Transformational responses to climate change

world: a systems perspective of social change in mitigation and adaptation


There is a growing imperative for responses to climate change to go beyond incremental adjustments, aiming instead for society-wide transformation. In this context, sociotechnical (ST) transitions and social–ecological (SE) resilience are two prominent normative agendas. Reviewing these literatures reveals how both share a complex-systems epistemology with inherent limitations, often producing managerial governance recommendations and foregrounding material over social drivers of change. Further interdisciplinary dialogue with social theory is essential if these frameworks are to become more theoretically robust and capable of informing effective, let alone transformational, climate change governance.

To illustrate this potential, ideas from Deleuze and Guattari’s political writing as well as other approaches that utilize the notion social fields (as opposed to socio-systems) are combined to more fully theorize the origins and enactment of social change. First, the logic of systems is replaced with the contingency of assemblages to reveal how pluralism, not elitism, can produce more ambitious and politicized visions of the future. In particular, this view encourages us to see social and ecological tensions as opportunities for thinking and acting differently rather than as mere technical problems to be solved. Secondly, the setting of social fields is introduced to situate and explain the power of ideas and the role of agency in times of uncertainty. The potential of such insights is already visible in some strands of climate change mitigation and adaptation research, but more needs to be done to advance this field and to bring it into dialogue with the mainstream systems based literature.

Transformational social change can be said to involve a broad set of interrelated processes: practical, political and personal in nature. In the context of climate change mitigation and adaptation, two prominent agendas (ST transitions and SE resilience) both utilize a systems perspective to address some of these issues. However, certain conceptual blind spots (particularly regarding politics, power, agency, and ideas) have not only limited the scope of their analyses but have also led to problematic governance prescriptions. Whilst some strands of TM and adaptive co management do acknowledge the existence of competing visions for a climate compatible future, in general there is a tendency to try to control this potentially creative force through a process of isomorphism, managerialist steering and consensus building. Reflexivity and social learning are encouraged by both approaches but little is said of how ideas and influences mediate this process and to what extent this reinforces incremental rather than transformational trajectory. Such an approach will not only favor technical and behavioral solutions to climate change but it may do so in a politically naïve way that struggles to challenge the dominant ideas and institutional inertia of societies with high/rising emissions and large swathes of vulnerable communities.

In response, we may turn to social theories where power, politics, and social relations are of central

concern for insights and provocations. If ST and SE systems are to become more productive interdisciplinary frameworks capable of politically contextualized climate governance prescriptions then they will need more socially oriented theories of change. First, focusing on the contingent relations between various actors (human and nonhuman) and their assemblages (e.g., an industry or a community) instantly opens up possibilities for more radical innovation and adaptability beyond the discursive confines of a functionalist system perspective. Second, the interpretive and strategic actions of influential actors before, during, and after moments of crisis and agitation have to be made explicit. Tracking these processes across space and time exposes both the creative potential of social interactions and the institutionalized rules of the game that enable or constrain them. Immediately, critical questions emerge around why some mitigation and adaptation actions are successful or not and to what extent they capable of driving transformational change.


Ali Hassan Shabbir

MSc (Hons) Agricultural Economics

Institute of Agricultural and Resource Economics,

University of Agricultural Faisalabad, Pakistan.

Email: [email protected]



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