20 October 2021

B-CCaS based at the University of Edinburgh Business School, is a catalyst for positive social and environmental change in the interaction of climate, business, policy, and society. We have asked each of our academics to find their voice and explore their own ideas in this series of Thought Leadership pieces. We hope they bring about debate, discussion, and even disagreement. We believe that these are the bedrocks of deep thought, reflection, analysis, and progress.
Large conference room with tables and chairs

In this second piece in the series of Thought Leadership, Director of Research Development at B-CCaS, Dr Katharina Kaesehage, explores the need to reinvent governance structures on climate change and lessons learned from the Global South.

Climate change and governance structures

Climate change is primarily understood as a scientific knowledge expressed in a wide variety of physical processes, which entails significant risks for people’s future lives (IPCC 2013). Responding to and minimising these socio-economic and environmental risks is therefore crucial.

Traditionally, societies rely on governments to provide targets, regulations, and incentives to help us achieve the needed reinvention of established economic, social, and political conventions (Hulme and Blackman 2009). The literature explains that such climate change-related governance mechanisms are traditionally based on scientific understandings assuming that scientific consensus would create social consensus (Hulme 2009, Hulme and Blackman 2009, Hulme 2010, Hulme 2013).

Climate itself, through its influence on biological evolution and social life, has a much deeper meaning for people, however, than natural science can convey (Hulme 2009). The meaning that climate change has for individuals emerges from the entanglement of climate and culture. What climate change means to individuals is, for example, linked to their education, exposure to and/or trust in science, and the knowledge individuals have accumulated about climate (change) (Geoghegan and Brace 2011, Schuldt et al 2011, Wolf and Moser 2011).

Climate change for that reason requires cultural reflections and the analysis of beliefs, social practices, and public discourse (Hulme 2013). Curtis and Schneider (2001), for example, suggest that information is needed on the vulnerability of individual population groups to allow them to think more specifically about climate change.

The methodology of governing climate change needs to move away from a view of the world based on 'organising binaries' (Gregory et al 2009: 7), finding ways to connect to the 'often in messy, non-linear, and diffuse ways' that climate change connects 'to people’s everyday lives, lifestyles, and livelihoods' (Boykoff et al 2009: 1).

Given the absence of climate change governance structures and mechanisms resulting in the needed mitigation and adaptation actions, there have been growing demands for bottom-up perspectives to inform and (co-)develop governance mechanisms, grounded in national, regional, and local community-based initiatives (Ostrom 2012). How this can be achieved and should look like however, is still unknown, and to-date, governance structures — to a large extent — have failed to integrate those ideas.

Responses to Covid-19

In the Global South, responses to Covid-19 have revealed how in times of crisis ideas and approaches away from sciences-led decision making are important and needed, inspiring, and bringing together community-based, initiatives in unforeseen ways.

For example, our research work in the summer of 2020 in the Galapagos investigating the social practices that arose in response to the Covid-19 crisis revealed that the local communities developed collective actions that, amongst others, ensured access to clean water and re-farmed available land to provide local produce and livelihoods to diverse communities and their members.

These actions brought together local actors from communities, governments, initiatives, and organisations across power and decision-making levels based on new ways of communication and information sharing using social media allowing for informal, lay knowledges to play an important role. This has shown that moving away from rationally-minded, state orders of power (see Hollway and Jefferson 1997) can help manage complex, unthought-of risks.


The Covid-19 crisis has illustrated that society with its experiences, practices, and beliefs cannot be seen as separate from unprecedented risks. Covid-19 has revealed how government and society need to rely less on the rational, individual and organizing binaries that modernity has created.

So, it is crucial to enable governance mechanisms that go beyond what is (and could be) known and defined by science and supported by existing governance structures. This also means that individual actors cannot be seen in isolation from each other either, as only rational or individualistic.

Ultimately Covid-19 has revealed that risk management towards unprecedented risks such as climate change needs to integrate 'the 'social embeddedness' of decision making where individual choices are continually being shaped and reshaped by the social contexts in which they take place' (Moloney et al 2009: 7616).

The consequence of interdependent agency is an opportunity to create sustainable and meaningful governance structures and mechanisms; shaped by lay knowledges, experiences, and ideas of what climate change means in everyday life in support of, and modified by, the knowledge of physical sciences.

Only then will the needed re-invention of our socio-economic system and the action-taking across institutional boundaries, actors, and consensus be achieved.

Dr Kathi Kaesehage is the Director of Research Development at the Centre for Business, Climate Change, and Sustainability at the University of Edinburgh Business School.

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