And impor-
tantly, how are agents constituted (through what means, methods
and political processes)? Traditionally, questions of agency have
centred on actors such as states (local, state/provincial, national;
WBGU, 2011), international bodies (e.g. UN, World Bank, devel-
opment banks), the private sector (e.g. industries, transnational
corporations), environmental NGOs (both domestic and interna-
tional), scientists, indigenous peoples and citizens. Over the last
decade of earth system governance research, there has also been
growing attention to intergovernmental institutions (e.g. Euro-
pean Union, trade regulators, standard-setting bodies; Mitchell,
2013), international bureaucracies (Jinnah, 2014;Bauer et al.,
2012;Biermann and Siebenhuner, 2009c), global nancial in-
vestors and different types of non-stateactors (B
ackstrand et al.,
2017;Kuyper and B
ackstrand, 2016;Scobie, 2017a) including
transnational networks (Bulkeley, 2014;Chan et al., 2015;
Widerberg and Pattberg, 2017) and the agency of global norms and
their power to shape domestic policy especially in weaker societies
and small-island developing states (Scobie, 2017a;2017b). There is
growing attention to new agentsthat have been traditionally
under-studied, such as small- and medium-sized enterprises
(SMEs) (Burch et al., 2016), cities (Kraas et al., 2016;NCE, 2016),
voluntary governance initiatives (van der Ven, 2015), and to
groups at risk of being disproportionately affected by escalating
environmental impacts and societal transformations (e.g. low so-
cioeconomic groups, women, ethnic minorities, displaced people,
indigenous groups, vulnerable sectors in developing countries;
Scobie, 2013). Finally, it is also necessary to better understand the
role of media and social media, especially given allegations of
post-truthsocieties, as well as celebrity culture seeking to inu-
ence debates about environmental issues such as climate change.
And more broadly, a focus on non-traditional and otherwise
hiddenforms of agency and actorness is as crucial as those more
readily seen.
Agency interactions include norm creation and diffusion,
orchestration, regime creation, modication and demise. These
interactions lead to questions relating to the relative power of the
actors involved and the nature and implications of their actions in
governance, including: the ethical (legal and duciary), normative
(transparency, equity, accountability, inclusiveness), technical
(effectiveness, sustainability), temporal (present and future con-
sequences), spatial and scalar (state/non-state, global/interna-
tional, geographical, economic, political, uni-/multi-/
interdisciplinary). Orchestration, frequently used by international
organizations when they engage intermediary actors to inuence a
target actor (Abbott et al., 2012;Schleifer, 2013), raises new legiti-
macy questions (B
ackstrand and Kuyper, 2017) and has been a
particular area of legitimacy studies in the earth system governance
community (Abbott et al., 2015;Abbott and Bernstein, 2015;Abbott
and Snidal, 2010).
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Interplay between architecture and agency
The interplay between architecture and agency opens up novel
opportunities for studying institutional dynamics, relationships
and change in governance systems. Earth system governance
scholars increasingly point to the dynamic nature of institutional
structures (Young, 2010), and the importance of understanding
relationships between actors and structures within evolving
governance systems (Beunen et al., 2017;Beunen and Patterson,
2016;Scobie, 2016). Institutional structures condition the behav-
iour of actors, but actors can also question, disrupt or modify
institutional structures and thus cause them to change (Bloomeld,
2017;Lawrence et al., 2009). It is also crucial to consider the
interplay between structures, practices and agents that keep up
unsustainable practices. Agency is important for learning about
processes of creating governance architectures, their persistence or
failure, and how they can be adapted to meet changing needs and
In light of urgency of climate change and many other sustain-
ability and development challenges, there is increasing attention to
innovation in governance (Auld et al., 2014;Jordan and Huitema,
2014a,2014b), and overcoming path dependency and lock-in (e.g.
Seto et al., 2016) in governance systems that are no longer t for
purpose to solve the problems at hand, at global to local scales
(Biermann et al., 2016,2012). Tackling this theoretical problem
places earth system governance research at the forefront of insti-
tutional scholarship generally, because, as Hall (2010) surmises, the
institutions literature has traditionally focused on exploring how
institutions shape behaviour (a rst-order problem) and is only
now starting to shift towards exploring how institutions them-
selves change (a second-order problem).
Key research questions that emerge out of this interplay include:
What are the implications for earth system governance of poly-
centricity and long-standing and growing diversities and power
disparities among agents? What are the analytical and normative
implications of this? How, why and with what implications are
shifts in authority and power in earth system governance occurring
(e.g. new actors emerging, state-business-society interactions,
hidden actors)?
5.2. Democracy and power
Democracy worldwide is under pressure from new congura-
tions of power within states, notably the resurgence of populism
and authoritarianism, often with a strident anti-environmental
tenor (Bomberg, 2017). Political currents at the national level may
in turn have far-reaching implications for the international com-
munity's capacity to solve collective problems. In these conditions
it is imperative for future research in earth system governance to
examine whether new conceptions of democracy and power can
help make sense of, and craft responses to, these trends. Earth
system governance research must also contend with the fact that
the exercise of power extending well beyond conventional political
institutions may inuence global environmental change, not least
through the ways in which business interests and dominant dis-
courses shape patterns of production and consumption. Any
interrogation of democracy must also challenge the assumption
that, prior to the emergence of new threats and pressures, mean-
ingful democracy was already being widely practiced, even though
many societies classed as democraciesfall well short of democratic
Democracy bears on earth system governance at all levels:
global, regional, national, sub-national and local. Earth system
governance has a special concern with global governance, and so
with global democracy. Despite a burgeoning literature on global
democracy (Held, 1995;Archibugi et al., 2011), relatively little
literature has addressed global democracy explicitly from an earth
system governance perspective (for exceptions see Dryzek and
Stevenson, 2011;Stevenson and Dryzek, 2014). This literature un-
derscores, however, that claims for global democracy may be
advanced even in the absence of some features that are often taken
to be dening aspects of democracy at other levels (such as elec-
tions or a well-dened demos). At the same time, the Earth System
Governance Project also welcomes contributions that are skeptical
about the possibility or desirability of global democracy (e.g.
Keohane, 2015). Furthermore, whatever the prospects for global
democracy, strengthening democratic institutions at national and
sub-national levels is crucial for securing what could be called earth
system democracy worldwide. The intersections between global,
national and local democracy are particularly important to study,
not least because the legitimacy of national representatives in
multilateral for a depends on the legitimacy of domestic processes
for forming collective preferences. Similarly, democracy can be
understood not only as a quality of state institutions, but also as
extended to non-state actors and hybrid forms of governance.
The relationship between democracy and sustainability has
been a longstanding theme of environmental political theory. From
the 1980s onwards, theories of ecological (or green) democracy
emerged to explore eand seek ways of resolving epotential.
tensions between democratic processes and environmental
outcomes (see for example e.g. Dryzek, 1987;Goodin, 1992;
Eckersley, 1992). Public involvement in environmental decision-
making is widely seen to improve the quality of those decisions,
particularly by harnessing the knowledge of communities affected
by environmental concerns or those with experience in managing
environmental problems (Arias-Maldonado, 2007). But, given that
citizens often accord relatively low priority to environmental
matters compared to other policy issues, it remains contested
whether democratic institutions produce pro-environmental out-
comes more reliably than autocratic or technocratic forms of
decision-making. This makes the analysis of environmental
governance in non-democratic settings likewise essential (e.g.
ohmelt, 2014). The tension between democracy and sustainability
has become particularly acute with the rise of populist leaders
espousing climate science denial and broader anti-environmental
views. This raises the further concern whether earth system
governance can simultaneously attain input legitimacy (in relation
to decision-making procedures) and output legitimacy (in relation
to institutional outcomes; see generally B
ackstrand, 2006). A
particular focus of continuing research in this context is how to
secure more accountable state, non-state and hybrid governance
arrangements, and what the transformative potential of trans-
parency herein is, with regard to both empowerment and improved
sustainability outcomes (see generally, Gupta and Mason, 2014;
Kramarz and Park, 2016)
Such research can also occur in the context of recent renewal of
interest in the dilemmaof green democracy (Wong, 2016). How-
ever, the challenges are conceptual as well as practical. It is
important to consider, for example, whether the conditions of the
Anthropocene make it harder to secure democracy and sustain-
ability simultaneously, or whether the very concept of democracy
(and its relationship to sustainability) now needs to be rethought in
the light of the Anthropocene (Eckersley, 2017). Or whether and
how the tensions between democracy and sustainability in earth
system governance are more or less acute across different policy
areas and governance levels, whether different varieties of de-
mocracy (e.g. corporatist or adversarial systems) are more adept at
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managing those tensions, or how articulations of ecology and de-
mocracy in different cultures yield new insights (Kothari, 2014).
Thus, whether or not democracy is valued instrumentally (as a
means to achieve better governance outcomes) or in its own right,
much remains to be known about what is needed to secure de-
mocracy in earth system governance.
The inclusion of non-state actors and discourses has been a
major theme of research in earth system governance that draws on
theories of deliberative and stakeholder democracy (Dryzek and
Stevenson, 2011;Baber and Bartlett, 2015;B
ackstrand et al.,
2010). Although the involvement of non-state actors is often seen
as essential for democratizing global environmental governance,
questions remain about the extent to which the internal practices
of non-state actors reect norms of democratic legitimacy,
including inclusive and high-quality deliberation (B
ackstrand and
Kuyper, 2017). A major challenge for democratization is how to
ensure the inclusion of marginalized or under-represented groups,
including indigenous peoples, women, future generations and non-
human entities such as animals and ecosystems. A further major
area for earth system governance is whether and how multilateral
environmental knowledge assessments should be democratized by
opening up their practices to more diverse forms of knowledge
(Cornell et al., 2013;Santos, 2014,2016).
Based on Barnett and Duvall (2005:42), we dene power as the
production, in and through social relations, of effects that shape
the capacities of actors to determine their circumstances and fate.
In this light, dealing with power is inescapable in any kind of
governance. An earth system governance perspective can add
specic insights to more general debates about the role of power in
governance, such as how the way in which environmental ques-
tions are constructed can serve some interests and repress others.
Countries wielding greater economic or political power are
often seen as having greater responsibility to act on global envi-
ronmental concerns (Bukovansky et al., 2012). Unequal power re-
lations between the developing and industrialized countries have
long been a key dynamic of global environmental governance
(Martinez-Alier and Joan, 2002;Ciplet et al., 2015). Global power
relations also intersect with other kinds of power asymmetries,
including gender and racial discrimination (Schlosberg and Collins,
2014) and the privileged position of some interest groups (e.g.
business) over others (e.g. environmental groups) in domestic
politics (Falkner, 2008;Bloomeld, 2017). New distributions of
power may emerge where non-state actors become more closely
involved in governance (Betsill and Corell, 2008;Green, 2013), or
where international organizations enter into relationships with
other actors through delegation or orchestration (Schleifer, 2013;
Abbott et al., 2016;B
ackstrand and Kuyper, 2017).
Discursive power may be exercised, among other ways, through
overarching discourses such as sustainability and the green econ-
omy, as well as through more specic concepts such as ecosystem
services and natural capital (Dryzek, 2013). Civil society actors
lacking formal decision making power may nevertheless exercise
framing powerby drawing attention to the concerns of vulnerable
groups, as with civil society organizations' efforts to frame loss and
damage resulting from climate change as a matter of justice rather
than as a technical issue (Allan and Hadden, 2017).
The idea of the Anthropocene underscores the unprecedented
power that humans exert over non-human nature, while at the
same time cautioning that human interference with earth system
processes has the potential to trigger major (and possibly cata-
strophic) state shifts in the entire system that elude human control.
A key strand of optimistic narratives of the Anthropocene is that
humanity has the power to shape the earth system for the better
(Breakthrough Institute, 2015), notably through climate-related
geoengineering. Some scholars have criticized the notion of the
Anthropocene for its inattention to issues of power. Thus Baskin
(2015:16) argues that the term Anthropocenereveals the power
of humans, but it conceals who and what is powerful, and how that
power is enacted. Others argue that it is possible to form a
nuanced understanding of the Anthropocene that takes issues such
as power and diversity into account (Biermann et al., 2016).
So, for example, power analysis may help to uncover the relative
power of actors in complex global supply chains over the envi-
ronmental impacts of world trade (Fuchs et al., 2016). Power
analysis can also serve to challenge prevailing orthodoxies about
desirable architectures for earth system governance. Morrison
(2017), for example, argue that while polycentric governance is
often seen as an antidote to excessive centralization of power,
existing literature often overlooks that polycentric systems may
embed other forms of power asymmetry. This kind of analysis may
in turn shed light on how power inequalities could be alleviated
and abuses of power curtailed. Research to identify power in-
equalities and abuses must be sensitive to the fact that these
phenomena may manifest themselves differently depending on the
type of power in question (e.g. governmental or corporate power);
the governance responses required may vary accordingly.
Interplay between democracy and power
Democracy and power are distinct but closely interlinked. De-
mocracy promises a means of distributing political power among
citizens and transferring power to their representatives without
resorting to violence or coercion, as well as a means of curtailing
the arbitrary exercise of power. Yet inequalities of power infuse
democratic institutions, as demonstrated by the success of fossil
fuel interests in shaping climate policy. Concern about preventing
and remedying abuses of power may stem from a belief in the value
of global democracy, but it need not: such a concern could be
grounded in a more basic interest in ensuring the legitimate exer-
cise of authority in global governance (Grant and Keohane, 2005).
Many of the practices that could serve to democratize earth
system governance may help simultaneously to alleviate power
inequalities, particularly by empowering citizens and marginalized
groups. However, a dedicated focus on power is required to illu-
minate how different forms of unequal power are generated and
sustained in institutions for global environmental governance. This
gives rise to abundant new research questions, including: How can
interlinkages between accountability, legitimacy, and transparency
as key qualities of governance arrangements be conceptualized and
realized? Under what conditions does transparency contribute to
more accountable and legitimate earth system governance?
5.3. Justice and allocation
Currently, governments and intergovernmental organizations
formulate goals and set priorities for action that aim to address
issue of justice and allocation on a global scale. For example, two of
the goals of the recently adopted Sustainable Development Goals
address reducing inequalities within and across countries (Goal 10)
and promoting peace and justice (Goal 16). In addition, private
actors, such as businesses and civil society organizations, create
institutions that use the market to generate fairdistribution of
environmental and/or social goods, such as the Ethical Trading
Initiative and the Fairtrade Labelling Organization. Likewise,
activist and grassroots networks such as Global Justice Now are also
engaged with justice concerns. As justice, and its core demand of
allocation, become fundamental political and social concerns, there
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is an urgent need to develop a systematic analytical, philosophical
and empirical investigation.
We do not live in a just world(Nagel, 2005). The fact that this
proposition is uncontroversial does not mean that the concept of
justice is not contested or elusive. For the purpose of earth system
governance, we nd it useful to conceptualize justice in three di-
mensions (Jerneck et al., 2011): intergenerational (between gen-
erations), international (between states and regions) and
intersectional (between groups/categories in society).
Intergenerational justice is core to environmental concerns for
both natural and social reasons. The inertia of many natural sys-
tems and phenomena is one obvious reason why inter-generational
considerations are essential. For example, greenhouse gases are
persistent over more than one generation, while the atmosphere
responding to these gases interacts with oceans and icecaps oper-
ating at timescales of decades and millennia. Extraction of nite
resources, be they oil, coal or minerals, is fundamentally a matter of
intergenerational justice. So is the generation of long-lived haz-
ardous materials, such as nuclear waste where one generation
reaps the benets of nuclear power while hundreds of generations
will live with the waste. Irreversible processes, such as extinction of
species or permanent depletion of resources are also of intergen-
erational importance. In practice however, it remains contested and
difcult to accept that future generations may have moral rights
with respect to us, and that we may have obligations with respect
to them.
International justice has a long tradition of research and schol-
arship in earth system governance, often from the point of view of
international relations. Many of our most pressing environmental
challenges, be they climate change, loss of biodiversity, overshing
or depletion of water resources, have explicit and implicit inter-
national implications and drivers. Historically, those contributing
most to climate change have been industrialized countries, though
a changing climate will have much more severe negative impacts
on developing countries. Similarly, many of the policies and
mechanisms for addressing climate change are initiated by the
industrialized countries but with signicant implications for people
in the developing countries.
Intersectional justice relates to the concept of intersectionality,
expressing the multiple dimensions and modalities of social re-
lations and subject formations we belong to (McCall, 2005). In earth
system governance, intersectional justice can be understood in
relation to multiple deprivations at context-specic intersections of
age, class, caste, (dis)ability, gender, indigeneity and race. Examples
of intersectional (in)justice are rife in regard to climate change
impacts as well as impacts of climate change policies (Olsson et al.,
Justice as allocation or distributive justice evaluates how and to
what end a just society allocates the costs and benets of social
cooperation (Rawls, 1971). This perspective emphasizes that justice
fundamentally concerns the basic structure of society and how this
denes and regulates social, economic and environmental equality
and inequality. For earth system governance, distributive justice
would pay attention to the institutions that are responsible for
distributing such costs and benets across different generations,
among nation states and among different groups in global societies.
There is no widespread consensus on what is considered just dis-
tribution, however, and different principles apply (Luterbacher and
Sprinz, 2001). To illustrate, utilitarians accept as just the
distribution that on average produces more benets than costs.
Scholars in the liberal egalitarian tradition, in contrast, adopt a
(global) difference principlewhereby inequality in the distribution
of costs and benets is acceptable as long as this benets the least
advantaged members of society (Beitz, 1979;Caney, 2001,2005;
Moellendorf, 2002). Still others advocate a needs-based minimum
oor principle whereby basic needs should be satised rst before
any distribution is considered (Brock, 2009). The plurality of
distributive justice principles invites earth system governance
research to clarify and unravel the principles that underline the
multiple governance processes in which decisions regarding who
gets what and whyare being negotiated and disputed.
For justice as allocation to materialize, however, scholars
contend that two other elements are important, namely recogni-
tion and representation (Fraser, 2001). If a group or individual lacks
recognition in the social or political structures within a society, it
will contribute to maldistribution (Young, 1990;Fraser, 1997,2001).
Representation describes the democratic, fair and equitable pro-
cesses in decision-making (Schlosberg, 2007). It demands that all
groups, especially those most affected, are fully provided the op-
portunity to participate in the decision-making process, and the
decision-making should be shared. It also requires that all
(affected) actors participate in an impartial way and ensure full
disclosure so as to facilitate effective participation ethis includes
the content of the information, how it is provided, if it is provided in
a timely manner and to whom it is given. In other words, repre-
sentation emphasizes the importance of the political process
through which existing injustices in distribution and recognition
can be addressed (Young, 1990). For earth system governance
research, representation requires evaluating, for instance, the
democratic character of the processes through which decisions
affecting the distribution of environmental costs and benets, as
well as the economic costs and benets of proposed solutions. It
further entails questioning who are considered and recognized as
legitimate participants and beneciaries of cooperation and who
are not (including nation states, social groups and different
Interplay between justice and allocation
In international fora, human rights are seen as one path to
advance equity claims of disadvantaged and underserved peoples.
Human rights to water, for example, are considered to have enor-
mous mobilizing potential and may help redress the imbalance.
between the have and have-nots in water allocation and use
(Sultana and Loftus, 2012). In those countries that have institu-
tionalized the human right to water as a constitutional protection
or through national legislation, it may serve as a moral articulation
and as a basis for legal challenges, even if there are limitations in
terms of implementation (Gerlak and Wilder, 2012). Among other
things, access to systems of implementation and justice at national
and international levels are needed to ensure implementation of
those rights for the poorest and most vulnerable (Gupta and Lebel,
2010), and proper recognition.
Likewise, just and non-discriminatory legal and regulatory
systems and institutional frameworks directly reduce human
suffering and the causes of violence, while legitimate and trans-
parent democratic processes permit societies and communities to
choose equitable policies to address environmental problems
(Biermann et al., 2012). New alternative discourses and social
movements are often necessary to promote a re-allocation of re-
sources and shift to more just and equitable patterns of use (Gupta
and Lebel, 2010). Economic tools typically focus on distributive
justice. For example, some advocate for stronger nancial support
for poorer countries, through direct support payments for climate
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change mitigation and adaptation programmes based on interna-
tional agreements or through international market mechanisms,
like global emissions markets (Biermann et al., 2010). Finally, per-
sonal religious and ethical world views (Dash, 2014;Esquivel and
Mallimaci, 2017) are often the drivers for solidarity and subsidiar-
ity at global to local levels and in earth system governance form the
overarching delivery framework and contexts for partnerships for
ending poverty and inequality (Feygina, 2013).
The paired justice and allocation research lenses might lead
earth system governance researchers to ask: What types of steering
have been effective and not effective to channel personal, regional,
national and global world views towards more sustainable ap-
proaches to environmental rights and duties? What kind of
tradeoffs may be identied between the different dimensions of
justice and allocation?
5.4. Anticipation and imagination
Increasingly, earth system governance includes proliferating
processes of anticipating and imagining diverse futures, including,
among others, through modelling, integrated assessments, fore-
sight and scenario building. There is an urgent need to examine
how to govern such diverse anticipation processes, but also to
scrutinize how anticipation itself becomes a site of politics and
governance. Analysing these twin processes is a crucial and timely
task for the social and interdisciplinary sciences, including for the
earth system governance community. This subsection identies a
research agenda relating to the increasingly central role of pro-
cesses and tools of anticipation and imagination in earth system
governance, keeping in mind the contextual conditions of trans-
formation, inequality, the Anthropocene and diversity discussed in
the previous section.
Seeking to steer (or govern) an unknown and largely unknow-
able future is fraught with normative and scientic uncertainties
and conicts (Hulme, 2010;Nordmann, 2014). We dene Antici-
patory governance as the evolution of steering mechanisms in the
present to govern future earth system transformations, in the face
of extreme normative and scientic uncertainty and conict over
the very existence, nature and distributive implications of such
transformations (Gupta, 2001,2011;Guston, 2010). As such, it is a
politically charged and challenging endeavour. Governance is al-
ways anticipatory to a greater or lesser extent, particularly in policy
domains such as military planning or budgeting. Increasingly,
however, anticipatory governance is becoming central to the
environmental and sustainability realm, with its long-standing
tendency towards reactive or retrospective governance, given
accelerating earth system transformations and their potentially
disruptive societal and distributional consequences. This holds also
for governance challenges associated with potentially trans-
formative and powerful emerging technologies, characterized by
strong claims of global benet but also extreme uncertainties and
contested risk, such as biotechnology, nanotechnology, geo-
engineering or synthetic biology. Anticipatory governance of novel
technological trajectories or earth system transformations requires
attention to contested aspects such as securing accountability,
ascribing responsibility, determining liability or ensuring
compensation for environmental risk or harm. Yet these conten-
tious issues, long plaguing earth system governance, become vastly
more complicated in the context of ex-ante, rather than ex-post
governance, given uncertain and unknowable (future) risk and
associated uncertain distributions of risk and harm.
Perspectives on anticipation and anticipatory governance vary
in their conceptions of the future, including the extent towhich the
future is knowable (cf. Edwards and Bulkeley, 2017) and subject to
steering. As Jasanoff suggests, it is important to consider the po-
litical implications in the present of fabrications of the future
(2015:337). For some, anticipatory governance is less about
guessing the future and more about developing a broad-based
capacity extended through society that can act on a variety of in-
puts to manage emerging knowledge-based technologies while
such management is still possible(Guston, 2014:219). For Guston,
anticipatory governance is about capacities rather than knowing or
predicting futures, with anticipation seen as practicing,
rehearsing, or exercising a capacity [rather than] divining a
future(Guston, 2014:226).
Anticipation processes thus increasingly entail imagining and
pre-experiencingpluralistic, challenging futures, in order to
question limiting assumptions about what futures may be possible,
and experiment with strategies aimed at transformational change
(Vervoort et al., 2015). Key tools here include foresight and
scenario-building exercises, which are now proliferating in
sustainability-related research and planning contexts (Wilkinson
et al., 2011;Vervoort et al., 2014a). There has nonetheless been
very little critical social science scrutiny of the multiple global,
regional and national anticipation processes (centred around
foresight, modelling and scenario building) now underway. There is
thus an urgent need for meta-analyses of anticipation processes,
including through a critical governance lens, by asking rst-order
questions of who governs, for whom and why, and examining
how the content of anticipation processes is created in ways that
shape and limit what futures can be imagined.
However, there are important disconnects between, on the one
hand, foresight research that is rooted mainly in environmental
sciences, macroeconomics and business planning, and, on the other
hand, research on climate policy and governance, rooted in the
interpretive social sciences. There is a) a lack of understanding of
foresight as a political intervention and hence the need to govern
foresight processes and b) a lack of understanding of whether and
to what extent foresight is integrated with earth system gover-
nance and policy processes. It is also important to take into account
that foresight initiatives led by civil society or private sector actors
may have very different characteristics to government-led initia-
tives in terms of how processes are organized and in terms of who
is empowered to deliver on the process. The levels of governance at
which foresight is aimed are also signicant (Zurek and Henrichs,
To support the goal of anticipating and effectively preparing
communities for the transformative social and ecological shifts that
are already under way, and to move beyond the status quo, it is
becoming clear that creative and therefore imaginative approaches
to governance are required. Imagination is a particularly important
ingredient of governance that addresses wicked problems, i.e.
those challenges that appear to have no easy or rightsolution, that
seem to defy our attempts to dene them, and that do not appear to
be solvable using traditional modes of decision-making (Rittel and
Webber, 1973). Imagination allows a transcending of such as-
sumptions and long-established myths about problem-solving,
including the assumption that wicked problems remain unsolved
due to complexity, rather than because of the habitual, unimagi-
native or politically prescient ltering out of simple but uncon-
ventional solutions.
Social imaginaries, as the creative and symbolic dimensions of
social worlds that frame imaginations (Thompson, 1984), play an
important role in directing and limiting what new approaches to
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governance can be considered. Existing (and hegemonic) social
imaginaries contribute, for example, to failures to imagine ap-
proaches to governance that are t to deal with unprecedented
challenges, or to maintaining institutionalized inequity and exclu-
sion. While decision makers have long been tasked with producing
effective strategies that address issues pertaining to the public
good, it has been argued that patterns of thought of a previous era
can create serious problems for the nextentanglement of scientic
claims in the media with ideological standpoints creates challenges
for informed public conversations about issues like climate change,
but also offers opportunities for a more engaged (and engaging)
discourse (Carvalho, 2007,2010).
Governance that explicitly recognizes the need for imagination
may thus have certain characteristics, yet this is clearly challenging
on multiple levels. These characteristics include, among others,
being reexive about the constructed nature of existing social
imaginaries and their limits, to recognize how these limits can be
overcome; being inherently participatory, recognizing that
different types and forms of knowledge enrich decision-making on
complex issues; being iterative and exible, i.e. allowing for social
learning, changing course in the event of new information; and
being systems-oriented, i.e. seeking connections between envi-
ronmental and social issues, considering ripple effects, unintended
consequences and emergent properties. The governance challenge
is to direct this imagination towards collective aims, asking critical
questions about who suffers and benets from decisions over time.
Governing by imagination can be supported by emerging tools
and methodologies (including artistic approaches, memes, visual-
izations, games, and other media) that offer unique opportunities
for the co-production of knowledge, thereby weaving together
complex and interwoven issues that offer potential for both syn-
ergies andtrade-offs. While abundant case studies exist that delve
into the promises and pitfalls of these new tools, earth system
governance research may benet from more coherent, theoretically
grounded and comparative work that captures important emerging
trends and lessons (Vervoort and Mangnus, 2018).
Interplay between anticipation and imagination
The twin imperatives of anticipation and imagination are linked,
insofar as anticipating uncertain futures is fundamentally also an
act of the imagination. As such, in bringing these notions together,
the research agenda becomes one of exploring the historical.
antecedents and understandings of anticipation, anticipatory
governance and imagination within the social science and global
change research communities, in order to ascertain whether and
how these notions are being deployed, and with what political
implications or uptake in environmental governance. A combined
research focus on the roles of anticipation and imagination in
processes of governance is underdeveloped, but urgently needed.
Research focusing on anticipation alone risks overlooking how
human imagination fundamentally frames what futures are
considered, both in terms of adapting to future challenges and in
terms of what futures are desired and how they may be achieved.
Such imagined futures have fundamentally political origins as well
as political consequences and should be researched as such.
Therefore, an integrated research agenda requires bringing
critical and interdisciplinary social science perspectives to bear on
processes of anticipation and imagination, the futures they
generate, and the ways in which they are integrated into earth
system governance processes. This includes assessing the current
state of play with regard to institutional arrangements and
normative presumptions relating to anticipation and imagination
in diverse areas of sustainability governance. A key research gap is
to analyse how processes of anticipation (i.e. planning and research
processes aimed at exploring alternative futures) relating to envi-
ronmental transformations are themselves being governed, i.e.
who is steering them, to what end, and through what deliberative
or representative processes. For instance, what institutions and
practices underpinning processes of anticipation and imagination
in earth system governance are most effective in generating desired
sustainability outcomes? Through executing elements of the above
research agenda, the aim is to shed light on the theoretical and
empirical utility of an analytical lens on anticipation and imagi-
nation within earth system governance and the role of these pro-
cesses in addressing (and redressing) the transformative
sustainability challenges of our times.
5.5. Adaptiveness and reexivity
This research lens focuses on understanding how societies can
navigate change towards global sustainability. We consider adap-
tiveness to be an umbrella term for a set of related concepts e
vulnerability, resilience, adaptation, robustness, adaptive capacity,
social learning and so on eto describe changes made by social
groups in response to, or in anticipation of, challenges created
through environmental change(Biermann et al., 2009a:45). In the
context of earth system governance, reexivity refers to the ability
of actors and institutions to critically reect on their own perfor-
mance (especially their environmental impacts), and to reshape
their goals, practices and values accordingly in order to wisely
navigate complex, contested and changing human-environmental
systems (Voß and Kemp, 2006;Dryzek, 2016). While these two
concepts overlap, adaptiveness emphasizes responses to changing
social and ecological conditions (which may be coordinated, self-
organized or emergent), while reexivity emphasizes the central-
ity of critical scrutiny of prevailing values and practices in gov-
erning processes of change.
Adaptiveness (particularly adaptive governance) has been
extensively studied over the last decade, and continues to be at the
forefront of environmental governance theory and practice (e.g.
Conway et al., 2014). Adaptiveness has been studied from multiple
angles, including collaborative governance (Emerson and Gerlak,
2014), learning (Gerlak et al., 2017;Pahl-Wostl, 2009), complexity
(Booher and Innes, 2010) and agency (Huitema and Meijerink,
2009,2010). Adaptiveness has become particularly important in
the context of climate change, which has served as the arena for
much conceptual development over the last decade. This includes a
focus on: climate adaptation governance (Bauer and Steurer, 2014;
Huitema et al., 2016;Jordan et al., 2010;Massey et al., 2014;Massey
and Huitema, 2016), policy integration (Biesbroek et al., 2014,2015;
Dupuis and Biesbroek, 2013) and mainstreaming adaptiveness into
existing activities within and beyond the state (Dovers, 2009;
Uittenbroek, 2016). Maladaptation remains an important but
under-explored topic, regarding the opening up and closing down
of future opportunity space across diverse societies (Barnett and
O'Neill, 2010). Cities have become a prominent empirical domain
for studying adaptiveness, stimulated by foundational work on
urban systems (Bai et al., 2016a;Bai et al., 2010;Bulkeley and
Betsill, 2013,2005;Bulkeley and Cast
an Broto, 2013) and policy
advocacy on the importance of adaptation in cities (World Bank,
2011,2010). Recently, climate change adaptation research has
taken a transnational turn (Biermann and Boas, 2010;Bulkeley
et al., 2014a;Dzebo and Stripple, 2015;Hall and Persson, 2017)in
the shadow of intensifying climate policy debates about the role of
adaptation within global agreements on climate change.
Questions about winners and losers (e.g. involving distributions
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of resources, risks and power), processes by which decisions are
made and with what consequences, the role of power relations, and
who decides eremain central in analysing adaptiveness and
adaptive governance arrangements. These questions have received
greater attention in recent years (Eriksen et al., 2015;Javeline,
2014;Sovacool et al., 2015). Yet on the whole, they remain vastly
under-studied and must be a key priority in earth system gover-
nance research over the next decade, especially as the intensity of
debates around climate change adaptation grow with more
frequent climate impacts manifesting over time. Social justice has
also become a prominent theme in adaptiveness literature (Adger
et al., 2017;Adger et al., 2012;Bulkeley et al., 2014b,2013;
Klinsky et al., 2017;Paavola and Adger, 2006;Schlosberg et al.,
2017). Concerns about injustice and political disempowerment in
the face of adaptation imperatives have seeded inuential argu-
ments about the need to pivot from adaptiveness (as responding to
the impacts of climate change on various vulnerable groups) to
transformation (of structural conditions that create vulnerability in
the rst place; Moser and Ekstrom, 2010;O'Brien, 2012;Park et al.,
2012;Pelling, 2011). A particular challenge for earth system
governance research over the next decade will be to understand the
politics of anticipatory adaptive action in all spheres, in climate
change and beyond. For example, how to navigate the complex
politics of adapting to climate and earth system changes in ways
that pay attention to both effectiveness and social justice, particu-
larly in contexts of failing global governance systems and weak
political responses to growing problems.
Concerns about the limits of adaptation have prompted interest
among researchers not only in the potential for transformative
governance but also in new forms of reexive governance
(Pickering, 2018). Dryzek (2016:942) argues for ecological reex-
ivity as a critical competence for reshaping institutions in the
Anthropocene, where reexivity entails a capacity to be some-
thing different rather than just do something different, which
distinguishes it from adaptive management and governance.
Dryzek's recasting of reexivity in ecological terms marks a new
turn in several decades of research on reexive governance. Earlier
interest in reexivity is often traced back to sociologists such as
Giddens (1990) and Beck (1992), who invoked the term to help
understand the implications of modernity. Scholars frequently
distinguish between rst-orderreexivity (whereby institutions
generate effects that feed back on themselves) and second-order
reexivity (whereby institutions build a capacity to critically scru-
tinize their own practices; Voß and Kemp, 2006:6e7). For Dryzek,
this kind of second-order reexivity needs to take on a distinctively
ecological character. Ecological reexivity involves listening more
effectively to an active Earth system, capacity to reconsider core
values such as justice in this light, and ability to seek, receive and
respond to early warnings about potential ecological state shifts
(Dryzek, 2016:953).
Scholars have applied ideas of reexive governance to a range of
aspects of earth system governance, including reexive governance
of sustainable development (Voß et al., 2006), energy transitions
(Hendriks and Grin, 2007), global environmental governance
(Christoff and Eckersley, 2013;Dryzek and Pickering, 2017) and
global climate governance (Stevenson, 2016). Most of these studies
nd that signs of reexivity in existing institutions are at best
limited and yield varying ndings on whether reexivity can be
cultivated from within existing institutions, or whether reexive
change requires some kind of external catalyst (such as ecological
or economic crisis, or the emergence of new social movements).
Key research challenges include developing more robust empirical
measures of reexivity (a task that has advanced considerably
further in the eld of adaptive governance), understanding why
some institutions are more reexive than others, and identifying
strategies for enhancing reexivity. Possible strategies include
opening up formal and informal spaces for knowledge creation,
learning, experimentation and debate (Dryzek and Pickering, 2017),
or countering forces that seek to suppress reexivity (e.g. actors
who spread misinformation about environmental risks or threaten
litigation against social movements that challenge the status quo;
McCright and Dunlap, 2010).
Interplay between adaptiveness and reexivity
The preceding sections have discussed the notions of adap-
tiveness and reexivity and some areas where they intersect, while
illustrating their value as distinct concepts. Crucially, processes of
reexive scrutiny could create momentum for adaptive change. At
the same time, some kinds of adaptive change could occur in non-
reexive ways, as where societies mount rapid responses to
ecological disasters in timeframes that do not allow for extended
processes of reection. In addition, reexive rethinking may result
in the judgment that merely adapting existing systems will not
sufce, instead, more thoroughgoing transformation may be
Drawing on these observations, three topics at the nexus of
adaptiveness and reexivity stand out as major new directions for
earth system governance researchers over the next decade. First, an
enduring challenge in understanding adaptiveness and reexivity
in governance is to navigate tensions between stability and exi-
bility (Biermann, 2007:331). This is because while exibility is
important for governance systems to deal with uncertain, unpre-
dictable, and non-linear forms of social and environmental change
governance systems [also] require stability to ensure that new
policies persist over sufcient timeframes to bring about desired
effects, and to stabilise expectations and enhance coordination over
time(Beunen et al., 2017). This core dilemma, surprisingly, still has
not been robustly theorized. As such, we could ask: what kinds of
governance attributes (e.g. polycentricity or centralization, exi-
bility or stability) are best suited to cultivating adaptiveness and
reexivity, and how can potential tensions between these attri-
butes be managed?
A second key issue at the intersection of adaptiveness and
reexivity is dealing with globally networked risks. A critical
empirical insight in recent years concerns the interconnected na-
ture (in often hidden ways) of a plethora of causal forces and risk.
transmission pathways affecting environmental governance.
Scholars pay increasing attention to the key causal role of factors
that may be spatially, institutionally or temporally distant from a
specic environmental issue of concern. For example, global trade
agreements, nancial investment decisions and technological
change are increasingly recognized as playing a potentiallydecisive
role in earth system governance (Galaz, 2014;Galaz et al., 2014;van
Asselt, 2014;Young, 2008). These issues are broadly being framed
as globally networked risks(Galaz et al., 2017), building on earlier
work on cascading risks across scales (Galaz et al., 2011).
Lastly, an issue which has potential to fundamentally reshape
earth system governance research over the next decade is the need
to reshape governance systems at all scales within the Anthro-
pocene. Boundary conditions upon which existing environmental.
governance systems were developed are changing in profound
ways. This includes climatic change, impacts of transgressions in
planetary boundaries and multiple simultaneous socio-economic-
political transformations unfolding globally (e.g. urbanization,
infrastructure, digital, geopolitical). Altogether this deeply chal-
lenges existing global environmental governance systems, possibly
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rendering them obsolete and wholly unprepared for the new
challenges arising.
6. Conclusions
Novel approaches and innovative concepts are needed to study
new and emerging eas well as existing eunsolved social and
environmental problems. The analytical framework presented
above represents an effort to guide and inspire the systematic study
of how societies prepare for accelerated climate change and wider
earth system change, as well as policy responses. To engage with
the changing empirical context of earth system governance
research in the coming decade, the new plan sets out democracy,
power, justice, anticipation, imagination and reexivity as critically
important research lenses. For example, who will imagine and
decide over sustainability transformations (or lack thereof) and are
their outcomes just? Architecture, agency, allocation and adap-
tiveness remain equally important lenses for understanding con-
ditions for governance and are therefore incorporated in the new
While the timeframe of this plan is the next ten years, we expect
that there will be active engagement and discussion when taking it
forward, to ensure strong relevance to governance challenges and
new scienticndings. Implementation of science plan by the
network of scholars engaged by the Earth System Governance
project is a varied and evolving task, involving mechanisms such as
the appointment of distinguished Lead Faculty, communication
among a growing cadre of Research Fellows, annual conferences,
and the facilitation of smaller-scale research projects. We expect
that this range of activities will grow and shift to enable better
participation of scholars from the Global South and low-carbon
This approach to earth system governance research described
here acknowledges diverse knowledge systems and practices and
encourages dialogue among disciplines, sciences and other ways of
knowing that often are not recognized as valid knowledge. It
therefore challenges scholars in this community to reect on the
traditions and ideologies they follow, and those of others. Finally,
the plan does not impose or privilege certain methods, but recog-
nize the wide variety of methods presently used in the community
and encourage more learning. Likewise, the plan welcomes a
combination of in-depth disciplinary research, interdisciplinary
research that weaves together the social sciences with natural
sciences and a growing transdisciplinary research effort in which
broader society is engaged to address real-world problems.
At a time unprecedented urgency for global sustainability
transition (IPCC 1.5), Earth system governance scholars are tasked
with reecting upon their role in supporting, examining and even
inuencing decisionmaking. It is clear that earth system gover-
nance research is being challenged by an increasingly complex,
contested and interlinked global context, and that many of the is-
sues that earth system governance researchers will grapple with
over the next decade will need to be tackled from outside the box of
solely the environmental governance domain. Earth system
governance scholarship addresses rapidly changing issues that
affect all sectors of society, and should be eand is eengaged with
and relevant to society. Deepening and rening this relevance,
however, is the ongoing task of the earth system governance
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