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.

Jun 1 2020

Climate Change and Ocean Governance: Politics and Policy for Threatened Seas

Reviewed by Aria Ritz Finkelstein, Massachusetts Institute of Technology 

How will marine institutions, laws, and policies respond to radically and quickly changing seas?

Climate Change and Ocean Governance

Climate Change and Ocean Governance: Politics and Policy for Threatened Seas, edited by Paul G. Harris, Cambridge University Press, 2019, 445 pp.

This edited volume starts to fill what is still a major gap in the ocean governance literature—the existing regime’s ability to respond to climate change. The meat of the book is split into five sections: The risks that small islands and coasts face; marine fisheries; possibilities for polar governance; mismatches between ecosystems and governance regimes; and specific issues or cases across sectors rather than across regions.

A case study approach allows each chapter to explore an issue in its specificities while extrapolating broadly applicable lessons. This brief a review can’t begin to do the collection justice, but just one example: Alger’s Chapter 11 illustrates the complex stakeholder politics of large-scale marine protected areas. For instance, often the fishing industry fights with environmentalists to push for “management” rather than “protection.” Alger argues that, while the pushback may seem disproportionate to the actual impact on the fisheries, it is partly due to the fishing community needing to manage the challenge of decreased yields even without the addition of no-take zones threatening to lower their catch.

While the thread throughout the book is oceans, the chapters ask to be separated into two volumes—one on ocean governance and one on coastal adaptation. Each raises such different legal and governance questions (with the exception of how rising seas will affect territorial claims) that bundle them but diminishes the collection’s clarity. Nevertheless, the book is a rich, accessible picture of how ocean governance institutions are currently dealing with the effects of climate change, the challenges they face, and how they might address climate change in the future. It represents a field of inquiry in its youth, and together the chapters lay out an array of important questions and offer launching points for future investigations.

Jun 1 2020

Limits to Climate Change Adaptation

Reviewed by Michael Raleigh and Dr. Kelly Dunning, Conservation Governance Lab, Auburn School of Forestry and Wildlife Sciences

What are the biophysical, sociocultural, and economic limits that are emerging or have emerged in areas most vulnerable to climate change?

Limits to Climate Change Adaptation


Limits to Climate Change Adaptation, edited by Walter Leal Filho and Johanna Nalau, Springer International Publishing, 2018, 410 pp

Research on climate change adaptation has grown over the past decade as global responses have shifted from avoidance seeking to risk management. Discussions of adaptation inherently involve limits or points at which objectives cannot be met due to increasing risk from a changing climate. The IPCC’s Fifth Assessment Report defined limits as biophysical, sociocultural, and economic. The editors note the IPCC’s call for further research into types of limits and have responded by examining limits on a regional scale. The purpose of their book is to explore limits that are emerging or have emerged in areas most vulnerable to climate change.

The book is divided into four sections, each focusing on a specific region: Asia, Africa, Australia, North America, and Europe, and the Pacific region of small island states. The regional focus makes it easier for researchers to find material relevant to their own work. Chapters of particular interest include an interdisciplinary analysis of limits to adaptation within Zimbabwe (6) and perceived limits within the pastoral communities in the Sahel (7).

A novel conceptualization of psychological limits takes the definition beyond environmental and into the realm of socially constructed risks (12), and analysis within small island developing states brings awareness to the interdisciplinary nature of limits (15). The last section is particularly crucial and emphasizes current, ongoing limits to adaptation within highly vulnerable Pacific island-states and atolls. Each chapter succeeds in broadening the IPCC’s definition and recognizes the complex factors comprising limits to adaptation. The broadly regional organization of the book suggests that limits can be defined on large scales; however, there are strong cultural differences between countries within each defined region that undoubtedly impact limits. The organization of the book would have benefited from a narrowing of scope (i.e., Southeast Asia, Central Africa) to prevent overgeneralization. Organization aside, the book far exceeds the IPCC’s call for a broader definition of limits. Filho and Nalau have presented a guidepost illuminating limits to adaptation in the most vulnerable parts of our world. The book is at its best when it makes regional climate adaptation science almost visceral. The imagery of the loss of cattle in pastoralist communities in a rainstorm brings the regional focus to a very human scale, evoking an earnest emotional response in the reader and conveying the seriousness of the climate crisis.