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

Science Advice and Global Environmental Governance: Expert Institutions and the Implementation of International Environmental Treaties

Reviewed by Shekhar Chandra, Massachusetts Institute of Technology 

Do science advisory committees facilitate the functioning of Multilateral Environmental Agreements? Are their roles purely technocratic and apolitical?

Science Advice and Global Environmental Governance

Science Advice and Global Environmental Governance: Expert Institutions and the Implementation of International Environmental Treaties, by Pia M. Kohler, Anthem Press, 2019, 226 pp.

Multilateral Environmental Agreements (MEAs) are key instruments of international global environmental governance.  To facilitate the functioning of the MEAs, there is a provision of science advisory committees. In recent decades, such instruments have grown significantly and the role of these committees has become institutional. The committees, in their role as a repository of knowledge, compile relevant evidence from peer-reviewed studies. The role of these committees, while recognized as crucial, is often considered purely technocratic and entirely apolitical.

Pia M. Kohler’s book makes a radical departure from the mechanical understanding of the committees to frame them as an active source of knowledge coproduction connecting science and policy with significant power of deciding on what constitutes evidence and how to translate the evidence into governance. Due to the reframing of the role of science advisory committees, Kohler scrutinizes who these experts are and how they organize their work to answer the global implementation challenges. While the theme of the book may fit into the larger question of how science diplomacy influences policy, dealt in great detail in the works of MIT’s Larry Susskind and Harvard’s Sheila Jasanoff, what separates Kohler’s contribution is her effort in untangling the institutional mechanism that links science and policy at the global scale.

Kohler’s methodology is qualitative that includes participant observations, elite interviews and archival analysis. She analyzes the proceedings from specific angles of the three science committees established under the Montreal Protocol, the Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants and the UN Convention to Combat Desertification. For example, in the case of the Montreal Protocol, she examines how the question of the relative strength of experts from developing and developed countries became controversial when some exemptions were granted to the developed nations under the protocol. While the book focuses entirely on environmental issues, its central message is broad in its applications. It provides original insights into the question of increasing rule-based structuralism that is becoming common to international governance institutions. The book is a timely contribution and provides clear recommendations to design science committees for more effective global environmental governance.

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.

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.