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.

Sep 1 2020

Short Circuiting Policy: Interest Groups and the Battle over Clean Energy and Climate Policy in the American States

Reviewed by Aria Ritz Finkelstein, Massachusetts Institute of Technology 

What hindered clean energy policy from taking off, even with the support of broad public opinion and political will?


Short Circuiting Policy


Short Circuiting Policy: Interest Groups and the Battle over Clean Energy and Climate Policy in the American States by Leah Cardamore Stokes, Oxford University Press, 2020, 336 pp.

In the late 1990s and early 2000s, it seemed clean energy production had the political momentum and the legislation in place to support it, so why did it fail to take off at anything close to the rate its advocates hoped it would? The short answer—its opponents, including electric utilities, coal companies, and other companies who profit from fossil fuel extraction obstructed clean energy laws from being passed in the first place, worked to weaken or reverse the ones that did, and delayed the implementation of the ones already in place.

Stokes argues that policy scholars have tended to underestimate the role of interest groups in influencing these policy trajectories. Here, she focuses on four cases of clean energy policy: Arizona, Kansas, Ohio, and Texas. Often, the initial steps in policy development are self-reinforcing (this is called policy “lock-in”), but in these stories the opposite was the case. Stokes sets out to understand what led to the reversals away from clean energy policy even once it was on a forward trajectory, and she argues that, to a large extent, it was how interest groups fought climate policy.

Stokes claims that the policy literature underestimates the full impact of lobbying and campaign groups in shaping policy. She argues that in fact this oversight is precisely due to the strategies that interest groups use to create a “fog of enactment.” One thing that allows actors to create this fog is the uncertainty that accompanies a new policy, or the lack of clarity about how a particular policy will play out in its implementation. It is greatest when a new policy is a big departure from the status quo, when it is untested in other contexts, when its provisions are highly technical and poorly understood by the public, or when it requires changes at multiple scales or levels of government.

These cases are stories of battles between two sets of interest groups—those for clean energy policy and those who profit by obstructing it—and in each how these groups work under the cover of fog is what determines their successes or failures. Stokes’s focus here is on the space between passing and implementation. Yes, passing policy is critical, but “[t]he spoils from victory in organized combat go to the party whose laws are implemented—not just passed” (p. 119). For better or for worse, the advocates win their battles by virtue of organizing national collective action within interest group networks. While their outward facing collaborations are important—their work to sway public opinion can translate to a big impact on politicians—their more important work happens quietly. Collaborating with those within their interest group networks, organizers learn strategies from the successes and failures of those before them, provide legislators with model bills and ordinances, sway political campaigns through financial contributions, and work together to predict the impacts of various policies.

Stokes claims that the existing thought that lobbying and campaign contributions have relatively little impact actually represents a success on the part of advocacy groups. By using highly complex and sometimes indirect methods, fossil fuel companies have obfuscated their efforts even from policy scholars. She concludes that there is much to learn from understanding these strategies. Clean energy advocates can study their techniques to fight them effectively and even to borrow from them. And, by increasing transparency in political donations, holding organizations accountable, making policy decisions easier for the public to understand, and pressuring politicians to refuse money from fossil fuel campaigns, clean energy advocates can help make sure that once clean energy policy laws are passed they are actually enacted. Stokes’s work comes none too soon because, as she encapsulates the driver of her research, “The fossil fuel era must end” (p. 257).

Sep 1 2020

Cities, Climate Change, and Public Health: Building Human Resilience to Climate Change at the Local Level

Reviewed by Mike Raleigh and Dr Kelly Dunning Auburn University

How the public engages more readily with planning efforts that frame human wellness concerns as part of the climate adaptation process and how can adaptation planning and policies remain aware of wellness concerns between and within urban areas?


Cities, Climate Change, and Public Health


Cities, Climate Change, and Public Health: Building Human Resilience to Climate Change at the Local Level, Ella Jisun Kim, Anthem Press, 2020, 131 pp.

Awareness of the intersection between climate change and public health has often been ignored by formal adaptation planning; however, as the author, Dr. Ella J. Kim, carefully examines, the public engages more readily with planning efforts that frame human wellness concerns as part of the climate adaptation process. Furthermore, adaptation planning and policies must remain aware of wellness concerns between and within urban areas. Kim indicates that adaptation plans must examine climate and health linkages beyond mere recognition of their existence. Given the current challenges we face with COVID-19, Kim’s argument feels more urgent, pushed to the forefront of public policy thinking at the intersection of climate and public health.

The purpose of this book is to advocate for public health as a primary focus of adaptation planning and policy making. To this end, the author has developed a game scenario to engage the public in public health awareness and policy implementation as related to climate change. The author begins by examining climate change impacts on public health and local-level adaptation policy making.

The remainder of the book delineates the “frames and games” scenario and subsequent results from its implementation. Games were played in two different forms: a role-play and digital scenario. The role-play scenario involved citizens assuming the role of fictionalized policy makers in Cambridge, MA. The digital format included fictionalized citizens of Cambridge of varied socioeconomic status and their individual health concerns.  

Of note are the results from politically conservative players of the role-play scenario: these individuals had the largest increases in knowledge of and concern for climate change impacts as well as increased confidence in local-scale planning efforts. As the author notes, Cambridge residents skew liberal and more receptive to climate change adaptation.

The future applications for these scenarios show promise if replicated in highly vulnerable, predominantly conservative areas as found in the Southeastern United States. Kim presents an unprecedented approach to engaging conservative citizens on issues of climate change and adaptation governance, which previously may have been nonstarters. Her research shows that it is how you engage people that matters, and that universal concerns like human health open a window for engagement on previously polarizing issues like climate change.

Sep 1 2020

Carbon Captured: How Business and Labor Control Climate Politics

Reviewed by Nicholas Bradley Allen, Massachusetts Institute of Technology

Why do national policymakers fail to reach stable carbon pricing agreements in spite of the well-known social costs of carbon and how cross-national differences in domestic climate policymaking are controlled by business and labor?


Carbon captured


Carbon Captured: How Business and Labor Control Climate Politics, by Matto Mildenberger, The MIT Press, 2020, 368 pp.

If we step away from observed experience, national carbon pricing policies seem like they should be easy to pass. The social costs of carbon are well known. Instruments are various and flexible enough that even those harmed by regulation can be placated. Mass movements and extreme weather heighten salience. Delay is exponentially costly. Why, then, do national policymakers fail to reach stable carbon pricing agreements? 

Matto Mildenberger’s new book Carbon Captured scours a 30-year cross-national record to reveal this instability. Writing in the tradition of Theda Skocpol and other comparative political scientists, his interview-based case studies of Norway, the United States, and Australia pursue a historical-institutionalist theory of national climate politics. 

Mildenberger cuts through a thicket of instruments and institutional arrangements to find a simple, chimerical advantage held by carbon polluters: their “double representation.” First, carbon-polluting industries have membership in both left and right political coalitions, ensuring any proposal will fracture internal support. Second, when reform coalitions succeed in passing carbon pricing, carbon-polluting industries may assert themselves in rulemaking or mobilize citizen resistance to higher energy costs. Administrations that marginalize carbon polluters in policy formulation, as Obama’s production-focused Clean Power Plan did, discover their opponents’ blocking power later. Countries with more stable pricing regimes, like Norway and Japan, overcome polluters’ double representation by exempting intensive industries and passing costs to consumers. Accommodation, however economically inefficient and loathsome to climate advocates, prevents sabotage. 

The “double representation” thesis enriches other studies of carbon-pricing opponents’ tactical maneuvering (e.g., Oreskes and Conway 2011). Mildenberger skillfully explains why carbon, unlike other pollutants, is so successfully defended in the policymaking process. Political scientist Robert Keohane (2015) observed that climate policy stalemates have the appearance of “driving one’s car into the wall rather than trying to drive around the wall.” For those interested in the bypass, Carbon Captured offers a few different routes.