Thinking climate change: start here

Is the Labour-New Zealand First-Green government getting serious on climate change? Certainly, there have been some major pronouncements on the seriousness of climate change. Take for instance the Prime Minister’s comment delivered during the election that ‘climate change is the nuclear issue of our time’ or, in a more legislative vein, the Government’s intention to introduce the Climate Change Bill. This will commit New Zealand to zero carbon by 2050 if not sooner. It will also establish an independent Climate Commission to provide expert advice to the Government on setting targets, reducing emissions, and addressing climate risks. Within the state sector, the Ministry for the Environment will establish an interagency transition hub to advise the Government on what a ‘just transition’ could look like. All this sounds very promising and we should be positive about such actions. However, as with all policy and legislation, it is best to take a close look under the hood to see whether the intentions can be made manifest with the stated proposals.

Anthropogenic climate change is a systemic problem in the sense that it is tied in complex ways to prevailing economic, technological and social systems. These interlinkages often make it hard to effect rapid reductions in environmental pressures. For advanced economies, reconciling high levels of human development with environmental sustainability is expected to require five-fold (‘factor 5’) or even ‘factor 10’ improvements in environmental performance (EC, 2011: UNEP, 2011). This will require going beyond incremental improvements in environmental performance. Ways will need to be found to achieve fundamental transitions or transformations in core systems, entailing profound changes in dominant institutions, practices, technologies, policies, lifestyles and thinking. It doesn’t get tougher than this and questions must be raised as to whether New Zealand is equipped to take on such a challenge.

Who will be appointed to the Climate Commission? What we do know so far is that it will consist of 6-10 members with expertise in a range of areas including climate science, technology and agriculture. The Commission as a whole will have expertise in 11 areas. There is a lack of obvious social science expertise in the list but, given that some of the nominated areas of expertise could include the social sciences, it is too early to tell the extent to which social scientists and the social sciences will play a meaningful role within the Commission.

My contention is beyond the mainstream economic reasoning embodied in policy tools such as the ETS, cost-benefit analysis and target setting, there are a number of other perspectives which, if there really is serious intent to tackle climate change, must be incorporated into climate change policy. These are outlined below.

Transformation in socio-ecological systems

Socio-ecological systems are defined in different ways but share a common understanding of being systems characterised by interconnections, mutual dependencies and dynamic relationships between humans and the environment. This perspective reflects a growing recognition of the importance of integrating biophysical, social and human dimensions. To date, integration remains partial, with the natural and social science perspectives offering contrasting focuses.

Social science contributions focus on deliberate transformations to sustainability through social change. From this perspective, transformation is a process of altering the structures and institutions, infrastructures, regulatory systems and financial regimes, as well as attitudes, practices, lifestyles, policies and power relations. Failing to acknowledge the roles of power and politics and interests can lead to techno-managerial approaches, rather than transformative alternatives.

Research into deliberate socio-ecological transformations is ‘solutions orientated’, it looks to be engaged with society through action research that is co-designed and co-produces with society. It has a strong emphasis on transdisciplinary approaches and is a diverse mixture of scientific communities such as resilience, social practices, social studies of science and technology, earth system governance, behavioural psychology and communication.

Deliberate transformation of socio-ecological systems are complex, uncertain and emergent processes, combining actions and change at multiple scales.

A weakness of socio-ecological systems approaches is that they tend to be largely placed-based analyses in local settings. The focus is largely on natural resources and ecosystems and it tends to overlook technological innovation. Socio-ecological analysis is weaker in explaining how systemic change can be achieved, and it struggles to integrate its natural and social science dimensions such as politics and power.

Socio-technical transitions

Socio-technical (S-T) analysis addresses stability and change in the systems that perform core functions for society (e.g. energy, mobility, housing) that account for most of the pressures on the environment and climate change. S-T analysis draws on a number of different disciplines including evolutionary economics, innovation studies and institutional theory. It provides insights into the barriers and opportunities that societies face in achieving change.

Socio-technical systems co-evolve which can make them resistant to far reaching and fundamental change. For example, the emergence of the car as the dominant form of land transport was accompanied by major private investments in skills, knowledge and infrastructure for car production; public investments in road infrastructure; the emergence of complimentary industries to manufacture and deliver fuel, tyres and other accessories; the adaptation of urban design to the car; and changes in behaviour, expectations and cultural values.

The interdependencies of these diverse elements means that there are strong economic, social and psychological incentives favouring incremental efficiency over more radical systemic change.

Within the S-T research, the multi-level perspective (MLP) has emerged as the dominant analytical framework for understanding transitions. The MLP explains the dynamics of transition processes arising out of the interplay of developments at three analytical levels: regime, niche and landscape. Innovative new ‘niche’ technologies are seen as playing an essential role in systemic change at the regime level although they often struggle to have any impact due to economic, social and political lock-ins to established modes of production and consumption. For innovations to emerge and alter the dominant system/regime, protected spaces such as R+D labs are needed. Landscape changes, such as growing resource scarcity, economic crises and nuclear accidents can also help destabilise dominant regimes.

Transitions involve the co-evolution of technological innovations and social behaviours and emerge through the interactions of multiple actors. Transitions are conflictual and deeply political, producing trade-offs, ‘winners and losers’ and related struggles, as politically influential and well-resourced incumbents often resist change.

The logic of the MLP suggests that policymakers and other actors can support transitions by creating niches that foster experimentation and innovation by, for example, providing state funding for research and development, supporting upscaling, using taxes and regulations to incentivise innovation; and by compensating and retraining workers.

A weakness of S-T analysis lies in explaining change in less technology-intensive sectors such as food and water systems.

Socio-economic transformations

Socio-economic transformations (Kemp et al, 2016) describe the market’s role in shaping human identity, values and behaviours. It goes on to explore the potential for social innovation to trigger change towards more socially and environmentally beneficial economic structures.

According to Kemp et al, individuals are locked into a cycle of ‘work and spend’ by consumption competition and labour market rigidities that prevent people from working shorter hours. Consumerism and materialism is making people unhappy rather than increasing utility. Market failures result in the mispricing of ecological resources. Commonly used indicators such as GDP provide misleading signals about trends in well-being and quality of life.

While Kemp et al acknowledge that technological innovation has played a key role in the marketisation of society, they question the potential of technologies alone to enable transformations to sustainability, noting that lower process and efficiency gains often result in increased consumption thereby undermining environmental benefits and reinforcing consumerism and materialism.

Socio-economic transformations focus more directly on changing values and lifestyles, and on the formal and informal institutions that shape individual behaviour. Examples of such innovations include ‘collective forms of living and work, local resilience initiatives (such as transition towns and urban gardens), and commons-based forms of productions.’

They argue the state has opportunities to enable socio-economic transformation, both via policy interventions and by creating space for the emergence of alternatives founded on less materialistic sources of well-being.

Action-orientated perspectives on transitions and systems innovation

Research and policy increasingly recognise the importance of bottom-up actions in responding to environmental challenges (e.g. the Paris Agreement). Elenore Ostrom’s work highlights the capacity of communities to manage the environmental commons at local scales, as well as the potential for ‘polycentric’ systems of communities to tackle global issues. The ‘bottom-up’ framing of sustainability challenges and responses is increasingly represented in global sustainability policy.

At the community scale, there are organisations such as the Transition Network, the Global Ecovillage Network and Community Power which aim to achieve systemic and transformative change.

Other researchers have explored the role of communities, social movements, cities and trade unions as organisations and movements that are seeking transformative change.

In terms of governance approaches amongst these diverse communities, there is an active interest in a new set of new and participative governance practices.

Four broad competencies appear frequently in action-orientated discussions:

  • Visioning – using scenarios, roadmapping and backcasting to identify potential routes from the present to the desired futures, and to inspire and motivate actors
  • Experimenting or ‘learning by doing’ in conditions of ambiguity – increasingly in the form of ‘living laboratories’ in urban settings
  • Networking – often via ‘communities of practice’ or the creation of a ‘transitions arena’
  • Navigating – rather than controlling complex process of systemic change.

Integrated assessment modelling approaches to analysing systemic change

Integrated assessment modelling (IAM) offers a quantitative analytical approach to understanding systemic change. It aims to support policymaking and society with model-based quantitative scenarios about potential trajectories of change necessary to meet environmental, climate and social targets.

IAM mainly draws on concepts and theories from macroeconomics, engineering, earth system science, and the environmental sciences more broadly. It aims to quantify human-environment relationships and interactions based on macro-economic assumptions about cost factors, cost optimisation and carbon pricing. In IAM, all variables and their interrelationships are converted into mathematical equations that describe (changes in) economic costs.

IAM approaches are much weaker in capturing assumptions about individual human behaviour and interrelations between actors, interest groups, institutional changes, political changes or governance more broadly.

Due to the mathematical structure and economic orientation towards cost minimisation, IAM approaches conceptualise systemic large-scale change as a smooth goal-oriented process, without major or abrupt shocks (a major difference compared with the frameworks discussed above).

The results of IAM approaches are usually quantitative projections about trends in greenhouse gas emissions, energy mixes, land use shares or biodiversity. Most often IAM produces a ‘baseline’ scenario that assumes a continuation of current policies, alongside a range of ‘normative scenarios’ in which pathways towards specific targets or alternative policy goals are specified. The latter type of scenario approach focuses on the actions required, as well as the costs and benefits of achieving these targets. As critics have pointed out, IAM approaches may over emphasise the potential for economic instruments to achieve policy goals, and down play problems arising from strategic behaviour, resistance from incumbents, and constraints on policymakers.

Diverse insights for policy

These five perspectives provide a diverse mix of insights into the sustainability challenges faced in New Zealand and globally, as well as possible responses. It may be that they cannot be integrated into a single framework, however, they do appear to share certain characteristics and complement each other in useful ways. The challenge will be to bring these insights into mainstream policy processes and consider how they can be operationalised effectively in support of New Zealand’s sustainability objectives.

The role of the State

Governments have an essential role to play, albeit not as a pilot with the full knowledge and powers to plan and implement transitions. Governments have unique capacities, resources and authority to identify and agree society-wide goals and targets, to create institutions and networks, and to facilitate structural socio-economic change.


With initiatives such as the Climate Change Bill, the current government appears to be taking climate change seriously. This active response to climate change is to be congratulated. However, there is reason to be concerned that the insights offered by the socio-ecological, socio-technical, socio-economic and action-orientated perspectives are largely missing within the current expertise and knowledge of the state sector. Much of the expertise and what is considered useful knowledge within the state sector is best reflected by the integrated assessment modelling approach and the prioritisation of economic instruments such as environmental taxes or emissions trading. Whilst the IAM approach offer policy actors a useful framework, it has, as indicated above, significant limitations, which the other four perspectives address conceptually and theoretically. It will be interesting in the coming months and years to see if the conceptual weaknesses and lacunae in climate change policy are acknowledged and addressed.


Kemp, R., et al., 2016. The humanization of the economy through social innovation, paper for the SPRU 50th anniversary conference and the IST2016 conference.

Also published on Medium.