Approaching climate change mitigation policymaking in South Africa:
a view from critical complexity thinking
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Dr Emily Tyler* Energy Research Centre and African Climate and Development
Institute, University of Cape Town, Rondebosch, 7700, South Africa.
Dr Brett Cohen Department of Chemical Engineering, University of Cape Town,
Rondebosch, 7700, South Africa.
*Corresponding author: Emily@tyler.co.za
Approaching climate change mitigation policymaking in South Africa:
a view from complexity thinking
From a complexity thinking perspective, the world is understood as complex, systemic,
and only partially knowable. The particular perspective we inhabit is determinant of what
we can know. Perspective or ‘approach’ is therefore foregrounded by complexity
thinkers as an active part of knowing and acting. We take a complexity view of climate
change mitigation policymaking to argue that climate change mitigation policy
communities have a dominant approach, which determines both our understanding of the
climate change mitigation policy problem, and how we respond to it. To construct this
argument, we first summarise and describe the existence of a hegemonic scientific and
cultural worldview. We use multi-disciplinary literatures to demonstrate how this
worldview operates in the approach of the international climate change mitigation policy
community. Finally, we draw on empirical datasets to describe how the influence of this
worldview characterises the dominant approach of the South African climate change
mitigation policy community.
That climate change mitigation policy communities have a dominant approach means
that, whilst aspects of the complex policy situation are illuminated by this approach,
others are obscured. It is clear from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change
report on 1.5°C warming that policymakers are not yet responding adequately to the
problem. If approach determines what we see and how we act, it follows that approach
can be interrogated as an active site of the policy challenge. A complexity view, for
instance, enables us to see differently, emphasising perspective, impartial knowledge,
non-linearities and emergence in complexity and complex systems. This in turn has
implications for our policymaking.
• Policymakers should explore how an understanding of approach informs climate
change mitigation policymaking.
• Climate change mitigation policy communities should critically examine the
underlying assumptions and worldviews that influence both how we encounter climate
change mitigation and how we act upon it.
• An appreciation of ‘approach’ demands skills not typically valued or taught to climate
change mitigation policymakers, with implications for climate change mitigation policy
curricula and the composition of policymaking teams
• Complexity thinking opens up spaces for policymaking currently obscured by the
dominant climate change mitigation policy approaches.
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) special report on
global warming of 1.5˚C (2018) shows clearly that humanity is not yet responding with
the urgency commensurate to the climate change challenge, a quintessentially
‘complex’ policy problem (Fankhauser & Stern, 2016; Levin, Cashore, Bernstein, &
Rittel and Webber (1973) first claimed a category of policy problem that was
complex (they used the term ‘wicked’), as being different to the problems that scientists
and engineers routinely deal with. Since then, the characteristics of complex problems
have been engaged with across the academy. Ackoff (1974) wrote of ‘messes’ out of
which policymakers extracted ‘difficulties’, which are simple problems that can be
solved, but which do not attend to the underlying ‘mess’. Schön (1987, p.28) writes of a
‘swampy lowland, [where] messy, confusing problems defy technical solution’ and yet
this swamp is also where the problems of the ‘greatest human concern’ lie. Morgan et
al. (1999) write of complex global change problems as having multiple decision makers
and constituencies; impacts at the margin that can be neither valued nor managed;
unknown, endogenous, and dynamic values; time preferences that cannot be accurately
described by discounting; large and unmanageable uncertainties; and as being
systemically subject to complex and non-linear interactions.
The emerging field of complexity thinking applied to policymaking (see for
example Cairney & Geyer (2015)), suggests that complex policy problems - or rather,
– have their own particularities, and require an appreciation of the
dynamics of complexity and complex systems to effectively respond to them.
A reflexive turn in complexity thinking led by philosophers Cilliers (see for
example (2000)) and Morin (2006) foregrounds the complexity principle of
‘unknowability’ (Richardson & Cilliers, 2001). Complex systems cannot be fully
known, rather, aspects of them are accessed by the observer and informed by their
perspective or worldview. Perspective in complexity thinking is not passive; simple
rules, norms or concepts reflexively created by social agents themselves re-enter a
social complex system to influence it (Byrne & Callaghan, 2014; Ison, 2010).
Following from this, different worldviews are not neutral in our global society. Some
have more power than others, and their influence and dominance wax and wane over a
timeframe of centuries (Capra, 1974). The current dominant worldview (at least in the
western world) is termed in the literature as, for example, that of classical science
(Dombkins, 2014) or modernity (Stirling, 2019). Complexity thinking has been
described as an alternative worldview, whose philosophical underpinnings depart from
the reductionist and deterministic characteristics of the current hegemony (Morin,
In this paper, we respond to the proposition of complexity thinking that
perspective has agency in climate change mitigation (CCM) policymaking, at an
international and national (South African) scale. Both authors are long-standing
members of the South African CCM policy community, therefore the choice of South
The term “problem” suggests that finding a solution is an appropriate response. In complexity,
problems are not solved, but rather are progressed as the ‘messy’ systemic environment
evolves (Ackoff, 1974; Rittel & Webber, 1973; Schon, 1987).
Africa for the case was pragmatic; the authors have no reason to believe that the role of
perspective in South African CCM policymaking is any more or less significant than in
other countries. Because of the development challenges in South Africa, in addition to
those of climate change mitigation, this consideration is highlighted in our analysis.
The term ‘approach’ is used here to denote a perspective that informs action in a
policy community - defined here as a group of people attending to a particular policy
area. Approach is therefore social in its conceptualisation,(following Wenger (2000)
and Khun (1962). Ison (2010, p.5) summarises well this paper’s concept of approach as
the largely tacit set of assumptions, beliefs, and paradigms or worldviews from which a
policy community operates; ‘how we do what we do when we do what we do’.
‘Approach’ is largely invisible in traditional policy literatures.
The paper proceeds by outlining the methodology used to research approach in
the international, and South African, CCM policy communities. A complexity thinking
perspective is briefly introduced, which provides the conceptual reference point for the
paper. Arguments that a dominant scientific and cultural worldview exists are
summarised and, referencing a multi-disciplinary literature, it is proposed that this
worldview is active in the international CCM policy community.
Using a set of qualitative research initiatives, the existence and operation of this
dominant worldview in the South African CCM policy community is demonstrated in
detail, specifically identifying and characterising a ‘dominant approach’.
The paper then returns to a complexity view and the concept of complex policy
situations to argue that the influence of the dominant worldview on CCM policymaking
both illuminates and obscures aspects of the CCM policy situation. This situation is
contrasted with a perspective from complexity, and implications for policymakers of
accessing a complexity approach are presented. From here, the paper concludes by
proposing that approach should be an active site of CCM policymaking attention.
Literature and research methodology
The argument for a dominant worldview is not new, and a multi-disciplinary
literature to articulate this worldview is drawn upon for the purposes of the paper.
Similarly, the influence of this worldview on international CCM policymaking has been
considered in various ways by different authors across disciplines. Here, this disparate
literature is summarised to demonstrate this influence.
To research and exemplify the details of the dominant approach of the South
African CCM policy community, two initiatives conducted in 2014 under the auspices
of the MAPS Programme are drawn upon. MAPS was a five-year, multi-country
programme to assist developing countries explore pathways to climate compatibility
. This programme had unique methodological features
(Kane & Boulle, 2018) which enabled the relevance of approach to both emerge and be
The first initiative was the inclusion of a set of nine South African development
practitioners in an academic conference, the DevMit Forum
www.mapsprogramme.org/workshops/development-mitigation-forum). The Forum was
a gathering of just under one hundred CCM policy practitioners from predominantly
developing countries in Cape Town, South Africa, to engage with the challenge of CCM
policymaking in a development context. The so-called ‘Development Provocateurs’
For a full account of these evidence sources see Tyler (2019).
represented different development fields and were tasked with observing and engaging
in the three day event. The Provocateurs reflected on their experience in a series of
briefing notes (compiled in Forum on Development and Mitigation, Provocateur
Briefings, Tyler (Ed.), 2014)
which are used here to evidence the approach of the South
African CCM policy community.
The second initiative was a series of eight facilitated, multi-disciplinary focus
groups comprising South African CCM and development practitioners. Each focus
group, or ‘Conversation’, had a different development theme, including transport,
adaptation, cities, finance, poverty, employment, consumption, and economic growth.
The open-ended agenda of each group enabled the contrasting of the different
approaches of the CCM and development communities. The audio recordings of
individual Conversations are cited here according to its particular theme (e.g. ‘Transport
Conversation’). A final focus group comprised only South African CCM community
members, who were invited to reflect on their experiences conversing with their
development counterparts in the various Conversations.
The research relies further on a secondary analysis of a series of interviews with
members of the South African CCM community, also conducted in 2014. Whilst the
interviews directly focused on understanding the Long Term Mitigation Scenario
(LTMS) process, indirectly they reveal aspects of approach. The reference to the
original interview data is cited as ‘LTMS Interviews’, to maintain anonymity in a small
In addition to these three datasets, the authors draw on literature reflecting on
South African CCM policy community approach from outside the community, together
Archived at https://mapsprogramme.org/category/themes/development-and-mitigation/
with some rare reflections from within. The dominant approach in specific policy
documents and processes is also evidenced.
Paradigms, worldviews and approaches evolve over long timeframes.
Therefore, these 2014 datasets are deemed to remain valid at the time of writing. The
authors remain engaged in South African CCM policymaking and have observed no
substantial evolution in approach. Whilst the focus of the South African CCM policy
community has expanded (for example, to include attention to power (Rennkamp,
2019)) it is maintained, following Ison (2010) that, in order for approach to evolve, an
appreciation of it being present in the first place is required.
A view from complexity thinking
As complexity thinking provides the conceptual frame for the arguments presented in
this paper, some time is spent elaborating a complexity view before proceeding. Given
that the field of complexity and complex systems thinking is far larger and more diverse
than what is possible to convey here, the focus is placed on themes of particular
relevance to arguments in later sections.
From a complexity thinking perspective, the universe as we know it is a
complex system. It is comprised of complex systems, which overlap and are themselves
nested within complex systems. As networked phenomena, connections and inter-
linkages are therefore more useful in understanding complex systems than the
individual system agents (Cairney, 2013). Complex systems are emergent, meaning they
are unpredictable and generative. They are non-linear; there is disproportionality
between cause and effect. Tipping points can develop in a system or sub-system, which
if breached can result in system collapse or fundamental re-ordering. Feedback loops
connect the output of a complex system to a series of interactions, which then feedback
at the original output point in a circular manner, producing path dependencies (Walby,
2007). These non-linear features of complex systems, combined with changes in a
system’s environment, counter self-organising stabilities and prevent equilibrium or
stasis from ever being achieved - complex systems are typically non-equilibric (Dunn et
al., 2017). Complex causality is systemic, multiple, multi-dimensional, path dependent
Norms, values and beliefs are inherent in complex social systems, forming part
of a system’s patterning, and influencing its emergent properties. Any attempt to
influence a complex system is therefore necessarily a normative exercise, meaning all
human action involves a moral frame and ideally requires the tools and methods of a
complex ethics (Shine, 2015; Wells, 2013). Diversity in values, norms and beliefs are
sources of creativity and generativity in complex systems (Stirling, 2014).
Power is also inherent in complex social systems, contributing to how humans
self-organise. Wood and Givel (2014) conceptualise patterns of power as complex
systems themselves, which influence systemic patterning and play a role in systemic
change. The pattern of social institutions existing in a complex social system is
informed by the system’s history and memory, which interacts over time with internal
and external change in a non-linear manner. Institutions contribute to the structure of
complex social systems, providing stability but also inertia.
Complex policymaking itself has been described as a journey (Shine, 2015),
reflecting a shift in focus away from content, plans and evidence towards principles,
process and emergent strategies; a re-ordering of policy priorities and leverage points,
all premised on the complexity observations that top-down control of a complex social
system is impossible (Dombkins, 2014), and that everything is systemically
interconnected. As such, complex policymaking demands skills not conventionally
taught in policy or climate and energy courses, nor assessed for in the composition of
The dominant scientific and cultural worldview
Capra (1974) describes western science and culture as being dominated, since the
Middle Ages, by a particular worldview. Others, across the academy and society, offer
similar reflections (Bhaskar, 2010; Haraway, 1998; Kuhn, 1962; Ravetz & Funtowicz,
1999; Sheldrake, 2012). In Capra’s formulation, this worldview is defined by the
reductive scientific method of Newton and Descartes (‘classical science’), and social
systems of patriarchy and environmental extraction.
The dominant metaphor of this worldview is that of a machine: a compilation of
parts which, when assembled into a whole, constitutes the sum of these parts, nothing
more and nothing less (Ashby, 1962). This metaphor is applied to all aspects of the
world: humans, human bodies, knowledge, technology, nature and the universe.
From within this worldview, nature is inherently ordered (Morin, 2006), and
people are assumed to be homogenous, rational and logical. This finds particular
expression in the assumption of the ‘rational actor’ in orthodox economics. Social life is
viewed as a competitive struggle for existence (Capra, 1974), with an emphasis on the
individual above community, and separateness and independence above connection and
interdependency. These views and beliefs saturate the western cultural environment,
determining the cultural normative, and shaping identity (King, 2015).
The classical scientific method is deterministic, aiming for prediction and
control, and separating and abstracting ever-smaller units for isolated and in-depth
analysis. In a deterministic world, uncertainty is considered to be abnormal, something
to be managed through assessment, quantification and ultimately control (Jasanoff,
2007). As such, the classical scientific endeavour has achieved an incredibly detailed
understanding of parts, and respect for experts and expertise, reflecting this detail. From
determinism flows the assumption that the future is knowable and unfolds in a linear
fashion through singular, linear causal drivers (Fazey et al., 2018) with certainty as the
general condition (Jasanoff, 2007). Time is viewed as ‘invariant, infinitely divisible
[into] space-like units… expressible as a number and reversible’ (Urry, 2005, p. 4).
The classical scientific method prizes objectivity, a separation between observer
and the observed, where the observer is neutral, and is neither influenced by, nor
influences, the observed. This assumption of objectivity supports the aim of generating
universalisms, and generic ‘truth’. Ultimately this method assumes that, with enough
research and knowledge, the world is understandable, and this knowledge can then be
directed towards the modernist project of progress as delivered through technology and
industrialisation, where the principles of efficiency and optimisation hold sway. Values
are assumed to lie outside of this process, and to have no bearing on it (Ravetz &
Funtowicz, 1999). Quantification is prized as a way of knowing, and topics less
available to quantification, particularly social and human dimensions, are less studied,
and correspondingly less visible as areas of relevance.
Within academia, the hegemony of this worldview has led to an ‘epistemic
exceptionalism’ (Leyshon, 2014) of the classical scientific method which is
concentrated in the natural (Poli, 2013) and applied natural sciences but also maintained
throughout the academy to varying degrees (Heylighen, Cilliers, & Gershenson, 2007).
In society, the modernist, machine-like focus on progress has led to significant
achievements in medicine, science and engineering (Dombkins, 2014). This progress
has been attained within a basic model of top-down organisation of society and
perceived control (King, 2015). Managerialism in public policy and technocratic views
The reductionism and determinism of the dominant scientific and cultural
worldview stands in stark contrast to the relational, emergence and inherent uncertainty
of complexity thinking. For policymaking, whilst the dominant worldview emphasises
prediction and control, a complexity perspective foregrounds agility, responsiveness and
processes to nudge complex systemic evolution in a desirable direction.
The influence of the dominant worldview in international CCM policy: a
Many commentators have written of how the dominant worldview (or aspects of it) is
evident in international CCM policymaking.
The natural sciences dominate and determine other disciplines’ terms of entry
to CCM policy
The provenance of climate change mitigation lies within the natural sciences
which Leyshon argues ‘condition[s] the terms of entry’ for other disciplines attending to
the issue (2014, p. 363). CCM policy has therefore come to be dominated by
engineering and economics, disciplines strongly aligned with the classical scientific
method of the natural sciences (Nightingale et al., 2019; Corbera, Calvet-Mir, Hughes,
& Paterson, 2015; Leyshon, 2014; Byrne, Smith, Watson, & Ockwell, 2011;
Rommetveit, Funtowicz, & Strand, 2010; Shove, 2010)
. Where other disciplines are
Corbera et al. (2015) find that 49% of the authors in Working Group III (WGIII) of the IPCC’s
Fifth Assessment Report (AR5) for whom the researchers were able to get data on highest
academic training, were economists and engineers, a percentage rising to 58% of the
influential Coordinating Lead Authors responsible for drafting the Summary for
engaged in CCM policy, it is predominantly the orthodoxies within these disciplines,
similarly aligned to classical science, such as psychology, geography and environmental
studies (Shove, 2010).
Corbera et al. (2015, p.1) find that, within IPCC Working Group III (WGIII),
whose focus is mitigation
, ‘disciplinary biases...constrain how climate change is known
and acted on, with only certain forms of knowledge and expertise authorized to
construct a problem with global implications’.
Leyshon (2014) and Hulme (2009) problematize how climate change has come
to be known as a problem of excessive greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions to be solved
by reduction or avoidance, with social scientists having been forced into an ‘end-of-the-
pipe’ and auxiliary role, one that prioritises supporting and interpreting natural scientific
and technological developments for decision makers (see Leyshon (2014)). Classical
science is therefore seen as providing the ‘truth’ upon which CCM policy can act, and a
key CCM policy community activity then becomes enabling and facilitating this
(classical) science-policy interface.
A classical view underpins the CCM community’s understanding of the
Classical mental models such as Lasswell’s (1951) policy cycle do not enable
interrogation of the climate change policymaking process itself, leaving this as a black
box (Wellstead, Howlett, & Rayner, 2015), using a policy design and planning approach
that is completed up-front by experts and then sequentially implemented and delivered
by others (Dombkins, 2014). Such an approach significantly simplifies social aspects
such as governance, what motivates people (Geels, Berkhout, & Vuuren, 2016) and
The IPCC is described as the pre-eminent scientific community attending to climate change.
what enables long term policies to endure (Levin et al., 2012; Steinberg, 2009). This
approach also assumes that the CCM policy community is separate to the CCM policy
situation, and can objectively act upon it.
The CCM policy community has focused on content over process (Leyshon,
2014; Shove, 2010; Jasanoff, 2010), which Giddens (2009) terms the ‘what’ rather than
the ‘how’ of policymaking.
CCM policymaking privileges the technocratic above the social
CCM policymaking is found to prioritise technology, finance, managerialist
approaches and market-oriented solutions (Woiwode, 2013; Byrne et al., 2011; Boyd,
Grist, Juhola, & Nelson, 2009). There is a broader CCM policy bias towards price
instruments (Nightingale et al., 2019; Geels et al., 2016). Factors such as political
economy, power and institutions, whilst cited as being important to CCM policy, have
historically seldom been afforded focused attention (Nightingale et al, 2019; Geels,
2014; IPCC, 2014a; Giddens, 2009). This is starting to change (IPCC, 2018).
An approach predicated on ‘knowability’ and control
As a policy issue, climate change has been separated into ‘adaptation’ and
‘mitigation’, and is understood to be the result of humans acting on the environment
(Nightingale et al., 2019). The ‘solution’ is to ‘control’ these impacts. There is no
consideration that there may be other perspectives or ways of knowing or responding to
the policy situation (Nightingale et al., 2019)
We are aware that we are perpetuating this separation in this paper, by exclusively focusing on
‘mitigation’ as a policy issue, a practice criticised from outside the dominant worldview (see
A central policy activity of the CCM policy community has been that of
developing long-term, coherent, CCM policy scenarios at a global and country level
(Rommetveit et al., 2010)
. A ‘global planner’ is assumed, with 'perfect foresight'
between now and the end of the century, allowing for the identification of lowest cost
pathways (Grubb, Hourcade, & Neuhoff, 2014, p. 411). Quantitative energy, economic
or ‘integrated assessment’ modelling regularly underpins this type of analysis,
projecting future GHG emissions trajectories against a particular emissions target, and
identifying alternative trajectories for the economy and relying on assumptions around
economic structure, growth rates and available technologies.
From here, mitigation actions are assumed to happen sequentially and at the
margin (Fankhauser & Stern, 2016). Where more substantial change is considered, this
is largely understood as technical (as opposed to societal) change. The primary
conceptualisation is linear as opposed to systemic, although the 2018 IPCC special
report on 1.5°C demonstrated a far greater appreciation of climate change mitigation as
a challenge of complex systems transformation.
Nightingale et al. (2019) for a recent argument). However, we feel this is justified in order
to communicate between worldviews.
Examples include the Special Report on Emissions Scenarios (Nakicenovic et al., 2000), and
the subsequent Representative Concentration Pathways (Van Vuuren et al., 2011), the
Pathways to Deep Decarbonisation Programme (Sustainable Development Solutions
Network and Institute for Sustainable Development and International Relations, 2014), and
the MAPS Programme processes in Latin America. Corbera et al. (2015) describe modelling
chapters as being at the ‘heart’ of the IPCC’s AR5, WGIII.
‘Development’ is viewed from a climate centric perspective of orthodox
Enabling developing countries to develop has been a long-standing theme of the
international CCM process. However, this theme has been dominated by a particular
‘climate-centric’ framing (Hourcade, Shukla, & Cassen, 2015; Winkler, Boyd, Torres
Gunfaus, & Raubenheimer, 2015), in other words, low carbon development is
considered from a climate change rather than development point of view.
The development theme is also informed by a particular model of national
development within an international context. This model is underlain by the assumption
that developing countries lack sufficient endogenous entrepreneurial capacity, and
hence rely on external sources of technological innovation to develop, a model which
inherently justifies and perpetuates extraction and colonisation (Juma, 2014). This is
reflected in international CCM negotiations where ‘developing countries’ argue for both
access to global GHG emissions space and international financial and technical
assistance to enable alternatives to ‘business as usual’ development paths
The Clean Development Mechanism (CDM) under the Kyoto Protocol and
Nationally Appropriate Mitigation Action (NAMA) mechanisms under the United
Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) have tied up much of
the CCM policy capacities of developing countries over the past two decades in
perpetuation of this narrative, whilst being framed by international CCM policy as
issues of national appropriateness and national sovereignty (Winkler & Dubash, 2015;
Tyler, Boyd, Coetzee, Torres Gunfaus, & Winkler, 2014).
Corbera et al. (2015) have observed the domination of Northern voices within the IPCC, which may influence this particular
framing. Similarly, the literature on NAMAs is written almost exclusively by developed country researchers (Tyler, Coetzee,
Torres Gunfaus, Boyd, & Winkler, 2012).
Grubb et al. (2014) point to another assumption on how economic development
occurs that they argue has hampered mitigation-development policy efforts: that
transformations in the energy sector have no implication for economic progress. The
economic and energy systems are treated separately in orthodox economics, and
separately optimised in economic modelling. Energy is, for most countries, the key
driver of emissions, yet is obscured by this assumption from being seen as central in the
Possible reasons for why the hegemonic worldview has prevailed in
approaching CCM policy
It is worth briefly considering three possible reasons why the hegemonic
worldview is so concentrated in approaches to CCM policy. First, Becher (1987)
reflects that the tacit knowledge of disciplines, or ‘approach’, reflects aspects of the
fields which they attend. The natural science provenance of CCM policy is one of these
aspects, and its formal emergence onto the international policy agenda in the 1990s at
the height of modernist and neo-classical intellectual and cultural hegemony is another.
Second, CCM policy presents a systemic and fatal challenge to the dominance of
the fossil fuel political economy. CCM policy advocates have had to defend themselves
against a powerful, long-standing, well-resourced and active opposition. This opposition
operates from deep within the dominant worldview, only admitting evidence and
knowledge developed through classical scientific method. To defend against this
sustained attack, CCM policy communities have largely focused on refuting it within
the same worldview, given its cultural hegemony.
Third, Corbera et al. (2015) suggest that exclusion of disciplines and
knowledges may be necessary to attain consensus on policy advice. They note a
stronger harmonisation of views within IPCC WG III, which has tended to be
dominated by economists and engineers, than when research on climate change within
the broader social science community is considered.
A brief overview of the South African CCM policy framework
Before demonstrating the influence of the dominant worldview on the South African
CCM policy community’s approach, a brief overview of South African CCM policy is
South Africa is an emissions intensive middle-income developing country, with
high levels of poverty and inequality. Climate change mitigation surfaced as a national
policy issue at the time of the country’s democratic transition, just subsequent to the
establishment of the UNFCCC in 1992. The LTMS planning process of 2007/8 was
foundational in translating climate change mitigation into a national context, evaluating
possible developmental implications, constituting the climate change policy community
and generating data on mitigation options (Tyler & Torres Gunfaus, 2017).
South Africa is now an active member of the UN climate change process,
responding to international reporting requirements and often advancing a developing
country leadership position in its policy submissions (Chandrashekeran et al, 2017).
Domestically, CCM policy is firmly established and institutionalised in the Department
of Environmental Affairs’ (DEA) (now Environment, Forestry and Fisheries (DEFF))
Climate Change and Air Quality branch, with the overarching policy position set out in
the 2011 National Climate Change Response White Paper (NCCRWP). In addition to
GHG mitigation, the NCCRWP policy objectives are supportive of development
priorities, and both GHG mitigation and development objectives are addressed through
the concept of a transition.
The DEA describes the key elements of the evolving South African CCM policy
in its Third Biennial Update Report to the UNFCCC (DEA, 2019) as including the
development of Sectoral Emissions Targets (SETS), an economy-wide carbon tax
including offsets, a system of company level carbon budgets, a draft Climate Change
Bill, regulatory standards, policies and measures, GHG pathways and Near-Term
Priority Flagship programmes. A GHG Emissions Benchmark Trajectory Range has
been developed against which progress is being measured.
Despite this broad mitigation policy architecture, CCM policy has encountered
significant challenges to implementation (Trollip & Boulle, 2017). Notably, the
electricity sector, which contributes around 46% of the country’s emissions, is not
subject to any meaningful emissions constraint (Tyler, forthcoming).
Observing and exemplifying the influence of the hegemonic worldview in the
South African CCM policy community
This section proceeds to identify and describe in detail the authors’ empirical
observations on the dominant approach to South African CCM policymaking.
Rationality and objectivity prevail at the expense of values and ‘heart’
The South African CCM policy community appeals routinely to the classical
science tenets of rationality and objectivity, devoid of the notion of values and emotion.
One of the DevMit Forum Provocateurs observed the community’s reliance on ‘good
objective science’ to inform rational planning and decision making (Kane, 2014), and a
second that ‘climate change is clearly about statistics and science’ (Kumar, 2014, p. 3).
The first CCM policy conference (2005) was held adjacent to the room holding
the annual African climate science research conference, specifically to reinforce the
position that South Africa’s response should be based on science (LTMS interviews,
2014). The subsequent LTMS process formalized the connection between the country’s
scientific research capacity and its climate policy (Rafey, 2013). The NCCRWP
exemplifies the elevating of science, anticipating ‘in-depth assessment of the mitigation
potential, best available mitigation options, science, evidence and a full assessment of
the costs and benefits’ (RSA, 2011, p. 5).
Values, and what is valued in South African society, are seldom highlighted in
South African CCM policy documents. Where values are incorporated, this is done as
‘policy principles’ (NPC, 2011; RSA, 2011), and presented as consensual and static,
separate from ‘objective scientific analysis’. The National Planning Commission
(NPC)’s Just Transition initiative of 2018/19 was an exception; values were central to
the initiative, which sought to develop a vision of a 2050 low carbon society (NPC,
Similarly, the Provocateurs noted that there is no place for emotion in CCM
policy; it is unpeopled and has no ‘heart’ (Mistry, 2014; Kumar, 2014). A deeply
emotionally evocative keynote presentation at the DevMit Forum was awkwardly
received, and later described in plenary as ‘cheeky’ (Kane, 2014). The Adaptation
Conversation reflected that whilst ‘adaptation is hard to measure; mitigation is hard to
feel’. Conversely, the CCM community Reflective Conversation suggested a collective
understanding that ‘we need objectivity’. The LTMS lead facilitator wrote that climate
change in South Africa in 2005 required ‘a national conversation… in which emotion is
stripped out of the equation and trusted and reliable data inserted in its place’
(Raubenheimer, 2011, p. 3).
Approaches to CCM policy are disjunctive and abstract
The South African CCM policy community has a detailed understanding of
GHG emissions and mitigation technologies embedded in separate sectors (DEA, n.d.).
However, it predominantly only pays attention to the interconnections between sectors
through the lens of quantitative energy and economic modelling, where linkages are
represented by formalised equations (SBT, 2007; DEA, 2014). The two primary
mitigation policy instruments, the carbon tax and carbon budgets, are being developed
by the National Treasury (NT) and DEA respectively, with significant issues of
misalignment. Institutions for CCM policy alignment generally remain ineffective
(Chandrashekeran, Morgan, Coetzee, & Christoff, 2017).
Similarly, the South African CCM policy community abstracts, and
insufficiently engages with, context (Chandrashekeran et al., 2017), including across the
dimensions of history, the physical environment, scale, culture, institutions, people,
space and time. One DevMit Provocateur commented how ‘the city and neighbourhood
scale discussion was largely missing [at the DevMit Forum]’ (Kumar, 2014, p. 3), with
another noticing a lack of attention to the meso and local policymaking levels (Van
Ryneveld, 2014). An interviewee noted that the national government tends to be rather
suspicious of cities (LTMS Interviews, 2014). A further Provocateur reflected that the
South African CCM community focused on a linear, long-term (to 2050) concept of
time, encapsulated in ‘often abstract’ scenarios (Ramkolowan, 2014). In the transport
sector, the South African CCM policy community focuses on quantifying emissions
from various transport technologies but ignores aspects such as travel time and distance
(Transport Conversation). Space was also noted as being conspicuously absent at the
DevMit Forum by two DevMit Provocateurs, who identified the Apartheid legacy of
spatial segregation as an important contributor to the country’s high emissions and low
employment growth path (Black, 2014; Kane, 2014).
Climate change mitigation is situated firmly within the sustainability discourse
surrounding environmental issues in the country, a positioning nurtured by the DEA in
the NCCRWP (Forti, 2013) and Nationally Determined Contribution (NDC), and
accepted across government (as evidenced by climate change mitigation being placed in
the environmental chapter of the National Development Plan). This institutionalisation
has entrenched CCM policy’s climate science provenance, and exacerbated the
disjunction between mitigation and development. Both at international and national
level, economic institutions tend to have more power and influence than the
environmental ones, as is the case in South Africa (Forti, 2013; Rafey, 2013).
Forti (2013, p. 72) found that the South African CCM policy community
perceives climate change mitigation to be ‘in a different box, detached from socio-
economic issues’, and Mistry observes that 'cutting emissions is the ultimate [CCM]
target' (2014, p. 32). An LTMS Interviewee (2014) reflected that the government
stakeholders to the South African CCM policy community routinely consider
development as an afterthought to technical climate change mitigation aspects.
In South Africa, this disjunction is predominantly evidenced in the CCM policy
modelling heartland, where mitigation pathways are modelled as being distinct from the
baseline, which extrapolates current economic structures and policy pathways into the
future assuming climate change does not exist. Mitigation trajectories can then be
assessed for their development impacts, and retrospectively re-engineered in an abstract
modelling exercise to bring the two closer together (Altieri et al., 2016; Winkler et al.,
2015). Whilst South Africa’s NDC moves away from a baseline, this abstraction
continues to play a powerful role through its determination of the NDC targets (DEA,
The South African CCM policy community seldom engages in development
forums (South African CCM policy community Reflections Conversation, Tyler, 2019)
and does not appear to understand the languages and disciplinary norms of the
development community (Conversation Series, 2014).
Traditional policy assumptions frame the policymaking function
A DevMit Provocateur observed how the CCM policy community assumes that
governments are in control of their nation and cities (Kumar, 2014). From this
assumption of control flows another, that top-down policy targets are effective at
achieving that control. The NCCRWP conceives of a top-down cascade of mitigation
targets; from sector to company level carbon budgets, a formulation that has proven
extremely challenging to implement. These assumptions were evidenced in the defence
of the GHG Emissions Benchmark Trajectory Range by some within the South African
policy community, stating that a review (being called for by business stakeholders at the
time) would ‘fundamentally undermine all the work that is happening in South Africa’
(LTMS interviews, 2014).
The DEA identifies mitigation policies as including regulatory instruments, economic
instruments, government procurement programmes and direct and indirect investment
by government (DEA, 2017), demonstrating a policy bias towards control, economics
and finance. Innovation is also considered by the South African CCM policy
community as largely pertaining to technology (neither process nor policy innovation
are mentioned in the NCCRWP).
The South African CCM policy community believes that demonstrating a
technologically and financially feasible path of mitigation action is useful
(Chandrashekeran et al., 2017), and has generated a substantial quantitative information
base about mitigation technologies, underpinned by the assumptions that more
knowledge and information, and better and more skilled expert analyses, are desirable
(Kane & Boulle, 2018; Rafey, 2013). The NCCRWP has ‘an enthusiasm for dynamic
and evidence-based policy’ (Rafey, 2013). This worldview emphasises the
accumulation of knowledge as a basis for action, assuming that certainty is the general
condition and causality is linear: the better the world is known, the more mitigation
action will result. Provocateurs reflected on the quantitative and technical nature of
South African CCM policy community tools and outputs: ‘Many of the research outputs
presented over the DevMit Forum were framed [like this -] as tables, models, graphs,
charts’ (Kane, 2014, p. 5); The discourse focused on technical tools and models that
could measure co-benefits… and multi-criteria decision making dominates (Mistry,
2014); one was struck by ‘how strongly technocratic much of the discussion… was’
(Verwey, 2014, p. 5); another noted that most of the small-scale innovations considered
were ‘technology improvements rather than community/citywide civil society
processes’ (Kumar, 2014, p. 4).
Finally, two Provocateurs noted that the CCM policy community scarcely
considers or understands implementation (Kumar, 2014; Van Ryneveld, 2014), a view
backed up from commentary within the South African CCM community (Kane &
Boulle, 2018; Trollip, Torres Gunfaus, & Du Toit, 2015). One Provocateur observed
that implementation is about ‘deal making and negotiations’, and that this is not
something that the South African CCM community understands at all (Kumar, 2014,
The recent NPC workstream on developing a just low carbon vision is starkly
different to South African CCM policymaking in the main. This work, conducted in
2018 and 2019, took a strongly bottom-up, value-based and consultative approach,
involving grassroots consultations in all nine provinces to develop a 2050 vision for a
low carbon and just South Africa, and pathways to achieve this (NPC, 2019).
Power and the social are ignored
Beginning with the LTMS, the South African CCM policy community has
ignored power (LTMS Interviews, 2014), despite the implications of the South African
CCM policy objectives being a sizeable re-organisation of the current political
economic incumbents and institutions (Burton & Winkler, 2014). In his critique of the
LTMS, Hallowes argues that ‘the LTMS doggedly abstracts its analysis from social
power relations’ (2008, p. 30).
This neglect of engaging with power and politics by the South African CCM
policy community was highlighted by one Provocateur, who noted that a presentation of
modelling work on the impact of a carbon tax in South Africa showing a fall in the rate
of employment did not emphasise the political unacceptability of this outcome (Black,
2014). A further Provocateur (Ramkolowan, 2014) reflected that it is not clear if there is
sufficient focus by the South African CCM policy community on identifying winners
and losers, and identifying the opportunity costs, for any [mitigation] interventions.
Another Provocateur observed that the South African CCM policy community treats
humans ‘as somewhat homogenous and atom-like… [and the South African CCM
policy community’s worldview] is quite removed from thinking about a social, political,
cultural, historical, gendered world, which finds (and celebrates) diversity and
difference’ (Kane, 2014, p. 5).
This neglect of power relations has confounded implementation of CCM policy
in the country, evidenced by the successful resistance of emissions constraints by the
electricity sector (Tyler, forthcoming). Increasingly, however, the South African CCM
policy community is turning attention to the relevance of power and institutions to the
South African CCM challenge (Rennkamp, 2019; Trollip, Forthcoming).
The world is portrayed as deterministic and linear
In the South African CCM policy community, models orientated towards
neoclassical economics, optimisation and equilibrium (Lane-Visser, 2015) are observed
by Rafey (2013) to be key policy analytical tools. Notable examples of these include the
LTMS, the Mitigation Potential Analysis, the pathways to Deep Decarbonisation
Programme (Altieri et al., 2015) and carbon tax modelling (for example Caetano &
Thurlow, 2014). One Provocateur observed that the CCM community considers lack of
knowledge to be a deficiency (Mistry, 2014), whist another describes the community as
viewing ‘the future as an island waiting to be discovered’ through accurate data and
improved models (Kane, 2014, p.5).
South Africa’s ‘GHG Emissions Benchmark Trajectory Range’ (DEA, 2011)
captures uncertainty over emissions to the single tonne up to 2050, prioritising
quantitative accuracy but leaving no possibility for engaging with emissions levels
outside of this range. This approach is sustained despite the recognition that economic
(and likely energy) modelling is better suited to explaining timeframes three to five
years hence (Economic Growth Conversation).
Until recently, the South African CCM policy community has not engaged head-
on with structural transformation of the South African electricity and energy sectors,
and hence economy, implicit in its decarbonisation commitments (Tyler, forthcoming).
Instead change has been understood to be linear, to be defined by GHG emissions
indicators, and to occur largely at the margin in the realm of macro-economics,
technology and energy systems. However, the narrative of a just transition, and the
current Eskom debt and security of supply crisis in the South African electricity sector,
is destabilising these notions and infiltrating policy discourse (DEFF, forthcoming;
Technical expertise is valued above collaboration with other communities
One Provocateur reflected on South African CCM policy as an isolated field and
practice, one which loves talking to itself [as academics, policymakers and
practitioners] and ‘forget[s)\] there is a ‘real’ world out there consisting of other change
agents e.g. …opinion formers and marketers’ (Mistry, 2014, p.4). In the Adaptation
Conversation, there were calls to ‘demystify the conversation, make it less scientific and
more tangible’, along with appeals against jargon in the Poverty Conversation.
The South African CCM community is reported as both valuing and generating
sophisticated knowledge and expertise (Worthington, 2014). A Provocateur spoke to the
example of the South African CCM policy community’s presentation of Multi-Criteria
Framework analysis to consider the sustainability contribution of a mitigation project,
noting that this technique assumes ‘that an expert can know a complex situation, assign
weightings to contested matters of value and valuing, and come to an independent
decision which will be right (according to this worldview) and adopted’ (Kane, 2014,
The development practitioners and researchers in the Cities Conversation
reflected that ‘cities are complex: the climate change mitigation community keeps
trying to simplify cities – this does not work; and it reflects an arrogant attitude’, and
that ‘climate people are disrespectful when addressing cities by ignoring the expertise
around them’. Stakeholder consultation on South African CCM policy issues has
largely been within the South African CCM community itself, and rarely have these
consultations been accessible to non-experts, grassroots communities or those involved
in other policy areas.
Framed as a global and predominantly environmental problem
CCM policy entered the domestic South African policy agenda via the LTMS as
a direct response to an international policy issue (Tyler and Torres Gunfaus, 2017). The
global (Nightingale et al., 2019) and environmental framing of the climate change
challenge has been readily adopted by South Africa, with responsibility for mitigation
situated within the DEA (as opposed to an economic or social development
department). The South African negotiating team to the international policy process
and their experiences during the late 1990s and early 2000s created a group of South
Africans with climate change mitigation expertise and experience gained from an
international CCM policy perspective, and a narrative of South Africa as ‘climate
victim’ strongly informed initial framing of the policy situation (Tyler, forthcoming).
Rafey (2013, p. 56) writes of how much of the terminology that has been
incorporated in South African national policy documents mirrored that of the
international policy process, and how the domestic mitigation policy process
‘shadowed’ the international conversation. The international perspective is also evident
in South African CCM policy details, including the influence of international technical
models (Rafey, 2013), the rush of the LTMS numbers into South Africa’s pledge under
the 2009 Copenhagen Accord (Tyler & Torres Gunfaus, 2017), and the way in which
the Conference of the Parties (COP) held in 2011 in Durban influenced the
unrealistically ambitious timeframes of domestic policy documents (Chandrashekeran et
al., 2017; Worthington, 2014). South Africa’s CCM profile internationally is not
matched by an ability to implement policy domestically.
Climate change mitigation is viewed as separate to the challenge of
development, which is understood only in the abstract
Despite South Africa occupying a prominent position in the international CCM
negotiations as a developing country (Rafey, 2013), the South African CCM policy
community itself struggles to articulate a clear view of what development is and how it
relates to mitigation (Cities Conversation; Kane, 2014).
In a rare example of reflexivity, an LTMS interviewee (2014) opined that the
‘development context of mitigation was not understood at the time of the LTMS and is
still not understood’. A Provocateur cautioned that the South African CCM policy
community’s understanding of what it terms development is regressive, abstract and
‘straitjacketed’ (Kumar, 2014, p.4). In some of the Conversations, the community was
criticized for being naïve about the complexity of development challenges (Cities
Conversation, Consumption Conversation). Rafey finds that ‘what constitutes a
successful balance between socioeconomic and climate goals remains, in the words of
philosopher W.B. Gallie, ‘essentially contested’ in the South African context’ (2013, p.
29). In the absence of a critical perspective from which to engage development, and
because the contestation is not explicitly acknowledged, the economic orthodox view of
development holds sway (Mistry, 2014; Hallowes, 2008).
Finally, the orthodox view of development is unitary, singular, abstract and
disembodied. As such, the South African CCM policy community seldom differentiates
between the different aspects of development, such as poverty, education, health and
unemployment, nor the implications for CCM policy of this differentiation.
The implications of the influence of the dominant worldview in CCM
From a complexity thinking perspective, any approach will illuminate aspects of
a complex situation, whilst obscuring others. This is observable in the CCM policy
community. Quantitative emissions limits and the likely required levels for these over
time are understood. Detailed GHG inventories are being developed, and understanding
of how emissions impact warming is constantly evolving. A suite of mitigation policy
instruments is evolving, and pros and cons of these in different contexts can be
compared and contrasted. The community also has a detailed (albeit singular) view of
the macroeconomic and sectoral implications of mitigation policy instruments, together
with in-depth understandings of the technologies and financial mechanisms for
mitigation. Understanding of politics, power, culture and behavioural change, initially
overlooked, is growing, but these aspects remain largely considered in Leyshon’s
(2014) ‘end-of-pipe’ role.
Other aspects are obscured. Relationships are less understood; between sectors,
mitigation and development, various policy instruments, mitigation and other policy
initiatives, and between technologies and the social. The community has not explicitly
engaged with how to respond to complexity, and with the fact that complex policy
situations are distinct, requiring particular responses. It does not have a comprehensive
understanding of how complex social system transformation happens; the importance of
how policy processes are undertaken; and how to engage different perspectives and
contestation. Finally, it cannot see that the CCM policy community is entangled with
the complex policy situation it is responding too, and that approach matters.
What might a complexity approach to CCM policymaking offer? A brief
reflection for the South African context
The complexity view opens up spaces for policymaking that are unavailable or
under-prioritised by the South African CCM current dominant approach. A rich
literature explores complexity for public policymaking (for example Cairney & Geyer,
2015; Chettiparamb, 2014; Boulton, 2010), bringing key features and principles to the
fore. Many of these are relevant to CCM policymaking, and are offered here in
1. Complexity thinking invites reflexivity; to routinely include awareness of
‘how we do what we do’ in our practice, and where the CCM’s community’s
dominant approach might serve or hinder its objectives. What practices
could the South African CCM policy community adopt to increase its
2. A complex systemic view of the policy problem suggests a focus on
collaboration and connection. How could the community engage routinely
and with humility with other policy and societal actors?
3. Normalising of uncertainty in complexity suggests prioritising building of
institutions and processes that are agile and responsive to a rapidly evolving
problem situation. What could such institutions look like? Where would
they be located?
4. Keeping complex policy objectives complex and multi-dimensional enables
actors to identify their own objectives within these, as opposed to reducing
objectives to emissions reduction or an abstract ‘development’. How can
policy and societal actors co-create objectives for South Africa’s future?
The NPC’s recent pathways work provides an example.
5. The significance of path dependencies, tipping points and feedback loops in
complex systemic transformations cannot be overemphasised from a
complexity view. What does this mean for how the community spends scarce
6. Complex policymaking prioritises making data available throughout the
system, enabling actors to self-organise effectively at all system levels. How
can the community prioritise and deliver accurate and accessible data
7. In the context of uncertainty, complexity prioritises the value of innovation
and redundancy to foster resilience. How do these principles guide
policymaking and response to failures?
8. Complexity thinking values all forms of knowledges, from science and
society. What knowledges are the community overlooking and undervaluing,
and how can they engage these going forward?
Against the background of the ongoing quest of the CCM policy community to respond
more adequately to the complex policy situation of climate change, this paper has
argued that ‘approach’ should be included as an active site of CCM policymaking.
Approach prioritises and foregrounds certain aspects of Schon’s (1987) ‘swampy
lowland’ over others and, in doing so, it both illuminates and obscures the complex
The complexity view outlined in the paper provides one alternative worldview,
emphasising interconnections, process, perspectives, impartial knowledge, non-
linearities and emergence in the structure of complex systems, which may yield
valuable insights for policymakers (Tyler & Cohen, 2017; Tyler, 2019), and which has
tangible policymaking implications.
Complexity thinking also reveals that alternative approaches are available to
CCM policy communities (and this insight is not unique to complexity thinking).
Indeed, various CCM policy communities globally may well already embody
approaches different to the prevaling one influenced by the dominant worldview, or be
in various phases of evolution of approaches. Other possible perspectives in both the
academic and social knowledge realms yielding insights different to that of the
dominant worldview include indigenous knowledges, southern theory (Connell, 2014),
critical realism (Isaksen, 2012; Bhaskar, 2010), transdisciplinarity (Nicolescu, 2014;),
non-orthodox economics (Farley et al., 2007; Constanza et al, 1997), work in
transformations (Geels et al., 2016; O Brien & Sygna, 2013), and science and
technology studies (Jasanoff, 2010). Being able to access different approaches enables
us to see differently and to gain additional insights to the CCM policy situation.
The intention of this paper is not to paint the dominant approach of the CCM
policy community as ‘bad’. Instead, it is to make explicit that such a dominant
approach exists, that it has implications for how the CCM policy community responds
to the complex policy situation of climate change mitigation, and that allowing this
approach to be seen and critiqued starts to neutralise the power it wields. Wenger (2000,
p. 230) argues that whilst communities of practice are essential for learning, they can
also ‘learn not to learn. They are the cradles of the human spirit, but can also be its
cages’. By considering Wenger’s ‘cradle’, the extent to which the CCM community’s
dominant approach has become a ‘cage’ can be assessed. Such work requires the skill of
reflexivity, the ability of the CCM policy community to ‘know itself’, and ‘how it does
what it does’ (Ison, 2010). These and other complexity related skills are not typically
valued or taught to CCM policymakers, with implications for CCM policy curricula and
the composition of policymaking teams.
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For further information regarding these interviews please see (Emily Tyler & Torres