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Decision Change: The First Step to System Change

Arnold J. Bomans
1,* and
Peter Roessingh
Independent Researcher, 2101 MT Heemstede, The Netherlands
Institute for Biodiversity and Ecosystem Dynamics, University of Amsterdam, 1098 XH Amsterdam, The Netherlands
Author to whom correspondence should be addressed.
Sustainability 2024, 16(6), 2372;
Submission received: 24 December 2023 / Revised: 6 February 2024 / Accepted: 12 February 2024 / Published: 13 March 2024
(This article belongs to the Special Issue Environmental Policy as a Tool for Sustainable Development)


Global crises, such as climate change and ecological collapse, require changes in systemic factors that cause the crises. These factors include the economy, population growth, and decision-making in global affairs. Current decision-making processes have failed to accomplish the required system change, necessitating a change to these processes (‘decision change’) for meaningful progress. The key question is how a procedure for deciding on the required system change should be designed in this setting. In this essay, we propose a three-step approach. First, independent experts in collective decision-making should design this procedure under monitoring by auxiliary bodies that safeguard the design process; second, proposals for system change should be collected; third, based on these proposals, system change should be designed and decided upon using the new decision-making procedure. We argue that authority can be given to the new decision-making body that decides on system change. A global team must convene the decision-making experts and auxiliary bodies, collect system-change proposals, and guarantee that the decision-making process is facilitated. We call on individuals and independent organisations to form such a team or support its formation.

1. Introduction

‘Whose job is it to save the planet?’ questioned journalist Fiona Harvey at the 27th Conference of the Parties (COP27) of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). A sobering answer came from Wael Aboulmagd, Egypt’s special representative for COP27: ‘It’s just futile to think that governments alone will take this challenge on’ [1]. Aboulmagd is not alone in voicing this sentiment: The inability of COP27 to stimulate meaningful action strengthened calls for a different conference format, not only during the conferences [2], but also in newspapers [3,4,5,6], on websites [7,8,9,10], in politics [11], and in academia [12,13], where the calls resounded well before [14,15,16,17]. These calls have not been effective because COP28 in 2023 had the same format as COP27 in 2022. Accordingly, proposals for alternatives to the COPs have become more prominent [18,19,20].
Rather than closely examining such proposals, we identify an underlying ‘meta-coordination’ problem: there is no structure that allows us to effectively decide on alternatives to the COPs and similar conferences. The question is how and by whom an alternative decision-making procedure should be designed and what the scope of its use should be. In this essay we suggest that independent experts in collective decision-making, monitored by auxiliary bodies, design a new procedure to decide on the required system change; this design we call decision change. Additionally, we propose that a global team convenes the expert meetings, assembles the auxiliary bodies, collects system-change proposals, and initiates the decision-making on system change. These proposals constitute an actionable research programme that would have to be facilitated by an independent organisation.
This essay resulted from an integrative literature review; it is divided into nine sections. In Section 2, we work back from the COPs on biophysical crises to the underlying problem treated in this essay—the lack of an effective ‘meta-decision structure’ for deciding on system change. We conclude this section by elaborating on the research question and identifying it as a case of Buchanan’s meta-coordination problem. In Section 3 (‘Meta-decision structures’) we overview the (not entirely successful) attempts to design alternative procedures for deciding on global issues, that is, to answer the research question. Section 4 contains our main thesis: a more effective ‘meta-decision structure’ would consist of decision-making experts. We also describe their areas of expertise. In Section 5 we propose the design process—the programme for decision change and system change. Section 4 and Section 5 thus answer the research question. The coordination of this programme by a global team is outlined in Section 6. One may counter that this programme is too convoluted or heterodox to ‘save the planet’. These objections are discussed in Section 7, along with potential advantages and limitations. In Section 8 we draw conclusions and we call to action. Appendix A contains some concrete ideas as a starting point for further development.

2. Problems

In this section, we work back from the COPs on biophysical crises to the underlying problem—the lack of a structure for effectively selecting alternatives to the COPs, in particular for deciding on system change.

2.1. COPs and Crises

The main goal of COP27 was to secure the Paris Agreement [21]. This aims to limit the rising mean temperature of Earth’s surface atmosphere to 2 °C, and preferably 1.5 °C (relative to the pre-industrial era), with efforts expected to increase over time [22]. COP27 resulted in some important agreements [23] which, along with other milestones [22,24,25,26] indicate cooperation and progress.
However, by 2022, it was almost certain that the COPs had failed to keep the temperature goal of 1.5 or 2 °C within reach, as can be deduced from Figure 1 by the Scenario Model Intercomparison Project and related findings by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the World Meteorological Organization, the United Nations Environment Programme, and others (details in Appendices Appendix B.1, Appendix B.2, Appendix B.3 and Appendix B.4).
COP28 should have addressed this foreseeable failure: it was the first meeting to take stock, that is, to assess each countries’ promised contribution and the collective progress towards the 1.5 °C goal [28].Yet, the stocktake document does not give this assessment, but elaborates on pathways for staying below 1.5 °C (details in Appendix B.5). It thus establishes the presupposition that this was still possible and that the COPs provide the politically most pragmatic conference format [29]. However, in physical reality, the COPs and the Paris Agreement should be considered as insufficiently pragmatic, as the following historical account suggests.
The foreseeable failure to stay below 1.5 °C—for which many are to blame—is not surprising. In 2018, the IPCC estimated that, in the scenario of net zero in 2050, surpassing 1.5 °C had a one-third chance of occurring, but nations have bet against this occurrence (details in Appendix B.6). Before 2008, scientists already predicted that the 1.5 °C limit would be exceeded with near certainty even if in 2005 no more greenhouse gas was emitted, and that 1 °C could be dangerous [30]. These fears have come to fruition, with a 1 °C of warming reached in 2022 and already proving catastrophic [31]. Therefore, Spash [32] was right when he characterised the Paris Agreement as unrealistic from its inception, a deficiency that underscores the need for improved decision-making and decisive action.
The destruction of living nature [33] presents an even more severe crisis because people vitally depend on ecosystems [34,35]. Moreover, we can consider humanity to have a moral obligation to protect nature [36]. However, in 2022, COP15 concerning biodiversity mainly stated targets [37], failed to be explicit about important issues [38], and did not mention root causes, so ‘this deal may force us to reconsider the usefulness of such meetings altogether’ [39].

2.2. Decision-Making by the United Nations

Despite failures to make effective decisions, the decision model has always remained essentially unchanged, with the United Nations (UN) maintaining the exclusive right to decide on global affairs at COPs [40] and the Summit of the Future [41]. However, the member states’ interests jeopardise effective joint decisions because there is a custom that each state can issue a veto at the COPs, though the president may decide otherwise ([42], p. 228). Also, politics may deform scientific findings, such as those presented by the IPCC [43], or be unprepared for their implications [44]. Moreover, corporations exert great influence on global governance [45]. Indeed, among the 100,000 attendants of COP28 [46], there were 2456 lobbyists from the fossil fuel industry [47] and 34 billionaires [48]. Additionally, the president of COP28 was the chief executive of the host country’s oil company, which is determined to increase oil production capacity by 25% between 2020 and 2030 [49].

2.3. Systems Approach

It is not only an improvement of the decision model that is needed (as argued above), but also a systems approach to the world’s many crises, such as climate change [50], global inequality [51], and the threat of nuclear war [52], most of which are related [53].
To clarify the notions of systems (or systemic) approach and system change, we first define a system. A system is a set of globally aligned moral or formal rules that are agreed by parties or imposed by institutions, along with the objects or structures subjected to these rules. Examples include international trade (a worldwide monetary economy), the UN (for global governance), and the International Criminal Court (for international jurisdiction). System change, also called transformational change, is understood as the purposeful transformation of the (global) system (details in Appendix B.7). We consider this system as consisting of interdependent subsystems and schematically represent their change as a single event to be decided upon. A systems approach involves addressing root causes (fundamental change) and system-wide suppressing or adapting to problems. Resolving root causes is vital because problems may resurface if only their manifestations (‘symptoms’) are combatted; also, there may not be sufficient resources to suppress all manifestations in isolation. For example, a cause of global warming is the emission of greenhouse gas, for which a root cause is overconsumption; pinpointing more fundamental causes requires reconsideration of goals ([54], Box 1). An example of system change that only suppresses a problem’s manifestation is capturing CO2 from the atmosphere to reduce global warming when this greenhouse gas is still emitted. System-wide adaptation is illustrated by large-scale introduction of air conditioning against heatwaves.
There is no shortage of rational proposals for systemic solutions. Those regarding the collapse of nature and resource depletion date back to the seventies and recognise the combination of human population growth and an unsustainable economy [55,56,57]. However, the past half-century has not witnessed the implementation of system changes, with measures instead addressing the manifestations rather than the root causes of problems. The UN, in particular, lacks a systemic approach: It addresses climate change, biodiversity loss, and desertification at different COPs, and its sustainable development goals are invitations to a fragmented approach ([58], p. 67).

2.4. Global Governance

The inadequacy of both the decision model and problem approach can be summarised as insufficient global governance. We define governance as the continuous coordination of common affairs by individuals and private or public institutions. The concept of governance has been posited in Western science to remedy the failures of the state and the free market. This definition of governance originates from the more elaborate definition by the Commission on Global Governance [59]; according to ‘scholars from various countries’, governance as theory should ‘challenge’ the traditional authority of the state and the government [60]. Yet, hierarchical governance, such as the nation-state and supranational authority, remains the subject of investigation ([61], pp. 207, 213). We consider governance as the process (not the result) of repeated decision-making and as part of system change. The importance of global governance has been underscored in several studies. Indeed, there has been an exponential growth in the number of publications on policy analysis of global problems between 2003 and 2021, covering topics such as environmental degradation, energy supply, and pandemics [62]. We now give an impression of the problems with global governance because these problems could also be present when deciding on system change.
The UN, the European Union, and many other international institutions are judged to be ‘incapable of rising to the challenges’ and even the concept of the nation-state is found to be in ‘deep crisis’ [63]. Causes of insufficient international governance are the short-term economic and political interests of the nations, and a lack of hard enforcement mechanisms, leading to free-riding, that is, not complying with an agreement while others do [64]. Also, international governance suffers from fragmentation, which is defined as the presence of ‘multiple and often overlapping institutions and actor constellations active in the same area, and the resulting normative conflicts’. The governance of global socio-ecological systems, from climate to biodiversity, is fragmented most. There are more than a thousand multilateral agreements in this domain. This absence of overarching institutions is partly explained by two phenomena: first, the overlapping constituencies prefer incremental changes, and second, governments create weak and underfunded organisations as a form of ‘symbolic policymaking’ that does not infringe upon their national sovereignty [65].
The world is also governed by a broad but loosely aggregated non-governmental polity that crosses nation borders, because more than 99% of international organisations do not have nation states as their members (details in Appendix B.8). An example is the Forest Stewardship Council. These transnational institutions are also plagued by free-riding, the lack of hard enforcement mechanisms ([66], pp. 174, 177) and fragmentation ([67], p. 16). As Micklethwait and Wooldridge [68] put it, by now there are ‘more checks than balances’.
Additionally, politicians, the public, academia, and other organisations fiercely compete to change opinions, at least in parliamentary democracies; moreover, voters accept or reject information based on their predispositions ([69], pp. 418, 422). This competition not only adds randomness to national and international decision-making, but also reinforces itself because the only possible short-term response is to join the competition.
Other problems reinforce themselves as well, thus creating another obstacle to the improvement of global governance. Hale and Held [70] identify the following causes of such gridlock: non-cooperation, fragmentation, increasing problem complexity, and multipolarity (rise of new powers and proliferation of actors). They point out that gridlock inflicts harm, leading to nationalism, which in turn reinforces non-cooperation at the international level, thus closing the feedback loop. Another feedback loop exists: the failure of states and the biophysical collapse reinforce each other [53].
Yet other causes of insufficient global governance are deficiencies of democracy, legitimacy, accountability, conflict resolution, and effectiveness [71]. A more thorough analysis of these causes would be the task of global governance experts who (as we propose) would help to design a method for deciding on system change.

2.5. Alternative Global Governance

A wide range of solutions has been advocated to address inadequate global governance, such as assemblies of randomly chosen world citizens [72,73], world federalism [74], and political argumentation regarding so-called wicked problems [75]. Reform of UN conferences is another option [63,76] but its chance of success thus far is estimated to be no more than one fifth [77].
Unfortunately, no effective procedure to decide on such initiatives exists. This deficit can be seen as Buchanan’s meta-coordination problem for global institutions (details in Appendix B.9). The present essay seeks to address the meta-coordination problem for system change, that is, the problem of designing an institution that designs system change. More specifically, the main research question is: how should a procedure for deciding on the required system change be designed? Contained in the ‘how’ should be the answers to four subsidiary questions: First: who should design? (Answered in Section 4). Second: how should the decision-making procedure be evaluated? (In Appendix A.2 we suggest a verification group.) Third: who monitors the design process? (Suggestions are also in Appendix A.2). Fourth: what is the method to make the meta-decision, that is, to decide how to design the decision-making procedure? (In Appendix A.1 we suggest scoring as one example). We now consider how the main question has been answered before.

3. Meta-Decision Structures

Various organisations and other structures exist that help to select a procedure for deciding on specific global affairs, such as climate change, but not explicitly on system change. These meta-decision structures are briefly reviewed here to demonstrate the novelty and relevance of our proposal for allowing decision-making experts and others to form this structure.
One meta-decision structure is provided by academia. Orlove and colleagues [78] reviewed research papers on decision-making for climate change and identified interesting trends but made no recommendations to improve decision-making and did not consider the need for fundamental change (details in Appendix B.10). Another example is the Earth System Governance Project, which initiated a proposal for UN reform [76]. This project continued to explore global governance during its October 2023 conference, which was ‘designed to have an impact also beyond the event itself’ [79]. Extending this goal much further, we propose that a conference (or other procedure) should actually lead to a decision on global governance and other system change, and that decision-making experts should design this procedure.
The Global Challenges Foundation pursues ‘the development of decision systems that can better and more accurately minimize, and preferably eliminate, the major global threats to humanity’. It held a public contest for ideas and selected the best development proposals by jury [80,81]. Unfortunately, the selection method was not publicised and the prizes alone were insufficient to let the winners implement their proposals at scale. One of the winning proposals is elaborated in a book on global governance. In a section on its history, the authors imagine a gathering similar to the Dublin deliberations about a world constitution. They conclude that reform should target the UN because ‘it is what we have’ [63].
The Stimson Center has proposed that the UN creates an expert advisory group and holds a world summit on ‘Inclusive Global Governance’ no later than September 2023, with the ‘chief aim of re-designing and better equipping the global governance system’ [82]. A drawback of this programme is that experts only provide advice (rather than directives) about the global governance system, with the UN unlikely to adopt any advice to change the governance system substantially. Indeed, the UN postponed a similar initiative for a summit in September 2023 with the unfortunate predicate ‘of the future’ [83].
These findings suggest that few other meta-decision structures exist and that their outcomes often lead back to the UN. However, the UN cannot and should not be expected to decide on global ecological security ([84], pp. 413–414), let alone on even more fundamental issues. Therefore, the question remains: Whose job is it to decide on system change? The answer could be given within the following meta-decision structure.

4. Decision-Making Experts

Designing a procedure for deciding on system change is a complex task which, in principle, is best left to decision-making experts, that is, scientists and practitioners. Therefore, we propose that independent experts in collective decision-making, including design processes and problem analysis, design a procedure for decisions on the required system change. The design process should be monitored by auxiliary bodies; we suggest such bodies for verification, overview, and argumentation (for details, see Appendix A.2). These decision-making experts should not make decisions about system change, but instead, should use their expertise and research to design a procedure that allows others to make those decisions. For example, in 2010, experts selected the (conditionally) best voting procedure [85]; in some settings, a decision tree can aid this selection [86].
Designing a decision-making procedure for global change is more demanding than choosing a voting procedure. Indeed, decision theory and related areas cover vast fields of theory and expertise, as summarised in Table 1. This list of areas should also include relevant elements of politicology, sociology, psychology, anthropology, and organisation theory (focusing on bureaucracy). In particular, it should consider problem analysis, goal setting, and opportunities for a shift of paradigm or mindset ([54], Box 1), possibly through unconventional modes of thinking [87,88]. Experts in information and communication technology should be involved at an early stage, for instance, to build an architecture for collecting and processing system-change proposals. As the decision-making experts only decide on a procedure by which others decide, they should not contribute to knowledge of the subject matter, for example, energy supply. The theory of (normative) ethics is another example because at this stage, no particular mindset is advocated, although the decision-making experts would have to indicate the role of ethics in the decision-making procedure (examples of such roles are in Appendix A.3, paragraph about contents).
These experts will also need to indicate the role of strategy: should participants in the decision-making process contribute to a system-change design that withstands obstruction by vested interests, while still being innovative? Or should the experts change the present programme so that it gains legitimacy? The necessary strategic expertise will be sketched in Section 7.3 of the discussion.
Table 1. Fields of decision-making theory.
Table 1. Fields of decision-making theory.
Concise Descriptions of Some Important Fields of Decision-Making Theory
Social-choice theory is concerned with the aggregation of judgements or preferences, such as through various voting procedures [89,90,91]. To illustrate, an impossibility theorem states, loosely speaking, that no procedure for collective decision-making can recognise ‘objective basic needs or universal criteria’ [92].
Public-choice theory considers decision-makers to be self-interested agents, as in an economy [93].
Multiple-attribute group decision-making [94].
Global governance [95], defined as repeated decision-making.
Decision-making based on wisdom, knowledge and reason. For governance, this is known as noöcracy [96], epistocracy [97,98], or epistemic democracy [99], and more generally, as collective reasoning [100].
Negotiation [101] and the theory of mathematical games, including mechanism design [102].
Deliberation, such as in citizens’ assemblies, comprising randomly selected citizens who inform themselves and decide collectively, often subject to group dynamics [103,104].
Representation and delegation [105,106].
Argumentation theory, that is, logic, rhetoric, and public discourse [107,108].
Analytical methods, such as cost-benefit analysis [109].
Individual decision-making and its fallacies [110].

5. Design of a Decision-Making Procedure

As explained in previous sections, deciding on system change requires decision change—the design of a new procedure to decide on system change. The programme to achieve these changes consists of three stages (Figure 2).
  • Design: Independent experts in collective decision-making design a one-time decision-making procedure (medium-sized circle), while being monitored by auxiliary bodies (suggestions in Appendix A.2). The decision-making experts and auxiliary bodies are collectively called the decision-change body (lower box). Designing a decision-making procedure basically is a process of deciding how to decide, which follows a meta-decision method (larger circle and the upward arrow protruding from the lower box). This method is also to be selected by the experts, who already possess the required expertise and theoretical understanding, such as social-choice theory (lower dashed arrow). Suggestions for the meta-decision method are in Appendix A.1.
  • Collection of system-change proposals: If unprepared, the decision-making body would possess only a limited array of system-change proposals and be faced with the daunting task of inventing additional proposals from the start. Therefore, proposals would have to be collected in advance to provide a head start, after which more proposals can be added (upper dashed arrow). Although this step should actually be designed by the decision-making experts, it has been inserted to show the experts that proposals will be available to decide upon.
  • Decision: The decision-making body (upper box) employs the decision-making procedure designed by the decision-change body. Using system-change proposals (upper dashed arrow), the decision-making body decides on issues such as an economy based on wellbeing indicators (‘other system change’) as well as governance (that is, repeated decision-making), which may differ from the decision-making procedure used for its selection.
The following formal reasoning makes plausible that the decision-making procedure for system change is likely to process a variety of proposals and arguments adequately. First, the procedure (medium-sized circle) is probably well-founded because A. it is based on decision-making theory and expertise (lower dashed arrow); B. this information is processed well, since the design process (lower upward arrow) is safeguarded by auxiliary bodies. To guarantee independency of the decision-change body, these auxiliary bodies should not, for example, admit representatives of UN member states to the process of designing a decision-making procedure. Second, the resulting decision on system change is likely to be a trade-off between effectiveness and fairness (to deal with shortages) because A. many system-change proposals are submitted and arguments are advanced (upper dashed arrow); B. as just shown, the decision-making procedure probably is well-founded, so it may adequately process these considerations. For example, it is unlikely that the conclusion of the decision-making experts is to have any of the UN member states play a decisive role (as with the COPs) in the decision on system change.

6. Coordination

The decision- and system-change programme must be conducted by a global team, shown in the outer left circle in Figure 3. The continuity of the team should be guaranteed by an existing (or perhaps new) public or private organisation that is independent in the sense that its (political, ideological, or commercial) purpose does not essentially interfere with the programme. The team has to complete the following, entirely administrative tasks.
Compose the decision-change body (at the left of the rectangle); that is, convene independent experts in collective decision-making and assemble the auxiliary bodies. For details about independency, see Appendix A.2, second point. The decision-change body designs a procedure (box with a slit) to collectively decide on system change.
Collect initial system-change proposals from experts in relevant subject areas, not only as a head start, but also to convince decision-making experts to participate by making it plausible that their decision-making procedure will be implemented.
Collect proposals and other input from the public. (At least, this is our suggestion: Appendix A.3, paragraph about content.) Box C represents the inputs from both the decision-making body and other parties.
The decision-making body should combine the proposals and other input according to the selected decision-making procedure. The team only needs to initiate this final stage, that is, ensure that it is organised.
The result of this programme would be a system-change design. In the most optimistic scenario, its implementation keeps the earth habitable.
Figure 3. Coordination of the programme. The programme comprises four main steps (A, B, C and D) and is coordinated by a team. For copyright, see acknowledgements.
Figure 3. Coordination of the programme. The programme comprises four main steps (A, B, C and D) and is coordinated by a team. For copyright, see acknowledgements.
Sustainability 16 02372 g003

7. Discussion

To summarise, as global crises intensify, the need for a procedure to decide on system change becomes increasingly urgent. Independent experts in collective decision-making, including design theory and problem analysis, should design this decision-making procedure; various auxiliary bodies must safeguard the design process; proposals for system change should be collected; and with the aid of the procedure, a decision is to be taken on system change. These steps are collectively referred to as the programme for decision and system change. Notably, the experts do not design actual changes but a procedure by which others decide on system change.
In this section, we evaluate the proposed programme. In Appendix A, we give ideas for implementation of the programme’s components. With these considerations we only intend to indicate that the programme is worth an attempt. Estimating the success probability of this attempt would require more research into social-change processes.

7.1. Potential Advantages of the Programme

Legitimacy is discussed first. In his work on meta-coordination views, Buchanan ([111], pp. 59–60) lists various views on legitimacy in terms of conditions and proposes five general conditions. We use these to determine whether the decision-making body would be perceived as legitimate. First, comparative benefit, which certainly is present in the long run, considering our predicament. Second, institutional integrity, which means that the institution does what it should do; indeed, the decision-making body would deliver a system-change design. Third, minimal moral acceptability, such as the respect for rights: this depends on the severity of the necessary measures. Fourth, acceptable origination, which is the case because the design of the decision-making procedure and body is ‘through an appropriate process’ and a variety of system-change proposals is collected, as we clarified at the end of Section 5. Fifth, soundness of the procedure: disagreeable outcomes have a chance of being the result of fair instead of corrupted decision-making (see next paragraph). Which of these conditions need to be met depends on how compelling the purpose of the new institution is ([112], pp. 299, 308) or how badly any old institution functions ([111], p. 60). We conclude that a large fraction of the population might give authority to the decision-making body.
The decision-making procedure would probably suppress conflicts of interest. During design of the decision-making procedure, there might already be conflicts of interest because the organisation that backs the team cannot be entirely independent (politically, ideologically, or commercially), even if it is financed by other organisations. Nevertheless, the decision-change body would be able to design a procedure to decide on system change that is as resistant to conflicts of interest as possible.
Lastly, there is a chance that the programme leads to fundamental change because a wide range of proposals may reveal less well-known mechanisms that obviate the need for some traditional concepts; we give an illustration of such a mechanism in Appendix A.4.

7.2. Potential Limitations of the Programme

The decision-making experts would need to decide themselves on the precise structure and the procedure of the decision-change body. First, a decision on the meta-decision method is left to them, that is, they would have to decide how to decide how to decide. This decision would be informal; Appendix A.1 lists some options for the meta-decision method (composition and leadership of the team of decision-making experts, scoring). Second, the experts would have to informally agree on the auxiliary bodies and how one of them monitors the other; Appendix A.2 gives starting-points for their definition.
Further, despite the presence of auxiliary bodies, decision-making experts may be suspected of promoting or ignoring certain interest groups, or of approaching decision-making too technically.
Additionally, the programme might be misinterpreted as a decision on system change instead of a decision on decision-making, or decision-making experts might be confused with expert decision makers, that is, with experts in a subject matter who make decisions (‘technocrats’). In particular, experts in governance could be tempted to propose specific forms of global governance rather than indicate how to decide on this topic and other system change.
Finally, the definition of auxiliary bodies, a meta-decision method, and other administrative details of the decision-change body may render the programme too complex for timely implementation, especially if further theorised on instead of flexibly put to practice. This, however, does not preclude an immediate start of the programme.

7.3. Implementation Prospects

Implementation of the necessary systemic change, whether designed according to the proposed programme or not, may meet socio-political obstacles, just like measures within the present system. Unfortunately, research into socio-political obstacles is itself obstructed by an ‘opaque mix of rarely discussed, mutually reinforcing professional interests, norms, and power-structures’ [113]. Nevertheless, we mention two obstacles to underscore that the programme would have to develop strategies to manage them or rather avoid their creation.
First, the changes may not be easy for the global population to endure, even when the measures and the decision-making procedure have a clear rationale that is published in reputable sources, and citizens participate in decision-making. For example, halting combustion of fossil fuels and biomass may decimate the energy supply. Whether such measures would create wide-spread opposition is hard to predict from complex single-case studies of climate change [114] or from polarisation within society [115,116].
In addition, vested interests such as industry and politics may try to obstruct measures that result from system change, in particular, system change to secure the environment [117]. Many anti-environmentalist groups and currents have been distinguished [118,119]. For sake of this exposition, we divide their methods in two categories. First, material methods, such as the creation of financial dependency (for example, petro-universities [120]) and shifting the responsibility for taking action to others [121]. Second, informational methods, that is, propaganda and debate, for which a large arsenal of methods exists (details in Appendix B.11). In this category, the counter-measures are of the same kind: information [122]. For a more general approach to power and social change, the decision-change or decision-making body shall have to select from several theories of power, many of which are being debated [123].
The outcome is uncertain. It would therefore seem more pragmatic to accept present-day decision-making, such as the COPs, as a more or less accomplished fact, and to try to convince decision makers of the necessary changes by publications, petitions, protests, and personal communications. However, as the stocktake of COP28 illustrated, the effectiveness of these actions can be an illusion because attention is diverted. So, probably the only effect of such actions will be that ‘the presuppositions of the system are being reinforced by the limits put on the range of the debate’ ([124], p. 234). If current world politics is accepted, that system will continue to serve short-term interests and inevitably lead to a ghastly future [125]. Thus, there is need for the design of a new procedure to decide on system change, however uncertain its outcomes.

8. Conclusions and Call to Action

Global crises, such as climate change and ecological collapse, largely reflect ineffective decision-making at a global level. There currently is no meaningful focus on system change to stimulate fundamental or global transformations, including the declaration of a planetary state of emergency. We therefore questioned how a procedure for deciding on the required system change should be designed.
Alternative global decision-making procedures (such as world federalism) have garnered insufficient support. Meta-decision structures to decide on such alternatives (for example, academia) have not been completely successful and are not focusing on decision-making for system change.
We propose an improved meta-decision structure: Let independent experts in collective decision-making, including design processes and problem analysis, design a procedure to decide on the required system change. Auxiliary bodies would then be placed to protect the design process against pitfalls. The programme of decision and system change is defined as the design of a decision-making procedure (‘decision change’) followed by the collection of system-change proposals and the actual decision on system change. Notably, the experts do not decide on system change themselves. We argued that the decision-making body may be perceived as legitimate and that it may engender system change despite the opposition that is to be expected.
A single, global team, supported by an independent organisation, should conduct this programme. We call on individuals to form such a team and on independent organisations to support its formation. The team can facilitate decision change as a first step to system change that will hopefully keep the earth habitable.

Author Contributions

Conceptualization, A.J.B.; validation, A.J.B. and P.R.; investigation, A.J.B. and P.R.; writing—original draft preparation, A.J.B.; writing—review and editing, A.J.B. and P.R.; visualization, A.J.B. All authors have read and agreed to the published version of the manuscript.


The APC was funded by the University of Amsterdam.

Institutional Review Board Statement

Not applicable.

Informed Consent Statement

Not applicable.

Data Availability Statement

Data is contained within the article.


We thank Martijn Duineveld, Jan Juffermans, Jan Pronk, John Vlasto, Lavinia Warnars, and the anonymous reviewers for their critiques, and Joeri Pruys for advice and the flowcharts in Figure 2 and Figure 3. Figure 2 and Figure 3 are covered by the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License. Reproduced with permission of Joeri Pruys; copyright © Joeri Pruys, all rights reserved.

Conflicts of Interest

The authors declare no conflicts of interests.


The following abbreviations are used in this manuscript:
COPConference of the Parties
GHGGreenhouse Gas
IPCCIntergovernmental Panel on Climate Change
NDCNationally Determined Contribution
UNUnited Nations
UNFCCCUN Framework Convention on Climate Change

Appendix A. Potential Pathways

We have described the meta-decision method, auxiliary bodies, decision-making procedure, and system-change design abstractly. In this appendix, we give some ideas for implementation of these abstract components, although the specifics of the programme’s outcome will differ in a given implementation.

Appendix A.1. The Meta-Decision Method

The design of the decision-making procedure has been considered part of the meta-decision; that is, the decision on how to decide on, or design, system change. Decision-making experts select the meta-decision method, giving due consideration to the following. The experts should have a range of backgrounds and opinions (that is, be cognitively diverse) to generate good ideas for a decision-making procedure. During implementation (‘coordination’), they may lose the ‘common ground’ for the selection of a procedure due to divergent expression of meanings, so-called discursive diversity; that can be reduced by allowing the experts to align their meanings, in particular when aided by a team leader [126]. In addition, experts may be inclined to compete and reach a conclusion that is inferior to a result arrived at cooperatively; this so-called Apollo effect can be reduced (though not avoided completely) by varying, for example, the composition of a team and the selection of a team leader [127]. To aggregate judgements, the experts can list properties of the decision-making procedure, for example, legitimacy [95,128], and score them such that only the scoring precision depends on the number of proponents. A simple example of scoring is to let each expert first assign weights to the properties (yielding average weights) and then score the properties of each procedure, where the end scores are the average ([94], § 3.2.1).

Appendix A.2. Safeguarding the Design Process

Auxiliary bodies should monitor the design process to protect against common pitfalls beyond the above-mentioned weaknesses of the meta-decision method. Decision-making experts should determine the structure and composition of these bodies at the start of the programme. (This is not formalised further.) The team should allow these bodies to evolve no longer than a predetermined moment to guarantee checks and balances thereafter.
We suggest three auxiliary bodies as starting points: the verification group, the overview board, and the argumentation council.
First, the decision-making experts may fall victim to increasing confirmation bias, which has been called the ‘spiral of conviction’ by Friedman [129]. To correct for this, a verification group could verify (simulate or comment on) the proposed decision-making procedure. This can provide democratic feedback, forcing ‘technocrats to contend with information that their procedures deemed irrelevant’ [130]. An imperfect example that comes close to the intended feedback can be seen when a Dutch citizens’ assembly proposed an amendment to the Lower Chamber election procedure in 2006 [103,131,132]. Actually, this event illustrates how lay people alone re-designed the details of a decision-making procedure.
Second, an overview board could ensure that the design process continues as specified. Decision-making experts, unlike technocrats, do not make the final decision, but they do determine the type of decision maker. This renders them vulnerable to ‘political maneuvering’ [130] and to loss of independency. The board should be able to only accept decision-making experts who are independent and vice versa, insist that missing knowledge is included. To meet these requirements, the overview board might comprise professional supervisors and journalists.
This leads to the third auxiliary body. If unchecked, the overview board could have excessive power to manipulate the programme, though other bodies may also use the design process strategically. Terms that express ethical positions are particularly prone to misuse. On the one hand, they may be used to conceal the disadvantages of a decision procedure or other component and stifle dissenting voices; on the other hand, the vocabulary used to analyse such improper use [32,108,133] can be misused equally well, for example, to obstruct any appeal to ethics. An argumentation council could seek to prevent such improper use of the design process. Based on consistency and completeness alone and not on the subject matter, the council should approve any verdict by the overview board, any exposition of the proposed decision-making procedure, and other important arguments. To these ends, the council should consist of experts in argumentation theory and professional editors.
The argumentation council would not have to be controlled by a fourth body: The decision-making experts need to cooperate since ultimately, the quality of their decision-making procedure determines whether the public gives authority to the decision-making body.

Appendix A.3. Decision-Making Procedures

To provide an idea of possible decision-making procedures, we now consider a few aspects regarding the decision-making body, content, and rules.
One idea is to let a variety of people participate, as for reform of organisations [134]. For system change, the decision-making body could comprise diverse people: scientists and other problem-specific experts, corporate executives, artists, randomly chosen citizens, and representatives of diverse entities. These entities might include nations, indigenous peoples, non-governmental organisations, future generations [135], and nature animate and even inanimate [136]. A fundamental approach will also necessitate reconsidering goals that may be unattainable because of the problems at hand, such as perpetual economic growth as an end in itself [137]. Philosophers and experts on religious or secular world views can assist in reconsidering goals and purposes. We use the vague notion of a habitable earth as a representative goal, but an alternative objective might be to accept global system collapse and handle the ensuing emergencies [138].
As to the content: The proposals and insights of such a variety of people can best be processed if they are mostly submitted in writing. No unconventional or imaginative ideas should be excluded pre-emptively. Events that can be perceived as threats may need to be accepted as measures to avert worse consequences—the so-called trolley problem [139]—or such events may be contemplated further to generate novel ideas. Even when submitted ideas seem unethical or ineffective, it is the decision-making body that judges their ethics and effectiveness. Notably, ethics as such may not only be advocated ([140], p. 556) but also be criticised [141] if only for its improper application [142] or it may be handled by rules of a mechanism or institution (see Appendix A.4 on system-change design below).
Concerning the rules: The decision-making would have to start with a problem analysis. Because the crises are related, all major problems should be analysed. This consideration will not complicate but rather facilitate an analysis because the root causes and impact of measures will be identified. Covering a great number of topics and insights is feasible if system-change proposals are initially submitted in writing and processed transparently. The decision-making procedure therefore would have to be formal to a certain extent, for example, be based on a structure that allows to overview and analyse the argumentation. This may restrict the range of candidate decision-making procedures but we are unable to make any suggestions for such a procedure. The decision-change body would have to determine how very many people (as suggested above) or a smaller decision-making body can decide on these proposals. An overview board, as suggested in the section about the meta-decision method, might be indispensible. Finally, the laws of nature and logic may dictate measures that are difficult to bear in the short term. Organisations and individuals tend to avoid such measures, even if the problems will be unsupportable in the long run. For example, to reduce global warming, the world must stop burning fossil fuels and biomass. Therefore, the resulting decision-making rules must stimulate a bold approach based on courage to acknowledge problems and act accordingly.

Appendix A.4. System-Change Design

System change needs to consist of drastic measures. These probably will not be adopted or imposed effectively, but there can be exceptions: A measure could be proposed that does not require bureaucracies, monitoring, sanctions, coercion, or a shift of mindset for its enactment. A simple example of such a measure (not necessarily part of system change) is fair division of a resource (‘cake’) among two persons: one person cuts, the other chooses. More generally, such measures can be provided by the discipline of mechanism and institution design. Decentralised mechanisms and institutions exist in which information is dispersed among their participants rather than concentrated in bureaucracies or transformed by parliamentary democracies. The participants directly inform the mechanism or institution, which is designed to produce fair and effective decisions (if possible) where participants cannot profit from misreporting information.
To finish with some background: Out of the debate concerning centralised planning in market socialism [143], a discipline called mechanism and institution design arose. A mechanism is a game to reach some social goal, where a game is a construct in which participants freely behave ‘on the basis of their preferences and strategic considerations’. This information is decentralised, that is, shared among participants (and usually private). These mechanisms can be designed such that participants (collectively) profit the most when truthfully reporting their information, a property called (group) strategyproofness, where ‘strategy’ is conceived as an action unrelated to the content proper. An institution (or institutional arrangement) is mainly understood as an arrangement that imposes the rules (not any measures proper), possibly ‘by spontaneous actions of a group where there is no institutional entity in charge of its administration or enforcement’ [144]. Mechanism and institution design, often shortened to the ambiguous term ‘mechanism design,’ has a broader scope than economics; for example, it encompasses social-choice and game theory, as mentioned in Table 1.

Appendix B. Details

Appendix B.1. The Scenario Model Intercomparison Project

In Figure 1, each thick line is the ensemble mean of the outcomes of several models; the number of models is mentioned after the scenario in the legend. The future simulations start at 2015. The shaded areas approximate the 90% confidence intervals for the anomalies with respect to the historical baseline (1995–2014). The lowest emission scenario is ‘specifically designed to meet the Paris Agreement target of 1.5 °C warming’ and some of its simulations ‘have a small [temporary] overshoot of the target, which was expected by the design’ [27]. The authors conclude on an accompanying website [145]: ‘The 1.5 °C threshold […] is, on average across models, projected to be reached within the current decade no matter the scenario’.

Appendix B.2. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change

Figure 1 is comparable to part (a) of Figure SPM.3 in [146], in which the scenario for the lowest greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions shows an overshoot of 1.5 °C that is only temporary. However, this scenario is based on ‘anthropogenic removals of CO2’ without an indication of their likelihood [147].

Appendix B.3. The World Meteorological Organization

The probability has increased (from 24% to 48% to 66%) that the mean annual temperature rises 1.5 °C in the five years following 2020, 2022, and 2023, respectively [148,149,150].

Appendix B.4. The United Nations Environment Programme and Others

Implementation of Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) does not avert an expected temperature increase significantly over 2 °C by the end of this century [151], nor will even the most diligent technical efforts, given increasing energy consumption [152]. References to recent studies on delayed warming were omitted from the present essay.

Appendix B.5. The Global Stocktake

The stocktake document first only stated that the promises as such fell short of keeping global warming below 2 °C. It then continued with descriptions of the pathways that limit warming to 1.5 °C [153] despite the prediction that with 90% probability, 1.5 °C would be reached in 2023 [154] or otherwise, almost certainly briefly after, as we indicated for 2022; notably, between COP27 and COP28, studies were submitted that consider the 1.5 °C goal to be feasible, possibly after a temporary overshoot [155,156]. Whatever the case, the document diverted attention from the insufficiency of the contributions and the transgression of 1.5 °C to the exact wordings and content of the pathways, thus establishing the presupposition that 1.5 °C would still be possible [157] and that the COPs provide the most pragmatic conference format.

Appendix B.6. Betting against a one-third Chance of Failure

The IPCC [158] states: ‘All 1.5 °C pathways see global CO2 emissions embark on a steady decline to reach (near) net zero levels around 2050’. The ‘assessment suggests a remaining budget of about 420 GtCO2 for a two-thirds chance of limiting warming to 1.5 °C, which, for the estimated 42 GtCO2 yr−1, would mean net zero in 20 years (that is, in 2038 and not 2028 because at some point, the time lapse is rounded to the next 5 years due to the variation of 15–20 years). The emissions for unconditional NDCs in 2030 are estimated to be 52–58 GtCO2e yr−1 (inter-quartile range) where ‘e’ is for ‘equivalent’. So, the nations bet against approximately a one-third chance of failure to stay below 1.5 °C.

Appendix B.7. System Change

The definition of a system is largely taken from Zapf [50], except for its normative character, which stems from the definition of system change in Waddock ([159], p. 190), as adopted here.

Appendix B.8. International Non-Governmental Organisations

The number of international governmental organisations stabilised at 350 in 1990 ([160], Figure 2) while in 2023 approximately 42,000 international organisations were active. Their number increases by about 1200 each year [161] so the percentage of non-governmental organisations nears 100%. Notably, at least at the national level, the boundary between governmental and non-governmental organisations is blurred because ‘governments collaborate with private organizations to form public-private hybrids, delegate public standard-setting, and outsource services to private corporations’ [162].

Appendix B.9. The Meta-Coordination Problem

The meta-coordination problem is the question ‘how to converge on public standards that institutions are to meet’ [163], that is, ‘how to decide’ which institution ‘we should coordinate our behaviour around’ [164]. (An institution is conceived as a legitimised organisation.) In this essay, the institution would not deal with regular governance but would design system change.

Appendix B.10. Orlove’s Classification

The classification by Orlove and colleagues [78] of adaptation as a fundamental change is not adopted here because adaptation, as opposed to mitigation, addresses the manifestations of a problem rather than its causes.

Appendix B.11. Informational Anti-Environmentalist Methods

We divide the informational methods of ‘climate obstruction’ in three types. First, indoctrination, as in education [120]. Second, misinformation, such as greenwashing [121], inattention [122], denial (or more subtly, ‘manufacturing uncertainty’), and astroturf campaigns [118]. Third, ‘discursive obstruction’, for example, demonisation and framing [165]. These obstructions of discourse can be rhetoric [166] or refer to material methods [167,168]. A recent thought-provoking example is The Daily Telegraph [169].


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Figure 1. Global 11-year running averages of temperature changes from current baseline (1995–2014, left axis) and pre-industrial baseline (1850–1900, right axis). Greenhouse gas emission scenarios: SSP1-1.9, very low; SSP1-2.6, low; SSP2-4.5, intermediate; SSP3-7.0, high; SSP5-8.5, very high. Details see Appendix B.1. The graph is from Tebaldi and colleagues [27] with a horizontal line added at 1.5 °C, the threshold of the Paris Agreement.
Figure 1. Global 11-year running averages of temperature changes from current baseline (1995–2014, left axis) and pre-industrial baseline (1850–1900, right axis). Greenhouse gas emission scenarios: SSP1-1.9, very low; SSP1-2.6, low; SSP2-4.5, intermediate; SSP3-7.0, high; SSP5-8.5, very high. Details see Appendix B.1. The graph is from Tebaldi and colleagues [27] with a horizontal line added at 1.5 °C, the threshold of the Paris Agreement.
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Figure 2. The programme for decision and system change. Box with rounded corners, group of people; solid arrow, a group’s output; dashed arrow, a group’s input; pile of paper, information; circle and (solid) arrows in that circle, decision-making procedure. For example, ‘other system change’ may consist of prescriptions for a new economy. For copyright, see acknowledgements.
Figure 2. The programme for decision and system change. Box with rounded corners, group of people; solid arrow, a group’s output; dashed arrow, a group’s input; pile of paper, information; circle and (solid) arrows in that circle, decision-making procedure. For example, ‘other system change’ may consist of prescriptions for a new economy. For copyright, see acknowledgements.
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