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Ostrom: Polycentricity and Climate Change

by Howard Silverman

In a 2009 World Bank report, "A Polycentric Approach for Coping with Climate Change," political scientist Elinor Ostrom challenges the notion that a global atmosphere requires global action.

Given the complexity and changing nature of the problems involved in coping with climate change, there are no “optimal” solutions. … The advantage of a polycentric approach is that it encourages experimental efforts at multiple levels, as well as the development of methods for assessing the benefits and costs of particular strategies adopted in one type of ecosystem and comparing these with results obtained in other ecosystems.

Relating the 1961 origin of polycentric theory, Ostrom writes, "Drawing on the rich tradition of public sector development in the United States, the authors (Vincent Ostrom, Charles Tiebout, and Robert Warren) urged readers to think of the public sector as a polycentric system rather than a monocentric hierarchy." Vincent Ostrom subsequently defined polycentric governance as that in which "many elements are capable of making mutual adjustments for ordering their relationships with one another within a general system of rules where each element acts with independence of other elements.”

Applying this thinking to climate change, she concludes:

It is essential that we recognize (1) the complexity of causes of climate change, (2) the challenge of acquiring knowledge about causes and effects in a world that is changing rapidly, (3) the wide diversity of policies that can lead to reduced emissions but might also enable opportunistic efforts to obtain a flow of funds by appearing to reduce emissions while not having a real impact or, worse, effectively increasing rather than decreasing emissions, (4) the opportunities that major sources of funding open up for policy experiments if funds are also allocated to monitoring and evaluation of the benefits and costs of the experiments, and (5) that all policies adopted at any scale can generate errors, but that without trial and error, learning cannot occur.

(See also Ostom on institutional change.)

Tags: governance



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