People and ecosystems

Understanding of the links between coral reef ecosystems, the goods and services they provide to people, and the wellbeing of human societies.


Ecosystem dynamics: past, present and future

Examining the multi-scale dynamics of reefs, from population dynamics to macroevolution


Responding to a changing world

Advancing the fundamental understanding of the key processes underpinning reef resilience.

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Coral Reef Studies

From 2005 to 2022, the main node of the ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies was headquartered at James Cook University in Townsville, Queensland (Australia)

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Tiffany Morrison

Tiffany Morrison

Professor, Chief Investigator, Program 1 Leader and Social Science Research Leader

Fellow of Academy of Social Sciences Australia (elected 2022)
Global Environmental Change Editorial Board (2021-)
Climate Action Editorial Board (2021-)
Earth System Governance Editorial Board (2018-)
Regional Studies Association Ambassadorial Fellow (2014-)
University of Oregon Institute for Policy Research and Innovation Adjunct Fellow (2012-2013)
Australian Research Council Super Science Fellowships Award (2010-2014)
Universitas 21 Early Career Researcher Award (2012)
University of Queensland Early Career Researcher Award (2009-2012)
Senior Lecturer (tenured), Geography, Planning & Environmental Management, University of Queensland (2008-2014)
Japan Foundation Fellowship Award (2005-2006)
Lecturer (tenured), Political & International Studies, Flinders University (2004-2007)
Visiting PhD Scholar, Department of Urban and Regional Planning, University of Wisconsin-Madison, USA (2001-2003)

Ph.D, University of Queensland, Australia • B.Sc. (Honours) University of Queensland, Australia • B.Sc. (Environmental Studies), Griffith University, Australia

Morrison Complex Environmental Governance Research Group

James Cook University

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I grew up in Queensland, Australia. I completed a PhD on complex environmental governance in the USA and Australia in 2004, supported by a highly competitive Land and Water Australia scholarship at The University of Queensland and a visiting fellowship at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. My research focuses on improving how society governs complex environmental change. My interest in complex environmental governance began in 1996 while working on the first CSIRO experiment in regional environmental governance, an experiment fundamentally challenged by hidden political-economic dynamics. From 2004-2008 I taught in the Master of Public Administration program while tenured faculty in the School of Political and International Studies at Flinders University. In 2005, I was awarded a visiting Fellowship at the University of Kyoto, where I became interested in the complex governance challenge of climate adaptation. During 2008-2014 I held an ARC Super Science Fellowships grant, where I focused on developing integrated governance solutions for sea level rise. This project which was profiled by The Australian newspaper (2 November 2011) as in the top 10 of innovative collaborative Australian research projects.  Throughout this time, I was tenured faculty in the School of Geography, Planning and Environmental Management at The University of Queensland. I joined the ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies as tenured Social Science Research Leader and co-leader of the People and Ecosystems Program in 2015. Since then, I have developed a major new research program on multiscale governance of climate adaptation and conflict in large-scale reef systems. In 2017, a BAFTA-awarded BBC documentary producer interviewed me about my work on the complex governance of the Great Barrier Reef. A two-part documentary Costing the Earth was aired on the BBC in early 2018. I currently lead a new international program on Governing Changing Oceans funded by ARC Discovery and US SNAPP awards.

My Google Scholar page

Morrison Complex Environmental Governance Research Program

Our research program combines political science, climate science, ecology and geography to understand and improve the design of complex environmental governance regimes.  We work closely with a range of physical, natural, and social scientists and policymakers on inter-disciplinary approaches to environmental governance problems. Our social science capacity and competitiveness is underpinned by an international research program, involving co-tutelle PhD supervision and co-appointed postdoctoral fellowships, with colleagues at Exeter University, Stockholm University, WorldFish, and the University of Queensland.

Our current research is centred around three questions.

Hidden political-economic drivers in complex regimes: Global sustainability depends on better understanding and implementation of complex environmental governance regimes. However, current understanding is typically limited to snapshot analyses of the initial design or the emergent structure of complex regimes. To meet this challenge, we are focusing not only on the structure of regimes but also on systematically examining internal and external socio-political drivers in environmental governance. Recent results have been published in journals such as Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences and WIREs Climate Change, and cited in major policy reviews such as the 2017 Review of Governance of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority. Our main aim is to uncover hidden levers for improving the design, implementation and robustness of complex environmental governance regimes. This program involves a diverse array of collaborators from the ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies, University of Michigan, Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam, University of Exeter, University of Melbourne, Lancaster University, McGill University, WorldFish and WWF.

Governing through power asymmetry and complexity: The problems of resource-dependent regions include globally uneven power relations and development patterns, and rapid and uncertain exogenous threats. At the same time, economic and social restructuring involving devolved planning responsibilities, privatised resource rights, and networked management approaches are undermining previous scientific and policy assumptions about the resilience of resource-dependent regions. We already know that multiscale institutions play a critical role in ensuring the resilience and resourcefulness of regions in the face of such challenges. We do not yet understand why some regions are resilient while others strain or even paralyse under conditions of inequity, complexity, uncertainty, and unpredictability. Our early contributions to this field emerge out of conducting empirical research on policy and administration in the USA and Australia, focusing on the role of scale in governance. Our more recent work has involved the development of a Power in Polycentric Governance Framework for assessing different types of power in multiscale governance regimes. This has led to a new cross-national projects analyzing political dynamics across the governance of 238 World Heritage regions. By focusing on scale and power asymmetry, we are providing an important counterpoint to the ‘bottom-up bias’ in sustainability science. See new papers in Nature Sustainability and Nature here.

Governance in the Anthropocene. This dimension of our research is concerned with the feasibility of different institutional designs to respond to chronic conflict and cumulative impacts of multiple environmental threats, such as global climate change, coastal development and over-fishing. In four recent and highly influential Reviews (in Nature, WIRES Climate Change, One Earth and Nature Climate Change ), we identified several key challenges associated with governing large scale SESs under climate change. Future research will continue this work by developing a robust framework for understanding complex environmental governance under climate change, providing a more rigorous basis for understanding the effects of complexity and change on socio-ecological systems. New findings demonstrate that current governance interventions fail comprehensively for large scale SESs under climate change, highlighting the need for a more forward-looking understanding of the governance of socio-ecological change incorporating complex exogenous, cumulative and feedback dynamics. See our new ARC Discovery and US SNAPP funded program on Governing Changing Oceans.

Complex Environmental Governance Research Group

Recently graduated PhD students and former postdoctoral researchers include:

We are always encouraging applications from exceptional PhD and postdoctoral scholars with backgrounds in human geography, political science, public policy, sociology, environmental humanities, citizenship studies and cognate disciplines. Areas of interest include:

If you are about to contact us to inquire about a PhD, please read this article first.

Recent Key Papers, Editorials & Policy Briefs on Governing Complex Environmental Change

For full list of publications, click here.

Morrison, T.H., Adger, W.N., Agrawal, A., Brown, K., Hornsey, M..J., Hughes, T.P., Jain, M., Lemos, M.C., McHugh, L., O’Neill, S. and Van Berkel, D. (2022) Radical interventions for climate-impacted ecosystems. Nature Climate Change, https://doi.org/10.1038/s41558-022-01542-y.

Morrison, T.H., Bodin, O., Cumming, G.S., Lubell, M., Seppelt, R., Seppelt, T., Weible, C.M. (2022). Building blocks of polycentric governance. Policy Studies Journal, https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/journal/15410072.

Morrison, T.H. (2021). Great Barrier Reef: accept ‘in danger’ status, there’s more to gain than lose. Nature, vol. 596, pp. 319-319.

Morrison, T.H., Adger, N., Brown, K., Hettiarachchi, M., Huchery, C., Lemos, M.C. and Hughes, T.P. (2020). Political dynamics and governance of World Heritage ecosystems. Nature Sustainability, vol. 3, pp. 947-955.

Morrison, T.H., Adger, N., Barnett, J., Brown, K., Possingham, H. and Hughes, T.P. (2020). Advancing coral reef governance into the Anthropocene. One Earth, vol. 2, no. 1, pp. 64-74.

Morrison, T.H., Hughes, T.P., Adger, W.N., Brown, K., Barnett, J., Lemos, M.C., Huitema, D., Huchery, C., Chaigneau, T., Turner, R. and Hettiarachchi, M. (2019) Save reefs to rescue all ecosystems. Nature, vol. 573, no. 7774, pp. 333-336.

Morrison, T.H., Adger, W.N., Brown, K., Lemos, M.C., Huitema, D., Phelps, J., Evans, L., Cohen, P., Song, A.M., Turner, R., Quinn, T. and Hughes, T.P. (2019). The black box of power in polycentric environmental governance. Global Environmental Change, vol. 57, pp. 101934.

Bellwood, D.R., Pratchett, M.S., Morrison, T.H., Gurney, G.G., Hughes, T.P., Álvarez-Romero, J.G., Day, J.C., Grantham, R., Grech, A., Hoey, A.S., Jones, G.P., Pandolfi, J.M., Tebbett, S.B., Techera, E., Weeks, R. and Cumming, G.S. (2019) Coral reef conservation in the Anthropocene: Confronting spatial mismatches and prioritizing functions. Biological Conservation, vol. 236, pp. 604-615.

Blythe, J., Silver, J., Evans, L., Armitage, D., Bennett, N.J., Moore, M.L., Morrison, T.H. and Brown, K. (2018). The dark side of transformation: latent risks in contemporary sustainability discourse. Antipode, vol. 50, no. 5, pp. 1206-1223.

Cinner, J.E., Adger, W.N., Allison, E.H., Barnes, M.L., Brown, K., Cohen, P.J., Gelcich, S., Hicks, C.C., Hughes, T.P., Lau, J., Marshall, N.A. and Morrison, T.H. (2018) Building adaptive capacity to climate change in tropical coastal communities. Nature Climate Change, vol. 8, no. 2, pp. 117-123.

Morrison, T.H. (2017). Evolving polycentric governance of the Great Barrier Reef. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, vol. 114, no. 15, pp. E3013-E3021.

Hughes, T.P., Barnes, M.L., Bellwood, D.R., Cinner, J.E., Cumming, G.S., Jackson, J.B., Kleypas, J., van de Leemput, I.A., Lough, J.M., Morrison, T.H. and Palumbi, S.R. (2017). Coral reefs in the Anthropocene. Nature, vol. 546, no. 7656, pp. 82-90.

Morrison, T.H., Adger, W.N., Brown, K., Lemos, M.C., Huitema, D. and Hughes, T.P. (2017). Mitigation and adaptation in polycentric systems: sources of power in the pursuit of collective goals. Wiley Interdisciplinary Reviews: Climate Change, vol. 8, no. 5, pp. e479.

Morrison, T.H. and Hughes T.P. (2016), ‘Climate change and the Great Barrier Reef’, National Climate Change Adaptation Research Facility (NCAARF) Policy Information Brief 1, Australia, pp. 1-6.


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