The Problem Shifts Database: Towards protecting the environment ‘as a whole’

Research output: Contribution to conferenceAbstractAcademic


Global environmental problem-shifting, or the pursuit of a global environmental objective by undermining the chance of achieving another, is of increasing concern in the age of interconnectivity. Certain decisions may lead to problems that are more chronic and severe, which may in turn shift elsewhere, thereby creating a network of shifting problems. Yet we have a limited understanding of when problem shifts occur and how problematic they are. Who makes the decision to trade a problem for another problem, under what conditions, and to what effect? These questions remain under-investigated, at least in part due to the common bias that environmental institutions are inherently green, and hence their side effects unintended or inevitable. Where the phenomenon has been researched, evidence remain scattered in various case studies exploring it under different concepts such as spillover. Here we introduce the problem shifts database by systematically identifying and organizing empirical cases with a novel analytical framework. The database presents generic types of problem shifts identified from over 100 cases collected through a global survey and expert interviews. Each entry provides a literature-based review of the causes and effects of, and governance responses to, environmental problem-shifting. Preliminary analysis of the dataset shows that problem shifts are often not simply unintended consequences as many were anticipated at the time of decision-making, warranting further research into the political dynamics of underlying risk-risk trade-offs. Furthermore, the observed degree of interconnectivity between problem shifts suggest that there is a latent risk of systemic institutional failure triggered by a critical shift. Our synthesis also suggests that governance responses targeted at addressing individual trade-offs in isolation may not suffice to improve the collective problem-solving potential of international environmental institutions, and system-level interventions would be needed. We conclude with a research agenda on the complex dynamics of problem-shifting in global environmental governance, which we argue is a key prerequisite for protecting the environment ‘as a whole’.
Original languageEnglish
Publication statusPublished - Oct 2022
Event2022 Toronto Conference on Earth System Governance: Governing accelerated transitions: justice, creativity, and power in a transforming world - Toronto, Canada
Duration: 20 Oct 202224 Oct 2022


Conference2022 Toronto Conference on Earth System Governance


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