May 21 2021

The Science and Politics of Global Climate Change: A Guide to the Debate, 3rd Edition

Reviewed by Dr. Yasmin Zaerpoor, Boston College

Why is collective action on climate change so difficult to achieve, despite the overwhelming scientific consensus that the climate is changing?

The Science and Politics of Global Climate Change

The Science and Politics of Global Climate Change: A Guide to the Debate, 3rd Edition, by A. E. Dessler and E. A. Parson, Cambridge University Press, 2020, 278 pp.

Our global response to climate change remains insufficient despite regular, and increasingly urgent, warnings from the scientific community about the global impacts, especially if warming exceeds 1.5°C. Although there is some uncertainty about the extent to which our natural world will change as a result of the climate changing, there is wide scientific consensus that the climate is changing. The existing challenge is therefore not related to knowledge, but to knowing how to translate that knowledge into political action.

In this third edition of The Science and Politics of Global Climate Change, A. E. Dessler and E. A. Parson masterfully consider the interaction science and politics as it relates to climate action. They outline three factors that make climate change more difficult to address than previous environmental challenges. First, climate change is a slow process that requires long-term planning, which is not immune to changes in local and national politics. Second, they highlight the tradeoff between environment and economics, noting that the necessary reduction in greenhouse gas emissions will require transitioning away from fossil fuels and may have, at least short-term, impacts on economies around the world. Third, uncertainty about the impacts of climate change makes it easy to misunderstand and miscommunicate the seriousness of the problem.

Chapter One starts by introducing the science of climate change and, more specifically, describing climate, the Earth’s energy balance, the greenhouse gas effect, the role of feedbacks and climate forcings, and the impact of humans on the climate. It also provides a brief overview of climate change policy, starting from the late 1980s and 1990s through the 2015 Paris Agreement (and the United States’ temporary withdrawal under Donald Trump).

Chapter Two summarizes the scientific and political debates on climate change, their differences and how they interact. Interestingly, Dessler and Parson approach this by differentiating between positive and normative statements made in the climate debate, describing the scientific process as a collective endeavor with peer review rather than an abstract, rational process, and by highlighting the potential conflict that emerges when science is used/misused to support contradictory political positions. This is a very thoughtful approach to the climate debate as it extends beyond the science and introduces readers to the complexity of integrating science into policy.

Chapter Three, which focuses on the impacts of humans on the climate, is organized around four questions: (i) Is the climate changing? (ii) Are human activities responsible? (iii) What further climate changes are likely? and (iv) What will the impacts be? Dessler and Parson also consider natural processes (e.g., tectonic processes, variations in Earth’s orbit, solar variability and internal variability of the climate system) that affect climate, but explain that these do not explain the extent to which the climate is changing. They end the chapter by considering, and rebutting, two contrary claims for anthropogenic climate change. More specifically, they explain and dismiss the misinformed and pervasive counterarguments that global warming is not happening and that the climate has always changed and therefore should not be a concern.

In Chapter Four, Dessler and Parson turn to climate change action–focusing on mitigation, adaptation and climate engineering. In each of these discussions, the politics surrounding the feasibility of future action is considered alongside the science. For example, they point to nuclear power as a significant potential zero-emission source of energy, while also recognizing the existing political opposition to nuclear energy and the risk that expanding fission could lead to increased opportunities for “sabotage, terrorism, or diversion for weapons.” They also consider subnational, national and global policies that could promote mitigation, weighing the benefits and limitations of different types of policies (e.g., market-based policies such as cap and trade systems versus regulatory policies) before describing two possible approaches to climate engineering, or the act of manipulating the climate system to reduce the impacts of greenhouse gases. They conclude the chapter with a recognition that effective climate action will require all three interventions–mitigation to reduce the effects of climate change, adaptation to reduce the impacts and continued study of climate engineering in case the first two interventions are insufficient.

The final chapter summarizes climate policy in 2019 and outlines a path forward. Interestingly, the authors warn against waiting for global consensus on climate change and suggest that piecemeal national and subnational mitigation may be the best we can hope for in today’s political climate.

This book is an excellent teaching resource–whether it is for an undergraduate or graduate course or for nonspecialists who want to understand how science and politics interact in relation to climate action. It is structured intuitively as though the authors have anticipated the questions and follow-on questions that students of climate change will ask, and answer them comprehensively and succinctly. Overall, it is an easy, engaging, and comprehensive primer for anyone trying to understand the challenges and opportunities for action on climate change.

May 21 2021

Sustainability Made Simple: Small Changes for Big Impact

Review by Jungwoo Chun, Massachusetts Institute of Technology 

 What does sustainability mean to individuals in their day-to-day practice? How can individuals engage more directly and realistically with the idea of sustainability?

Sustainability Made Simple

Sustainability Made Simple: Small Changes for Big Impact, by Rosaly Byrd and Lauren DeMates, Rowman & Littlefield, 2019, 216 pp.

Sustainability Made Simple is designed for those who are interested in learning what sustainability means to them. Sustainability is often linked with climate change and other environmental issues. What it means to individuals and day-to-day practices is less frequently discussed in much detail. Rosaly Byrd and Lauren DeMates do just that–putting people as agents of change, they offer ways for individuals to support the collective efforts towards sustainability. The book is for everyone who wishes learn how they can engage more directly and realistically with the concept of sustainability and the environment.

The book is organized in two parts. In part 1, the authors introduce the environmental problems we face collectively (i.e., air and water pollution, deforestation and climate change); provide examples of how governments, companies and other societal organizations are transitioning toward sustainability (i.e., making commitments and technological investments); and underscore why individual action is vital. Besides the fact that more than 60 percent of greenhouse gas emissions are contributed by household consumption, the authors describe what they call a shift towards a culture of sustainability that essentially supports collective efforts. They emphasize the importance of individuals taking small steps such as making consumption decisions more carefully, buying more sustainably grown products or actively monitoring electricity and water usage at homes. Part 2 offers various examples of these small changes individuals can achieve–opportunities to integrate sustainability into day-to-day practices.

What is most fascinating is how much of what appear to be low-hanging fruits can in fact be completely unnoticed or ignored. The detailed list of practices (ranging from cutting down on foods with the biggest environmental footprints to going paperless) provides an opportunity for individuals to perform a self-audit and identify what else can be done on a daily basis. Part 2 essentially offers a detailed recipe for individuals who desire to learn and apply the practices to their daily routines. While the book provides examples from multiple contexts (often international), it would be even more interesting to observe examples of how an accumulation of individual efforts engenders a culture of sustainability that in fact supports national or local-scale societal transitions towards sustainability.

The good news is that transitions to sustainability are still optimistic and easily relatable. The detailed accounts of what we can do as individuals are a testament to how the ideas of sustainability have evolved over time. As a reader, my hope is that more people around the world can invest 5-10 minutes of their time and try out a few daily practices described in the book. The combined effects cannot be readily measured or studied, but I have little doubt that the impacts will be enormous.

May 21 2021

Titans of the Climate: Explaining Policy Processes in the United States and China

Reviewed by Jessica Gordon, University of California, Berkeley 

What climate policymaking processes do the United States and China follow? How do their policies differ? Can the two “Titans” achieve shared momentum in their efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions?

Titans of the Climate

Titans of the Climate: Explaining Policy Processes in the United States and China, by Kelly Sims Gallagher and Xiaowei Xuan, MIT Press, 2018, 272 pp.

The United States and China are “Titans of the Climate” as the largest greenhouse gas emitters on the planet and therefore key to addressing climate change. Kelly Sims Gallagher and Xiaowei Xuan, two scholar practitioners who have been closely involved in climate policymaking in their respective countries, provide a clear picture of the climate policymaking process. This is no small feat given the complexities on both sides and their inherent challenges of drawing comparisons between two different political systems.

After providing the overall context for the two countries, the core of the book focuses on the detailed history of the development and implementation of national climate targets and an analysis of the varied policy outcomes. To explain policy differences in the two countries, the authors provide seven key factors: party politics, separation of powers, government hierarchy, and bureaucratic authority, economic structure and strategic industries, individual leadership and the media. This leads the authors to consider that the American process as “deliberative incrementalism” characterized by fragmentation, instability and unpredictability while China practices “strategic pragmatism” with stable and comprehensive climate policymaking.

Although the landscape has changed between the US and China since its writing (during the first year of the Trump Administration), this book is as pertinent as ever as the US has released an updated and more ambitious NDC and China has a carbon neutrality pledge. The authors’ goal is clear–to increase understanding on both sides in order to foster trust and collaboration–and they achieve it well. Given the new positive statements between the US and China on working on climate change, this book reminds us how and why the two nations should build on their momentum together. It is a great primer on US and China policymaking for anyone interested in the topic and would be a good addition to any class on climate policy or US-China relations.

Jan 6 2021

Complexity of Transboundary Water Conflicts: Enabling Conditions for Negotiating Contingent Resolutions

Reviewed by Shekhar Chandra, Massachusetts Institute of Technology

How can our understanding of the complexity of water disputes enable us to sustainably manage our dwindling water resources? Why does a unified theory of water conflicts, although attractive among academics, remains elusive?

Complexity of Transboundary Water Conflicts

Complexity of Transboundary Water Conflicts: Enabling Conditions for Negotiating Contingent Resolutions, edited by Enamul Choudhury and Shafiqul Islam, Anthem Press, 2018, 292 pp.

Water is a critical input for economic development and the functioning of the natural environment. Due to the changing climate, increasing demand, unsustainable use of water resources, and political relationships between groups of people, states and countries are being adversely affected—and in some cases even driven—by disputes over shared water resources.   Water-related conflicts are occurring at all geographical scales. There are local disputes among groups fighting for access in the face of increasing demand and supply gaps resulting from poor physical and institutional infrastructure, state-level conflicts within national jurisdiction laying competing claims over shared water resources, and international conflicts, often involving transboundary water disputes. Gleick (2009) shows that the number of violent conflicts over water resources increased from at least 19 in 1900 to at least 61 in 2007.

Enamul Choudhury and Shafiqul Islam provide an interesting perspective on transboundary water disputes. They argue that in transboundary disputes, causal relations are not clear. In such conflicts, uncertainty, non-linearity, and bidirectional feedbacks occur all the time that makes system dynamics highly complex and continuously evolving. The book is in three parts. The first part deals with the theoretical framework, especially the underlying elements of complexity theory. Using examples of the Indus and the Jordan, they identify three enabling conditions—interest identification, interdependence recognition, and conflict-resolution mechanisms. The second part underscores the complexity of some of the ongoing water conflicts around the world that includes the Danube, Brahmaputra, Ganges, Nile, and Colorado rivers. Finally, the third part is mostly a reflection on several cases in different river basins on the roles and interactions of complexity, enabling conditions, and contingency in varying contexts.

There are practical takeaways from this work. The authors make a case that while developing a general theory of water conflicts remains highly attractive among academics, regardless of the number of conflicts we study, a unified theory would be elusive. It is because each case is continuously evolving and has a set of unique characteristics—what they call “enabling conditions.” Such contextual uniqueness of conflicts makes the pursuit of one single theory of water conflicts extremely difficult. The authors make it amply clear that despite the importance of situational and contextual factors, conflicts are often (unfortunately) reduced to questions about respective shares of a fixed resource (water), which inevitably ends up as a multi-variate optimization problem.

Overall, the book is a wonderful addition to the foundational textbook, Water Diplomacy, on water dispute by Professors Islam and Susskind (2012). Their conceptualization that water is a flexible resource has radically changed the way academics and practitioners think of managing water resources. This book further advances our understanding of the complexity of water disputes to be able to sustainably manage our dwindling water resources. 


Gleick PH. Water Conflict Chronology. The World’s Water, 2008–2009: The Biennial Report on Freshwater Resources. Washington, DC: Island Press; 2009:151–196.

Susskind, L. & Shafiqul Islam. (2012). Water Diplomacy: A Negotiated Approach to Managing Complex Water Networks. New York: RFF Press.

Jan 6 2021

Conflict and Sustainability in a Changing Environment: Through the Eyes of Communities

Reviewed by Jungwoo Chun, Massachusetts Institute of Technology

How do we overlay various sustainable development frameworks and roadmaps on local governments? Who are the critical actors? What does sustainable development look like at a smaller community scale?

Conflict and Sustainability in a Changing Environment

Conflict and Sustainability in a Changing Environment: Through the Eyes of Communities, by Gwendolyn Smith and Elena P. Bastidas, Anthem Press, 2017, 208 pp.

Sustainable development is pretty well-defined by international organizations, multinational corporations, and governments. But it is still unclear what sustainable development looks like at a smaller community scale. How do we overlay various sustainable development frameworks and roadmaps on local governments? Who are the critical actors? The authors try to answer these questions in this book.

The book is organized in sections on theory and practice. The first part presents alternative conflict resolution frameworks as a way of incorporating community views into sustainable development initiatives. The authors demonstrate that values are a crucial starting point—they dictate choices and actions that communities must sort through when they are faced with environmental problems that call for social change. Social polygraphy is introduced as a joint-problem-solving method through which the researcher and the community collaboratively create maps of the past, present, and future as a way to understand past conflicts and envision a pathway forward.

The second part illustrates how the proposed framework can be used to analyze the views of the Trio indigenous community in the Amazonian forests of Suriname. Chapters 5–7 discuss how the values of the Trio community shape their views about climate change and the actions they decide to take. These chapters help the reader see how climate change must be understood through the lens of the community.

The book concludes with answers to some of the questions posed at the outset, offering a comparison between how sustainable development is viewed by the community and development organizations. The last chapter explores sustainable solutions for the Trio community, for example, combining mitigation with adaptation efforts already practiced by the community. The authors further explain the “unfitting” nature of the REDD+ framework which operates from a limited mitigation point of view.

Conflicts are likely to emerge when behavioral change is necessary to achieve wider social change. The model offered by the authors can be applied to different contexts around the world, helping local and indigenous communities define their own sustainable development pathways in reaction to guidelines provided by global development organizations.