Can we experiment our way out of climate change?

Mikael Hildén, Jonas Schoenefeld |

As the climate continues to change at alarming rates, many have lost faith in traditional international approaches to address the issue. As a result, climate policy innovation and associated experimentation are en vogue.[1] The thinking goes that if old approaches are perceived to be failing, we need new and innovative ones. The hope is that successful innovations will spread as policy-makers, civil society and businesses learn from one another. But what do we know about climate change governance experimentation, and are these hopes justified?

On the face of it nobody directly opposes the idea of experimenting. After all, experimentation drives tremendous progress in the natural sciences, so why should we not apply the approach more widely to governance? The idea also fits well with the evidence-based policy-making agenda, another fashionable idea, holding that experiments may be a key source of evidence for policy-makers. However, there is more to experimentation than readily meets the eye. A recent workshop on “Climate Change Policy and Governance: Initiation, Experimentation, Evaluation” organised by the Innovations in Climate Governance (INOGOV) research network including 26 European countries, focused on how experiments materialise and challenge existing policies, practices and regulatory systems. Thirty scholars from Europe, the US and Australia discussed new empirical and theoretical analyses, showing how diverse the topic of experimentation is. The emerging discussions highlighted that conducting, interpreting and using experiments may not be as straightforward as one may think.

First of all: what are experiments? There were numerous partly conflicting ideas among the workshop participants. Some broadly viewed all policies as potentially failing experiments in the sense that no one can ever exactly foresee policy outcomes in complex socio-ecological systems. Others took more narrow definitions as a starting point with specific criteria that echo statistical experimental designs. Such experiments can, for example, explore a novel policy instrument that is applied and evaluated in restricted regions before being adopted nationally. Our understanding of experiments will affect how we approach and use them. Crucially, experimenting also raises tricky issues of risks, duties and wider social implications. For example, who is to blame if a governance experiment goes wrong and who will bear the consequences? Leaving a legacy, experiments are never fully reversible. They will, at the very least, provide a new perspective on what is doable, and after that the world is never completely the same.

In many cases the purpose of experimenting is nothing short of learning how to change the world. But a single experiment will not suffice – multiple and repeated experiments in different places may be necessary. Crucial issues thus relate to learning and transferability. How can the experiences gained in one experiment be transferred to another? Some will argue that the context is so decisive that possibilities for duplication are limited,[2] but we know from practical experience that policy solutions are copied and multiplied within and across sectors and countries. Thus ‘upscaling’ happens. The mechanisms of these ‘upscaling’ processes and transitions are an area of considerable theoretical and practical interest.

On the whole, the workshop highlighted that there are many outstanding questions to answer before we may experiment our way out of climate change. This is of course not stopping politicians from touting experimentation as a potential solution to various societal issues: for example, following a recent national election, Finland’s Prime Minister-elect Juha Sipilä has declared that Finland should become an “experimental society”. But what it takes for an experimental society to ‘come true’ and whether this is even desirable cries out for in-depth research and an informed public debate.

With this year’s climate summit in Paris rapidly approaching, the INOGOV network is a good place to nurture this debate. Focusing on where climate governance innovations originate, how they diffuse and what effects they have, it seeks to bring together communities of scholars, as well as civil society and businesses, in order to accelerate humanity’s search for solutions to address climate change. Whether experimentation is among these solutions is one of the critical questions the network will discuss.


[1] See also Castán Broto, V. &  Bulkeley 2013. A survey of urban climate change experiments in 100 cities. Global Environmental Change 23: 92–102

[2] This has been a lively debate in for example development studies. Thus D.K. Forbes in ‘The geography of underdevelopment’ (Croom Helm 1984) refers to the impossibility to replicate development success stories.