We often assume the ideal about our governments: they should act proportionately to the problems at hand. Governments should respond to minor issues with minor policy changes and major issues with major policy changes. This assumption of proportionality cumbers the effectiveness of solutions found across literatures, including adaptive management, sustainable development, and direct and deliberative democracy. 

Unfortunately, our governments rarely act proportionately on issues in their environments. Instead, they act disproportionately; they either rarely act at all or do far too much.1 Imagine our governments as gigantic gatherers, processors, and reactors of information signals. Most of the time, our governments ignore incoming signals altogether, pay attention and do not respond, or respond incrementally, when non-incremental change is needed. The result is a continued status quo or an overabundance of minor changes over time. 

Yet, our governments can act with major, punctuated change. Indeed, signals accumulate and overcome the friction or stickiness inherent in our government system leading to major, punctuated change, usually overcompensating for signals overlooked in the past.

When we analyze the distributional patterns of policy change for any government unit, we will see mostly stasis or incremental changes, few moderate changes, and the occasional extreme change. We see this across government structures, from western democracies to authoritarian regimes.2 The reasons lie in the architecture of human choice and information processing.3 We, as people, exhibit the same tendency to respond disproportionately to our environment. We tend to ignore the signals around us until sufficient force builds up to overcome the friction preventing change. Such slick-stick dynamics occur in any stochastic process with resistance to change, from earthquakes to human organizations. The source of the friction comes from human cognitive limitations and the costs of collective decisions in any human-constructed organizational form, including our governments. Governments will respond differently to climate change, but this fundamental pattern persists.

Of course, this tendency for disproportionate information processing is the bane for scientists striking for climate change4 and the subject of the satirical Netflix movie in Don’t Look Up. Our brains’ rational side wants our governments to act proportionately to issues in their environment – but they never will.

We know patterns of policy change show mostly incremental and the occasional punctuation. Zooming in on any particular decision, we find a set of common preceding circumstances. Samples of these include events or shocks (from catastrophic disasters to constructed crises), champions and entrepreneurs, persuasive narratives, learning, political mobilizations in coalitions, parties, social movements, and sometimes elections or changes in governing regimes.5 However, none of these circumstances guarantee policy change. For example, a study of devastating disasters from over 600 countries failed to show any significant relationship to policy change, reinforcing notions about our governments’ disproportionate response patterns. The good news is that all human-designed systems can rapidly change, and we know preceding circumstances. The bad news is that these changes often happen too late, and we do not know how to pull the levers enabling change.

How can we leverage what we know to attenuate and adapt to climate change catastrophes?

We can start by changing our discourse by recognizing governments’ fundamental and inevitable tendency to respond disproportionately to their environments. We can then take remedial actions to mitigate, though not remove, these effects, including investing in better information processing of our governments and applying more force to overcome the friction of resistance, which would lessen the disproportionality. But, of course, we also need to keep supporting the usual circumstances preceding change, including building and maintaining coalitions and social movements, elections, etc. 

As individuals, three general strategies emerge.6 First, we get involved in the network of individuals and organizations engaged in climate issues at any scale, from local to global. Our contributions can be intermittent or constant, or time, money, or knowledge. Second, we can invest in our understanding of these issues from different perspectives, including (but not limited to) varied disciplinary, ideological, emotional, global, and local perspectives. Third, stay involved. Punctuated change rarely happens, and sometimes incremental changes can accumulate to non-trivial outcomes. Our best strategy is to maintain pressure in ensuring the incremental changes go in the right direction and put ourselves in the best position to capitalize on the opportunity of punctuated change if and when it might happen.

Read the full Climate Change and Evolution series:

1. Introduction: The Nexus Between Climate Change and Evolution by Helen Camakaris and James Dyke

2. The Anthropocene: A Shock in the Evolutionary History of the Earth System by Will Steffan

3. Evolutionary Mismatch, Partisan Politics, and Climate Change: A Tragedy in Three Acts by Helen Camakaris

4. A Climate of Change: To Combat Global Warming, We Need to Break the Law by A.C. Grayling

5. Changing Social Norms Could Create a Green Future by Mark van Vugt

6. Addressing Gaps Between Knowledge, Action, Justice: The Climate Change Challenge by Richard Falk

7. The Solution To Climate Change Is To Talk About Climate Change by Rebecca Huntley

8. Dealing with Disproportionality in Climate Change Policymaking by Christopher M. Weible


[1] Jones, B. D., & Baumgartner, F. R. (2005). The politics of attention: How government prioritizes problems. University of Chicago Press.

[2] Chan, K. N., & Zhao, S. (2016). Punctuated Equilibrium and the Information Disadvantage of Authoritarianism: Evidence from the People’s Republic of China. Policy Studies Journal44(2), 134-155.

Baumgartner, F. R., Breunig, C., Green‐Pedersen, C., Jones, B. D., Mortensen, P. B., Nuytemans, M., & Walgrave, S. (2009). Punctuated equilibrium in comparative perspective. American Journal of Political Science53(3), 603-620.

[3] Jones, B. D. (2001). Politics and the architecture of choice: Bounded rationality and governance. University of Chicago Press.

[4] https://theconversation.com/scientists-call-for-a-moratorium-on-climate-change-research-until-governments-take-real-action-172690

[5] Weible, C. M., & Sabatier, P. A. (Eds.). (2018). Theories of the policy process. Routledge.

[6] Weible, Christopher M., Tanya Heikkila, Peter Deleon, and Paul A. Sabatier. “Understanding and influencing the policy process.” Policy sciences 45, no. 1 (2012): 1-21.

Published On: March 21, 2022

Christopher M. Weible

Christopher M. Weible

Christopher M. Weible is a Professor at the School of Public Affairs at the University of Colorado Denver. He co-founded and co-directs the Center for Policy and Democracy. He has authored and co-authored over 100 articles and book chapters and four books on policymaking and politics. Chris is the co-editor of Theories of the Policy Processes and Methods of the Policy Process. He served as the former editor of the Policy Studies Journal and currently serves as co-editor of Policy & Politics. 

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