In 2001, the four global change research programmes 'urgently' called for 'an ethical framework for global stewardship and strategies for Earth System management'. Yet this notion of 'earth system management' remains vaguely defined: It is too elusive for natural scientists, and too ambitious or too normative for social scientists. In this article, I develop an alternative concept that is better grounded in social science theory: 'earth system governance'. I introduce, first, the concept of earth system governance as a new social phenomenon, a political programme and a crosscutting theme of research in the field of global environmental change. I then sketch the five key problem structures that complicate earth system governance, and derive from these four overarching principles for earth system governance as political practice, namely credibility, stability, adaptiveness, and inclusiveness. In the last part of the article, I identify five research and governance challenges that lie at the core of earth system governance as a crosscutting theme in global change research. These are the problems of the overall architecture of earth system governance, of agency beyond the state, of the adaptiveness of governance mechanisms and of their accountability and legitimacy, and of the modes of allocation in earth system governance-in short, the five A's of earth system governance research. © 2006 Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved.