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).