Environmental problems are often multi-faceted and complex by nature, consisting of diverse, intertwined dimensions. In this article, we argue that environmental problem characteristics have consequences for the selection of appropriate governance modes, and finally on policy effectiveness. We rely on an in-depth literature review to proceed in two steps. First, we outline three key environmental problem characteristics: uncertainties, cause–effect mismatches and norm plurality. We then outline six different governance modes capable of producing policies and solutions to tackle challenges arising from the three problem characteristics. Next, through empirical illustrations, we demonstrate the relevance of linking governance modes to these characteristics via the introduction and articulation of the concept of ‘connectivity’, i.e., linking actors, issues, sectors and scale levels towards realizing effective policy solutions for complex environmental problems.