Low-carbon transitions are long-term multi-faceted processes. Although integrated assessment models have many strengths for analysing such transitions, their mathematical representation requires a simplification of the causes, dynamics and scope of such societal transformations. We suggest that integrated assessment model-based analysis should be complemented with insights from socio-technical transition analysis and practice-based action research. We discuss the underlying assumptions, strengths and weaknesses of these three analytical approaches. We argue that full integration of these approaches is not feasible, because of foundational differences in philosophies of science and ontological assumptions. Instead, we suggest that bridging, based on sequential and interactive articulation of different approaches, may generate a more comprehensive and useful chain of assessments to support policy formation and action. We also show how these approaches address knowledge needs of different policymakers (international, national and local), relate to different dimensions of policy processes and speak to different policy-relevant criteria such as cost-effectiveness, socio-political feasibility, social acceptance and legitimacy, and flexibility. A more differentiated set of analytical approaches thus enables a more differentiated approach to climate policy making.