Jan 6 2021

A Better Planet: 40 Big Ideas for a Sustainable Future

Reviewed by Aria Ritz Finkelstein, Massachusetts Institute of Technology

How can systems thinking about democracy and inclusion, about innovation and creativity; technical solutions; and building social equity and environmental justice through community programs and initiatives promote sustainability? 

A Better Planet

A Better Planet: 40 Big Ideas for a Sustainable Future, edited by Daniel C. Esty, Yale University Press, 2019, 416 pp.

Esty gathers the thoughts of some truly brilliant and knowledgeable thinkers and scholars in the field of sustainability. The collection of proposals is too broad to even begin to do justice to in such a short review. The authors’ stances run the gamut from a belief in the power of technical innovation to an insistence on deep ecology and the intrinsic value of “nature.” Still, given the book’s title, it will not surprise the reader that the attitude throughout is upbeat. Yes, the chapters describe enormous challenges, but these writers take them on with a shared confidence that these challenges can be—will be—overcome.

The essays range across topics as disparate as Thomas Rashad Easley’s discussion of “hip-hop forestry” as joining young students with foresters and Cary Coglianese’s argument for the use of machine learning in environmental management. Some, Susan Biniaz on international agreements, for example, take on global environmental governance, while others, such as Meha Jain and Balwinder Singh on no-tillage farming, zoom into a closer frame of view.

The essays cover systems thinking, democracy and inclusion, innovation and creativity. All of these terms risk becoming buzzwords, and because of the sheer number of the essays none can dive too deeply into its subject. However, each bite-sized chapter offers enough to introduce the reader to the problem it addresses, to explain what its stakes are, to outline the broad conversation already being had around it, and, usually, to offer a path forward and even a way to join in.

The sections vary in tone and orientation, in ways not entirely surprising. For example, the “Innovation and Technology” section gathers pieces that place their optimism in technical solutions. The “Society, Equity and Process” pieces, as a group, tend to focus more on building social equity and environmental justice through community programs and initiatives. As a group they manage to concisely and engagingly lay the historical groundwork needed to grasp the issues they are tackling, explain why they are important, and suggest at least one path forward. Another thing the writers have in common: Each is almost unflaggingly optimistic.

The collection might benefit from a more structured conversation between the pieces, one that would bring the ideologies and assumptions behind them, and the implicit conflicts between them, into sharper relief. The book shies from facing the full complexity and difficulty of challenges—especially intensely political ones—head on. On the other hand, the way the essays stand alone demonstrates faith in the reader’s capacity to grasp without handholding.

The book is a conversation-starter. This moniker is often a pejorative one, but here it is the book’s strength. On this point, Esty is explicit: “Indeed, our goal is not just to contribute to the substance of the policy dialogue over our environmental future but also to demonstrate how to have such a conversation. So please join us in this debate.” And, at the end of the collection, he invites the reader to participate in an online conversation, an exchange into which the book is only one entrance. The book is welcoming. Together, its essays add up to an entryway into those discussions that have the potential to shape the world to come.


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

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.


Jul 23 2019

Environmental Governance through Partnerships: A Discourse Theoretical Study

Reviewed by Jungwoo Chun, Massachusetts Institute of Technology

Do transnational partnerships for sustainability live up to their hype?

Environmental Governance through Partnerships

 

Environmental Governance through Partnerships: A Discourse Theoretical Study, by Ayşem Mert, Edward Elgar Publishing, 2015, 263 pp

While transnational partnerships are now the norm in global politics and governance, contemporary scholarship often takes partnerships for granted, failing to question the mechanics that underpin them or the degree to which they are shaped by complex organizational dynamics. Having studied the underlying mechanics of partnerships within and outside the United Nations system, Ayşem Mert takes a step back from the contemporary discourse on transnational partnerships and explores why they work and how they have come to be.

This book is interesting because it explores some of the fundamental puzzles at the heart of transnational partnerships, searching for their historical meaning. By analyzing historical discourses, Mert skillfully ties key observations about their origins to the structure and function of current sustainable development partnerships. Issues such as the accountability of partners to each other and the requirements of true participation are examples of these puzzles.

First, Mert sets the stage (in Chapters 2–4), outlining the study’s theoretical grounds and scope. Next, to unpack partnerships and extract their meaningful lessons (for environmental governance in particular), she compares partnerships with privatization (Chapter 5) as they relate to sustainable development (Chapter 6) and in light of the participation of non-state actors (Chapter 7). For example, Mert considers the limited legal liabilities of partners working to advance environmental governance.

While she is critical of the discourse of participation in partnerships, alluding to the inauthenticity of many community involvement efforts or the fantasies of those who imagine that meaningful participation in the UN system is possible, the connection between partnerships and the success of sustainable development efforts is less obvious. Specifically, the concept of sustainable development has evolved repeatedly, but the nature and importance of partnerships in achieving sustainable development is not well understood.

Environmental Governance through Partnerships is less about explaining how existing sustainable development partnerships in the global system are working and more about trying to understand what they could accomplish. Mert concludes by outlining the most important building blocks of desirable partnerships.


Mar 5 2019

The Fragmentation of Global Climate Governance: Consequences and Management of Regime Interactions

Reviewed by Elise Harrington, Massachusetts Institute of Technology

How do different climate governance regimes support or conflict with each other in pursuit of an international climate policy?

Fragmentation of Global Climate Governance

 

by Harro van Asselt, The Fragmentation of Global Climate Governance: Consequences and Management of Regime Interactions, Edward Elgar, 2014, 360 pp

Harro van Asselt argues in The Fragmentation of Global Climate Governance (2014) that while the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) is responsible for many global climate initiatives, other initiatives have developed outside of it and are not directly coordinated with the UN framework. This governance fragmentation is the key focus of his analysis. The book contributes to the growing emphasis on the diversity of actors involved in global climate governance and the importance of examining how formal and informal institutions interact.

While van Asselt emphasizes that his purpose is not to provide “ideal-type solutions” regarding regime interactions, the benefits of policy coherence rather than fragmentation seem to be assumed along with an emphasis on institutional coordination as a solution to regime conflicts. While both the pitfalls and promises of fragmentation are described, the shortcomings are discussed in greater detail than any positive outcomes of fragmentation. Open questions include, does conflict in regime interactions undermine policy goals? Or does overlap provide valuable duplication? The Fragmentation of Global Climate Governance provides a foundation for studying such interactions in global climate governance and encourages further analysis of interactions between hard and soft law, the role of non-state actors, as well as among climate regimes at different levels of governance.

Drawing on concepts from international law and international relations, the analytical framework provided by the author examines multiple features of regime interaction, including relationships between hard and soft law, causal mechanisms, intentionality and consequences (conflict, synergy, neutral).

Empirical chapters offer comparative case studies. Each begins with the UNFCCC as the dominant global climate regime, and then compares it to multilateral clean technology agreements (e.g., Asia-Pacific Partnership on Clean Development and Climate), other global environmental priorities (e.g., Convention on Biological Diversity) and different branches of international law relevant to climate change (e.g., the World Trade Organization). Van Asselt focuses on the consequences (conflicts or synergies) of the ways in which these regimes interact.

His analysis of regime interactions suggests a number of parallel concerns at the international policy scale, as well as interactions across local and state levels. Van Asselt might have extended the findings from his three regime interaction cases to these parallel concerns, including interactions among more than two regimes as well, but these are not discussed in the present volume.

With the 2015 Paris Climate Accord, regime interactions––in particular those led by non-state actors and subnational governments––may be of even more importance. With greater flexibility due to the pledge and review process, the interactions between soft and hard laws and between regimes established in different sectors may require us to extend our understanding of the impacts of regime interactions for global climate governance.