Climate Change and Sustainability

Policy Field Research

During the last two decades it became clear that the Earth system is probably the most important global common of humanity. Protecting the climate system and avoiding global warming beyond 2 degrees Celsius is part of the academic and political debate about the “Era of the Anthropocene” (Crutzen 2006). Stabilizing the planet, fighting escalating climate change, and avoiding tipping points in the Earth system are therefore cornerstones of the debate on global governance in the 21st century.

Climate protection is a very dynamic field of global cooperation (Hirschfeld/ Hansen/ Messner 2017). Global climate negotiations started in 1995, driven by the United Nations (UNFCCC). The main foci of negotiations, the debated instruments to solve the climate dilemma, and the overall climate architecture changed profoundly over time. During the first phase, climate change has been perceived as an environmental policy issue. Controversial discussions focused on responsibilities of different country groups to protect the climate system and to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The turbulent and stalled negotiations in Copenhagen (2009) marked a major shift. It became clear that effective climate protection implies a profound transformation towards a decarbonized global economy. An environmental policy field translated into an arena driven by economic concerns, innovation, investments, trade, infrastructural challenges, and complex justice issues, regarding the costs and benefits of the impacts of global warming and of the transformation towards sustainability (Leggewie/ Messner 2012). Interestingly, science is a key driver of global climate policies. Since 1988 the IPCC (International Panel on Climate Change) provides the knowledge base for global climate negotiations and probably the legitimacy for transnational collective action. In 2015 the negotiations led to the Paris Climate Agreement, based on the common goal of stabilizing global warming well below 2 degrees Celsius, voluntary, non-binding contributions of nation states to reduce carbon emissions, and financial as well as technical support for vulnerable countries and people to cope with the impacts of rising temperatures and changing ecosystems. Moreover, over time, the intergovernmental UNFCCC negotiations have been complemented, within the UNFCCC framework, by manifold activities and initiatives of non-state actors: cities, NGOs, private investors, and universities form part of the climate governance architecture. Against this background climate change is often perceived as an example for emerging polycentric, multi-scalar, and multi-actor governance structures and dynamics.

In the first phase (2012-2018), research at the Käte Hamburger Kolleg/Centre for Global Cooperation Research focused on:

  • the role of knowledge and transnational learning communities in climate negotiation arenas and in processes of transformation towards a decarbonized global economy (Messner et al. 2011, 321-360);
  • actor oriented analysis of shifting climate protection architectures, demonstrating the changing roles of intergovernmental institutions and private actors like city alliances or knowledge and faith-based organizations (Messner et al. 2014);
  • basic principles and mechanisms of global cooperation, which allow for embedding power structures in international arenas in dynamics of collective action and joint problem solving (Grimalda et al. 2016; Messner/ Weinlich 2016).


In the second phase (2018-2024), research on climate protection will focus on three areas:

  1. Based on the concept of “collective intentionalities” (Tomasello 2014, Messner/ Weinlich 2016), we will study whether and how preconditions for cultures of cooperation emerge in the field of climate policies. Do polycentric structures in this policy arena result in stabilizing trajectories of cooperation or in processes of eroding collective action? Could the analytical and normative concept of the ‘Anthropocene’ become a meta-narrative for global climate policies, creating common normative ground for actors with diverging and converging interests?
  2. Which world order models are emerging and driving global climate policies? At the heart of the Centre’s application for the first phase was the hypothesis that increasing globalization could lead to a successive harmonization of concepts of global cooperation. However, a growing number of actors in an increasing number of countries are questioning global cooperation; nationalism is an important trend around the world. We are also witnessing a pluralization of world order models (even and especially in the West). Consequently, interdisciplinary research will be carried out on the diversity of world order concepts in the arenas of climate change policies. From an empirical perspective, we will focus on which world order models are actually emerging and gaining in relevance, and which actors are participating in their emergence and dissemination. In theoretical terms, the main question is whether emerging world order models may facilitate or undermine global cooperation. Interdisciplinary analysis and theory building will assess how far diverse world order conceptions are bridgeable by the cultures of cooperation that are identified in the first part of our research and to what extent these competing visions seriously obstruct the prospects for global cooperation.
  3. The overall international system is changing:
  • global cooperation with the multilateral system has increasingly stagnated, while a variety of transnational governance schemes have developed that aim to foster global cooperation between a range of public, private and civil society actors;
  • the BRICS have learned to operate within the existing global order without substantially challenging its underlying rules, while the USA and other Western countries have advanced conceptions of ‘our country first’ which seriously question the need and benefits of global cooperation;
  • multiple new alliances of non-state actors have indeed emerged, but this development has also involved a rise of coalitions that challenge rather than broaden the legitimacy of multilateralism and of collective global action by promoting nationalism and protectionism; as a result we need to examine the greater intricacies of legitimation processes;
  • the EU has gone through a major economic crisis and subsequent political challenges as its member states face increasing numbers of refugees. Meanwhile Brexit and right-wing populist movements are threatening the foundational ideas of the EU and its role as a major driver of global cooperation.

How do these dominant trends change the dynamics in the field of global climate policies? We interpret the current dynamics in the world order as a profound transformation of the established intergovernmental system towards a new global order – which is still ‘in the making’. Research on climate policies will help as to better understand these shifts in the international system which are currently characterized by disjuncture which encompass the co-existence of stagnation in the multilateral system, threats to global cooperation as well as strengthening transnational cooperation.


Selected references

Crutzen, Paul J. (2006). 'The "Anthropocene"', in Eckart Ehlers, and Thomas Krafft (eds.), Earth System Science in the Anthropocene, Heidelberg: Springer, 13–18.

Grimalda, Gianluca, Pondorfer, Andreas, and Tracer, David P. (2016). 'Social Image Concerns Promote Cooperation more than Altruistic Punishment', Nature communications, 7.

Hirschfeld, Jesko, Hansen, Gerrit, and Messner, Dirk (2017). 'Die klimaresiliente Gesellschaft: Transformation und Systemänderungen', in Guy Brasseur et al. (eds.), Klimawandel in Deutschland, Berlin, New York: Springer Open, 315–321.

Leggewie, Claus, and Messner, Dirk (2012). 'The Low-Carbon Transformation – a Social Science Perspective', Journal of Renewable and Sustainable Energy, 4, 041404.

Messner, Dirk et al. (2011). A Social Contract for Sustainability, Berlin: German Advisory Council on Global Change.

Messner, Dirk et al. (2014). Climate Protection as a World Citizen Movement, Berlin: German Advisory Council on Global Change.

Messner, Dirk, and Weinlich, Silke (2016). Global Cooperation and the Human Factor in International Relations, London/ New York: Routledge.

Tomasello, Michael (2014). A Natural History of Human Thinking, Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press.