Publication Review
The Potential of Multi-Level Global Climate Governance
By Götz Kaufmann, 2015-10-25
On September 21, the Institute for Advanced Sustainability Studies (IASS) has published its IASS Policy Brief 2/2015. The authors are well recognized researchers in the field of environmental social sciences, such as the founder and former director of the Environmental Research Centre (FFU) Martin Jännecke, the FFU's current director Miranda Schreurs, and the founder of the above names IASS Klaus Töpfer.

The article refers to two conferences at IASS and FFU summarizing the findings of the discussions at these two institutions. As the authors argue, the "focus was on the systemic dimension of multi-level climate governance"(3). After naming the increasing recognition of local levels, the authors conclude that the "global climate governance system has been so firmly established that it seems to be increasingly irreversible. The number of countries where climate policies are enshrined in legislation has doubled since 2007. The rise and strength of new interests in support of climate action may be a further indicator of the increased stability of the system." (5) In the following the argumentation focusses on the the remarkable potential of climate policy on a multi-level governance frame for technical and political innovation, diffusion, and interactive learning across levels and sectors. Highlighting the introduction of more than 4,000 Sustainable Energy Action Plans (2014) with agreements to achieve greenhouse gas reductions of 28 % on average by 2020, the bulletin concludes that political leadership will remain important despite the fact that the EU has been characterised as a "leaderless leader" due to the lack of political leadership and ambition in its present climate policy. (8)
The article concludes with a eight (8) key messages: "The global system of multilevel climate governance (...) relies on the 'Rio model' (...) [and] has developed its own inherent logic, dynamics and stabilisation mechanisms. It provides a strong opportunity structure for the diffusion of innovation and interactive learning, which should be used as a basis for smart climate strategies." (Message 1) "Base climate policy on existing best practices at different levels and provide channels for interactive learning. Provide targeted support to lower levels of government and stimulate horizontal dynamics through benchmarking, competition, lesson-drawing, cooperation, and networking. Apply ambitious targets and credible implementation programmes and raise ambitions and targets in cases of unexpected learning effects." (Message 2) "To promote climate mitigation and adaptation at all levels, we recommend translating, where possible, climate policy objectives into the language and thinking of co-benefits, particularly those that will mobilise economic interests while also protecting the natural basis of life. This broader approach should be based on a coalition of government, business and civil society actors operating at all levels of the global multi-level system of climate governance." (Message 3) "Multi-level climate governance has been able to mobilise economic interests for climate friendly technologies down to the local level. Therefore it is essential to give targeted support to climate friendly, sustainable R&D initiatives and use the lead market mechanism where possible. Climate policy has to apply technological approaches and should be targeted to fostering technological change. This approach has been the most dominant and effective so far." (Message 4) "Although technological approaches are very important, climate policy must also go further to address non-technical aspects. These include the protection of greenhouse gas emission sinks. Other changes to infrastructure, lifestyles, norms, and institutions are also required." (Message 5) "The EU is a unique multilevel system with comparably strong institutions and specific potentials at all levels. To activate the unique opportunities in the EU system of multi-level climate governance, European political leadership must be strengthened. Raising the EU's level of ambition is a prerequisite for clean energy innovation, which is the most important economic co-benefit of climate governance." (Message 6) "National governments – as both individual and collective actors – generally have the largest capacities and should therefore lead with ambitious climate policies. National leadership necessitates involvement in a wide variety of networks. Competition within and between states can promote climate progress." (Message 7) "The growing importance of sub-national levels was observed in recent years. In this context it is necessary for the EU and its member states to provide targeted support to lower levels of government and private low-carbon investment." (Message 8)(cf. p. 9-10)

Please find the whole article here.


The following review applies the developed best practice of critical environmental justice research to analyze the publication. Its application refers to the general claim of applying the environmental justice frame - here the criteria for critical research - to any environmental discourse as a requirement for getting the closest to that what can be called the kernel of the brute (J.W. von Goethe).

The article refers to some important points in climate governance research. The aspect of intra-multilevel governance interactions (from the local level to the regional to the national to the international level) is indeed a relevant aspect. Systemic thinking (or "systemic dimensions" as the authors call it) refer to the relevance of different perceptions and approaches on the different levels of governance. These different perceptions manifest in a global climate regime (in Foucault's understanding of the concept) that hinder major steps of progress. Consequentially, the authors conclude correctly that a "new, more climate friendly interest base will, however, only become the mainstream if the actors that support the status quo are definitively weakened. This battle is not yet over." (5)
Unfortunately, the character of this battle is not clearly outlined. They say that co-benefits between the systems of politcs, industry, and civil society have the potential to unleash transformation processes that could not be tapped into from a narrow climate perspective (6), but the article itself does not reflect its own climate perspective. Thus, the assumptions behind the technocratic description of the climate change challenge (here greenhouse gas emissions for instance) is not - nolens volens - revealed. The authors remain constrained in their own disciplinary tunnel view that leaves assumptions of a solution to the climate change problem undiscussed. The lack of clarification of the authors' own logic frame hides the character of the research as been the piece of a consultant instead of the academic controversy. Dryzek's article on policy analysis as critique (2009) - from whom characterised the best practice is drawn - critisizes this approach as accommodative research. From critical perspective, the brief tells more about the institutional perspective of governmental policy makers than about the underlying priorities that frame climate change. The authors hereby also ignore analyses that already framed climate change as a concept of mainly four discourses. Vlassopoulos (2012) applied the 'definitional approach' to reveal also development, migration, and security issues as being discussed in international climate change negotiations.
The IASS Brief on the other side assumes a solution of the global climate change issue within the given socio-economic system and perception frame. There is not generally a problem in assuming that the market driven economy and the given international and supranational institutional structures provide a solution for the challenge, but as long as these assumptions aren't clearly expressed and discussed, the authors must accuse themselves of at least ignoring the fact of a battle between a dominant (mainstream) discourse and suppressed meanings critical to society.
Last but not least - from the viewpoint of environmental justice research - the examination does not identify the agents of impairment that are cause of the failure of climate change policy making (on all levels of governance).

Concluding can be said that the IASS brief summarizes the market economically driven arguments for policy makers. Contrary to the examination and from a critical environmental justice research perspective, the global system of multilevel climate governance as developed by the Earth Summit in 1992 can hardly be called "a strong opportunity structure (...) for smart climate strategies" (9) considering the failure of post-Kyoto negotiations at the latest. The optimism expressed in the article doesn't find its counterpart in the reality of increasing global inequality in terms of shares and benefits of what is discussed as climate change governance.


Dryzek, J. S. (2009). Policy analysis as critique. In R. E. Goodin, M. Moran, & M. Rein (Eds.), The Oxford Handbook of Public Policy (pp. 190-203). Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Vlassopoulos, C. A. (2012). Competing definition of climate change and the post-Kyoto negotiations. International Journal of Climate Change Strategies and Management, 4(1), 104-118.
Image: © Kaufmann