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.

Jun 1 2020

Abundant Earth: Towards an Ecological Civilization

Reviewed by Sudhirendar Sharma

Beyond the so-called normal

Abundant Earth


Abundant Earth: Towards an Ecological Civilization, by Eileen Crist, The University of Chicago Press, 2018, 307 pp

It would be hard to reconcile that the species that has all but proven its supremacy with no less than 7.8 billion humans, currently dispersed across the globe and growing, has also stockpiled some 15,000 nuclear weapons – enough for self-annihilation many times over. Even if there are deterrents to pressing the nuclear button, the growing number of humans and their insatiable consumptive desire are sure to suck life out from all other living creatures on this planet. Shockingly, this is the new normal toward which the world is hurtling.

And it doesn’t concern many that at this pace future generations are bound to inherit a different planet, perhaps a very inhospitable place.  Expanding human mobility, spreading modern conveniences, multiplying the glut of commodities, and enabling food choices have given an unrestricted boost to the idea of human expansionism even as nature is screaming for freedom from such an onslaught. That there is a global ecological crisis of unprecedented magnitude knocking at our doors seems hardly to register. Instead, what often gets argued is that with a techno-managerial leap of progress humanity will sail through such adversities. With manmade disasters mounting, how long can market-driven technologies stave off the collapse?

Virginia Tech professor Eileen Crist takes on this overwhelming question. She believes that not only is human impact on nature natural but maintaining wilderness is a defunct idea.  Even though it is not widely acknowledged, a belief in human supremacy is anything but self-destructive. While being optimistic that an ecological civilization is not an altogether utopian idea, she questions why significant steps have not been taken by humans to live in loving fellowship with our earthly wild (without whom the exuberant dance of seasons, diversity, complexity, and abundance will remain mere screen savers in our virtual world). Abundant Earth is a beautifully crafted book that not only touches upon the “why,” “how,” and “what” of the impending ecological crises but provides a “what next” in an effort to halt the inevitable.

Enlisting direct causes and unraveling underlying drivers leading to the eco-crises at hand, Abundant Earth challenges the false sense of human supremacy while calling for scaling it down and pulling it back. Despite being politically controversial, the book strongly advocates the need for reframing the population question because “overconsumption” and “overpopulation” are two faces of the same coin. Given an all-pervasive mainstream trend to bring the entire population at a universal consumer standard, the projected ballooning of the global middle class to 5 billion by 2030, from the present 3.2 billion will turn the earth into an unimaginable waste bin. The world can ill-afford such a transformation, which will cause an irreversible blow to the biosphere if it hasn’t done that already!

Crist is clear in her assessment that an immediate turn in the direction of a global ecological civilization is the only plausible option. For such a change to happen, the current trends of economic growth and techno-managerialism would need to end. Unless the wisdom of limitations becomes mainstream thinking, it is unlikely that the human enterprise will reduce its multiple stresses on the biosphere. While making a fact-filled assessment of the current dystopia, Abundant Earth offers a realistic blueprint to halt the decline. Crist deserves appreciation for writing a book that will appeal to a wider audience interested in the affairs of the Earth.


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.