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Deep decarbonization—reducing net human greenhouse gas emissions to zero in the 21st century—is best pursued as a risk management challenge. This Perspective explores three concepts that are particularly important to the implementation of risk management for deep decarbonization—risk governance, complexity, and robustness.

Risk governance provides a useful framework for organizing thinking and acting in pursuit of deep decarbonization, because it applies the principles of governance to the identification, assessment, management and communication of risks in a diverse and decentralized society.

Complex systems consist of many elements interacting in ever-shifting, often disordered ways. Such systems often respond nonlinearly to small perturbations, and their overall behavior can be understood but not predicted. Decarbonization presents a complex challenge, rather than a complicated one. This distinction proves important because managing a complex system is fundamentally different from managing a complicated one, and often offers more opportunities for small interventions to result in significant change.

Robustness provides a useful concept for managing the complexity of the decarbonization challenge. Seeking robust strategies involves considering a multiplicity of plausible futures, evaluating how strategies perform over a wide range of such futures, and often employing adaptive pathways that adjust over time to perform well over many futures.

The material in this Perspective was written to support the Decarbonization Dialogues, a series of workshops organized by the Frederick S. Pardee Center for Longer Range Global Policy and the Future Human Condition and the research was conducted within RAND Justice, Infrastructure, and Environment.

This commentary is part of the RAND expert insight series. RAND Expert Insights present perspectives on timely policy issues. All RAND Expert Insights undergo peer review to ensure high standards for quality and objectivity.

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