Climate politics, metaphors and the fractal carbon trap


The international community has treated climate change as an emissions reduction challenge, drawing on the analytical metaphor of the global commons, and thus the politics of collective action and international cooperation. So far, these strategies have failed to produce an effective global response. We propose decarbonization as the defining challenge and a new guiding metaphor for the problem structure: the global fractal. This metaphor aptly describes the decarbonization challenge, capturing the multilevel and interdependent nature of carbon lock-in and the fractal carbon trap facing decarbonization efforts. It also provides a means to explore the range of diverse policies and practices that can potentially escape the fractal carbon trap and catalyse deep decarbonization.

Access options

Rent or Buy article

Get time limited or full article access on ReadCube.


All prices are NET prices.

Fig. 1: Metaphors and climate politics.
Fig. 2: The fractal carbon trap.
Fig. 3: The double trap.


  1. 1.

    Shimko, K. L. Metaphors and foreign policy decision making. Polit. Psychol. 15, 655–671 (1994).

    Google Scholar 

  2. 2.

    Hajer, M. A. The Politics of Environmental Discourse: Ecological Modernization and the Policy Process (Clarendon, 1995).

  3. 3.

    Schlesinger, M. & Lau, R. R. The meaning and measure of policy metaphors. Am. Polit. Sci. Rev. 94, 611–626 (2000).

    Google Scholar 

  4. 4.

    Lakoff, G. & Johnson, M. Metaphors We Live By (Univ. Chicago Press, 1980).

  5. 5.

    Bougher, L. D. The case for metaphor in political reasoning and cognition. Polit. Psychol. 33, 145–163 (2012).

    Google Scholar 

  6. 6.

    Shaw, C. & Nerlich, B. Metaphor as a mechanism of global climate change governance: a study of international policies, 1992–2012. Ecol. Econ. 109, 34–40 (2015).

    Google Scholar 

  7. 7.

    Keohane, R. O. & Victor, D. G. Cooperation and discord in global climate policy. Nat. Clim. Change 6, 570–575 (2016).

    Google Scholar 

  8. 8.

    Barrett, S. Environment and Statecraft (Oxford Univ. Press, 2003).

  9. 9.

    Peters, S. Beyond carbon budgets. Nat. Geosci. 11, 378–380 (2018).

    CAS  Google Scholar 

  10. 10.

    Geden, O. Politically informed advice for climate action. Nat. Geosci. 11, 380–383 (2018).

    CAS  Google Scholar 

  11. 11.

    Victor, D. G. Global Warming Gridlock: Creating More Effective Strategies for Protecting the Planet (Cambridge Univ. Press, 2011).

  12. 12.

    Depledge, J. The opposite of learning: ossification in the climate change regime. Glob. Environ. Polit. 6, 1–22 (2006).

    Google Scholar 

  13. 13.

    Falkner, R. The Paris agreement and the new logic of international climate politics. Int. Aff. 92, 1107–1125 (2016).

    Google Scholar 

  14. 14.

    Beiser-McGrath, L. F. & Bernauer, T. Commitment failures are unlikely to undermine public support for the Paris agreement. Nat. Clim. Change 9, 248 (2019).

    Google Scholar 

  15. 15.

    Mildenberger, M. Support for climate unilateralism. Nat. Clim. Change 9, 187–188 (2019).

    Google Scholar 

  16. 16.

    Hsu, A. et al. A Research roadmap for quantifying non-state and subnational climate mitigation action. Nat. Clim. Change 9, 11–17 (2019).

    Google Scholar 

  17. 17.

    Hale, T. The Role of Sub-State and Nonstate Actors in International Climate Processes Research Paper (Chatham House, 2018).

  18. 18.

    Unruh, G. C. Understanding carbon lock-in. Energy Policy 28, 817–830 (2000).

    Google Scholar 

  19. 19.

    Seto, K. C. et al. Carbon lock-in: types, causes, and policy implications. Annu. Rev. Environ. Resour. 41, 425–452 (2016).

    Google Scholar 

  20. 20.

    Farmer, J. D. et al. Sensitive intervention points in the post-carbon transition. Science 364, 132–134 (2019).

    CAS  Google Scholar 

  21. 21.

    Duit, A. & Galaz, V. Governance and complexity — emerging issues for governance theory. Governance 21, 311–335 (2008).

    Google Scholar 

  22. 22.

    Bak, P. & Creutz, M. in Fractals in Science (eds Bunde, A. & Havlin, S.) 27–48 (Springer, 1994).

  23. 23.

    Barrett, C. B. & Swallow, B. M. Fractal poverty traps. World Dev. 34, 1–15 (2006).

  24. 24.

    Chettiparamb, A. Complexity theory and planning: examining ‘fractals’ for organising policy domains in planning practice. Plann. Theor. 13, 5–25 (2013).

    Google Scholar 

  25. 25.

    De Florio, V. et al. Models and concepts for socio‐technical complex systems: towards fractal social organizations. Syst. Res. Behav. Sci. 30, 750–772 (2013).

    Google Scholar 

  26. 26.

    Perey, R. Organizing sustainability and the problem of scale: local, global, or fractal? Organ. Environ. 27, 215–222 (2014).

    Google Scholar 

  27. 27.

    Meadowcroft, J. What about the politics? Sustainable development, transition management, and long term energy transitions. Policy Sci. 42, 323–340 (2009).

    Google Scholar 

  28. 28.

    Geels, F. W. Ontologies, socio-technical transitions (to sustainability), and the multi-level perspective. Res. Pol. 39, 495–510 (2010).

    Google Scholar 

  29. 29.

    Princen, T., Manno, J. P. & Martin, P. L. (eds) Ending the Fossil Fuel Era (MIT Press, 2015).

  30. 30.

    Pathways to Deep Decarbonization (SDSN, 2014);

  31. 31.

    Bulkeley, H. A. et al. Transnational Climate Change Governance (Cambridge Univ. Press, 2014).

  32. 32.

    Jordan, A., Huitema, D., Van Asselt, H. & Forster, J. (eds) Governing Climate Change: Polycentricity in Action? (Cambridge Univ. Press 2018).

  33. 33.

    Widerberg, O. & Stripple, J. The expanding field of cooperative initiatives for decarbonization: a review of five databases. WIREs Clim. Change 7, 486–500 (2016).

    Google Scholar 

  34. 34.

    Overdevest, C. & Zeitlin, J. Assembling an experimentalist regime: transnational governance interactions in the forest sector. J. Gov. Regul. 8, 22–48 (2014).

    Google Scholar 

  35. 35.

    De Búrca, G., Keohane, R. O. & Sabel, C. Global experimentalist governance. Br. J. Polit. Sci. 44, 477–486 (2014).

    Google Scholar 

  36. 36.

    Bulkeley, H. & Castán Broto, V. Government by experiment? Global cities and the governing of climate change. Trans. Inst. Br. Geogr. 38, 361–375 (2013).

    Google Scholar 

  37. 37.

    Hoffmann, M. Climate Governance at the Crossroads: Experimenting with a Global Response after Kyoto (Oxford Univ. Press, 2011).

  38. 38.

    Romero-Lankao, P. et al. Urban transformative potential in a changing climate. Nat. Clim. Change 8, 754 (2018).

    Google Scholar 

  39. 39.

    Betsill, M. & Bulkeley, H. Looking back and thinking ahead: a decade of cities and climate change research. Local Environ. 12, 447–456 (2007).

    Google Scholar 

  40. 40.

    Rabe, B. G. Can We Price Carbon? (MIT Univ. Press, 2018).

  41. 41.

    Webb, M. Smart 2020: Enabling the Low Carbon Economy in the Information Age (The Climate Group, 2008).

  42. 42.

    Lade, S., Hader, J., Engström, J. & Schlüter, M. Resilience offers escape from trapped thinking on poverty alleviation. Sci. Adv. 3, e1603043 (2017).

    Google Scholar 

  43. 43.

    Geroski, P. A. Models of technology diffusion. Res. Policy 29, 603–625 (2000).

    Google Scholar 

  44. 44.

    Kauffman, S. At Home in the Universe: The Search for the Laws of Self-organization and Complexity (Oxford Univ. Press, 1996).

  45. 45.

    Juarrero, A. Dynamics in action: intentional behavior as a complex system. Emergence 2, 24–57 (2000).

    Google Scholar 

  46. 46.

    Levin, S. et al. Social-ecological systems as complex adaptive systems: modeling and policy implications. Environ. Dev. Econ. 18, 111–132 (2013).

    Google Scholar 

  47. 47.

    Levin, K., Cashore, B., Bernstein, S. & Auld, G. Overcoming the tragedy of super wicked problems: constraining our future selves to ameliorate global climate change. Policy Sci. 45, 123–152 (2012).

    Google Scholar 

  48. 48.

    Newell, P. Trasformismo or transformation? The global political economy of energy transitions. Rev. Int. Pol. Econ. 26, 25–48 (2018).

    Google Scholar 

  49. 49.

    Geels, F. W. Regime resistance against low-carbon transitions: introducing politics and power into the multi-level perspective. Theory Cult. Soc. 31, 21–40 (2014).

    Google Scholar 

  50. 50.

    Bernstein, S. & Hoffmann, M. The politics of decarbonization and the catalytic impact of subnational experiments. Policy Sci. 51, 189–211 (2018).

    Google Scholar 

  51. 51.

    Meckling, J., Kelsey, N., Biber, E. & Zysman, J. Winning coalitions for climate policy. Science 349, 1170–1171 (2015).

    CAS  Google Scholar 

  52. 52.

    Breetz, H., Mildenberger, M. & Stokes, L. The political logics of clean energy transitions. Bus. Polit. 20, 492–522 (2018).

    Google Scholar 

  53. 53.

    Green, F. Anti-fossil fuel norms. Climatic Change 150, 103–116 (2018).

    Google Scholar 

  54. 54.

    Buschmann, P. & Oels, A. The overlooked role of discourse in breaking carbon lock-in: the case of the German energy transition. WIREs Clim. Change 574, (2019).

    Google Scholar 

  55. 55.

    Boisvert, N. Metrolinx removes electric vehicle chargers from GO station parking lots. CBC (10 January 2019).

  56. 56.

    Benzie, R. Tesla wins lawsuit against Ontario government over phase-out of electric vehicle incentives. The Star (27 August 2018).

  57. 57.

    Gorzelaney, J. Here’s which automakers will suffer if Trump ends electric car tax credits. Forbes (10 December 2018).

  58. 58.

    Andrews-Speed, P. Applying institutional theory to the low-carbon energy transition. Energy Res. Soc. Sci. 13, 216–225 (2016).

    Google Scholar 

  59. 59.

    Lockwood, M., Kuzemko, C., Mitchell, C. & Hoggett, R. Historical institutionalism and the politics of sustainable energy transitions: a research agenda. Environ. Plann. C 35, 312–333 (2017).

    Google Scholar 

  60. 60.

    Maniates, M. F. Individualization: plant a tree, buy a bike, save the world? Glob. Environ. Polit. 1, 31–52 (2001).

    Google Scholar 

  61. 61.

    Wapner, P. & Willoughby, J. The irony of environmentalism: the ecological futility but political necessity of lifestyle change. Ethics Int. Aff. 19, 77–89 (2005).

    Google Scholar 

  62. 62.

    DeSombre, E. Why Do Good People Do Bad Environmental Things? (Oxford Univ Press, 2018).

  63. 63.

    Stokes, L. C. The politics of renewable energy policies: the case of feed-in tariffs in Ontario, Canada. Energy Policy 56, 490–500 (2013).

    Google Scholar 

  64. 64.

    Miner, J. The Mainstreet Research survey suggests an even split in public opinion about Ontario’s embrace of wind energy. The London Free Press (8 June 2016).

  65. 65.

    Carbon pricing: rebate announcement tips opinion in favour of federal plan, slim majority now support it. Angus Reid Institute (1 November 2018).

  66. 66.

    Keith, D. W. Geoengineering. Nature 409, 420 (2001).

    CAS  Google Scholar 

  67. 67.

    Keith, D. W., Wagner, G. & Zabel, C. L. Solar geoengineering reduces atmospheric carbon burden. Nat. Clim. Change 7, 617 (2017).

    Google Scholar 

  68. 68.

    Givens, J. E. Geoengineering in context. Nat. Sustain. 1, 459 (2018).

    Google Scholar 

  69. 69.

    Bennett, E. M. et al. Bright spots: seeds of a good Anthropocene. Front. Ecol. Environ. 14, 441–448 (2016).

    Google Scholar 

  70. 70.

    Wettengel, J. Climate goal failure warrants high Energiewende priority — gov advisors. Clean Energy Wire (27 June 2018).

  71. 71.

    Sixth ‘Energy Transition’ Monitoring Report: The Energy of the Future. Reporting Year 2016 — Summary (German Federal Ministry of Economic Affairs and Energy, 2018);

  72. 72.

    Cunningham, T., Hedberg, A., Nazakat, S. & Yao, L. Assessing the Energiewende: An International Expert Review (Konrad Adenaeur Stiftung, 2018);

  73. 73.

    Meckling, J. (2019). Governing renewables: policy feedback in a global energy transition. Environ. Plann. C. 37, 317–338 (2018).

    Google Scholar 

  74. 74.

    Alizada, K. Rethinking the diffusion of renewable energy policies: a global assessment of feed-in tariffs and renewable portfolio standards. Energy Res. Soc. Sci. 44, 346–361 (2018).

    Google Scholar 

  75. 75.

    Boasson, E. Constitutionalization and entrepreneurship: explaining increased EU steering of renewables support schemes. Polit. Gov. 7, 70–80 (2019).

    Google Scholar 

  76. 76.

    Global EV Outlook 2018 (IEA, 2018);

  77. 77.

    Figenbaum, E. & Kolbenstvedt, M. Electromobility in Norway — Experiences and Opportunities with Electric Vehicles (Transportøkonomisk Institutt, 2013).

  78. 78.

    Charles, D. A small spark from Bellona fuels Norway’s eco-friendly car explosion. Bellona Foundation (8 January 2018).

  79. 79.

    Clean Energy Ministerial EV30@30 Campaign (IEA, 2017).

  80. 80.

    Danish Motor Vehicle Taxes (Danish Ecological Council, no date).

  81. 81.

    Electric vehicles summit 2019 in Norway: Ukraine is learning from the leaders. NUCC (22 March 2019).

  82. 82.

    Wappelhorst, S. & Tietge, U. Iceland is one of the world’s most interesting electric vehicle markets. ICCT (9 July 2019).

  83. 83.

    Lemphers, N. Rolling the Snowball: Norway’s Efforts to Electrify Transportation Working Paper 19-2 (EGL, 2019).

  84. 84.

    Global Climate Change Report 2015 (CDP, 2015);

  85. 85.

    Tang, S. & Demeritt, D. Climate change and mandatory carbon reporting: Impacts on business process and performance. Bus. Strategy Environ. 27, 437–455 (2017).

    Google Scholar 

  86. 86.

    Global 500 Report 2011 (CDP, 2011);

  87. 87.

    PRI, ICGN launch discussion paper on corporate ESG reporting. PRI (18 October 2018).

  88. 88.

    Portfolio Decarbonization Coalition United Nations Environment Program (no date).

  89. 89.

    Commit to adopt a science-based emissions reduction target to generate the innovations needed to transition to a low-carbon, sustainable economy. CDP (no date).

  90. 90.

    Putting a Price on Carbon (CDP, 2017);

  91. 91.

    Climate Change Disclosure in G20 Countries (OECD, 2015);

  92. 92.

    Pahle, M. et al. Sequencing to ratchet up climate policy stringency. Nat. Clim. Change 8, 861–867 (2018).

    Google Scholar 

  93. 93.

    van der Ven, H. et al. Valuing the contributions of nonstate and subnational actors to climate governance. Glob. Environ. Polit. 17, 1–20 (2017).

    Google Scholar 

  94. 94.

    Betsill, M. & Stevis, D. The politics and dynamics of energy transitions: lessons from Colorado’s ‘new energy economy’. Environ. Plann. C 24, 381–396 (2016).

    Google Scholar 

  95. 95.

    Hagmann, D., Ho, E. H. & Loewenstein, G. Nudging out support for a carbon tax. Nat. Clim. Change 9, 484–489 (2019).

  96. 96.

    Johnsen, T. J. Norway’s Electric Vehicle Policies (Environment Oslo, 2017).

  97. 97.

    Emissions to Air (Statistisk sentralbyrå, 2018);

  98. 98.

    Klöckner, C. A., Nayum, A. & Mehmetoglu, M. Positive and negative spillover effects from electric car purchase to car use. Transp. Res. D 21, 32–38 (2013).

    Google Scholar 

  99. 99.

    Knudsen, C., Doyle, A. Norway powers ahead (electrically): over half new car sales now electric or hybrid. Reuters (3 January 2018).

  100. 100.

    Le Quere, C. et al. Drivers of declining CO2 emissions in 18 developed economies. Nat. Clim. Change 9, 213–217 (2019).

    Google Scholar 

  101. 101.

    Stafford-Smith, M. et al. Integration: the key to implementing the Sustainable Development Goals. Sustain. Sci. 12, 911–919 (2017).

    Google Scholar 

  102. 102.

    Haley, B. From staples trap to carbon trap: Canada’s peculiar form of carbon lock-in. Stud. Polit. Econ. 88, 97–132 (2011).

    Google Scholar 

Download references


The authors were supported by a grant from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada. We thank N. Lemphers, A. Janzwood and M. Pedersen-Macnab for research assistance, and M. Paterson, B. Cashore, H. Millar, H. Bulkeley, M. Betsill, J. Green and D. Rosenbloom for comments on previous drafts.

Author information




Both authors contributed equally to the research and writing of this article.

Corresponding authors

Correspondence to Steven Bernstein or Matthew Hoffmann.

Ethics declarations

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing interests.

Additional information

Peer review information Nature Climate Change thanks Elin Boasson, Navroz Dubash, Jonas Meckling and Leah Stokes for their contribution to the peer review of this work.

Publisher’s note Springer Nature remains neutral with regard to jurisdictional claims in published maps and institutional affiliations.

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Verify currency and authenticity via CrossMark

Cite this article

Bernstein, S., Hoffmann, M. Climate politics, metaphors and the fractal carbon trap. Nat. Clim. Chang. 9, 919–925 (2019).

Download citation

Further reading


Quick links

Nature Briefing

Sign up for the Nature Briefing newsletter — what matters in science, free to your inbox daily.

Get the most important science stories of the day, free in your inbox. Sign up for Nature Briefing