Commoning Climate Change: Peer-to-Peer Social Affinity in a Multi-Level Commons

By Sara Delaney1, Beth Jackson2, Anna Olsen3 , and Paulina Torres4

1University of Maine, School of Food and Agriculture Ph.D. Student
2University of Maine, Climate Change Institute, Graduate Certificate, Miami University, Project Dragonfly MA Student
3University of Maine, Anthropology and Environmental Policy MA Student
4University of Maine, Anthropology and Environmental Policy Ph.D. Student


I. Introduction

Causes of anthropogenic climate change must be addressed at all resource management levels; individual, local, state, national, and global. The atmosphere, one of the most influential components of Earth’s climate system, is experiencing a rapid increase in greenhouse gas concentrations. Climate systems cannot be easily contained or controlled by one ruling authority, yet they must be protected and managed on a global scale. One option is to manage shared resources as a commons. Commons theory emerged from scholars studying how communities have successfully, or unsuccessfully, managed shared resources. Ostrom (1990) used case studies of some of these communities, such as complex canal systems in Valencia in the 15th century, to develop design principles. Ostrom believed the design principles were ingredients to the success of common pool resource management (Ostrom, 1990). The atmosphere can be envisioned as a common pool resource (CPR), or a resource held in “common” because it is costly and challenging to exclude users, and exploitation reduces availability or quality for others (Ostrom et al., 1999). The atmosphere is a particularly important CPR, it is essential for life on Earth. Managing resources on a global scale is inevitably more complex than local commons management systems. On a global level, there is no ruling authority, rather nations must opt to work together to agree on common goals (Berkes, 2005). 

Common pool resources were referred to as a “commons,” most famously in Hardin’s “Tragedy of the Commons” essay, in which he argues that human self-interest will lead to the destruction of unmanaged CPRs (1968). However, this tragedy is not inevitable. Many have since documented how common resources can be governed by a community and shown that true commons are “living social systems through which people address their shared problems in self-organized ways” (Bollier & Helfrich, 2019, pt. 1). Today, we hear increasingly dire reports about the state of our climate. Whether or not human self-interest led us here is no longer important, instead, it remains important that we develop a “culture of stewardship” and “co-responsibility” for our resources (Bollier et al., 2012). Two recent frameworks propose theories for achieving this type of culture. Ostrom (2010) describes the value of a polycentric approach to commons governance. Polycentric governance refers to a system in which a diverse array of public and private entities engage in resource management on multiple scales. Ostrom advocates for expanding mid-level actions but does not discuss what factors cause or inhibit success (Waring et al., 2015). Waring et al. (2015) suggest “cultural multilevel selection theory” (CMLS), where cultural evolution is used to predict the emergence of group-level cooperative behavior to address social-ecological dilemmas. Other scholars and practitioners have continued to build on this work, exploring both explanatory theory around commons management, as well as pulling together case studies across many domains (Bollier & Helfrich, 2019; Perkins, 2019; Tam et al., 2018; Williams, 2018).

Commons, once used only as a noun, has grown to also be used as a verb, the act of “commoning”. Linebaugh, an anthropologist, suggests that “the commons is an activity and, if anything, it expresses the relationships in society that are inseparable from relations to nature” (2008, p. 279). Or, more recently, Bollier and Helfrich (2019) argue that commoning is about creating relationships within communities, with the nonhuman world, and with future generations. The key shift here is the active nature of commoning and the forming of intentional relationships. Those taking part in this kind of system have also been referred to as “commoners” (Bollier, 2014). We will use this definition of commoning to focus on how particular types of relationships can address, or inhibit, the challenge of managing global resources, such as the atmosphere, as a commons. 

“… commoning is about creating relationships within communities, with the nonhuman world, and with future generations.”

We propose that the structure of climate governance is centered around effective social relationships. Through that lens, we explore social dynamics as they pertain to climate governance on multiple levels, including individual action at a local level, successful state level collective action with the Maine Climate Council, and challenges of multinational policy agreements. In the process of learning about multi-level climate action, we found peer-to-peer social affinity to be a key concept. We define peer-to-peer social affinity as interactions based on mutual interest between equal-level actors; individual to individual, group to group, state to state, and nation to nation. 

II. Climate change: Converting global to local

Action begins at the individual level and expands to organized groups of individuals, neighborhoods, and communities. Individual actions are influenced by personal beliefs and perceptions of risk, as well as beliefs about what others around us are thinking and doing. For this reason, communication of all kinds between individuals facilitates action or inaction.

For the atmosphere to be addressed locally as a CPR, open and interactive conversations about beliefs and practices around climate change must exist. However, one obstacle faced in effective climate conversations is social uncertainty. In a 2019 article based on the Climate Change in the American Mind (CCAM) project at Yale University, the authors discuss how knowledge of what one’s peers do and believe concerning climate change has direct effects on one’s own beliefs and actions (Ballew et al., 2019).  When beliefs around climate change are not being perceived socially this results in “pluralistic ignorance” in which “people tend to misjudge what the beliefs and actions of others actually are” (Geiger & Swim, 2016). These misjudgments influence behavior patterns. In the case of climate change, this can mean not actively cooperating with climate change objectives simply by being ignorant of community interests (Leviston et al., 2013). This is further supported in a study conducted by Schultz et al. (2018) arguing that U.S. citizens underestimate their peers’ belief in, and actions against, climate change resulting in greater greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions per household. This disconnect in communication could be a cause for higher rates of GHG emissions for individual households, or conversely, household GHG emissions could be reduced through social collaboration spurred by peer-to-peer social affinity. 

Despite the presence of pluralistic ignorance, awareness of climate change in the US is rising. In 2010, a questionnaire was administered to individuals in both Seattle and Pittsburgh and resulted in only 33 of 248 participants indicating that anthropogenic climate change is ‘certain’ instead of ‘possible’ (Reynolds et al., 2010, p. 6). We can interpret this to mean that a large portion of the population had yet to feel the reflexive and personal consequences of climate change. A more recent survey done in 2022, and still ongoing through the CCAM project, yielded an optimistically higher US consciousness of climate change. Results indicated that 72% of the population believes in climate change and 56% of the population is aware it is exacerbated by human activity (Leiserowitz et al., 2022). As awareness has entered the minds of the majority of the population, these beliefs are becoming more than just governmental concerns, they are turning into social issues. When consequences are felt socially, they have the potential to inspire people on all management levels, including individuals. This can be seen, for example, in community-organized efforts to reduce consumption and increase reuse. The city of San Francisco has taken a proactive approach to divert waste from landfills to reduce GHG emissions from decomposition (City and County of San Francisco, 2021). More specifically, “Fix-It Clinics,” which began in the San Francisco area, provide a place where citizens can bring items and learn to disassemble and repair those items (FixIt Clinic, 2023). The state of Maine also offers an avenue to host “Repair Clinics”, which bring together community members, volunteers, small business owners, and trade experts to repair broken items (Maine DEP, n.d.).

In addition to variations in the beliefs around the existence of climate change, there can be differences in how individuals perceive change, risk, and climate, as well as how scientific knowledge is assessed and interpreted (Aswani, 2011; Fagan & Huang, 2019). While there is diversity in perceptions even at the local level, conversation and consensus-building may be more feasible within a community, and conflicts may be resolved when differences arise. If we can share our beliefs, as well as interpretations within our communities, that peer-to-peer social affinity can incite action, and action can lead to collective action (Ostrom, 2010; Villamayor-Tomas & García-López, 2018). Collective action taken on the local level can result in greater use of climate-friendly practices. Figure 1 shows our representation of multi-level commoning, with individuals working together within and across communities. 

Figure 1. Representation of a multi-level global commons. Global climate goals and policies are set collaboratively by stakeholders from many collective action groups. Nations follow global initiatives and work to set policies that give direction to their state and local organizations.  Many small collective action organizations made up of individuals manage local CPRs and take action to reduce GHG emissions. Organizations of similar size, power, and ethos collaborate creating accountability and peer-to-peer social affinity. Teal= global level; Light Blue= National/multinational level; Gray=regional/local level; People=individual level. Arrows represent social collaborations within the same levels of governance. Figure 1 is adapted from Beitl (2019).

III. Climate change at the state level, the example of the Maine Climate Council

Building on these individual level perceptions, we present an example to illustrate that we can move up to state level action and still retain the peer-to-peer social affinity needed to catalyze commoning. Actions at a national and international level have been inconsistent, slow, and out of reach to most individuals, thus, city and state level action has been growing across the US (Steffen et al., 2021; Widerberg & Pattberg, 2017). As of 2022, 34 states have an active or draft state climate action plan (C2ES, 2020). Each state process has been unique which creates a patchwork situation. However, this also allows for states to own the process and create solutions that match local context.

In Maine, the climate action planning process began as early as 2004. An inter-agency planning process was initiated in 2019 with the forming of the Maine Climate Council (MCC), chaired by the Governor’s Office of Policy Innovation and the Future (GOPIF). Their work culminated in a  plan, Maine Won’t Wait, in 2020 (Maine Climate Council, 2020). The plan is responding to the realities of the changing climate in the Northeast (NE) of the US where the average annual temperature has increased by ~3°F over the last century, and is currently projected to increase a further 5-6°F by 2050. In addition, the NE has seen the largest increase in annual precipitation in the country, primarily due to increases in heavy and extreme storm events of 2” or more, and this progression is projected to continue (Easterling et al., 2017; Fernandez et al., 2020). These trends bring changes to our environment, seasons, and wildlife, all of which are central to Mainers’ way of life, the tourism industry, and food production in the state. Maine’s climate plan includes goals to 1) reduce greenhouse gasses by 2030, 2) avoid the costs of inaction by safeguarding communities, infrastructure, and natural resources, 3) generate clean energy jobs and 4) advance equity (Maine Climate Council, 2020). 

The process of drafting the plan was highly participatory, with six working groups (WGs), two subcommittees, and representation from the state legislature, non-profits, scientists, and representatives from key community interest groups. The MCC also sought public engagement through meetings, calls, a survey, and the receipt of memos and petitions. While the in-person engagement process was “blunted” by pandemic restrictions, the group was still able to collect widespread input from across the state (I. Fernandez, personal communication, March 29, 2022), and by moving the process online people were actually able to participate asynchronously and remotely, which increased participation (Robbins, 2023). The MCC survey received over 4,000 responses (Summary of MCC Public Input Survey, 2020). Fifty-two memos were received, such as from the Fishermen’s Council asking the MCC to go further on plans to reduce emissions from fishing vessels, and from a group of nearly 600 educators asking for the formation of a state climate education task force (MCC Public Memos Compiled, 2020). 

The MCC example shows how social affinity can be leveraged through shared energy, as seen in the individual-to-individual collaborations shown in the box of Figure 1. Individuals were invited to join working groups or subcommittees based on their personal expertise. Two individuals who were involved reported that participants were motivated, engaged, and committed. They put an immense amount of energy into the work resulting in the group “doing something hard they have never done before and doing it fast” (I. Fernandez, personal communication, March 30, 2022). In addition, Mainers felt motivated to work within their peer group and to share their ideas up to the state level, a level of government they could connect with. The WG members were not involved or even aware of activity in the next level ‘up’ of conversation, such as the implementation of the plan within GOPIF. They did not participate in state-to-state conversations through the US Climate Alliance, nor any national level climate planning. They shared that this was in fact “necessary” so they could focus on their own group’s goals. They also found it to be “natural” reinforcing the point that strong social relations can be developed laterally between peers that share a common purpose (M. Law, personal communication, April 2, 2022).

“Mainers felt motivated to work within their peer group and to share their ideas up to the state level, a level of government they could connect with.”

This was affirmed by the Climate Change Specialist for the Maine Department of Environmental Protection, who shared in a recent talk how he saw the building of trust and social capital that occurred during the extended planning process to be key to the success of Maine’s progress on climate action (Robbins, 2023). The relationships built have created an environment of accountability and follow-through; agencies are now working to achieve what they committed to in the plan (Maine Climate Council, 2023; Robbins, 2023). As a testament to this, the Maine Climate Change Adaptation Providers Network has an unofficial motto of “adaptation happens at the speed of trust” (Robbins, 2023).

IV. Global climate negotiations: Successes and failures of multiplicity

The UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) adopted in 1992, and ratified by 197 countries, including the United States, was the first global treaty to explicitly address climate change. It established an annual forum, known as the Conference of the Parties (COPs), for international discussions aimed at stabilizing the concentration of GHGs in the atmosphere. These meetings produced the Kyoto Protocol – established in 1997 and then effective in 2005 – which required developed countries to reduce emissions, and then the Paris Agreement in 2015. 

The most significant global climate agreement to date is the Paris Agreement, which requires all countries who have signed to set emissions-reduction pledges. Governments set targets, known as nationally determined contributions (NDCs), with the goals of preventing the global average temperature from rising 2°C above pre-industrial levels, pursuing efforts to keep it below 1.5°C, and aiming to reach global net-zero emissions in the second half of the 21st century. 

Goals, rules, and expectations are set at the COPs; however, it is for governments at all levels to deliver corresponding change on the ground. The new priority following the Paris Agreement is to stimulate actions at multiple levels and locations, both within and beyond the UNFCCC, and involve a wide range of stakeholders. There is a growing conversation that a goal of global climate governance should be to climatize global action, meaning, to engage in “the process of extension, translation, and social coordination, as climate change becomes the frame of reference through which other policy issues and forms of global activism are mediated and hierarchized” (Aykut & Maertens, 2021, p. 501). 

A multi-level or polycentric governance architecture, calls for bottom-up commitments with better transparency and accountability. This strategy can reduce the challenges that come from the significant power imbalances that exist between nations (Aykut & Maertens, 2021; Jordan et al., 2018). According to Jänicke et al. (2015), global multi-level governance has the potential to support innovation, diffusion, and interactive learning across levels and sectors. And, “national and international networks have stimulated ‘horizontal’ peer-to-peer learning” for global climate governance (2015, p. 5).

There is opportunity for a large variety of different multinational alliances based on shared interests. For example, the Like-Minded Developing Countries coalition (LMDC) was formed in 2012 within the UNFCCC. In this coalition, certain countries have come together to advocate for their interests with one voice, joining nations that may not normally work cooperatively, including large economies such as China and India, oil-dependent countries such as Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, and vulnerable countries including Bolivia and Sudan. The LMDC was a strong voice in the advocacy to finally initiate a “loss and damage fund” at COP27, some 30 years after it was first requested, to support vulnerable developing countries’ response to climate crises (Raman, 2022; UNFCCC, 2022). On the other hand, wealthy countries, including the US, the UK, and Australia, are opposed to this fund and are concerned about being held accountable for their historical carbon debt (Polya, 2022). Lack of progress in this area has led some affected countries to coordinate in order to explore alternative solutions, such as more advanced diplomatic and legal ways to apply pressure on wealthy nations (Vanhala, 2022).

While groupings like these necessitate some compromise to reach a bargaining consensus, and not all individual nation’s goals can be prioritized, studies have shown that coalitions can serve as an effective intermediate space for action between the national and global level (Blaxekjær et al., 2020; Castro, 2021). This type of multiplicity in mitigation efforts may help to re-energize global climate governance (Chan, 2022; Ren, 2022).

“Coalitions with like-minded peer countries may be one way to encourage commoning at a global level.”

For global level climate mitigation agreements, and more importantly, actions, to be carried forward successfully, it is important to find some degree of peer-to-peer social affinity. This can at times occur between national leaders but is subject to ever-changing leadership and politics. Coalitions with like-minded peer countries may be one way to encourage commoning at a global level, represented in light blue in Figure 1. As an example from another CPR, in March of 2023, at the Intergovernmental Conference on Marine Biodiversity of Areas Beyond National Jurisdiction, UN delegates reached an agreement called the “High Seas Treaty” (United Nations, 2023). This agreement, meant to assist with protecting international ocean waters, could set a precedent for global commons resource management. As global agreements continue, these high level initiatives will ideally operate with an appreciation for the widespread conversations and actions that are also occurring at lower governance levels (Depledge et al., 2022; Ortmann & Veit, 2022). 

V. Conclusion & Discussion

As a society, local or global, we can learn from examples of successful commoning. To that notion, can we then intentionally choose to manage a global resource? Can we manage the atmosphere by utilizing a multi-level global commons where commoning behaviors are seen in multinational relationships, as well as local communities? While the development of initiatives at all levels is needed, increased mid-level collective action is likely the most tangible for the majority. Incentives to create a new type of climate agreement with ‘bottom-up’ commitments that include accountability, as suggested by Aykut et al. (2021), illustrate the importance of expanding mid-level collective action. This idea was confirmed by Fink (2019, p. 16), who showed that “affinities between cities’ political-ecological profiles” can result in leaders learning from each other, cooperating, and incentivizing each other to take action.

The importance of peer-to-peer social affinity was demonstrated by the Maine Climate Council working group members who reported it was necessary to focus on obtainable goals within their management level. The development of the Like-Minded Developing Countries coalition within the UNFCCC illustrates the importance of collaboration between nations with similar goals at a multinational level. Successful collective action initiatives depend on relationships between like-minded peer groups with similar objectives.

Human-to-human and human-to-nature relationships lie at the heart of global scale multi-level climate negotiation. These relationships play an important role in the emergence of collective behavior, commoning, and, in turn, successful polycentric governance for global environmental challenges. Expanding mid-level collective action initiatives needs to happen in congruence with global policy development. We have shown that at the individual and local levels, individuals may act or not act, depending on how they perceive their peers’ beliefs and actions. At the state level individuals representing interest groups can achieve collective action through strong perceived shared purpose and affirmation from their communities. At the global level, national leaders need social affinity and the drive to form collaborative agreements with other nations based on common goals. When the collective we, as a global society, decide to view the atmosphere as a vital resource that connects us all in a global scale commons, we set aside the pathway to tragedy. 



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