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Polycentric approaches to tackling climate change


Sustaining a stable climate by reducing greenhouse gas emissions into our atmosphere- the thin envelope that surrounds our home planet and makes it habitable for human civilization- represents perhaps the greatest collective action problem of our time. The search for answers is urgent given the short window for action: carbon dioxide emissions need to be put on a downward path by 2020,  warn Christiana Figueres, Johan Rockstrom, and other experts in this article from Nature, so that the thresholds to runaway irreversible climate change are not breached. As emphasized by Mission2020, radical collaboration will be needed to bend the emissions curve. How do we prevent a “tragedy of the commons” and overcome hurdles to cooperation?

A polycentric approach has substantial potential. Elinor Ostrom suggested a polycentric approach in a 2009 policy paper for the World Bank. Dan Cole’s recent article in Nature Climate Change  makes a case for the advantages of a polycentric approach that incorporates multilateral, bilateral, formal, and informal communications and interactions that increase trust and potential for cooperation. A Public Administration Review blog commentary symposium on climate change and public administration, guest-edited by Ostrom Workshop alums Aseem Prakash and Nives Dolsak, provides expert commentary on a range of overlapping issues.


  1. As suggested above, a polycentric approach may be needed to deal with climate change and the approach may need to moved forward immediately. Right now. On a parallel path there needs to polycentric governance research to explore the institutional arrangements and informal rules that seem to have the most impact on both curbing greenhouse gas emissions and making progress on adaptation projects. There is ample room for new research in this area and opportunities for young scholars to make a mark on a very important issue.

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