Imagining reef futures after mass coral bleaching events

Amber W. Datta, Carina Wyborn, Brian C. Chaffin, Michele L. Barnes

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Extreme climate events are dramatically changing social-ecological systems (SESs) and challenging long-standing environmental governance paradigms. How high level governance actors (e.g. decision-makers and those who advise them) imagine the future of SESs can shape what management approaches are pursued and how SESs change. Previous research on climate-induced shifts in governance suggests that: 1) crises can provide windows of opportunity to catalyze transitions, and 2) transitions require governance actors to revisit and reimagine possible management solutions and the underlying purposes and ultimate desired outcomes of resource management. Articulating the multiple visions of system futures that emerge in the wake of a crisis can encourage creative responses to change that can incorporate multiple perspectives and provide space for decision-makers to consider different options for management and potential conflicts therein. However, empirical research is needed to examine how governance actors actually envision future management in the context of a crisis. Here we explore governance actors’ perspectives on future pathways for reef management in the wake of an extreme climate event, and what actions are underway to pursue these pathways. We specifically investigate perspectives after recurrent mass coral bleaching events impacted the Great Barrier Reef through 36 semi-structured interviews with governance actors across the region. Drawing on climate adaptation frameworks and narrative policy analysis, we demonstrate that crises trigger changes in governance actors’ perspectives on the goals and approaches of reef management. However, rather than a single vision emerging in the wake of crisis, we find that multiple, and at times conflicting, visions for the role of management and plausible futures for the GBR are simultaneously shaping the trajectory of coral reef governance. Our findings suggest that transforming governance after crises involves negotiating multiple concurrent visions for social-ecological futures.

Original languageEnglish
Article number103625
JournalEnvironmental Science and Policy
StatePublished - Jan 2024


  • Climate adaptation
  • Climate change
  • Coral reefs
  • Crisis
  • Environmental governance
  • Narrative analysis


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