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.

Jun 1 2020

Renewable Energy: A Primer for the Twenty-First Century

Reviewed by Shekhar Chandra, Massachusetts Institute of Technology 

Why are major developing economies like China and India moving fast in adopting renewable energy sources to fuel their economies and what are the implications it has for the economy of oil-rich countries like Saudi Arabia?


Renewable Energy


Renewable Energy: A Primer for the Twenty-First Century by Bruce Usher, Columbia University Press, 2019, 224 pp.

Historically, from wood to coal, coal to oil and gas, and now renewables, the global energy sector has undergone immense technological changes. In recent years, the share of renewable sources of energy, mainly wind and solar, has been increasingly sharply in the energy consumption profile of the countries mainly driven by falling renewable prices, geopolitical uncertainty, and the mounting climate change concerns. As the price of renewables falls further and become even lower than the fossil sources of energy and the role of climate change becomes more central to public policy, it would result into an inevitable transition from fossil energy sources to renewables. The author asks the question whether the world is prepared to handle the consequences of this transition. It is because the transition has implications for the businesses—the growth of solar PV and electric vehicles, and renewable energy storage technology—for the economy of the countries, their geopolitics as well the degree to which they are able to minimize some of the worst impacts of climate change.

The book provides a comprehensive review of these complex challenges, makes a business and climate case for renewables, and how different countries and businesses are going to be either winners or losers depending on their ability to better adapt to these technological changes. It also provides a good explanation why the major developing economies like China and India are moving fast in adopting renewable energy sources to fuel their economies and the implications it has for the economy of oil-rich countries like Saudi Arabia. However, in explaining the transition of the energy sector, mainly the unprecedented growth of renewables, the author relies more on the economic forces and formal institutions. This could be a gap as the recent research identifies federal and state politics and informal institutions like individual and societal values as important determinants of the development and adoption of the renewable energy; hence the causal role of economic forces in explaining the rise of renewables in the book may be an overestimation. Overall, the book uses many interesting statistics, which makes it a helpful guide to policymakers, consumers, and businesses to leverage the changes due to the rise of renewables by better planning their energy future.

Mar 5 2019

The Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam and the Nile Basin

Reviewed by Yasmin Zaerpoor, Massachusetts Institute of Technology

An impressively cohesive multidisciplinary overview of the opportunities and challenges associated with Africa’s largest dam.

The Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam and the Nile Basin

edited by Zeray Yihdego, Alistair Rieu-Clarke and Ana Elise Cascão, The Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam and the Nile Basin, Earthscan, 2018, 224 pp.

In 2011, Ethiopia announced plans to construct the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) on the Blue Nile, one of the two main tributaries of the Nile River. Once complete, this hydroelectric dam will be the largest in Africa. The news was met with alarm from Sudan and Egypt, the two countries immediately downstream, which rely heavily on the Nile. Over the past seven years, the three countries (Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan) have been engaged in negotiations in an effort to meet their individual and collective interests while mitigating potential risks. As is the case with most transboundary problems, the issues are complex and without simple solutions. Rarely do you see this type of complexity adequately described.

The Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam and the Nile Basin, however, is unique in successfully presenting this kind of complexity from multidisciplinary lenses in a cohesive way. Each chapter is (co-)authored by scholars who are actively engaged in the Nile River Basin or in transboundary water management and are experts in their respective fields. Presumably by design, the arc of the book flows seamlessly from describing the historical legal context (Chapters 2, 3 and 4) into the current sociopolitical context (Chapters 5 and 6), before switching to a future-oriented view of the potential economic impacts of the dam (Chapters 7 and 8) and options for the filling and operation of the dam (Chapters 9 and 10).

Remarkably, despite switching from one disciplinary lens to another, the authors manage to maintain a fairly consistent set of messages. The introductory chapter outlines eight major themes of the book, but three are particularly important. First, the construction of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam and the resulting engagement of the three Eastern Nile countries represents a significant shift in the hydro-politics of the Basin. One shortcoming of the book in this regard is that it nearly unequivocally supports the dam and the upstream countries in challenging the “status quo” of water use in the Nile Basin. This is problematic because the advocacy varies in strength from chapter to chapter, without ever being explicitly addressed or explained. The analysis may seem one-sided to anyone unfamiliar with Nile Basin dynamics, especially as described in the first half of the book.

Second, the book emphasizes the potential benefits that each country stands to gain from the operation of the GERD. These benefits are described from multidisciplinary lenses: e.g., more equitable water use throughout the basin (law); enhanced regional cooperation (politics); catalyst for regional economic growth (economics); and improved water management functions along the Blue Nile (hydrology). Relatedly, the third message of the book is the urgent need for continued cooperation. The GERD has been politicized, arguably by all three countries of the Eastern Nile (and by many others), and is often characterized as a source of conflict. This book challenges that framing by emphasizing the potential gains that can be realized through cooperation.

With a little more work, perhaps in the introduction, the editors could have contextualized the story a bit more. Also, in ending with a chapter on managing risks (rather than a proper conclusion), they missed a valuable opportunity to clearly enumerate the “implications for transboundary water cooperation” (as suggested in the book’s subtitle). Finally, they could have explained more explicitly why an interdisciplinary approach to analyzing such complex problems is so challenging, rare, invaluable and increasingly necessary.

This is an excellent book for anyone interested in Nile Basin developments because it presents the current challenges, potential opportunities and issues that need to be resolved before the GERD becomes operational.

Oct 8 2016

The Water, Energy and Food Security Nexus: Lessons from India for Development

Reviewed by Elise Harrington, Massachusetts Institute of Technology

 Is there a water-energy-food security nexus? What can we learn about managing this nexus from India’s experience?



Edited by M. Dinesh Kumar, Nitin Bassi, A. Narayanamoorthy and M. V. K. Sivamohan The Water, Energy and Food Security Nexus: Lessons from India for Development, Routledge, 2014, 246 pp.

The Water, Energy and Food Security Nexus unpacks the three critical components of development in India given concerns about climate change and sustainable resource management.

While collectively the authors cover issues related to water management, energy pricing and agriculture, each chapter generally focuses on one component of the energy-water-food security nexus. The “nexus” is knit together primarily in the introduction and the conclusion, with the exception of chapters 6 and 8, which examine the potential impact of metered and subsidized electricity on groundwater use and agriculture. In the final chapter, M. Dinesh Kumar introduces a new nexus, the “politics-bureaucracy-academics” nexus––the combined force behind historical policies of free power, free water access and subsidies that he views as ineffective and costly approaches to development. Ultimately the goal of this volume “is to trigger an informed debate on some of the most controversial and yet unresolved issues concerning water-energy-food security nexus in developing countries.”

Despite the varying degrees to which each chapter addresses water, energy, and food security as integrated concerns or as individual challenges, three common themes emerge from this volume. First, the water management challenges presented highlight the need to reframe existing planning models to encourage integrated approaches that consider, for example, basin-wide hydrological planning (chapter 2) and integrated hydrological and economic planning (chapter 3). Second, each chapter focuses on a specific state, handful of states, or a particular geographic region, indicating that natural resource management in India must account for differing social, political, ecological and climatic conditions, allowing for solutions and policy experiments at subnational levels. Third, evidence points to new opportunities for policy experimentation related to pricing of water and energy that may help manage consumption and allow for increased measuring, monitoring and testing of new resource management solutions.