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Ostrom’s polycentric approach to climate change

The idea is simple: polycentricity galvanies various non-state actors to climate action.

Ostrom rose to prominence for being the first woman to win a Nobel Prize in Economics despite not having any formal training in the discipline.

She is renowned for her work on the management of the commons, which earned her the Nobel in 2009. Her work focuses on how human beings can collaborate to solve economic and environmental dilemmas. Towards the end of Elinor Ostrom’s illustrious academic career, the Nobel laureate turned her attention to climate change. Applying an interdisciplinary and empirical approach, Ostrom draws from her research on a multitude of shared commons, including fisheries, watersheds, forests and rangelands.

On climate change, Ostrom felt that the sole “[reliance] on international efforts to solve global climate problems needs to be rethought”. Compounding the problem is the interrelated causes and effects of climate change. The overlapping biophysical, social, political and economic implications affect local communities, making climate change a problem on multiple scales. Given the complexity of climate change, any one-size-fits-all solution is rendered ineffective at best.

Departing from the conventional top-down approaches in climate policy, Ostrom was a proponent of ‘polycentricity’. She was one of the first scholars to apply this concept to climate change. The word “polycentrism” blends the idea of diffusion (“poly”) and order (“centrism”). Vincent Ostrom, Elinor’s colleague and husband, explained polycentricity as follows:

“‘Polycentric’ connotes many centres of decision-making which are formally independent of each other. To the extent that they take each other into account in competitive relationships, enter into various contractual and cooperative undertakings or have recourse to central mechanisms to resolve conflicts, the various political jurisdictions in a metropolitan area may function in a coherent manner with consistent and predictable patterns of interacting behaviour.”

Principally, the Ostroms showed that we are not limited to market-based or state-led solutions. The solution to various issues relating to the commons can often be found in a wide range of civil society institutions at various scales. In her Nobel Prize address, Elinor reiterated the importance of polycentricity:

“We need to ask how diverse polycentric institutions help or hinder the innovativeness, learning, adapting, trustworthiness, levels of cooperation of participants, and the achievement of more effective, equitable, and sustainable outcomes at multiple scales.”

In Ostrom’s view, polycentricity is “a useful analytical approach for understanding and improving efforts to reduce the threat of climate change.” It engages various non-state actors and local institutions to bolster our collective response. Through this increased, multi-scale engagement, Ostrom argues that we can better discern which “combined sets of actions will be the most effective in reducing the long-term threat of massive climate change”. Ostrom believed in the human capacity for building trust and enduring institutions to address environmental woes.

In summary, Ostrom does not see the state or markets as the saviour of the environment. For Ostrom, there is overwhelming evidence that “individuals from all walks of life and all parts of the world” are able to “voluntarily organise themselves to gain the benefits of trade, to provide mutual protection against risk, and to create and enforce rules that protect natural resources.”

© Adam Smith Center, Singapore
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