Complexity in Global Energy-Environment Governance

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Complexity in Global Energy-Environment Governance

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Minnesota Journal of Law, Science and Technology




Thinking about energy as a complex system from which fossil fuel dominance and climate change emerge provides an analytical and policy-relevant framework for exploring pathways toward transforming that system. The linkage of issues and scales of authority, highlighted briefly above, are but two examples of how this might be operationalized. Literature since the 2009 UNFCCC negotiations in Copenhagen is beginning to explore alternatives to top-down binding international environmental agreements for catalyzing successful mitigation, but it has yet to coalesce around an analytical framework that can foster synergy and the development of a cohesive body of work identifying and testing viable options that are likely to produce solid policy recommendations. A perspective on climate change informed by an understanding of the global energy system as a complex system has the potential to provide such a framework. Further exploring the potential for an interdisciplinary perspective on energy as a complex system may provide the analytical framework needed to accelerate the learning process by uniting the somewhat disparate strands of thought that have emerged since the “dream of Rio,” characterized by an unjustified faith in global top-down environmentalism, came to a crashing halt at the end of 2009. A complexity perspective on energy as the source of climate change may unite many of the developing approaches, which include work exploring near-term approaches to climate change mitigation, detailed analysis of particular aspects of the mitigation challenge if developed outside of a unifying top-down structure, and analytical expositions of polycentric governance theories in climate-relevant ways. Viewed as a body of literature addressing facets of a global complex systems challenge, such work can be understood to contain the seeds of an approach that is sufficiently salient to garner political support while also probing for effective tools that will engage the multiple interacting threads of social, ecological, and technical components that affect the energy system across scales in order to produce an overall shift that achieves climate stabilization. There is much work to be done if we hope to bring about the kind of transformation of the global energy system necessary to reduce GHG emissions significantly and rapidly enough to avoid drastic climate change impacts. A complexity perspective strikes an appropriate balance between resigning the global population to the massive suffering and destabilization that climate change may bring, as a narrow focus on developed country adaptation would do, and the unwarranted faith in top-down global governance that much of the previous decade’s climate change analysis exhibited. In this sense, a complexity perspective on climate change urges a form of governance reflecting the nature of adaptive systems situated on the edge of chaos—advocating enough order to avert disaster, while imbuing reform with the long-term catalytic vision necessary to bring about the emergence of that which is desirable, but remains uncertain and unpredictable.


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15 Minn. J. L. Sci. & Tech. 1055 (2014)

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Long, Andrew. (2014). Complexity in Global Energy-Environment Governance. Retrieved from the University Digital Conservancy,

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