Expert Perspectives

The Role of Qualitative Approaches in Developing Long-Term Strategies

Climate change is an unprecedented global problem that forces global society to confront the unexpected consequences of its own development. It is a problem whose complexity manifests in at least three dimensions.

First, climate change encompasses many variables (atmospheric, geological, demographic, economic, etc.) with different qualities: qualitative (dichotomous or polysomic, nominal or ordinal), quantitative (discrete or continuous), intervening, moderating, independent, or dependent. Each requires the implementation of diverse strategies in different and even opposed areas.

Second, the relationships between these variables are selective, that is, when looking at the problem, it has not been feasible (and hardly ever is) to consider all the possible variables, much less to establish inclusion or exclusion criteria for them. Thus, for example, we have phenomena whose independent variables are global (such as global warming) but whose dependent variables are distributed unequally on the planet (such as local disasters). We find the same, nolens volens, for local independent variables (such as the dumping of waste in the seas) whose impacts cross national borders.

Third, climate change is a problem that manifests itself differently but simultaneously on the planet. It requires longer time horizons than those that frame economic or political decisions, as well as coordination between different sectors of the society.

In short, the dimensions in which climate change manifests the diversity of elements, the selectivity of relationships, and the differentiation in social systems, they configure it as a complex problem. (Luhmann 1986).

The accumulation of quantitative measurements of climate change has fed a rich discussion, but little progress has been made in complementing these measurements with qualitative methods of research and social intervention, which in other contexts have shown their usefulness in collecting relevant information to surmount obstacles of social coordination or lack of reflexivity. In this sense, the social sciences deserve special attention, given that they have been overlooked in the past and possess qualities that can fruitfully support the global response to climate change.

This essay will address this issue by considering the areas exposed and visualizing how these tools can contribute to the development of long-term visions that confront one of the greatest challenges facing humanity in the 21st century.

Identifying Rationalities to Develop Resilience

Qualitative tools identify views or perspectives that we understand as rationalities (Luhmann, 1986) that facilitate collaboration between different stakeholders, allowing them to develop the resilience needed to confront climate change.

Environmental problems in general, but especially those related to climate change, require that we coordinate multiple perspectives at different levels. To exemplify this, consider the following gross distinction between two types of social systems.

On the one hand, in today's global society various social systems functionally specialize in solving specific problems (scarcity, social conflict, knowledge, norms, etc.) throughout the society. These systems cross borders and link realities that are very different and distant from each other. Thus, for example, we currently have science that is interconnected throughout the world and researchers from different latitudes who discuss and contrast their findings on climate change. The current economy is highly sensitive to all kinds of disturbances, whose effects amplify around the planet in the form of crises or growth booms. At the same time, an international policy seeks agreements transcending the local work of each nation and capable of creating norms to link countries in the pursuit of common goals.

On the other hand, another type of social system has been developed around the planet, different from the one just mentioned and from previous systems, that only produces large-scale effects in certain situations. Social organizations are a kind of social system that aims to achieve specific objectives, assign responsibilities and rewards, and continuously produce decisions on very diverse topics. Universities, for example, are organizations that participate in the knowledge produced by a transnational system such as science; depending on their resources and desires, they are able to contribute to that knowledge or apply it in local contexts. States are huge organizations linked in the international policy of agreements and disagreements. Companies are not the global economic system, but they are the actors that decide investments, adjustments, mergers, and bankruptcies, all of which affect their environment to a greater or lesser degree.

A localized environmental problem can involve multiple views (economic, political, legal, scientific, etc.) traversed by objectives with respect to business, the state, crime, or knowledge. Each functional system and each organization observes the problem from the perspective of its own structural constraints, which link general functions and particular objectives. In order to coordinate these rationalities, it is fundamental that we use a reflective process that enables the different actors involved to visualize their own limitations in understanding and valuing the problem and to accept the existence of other views as equally valuable as their own. For example, by sharing information collected in questionnaires among the actors, which brings together various positions and rationalities, stakeholders should visualize common objectives and accept divergent ones, allowing for a positive collaboration or coordination. The focus groups can be privileged spaces for these processes, in the form of citizen dialogues or as hybrid forums. All of them are thus constituted in action-research strategies, and they can help to establish a long-term qualitative vision.

Qualitative methods and techniques favor multiple points of view, allowing actors to recognize themselves as observers in a community of other observers, and to understand that society today does not have a command center capable of solving all their problems; instead, each perspective is in itself a center and a valuable periphery for other perspectives. Looking at things in this way encourages coordination.

Qualitative Strategies for “Outside of the Box” Collaboration

In order to promote mitigation measures and adaptation to climate change, it is crucial that we develop more collaborative social forms to relate to each other (new politics), to satisfy our needs (new economy), and to improve our behaviors (new education). The aim is not only to develop social structures different from those now in force but also to strengthen forms of socialization that consider the challenges of climate change in their complexity.

This has a component of innovation that requires collective creation and the generation of conditions to incorporate changes in existing structures. Research-action strategies (such as hybrid forums, group discussions, and participatory cartography) can become important tools to favor these creative processes. Group management strategies and information-gathering tools can promote the reflective processes required for creativity.1 Tools such as backcasting, supported by group management techniques, help decision makers and other stakeholders set ambitious goals and innovate to achieve them.

All of these tools have been tested in other contexts and can be effectively applied to improve mitigation and adaptation to climate change.

Understanding Barriers and Opportunities for Mitigation and Adaptation

The qualitative information obtained from experts allows for quicker and cheaper evaluation of possible mitigation and adaptation measures. Expert interviews can also be very useful for the initial survey of conditions needed to implement measures and for the identification of possible coimpacts (positive and negative). In addition to offering a valuable starting point for more extensive work to contrast previously obtained data, this type of diagnosis provides a general view that allows us to build or refine quantitative methods and techniques. Through these qualitative approaches, quantitative tools are better legitimated, because the collection and analysis instruments are made more precise.

At the same time, one of the great challenges in developing adaptation measures is the need to implement strategies that are culturally and territorially relevant, that is, to consider the local conditions and knowledge where the strategies are implemented. Although adaptation strategies can be designed at a macro level or at the national level, to establish specific measures that consider the requirements of the local population, it is essential to use qualitative methods and techniques that address the conditions of vulnerability in the face of the threats to which the population is exposed. In this context, semistructured interviews, focus groups, and participatory cartographies can be very useful for codesigning adaptation strategies at the local level.

Decision-Making Process and Modeling for Long-Term Strategies

To adequately respond to the uncertainty in the decisions it is fundamental that we analyze the most diverse information possible. One strategy used to project the future effect of present decisions is the modeling of scenarios. Although this process is not normally related to qualitative methods and techniques, since a large amount of data is modeled, the definition of scenarios, the calibration of models, and the identification of feedbacks imply the use of expert knowledge and cultural information relevant to decisions at the local, national, and global levels.

Decisions involve risks and the fact that they are considered or evaluated is influenced by cultural, political, and moral variables. To define objectives and develop strategies to achieve them, these variables must be considered in decisions and controlled from support tools in the process. Qualitative methods and techniques allow us to raise multiple perspectives, systematize them adequately, and make information available so that decisions, weightings, and the identification of relationships are supported by sufficient information. Involving different actors in the definition of these criteria, qualitative methods also facilitate acceptance of the results of the modeling and the legitimacy of the decisions involved.

If the qualitative tools in the modeling processes are ignored, the definition of the aforementioned elements remains in a kind of black box, leading to a significant bias of information and an absence of democratization of the processes.

Conclusions and Recommendations

Qualitative tools offer an opportunity to develop a complex approach that can facilitate decision-making in a context of uncertainty. Qualitative and quantitative tools have different functionalities and can contribute significantly to tackling the challenges of climate change. They should work in a complementary way.

Table 1 identifies specific qualitative techniques.

Table 1. Qualitative tools to face Climate Change challenges

Innovation Thinking

Identify Rationalities

Barriers and Opportunities

Modeling for Long-Term Strategies

Hybrid forums


Semistructured interviews

Interviews with experts

Interviews with experts

Focus groups

Focus groups

Semistructured interviews

Hybrid forums






Participatory cartographies



To confront the challenges of climate change, decision makers have been forced to consider a greater amount of information, in environments of considerable uncertainty and complexity. In such contexts, the use of methodological tools from the social sciences that encompass both quantitative and qualitative techniques should be an important strategy for evidence-based decision-making.


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Lang, D.J., et al. 2012. “Transdisciplinary Research in Sustainability Science: Practice, Principles, and Challenges.” Sustainability Science 7 (supp. 1): 25–43. doi: 10.1007/s11625-011-0149-x.

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1 See discussion of the “metalogue” in Urquiza et al. (2018).

All the interpretations and findings set forth in this expert perspective are those of the author alone.