This paper discusses a recently proposed conceptualisation of ‘earth system governance’ by applying it to floodplain management in the Hungarian Tisza river basin. By doing so it aims to improve our understanding of governance systems facilitating adaptation to a changing world. The conceptualisation of earth system governance consists of three elements: problem structure, principles and research challenges. These three elements are assessed using results from actor interviews and policy review. A regional example of natural resources management is found to be a valid case for earth system governance research. The proposed conceptualisation of earth system governance explains well the main problems, barriers and opportunities for adapting floodplain management to climate change in the Tisza region. Problem structure analysis highlights how previous socio-economic and political orders continue to shape expectations and patterns of conduct. Current barriers can be attributed to a lack of the key governance principles credibility, stability, inclusiveness and adaptiveness. Interviewees perceived the lack of credibility and effective cooperation between organisations as the largest barrier. The research challenges proposed for earth system governance agree well with opportunities identified for adapting Tisza floodplain management, calling for inclusion of actors beyond governments and state agencies, and equitable resource allocation in particular. The analysis suggests that an additional challenge for earth system governance is the prioritisation of actions to support an existing governance system and its actors in adapting.