Aug 21 2023

Solving Climate Change

Reviewed by Jungwoo Chun, Massachusetts Institute of Technology

What can governments, companies, individual consumers and investors do now to reduce emissions rapidly and how can we organize this collective action based on informed consent (and commitment) across different jurisdictional and geographic contexts?

Solving Climate Change

Solving Climate Change: A Guide for Learners and Leaders, by Jonathan Koomey and Ian Monroe, Iop Publishing Ltd, 2023, 350 pp.

As the title of the volume suggests, Solving Climate Change: A Guide for Learners and Leaders by Jonathan Koomey and Ian Monroe provides a comprehensive yet concise overview of what we know and what needs to be done now to stop climate change. Although the authors indicate that the book is primarily designed for an academic audience (including advanced students), in my view, it is equally suitable for anyone who wants to learn and begin to think about specific actionable items.

What I find most helpful as a reader is chapter 3 that introduces some of the tools that are most widely practiced in planning strategies based on future forecasts, which rely on existing inventories. Readers who want to take a deeper dive at a particular tool can look them up online or read other materials. This chapter in particular could serve as a guidebook for those who aren’t familiar with the palette of tools not unique to a specific area of expertise or discipline.

The book is conveniently organized by the so-called eight pillars of climate action: (1) electrify almost everything, (2) decarbonize the grid, (3) reduce non-fossil GHGs, (4) be efficient, (5) get rid of carbon, (6) align incentives, (7) move money from climate-negative activities to climate-positive ones and (8) fight misinformation. The authors do an excellent job of pulling together all of these critical strategies in an easily digestible manner. In closing, they point out what each of the key constituents (governments, companies, individual consumers and investors) will have to do now to reduce emissions rapidly. The under-explored question in my view is how. Governments can incentivize climate-positive behaviour but that won’t be enough to trigger a transformative change. Unfortunately, perhaps the world needs another crisis resulting in millions in casualties. Miserable events that are so catastrophic at scale that might awaken everyone.

Koomey and Monroe in many ways reassure us that we have what it takes to stop emissions. The problem is we cannot achieve this with only a subset of us taking action. How to get the majority to uniformly take action across different interest groups seems to be a policy and planning question that requires careful process design – how to get all stakeholders to take concerted action that is jointly motivated and agreed upon. How to organize this collective action based on informed consent (and commitment) across different jurisdictional and geographic contexts seems to be the next topic area that deserves unprecedented attention before it’s too late.

Aug 21 2023

Ecojustice, Water, and Environmental Racism

Reviewed by Andre D. Turner, Massachusetts Institute of Technology

How does a transformative approach to water governance consider the intersection of race, power and justice to address the systemic issues of environmental racism?

Ecojustice, Water, and Environmental Racism

Gonna Trouble the Water: Ecojustice, Water, and Environmental Racism, by Miguel De La Torre, The Pilgrim Press, 2021, 164 pp.

The issue of environmental racism poses a complex and multidimensional problem that has been routinely disregarded in the discourse about the tension between environmentalism and social equity. Environmental racism occurs when marginalized communities of colour are disproportionally impacted by environmental hazards, often as a result of wilfully discriminative regulatory systems designed to protect the financial benefits of those with privilege and power. Gonna Trouble the Water: Ecojustice, Water, and Environmental Racism, is a powerful collection of essays that examines the intersection of race, power and justice through the lens of water.

The collection of essays is organized into three sections that explore water as sacred, water as a human right and water as a weapon. The authors draw on personal narratives and case studies to illustrate the destructive impacts of neoliberal and anthropocentric worldviews of water as a commodity to be extracted and exploited. The chapter on conflicting worldviews revealed to me a profound understanding of power, privilege and wealth – illustrating that some view the idea of water as a pubic right as an ‘extreme solution’, famously proclaimed by Peter Brabeck-Letmathe, former CEO of Nestle (p. 18).

Thinking of water as a commodity creates an environmental problem as well as a social justice problem. It is rooted in racist white Eurocentric neoliberal economic worldviews reinforcing social and economic disparities for people of colour. As a result, water is privatized, excluding communities of colour from ‘a seat at the table’ or ‘a say in the decision that is made’ regarding its use (p. 74). The authors provide a detailed account of the legacy of racism and exploitation of water in the United States, demonstrating how policies and practices, such as redlining, racial zoning and environmental dumping, have shaped the distribution of environmental harms. The collection documents the history of water as a weapon of colonialism as well as the ways in which water scarcity and mismanagement are often used to perpetuate power imbalances and reinforce existing inequities.

The book concludes with a strong statement on the need to address environmental racism through a transformative approach to water governance that will challenge dominant power structures and create more equitable and just systems of water management, respecting water as a sacred resource.

Apr 9 2023

The Performative State: Public Scrutiny and Environmental Governance in China

Reviewed by: Dr. Jessica Gordon, University of California, Berkeley

What is performative governance and how does it apply to the Chinese environmental bureaucracy’s response to citizens’ demands for clean air and water?

The Performative State

The Performative State: Public Scrutiny and Environmental Governance in China, by Iza Ding, Cornell University Press, 2022, 258 pp.

Extreme levels of pollution in China have led to an increasing outcry from its citizens for clean air and water. How does the environmental bureaucracy respond to this challenge? According to Ding, it depends on the level of state capacity and public scrutiny. In her typology, low state capacity and high public scrutiny produces “performative governance,” or the “the state’s deployment of visual, verbal and gestural symbols of good governance for the audience of citizens.” This form is in comparison to the ideal of “substantive” governance, when the state can respond to the issues at hand, predicted by high capacity and scrutiny. The book explores the dynamics of performative governance by the local environmental bureau in China from the bureaucrat and citizen perspective.

Through a compelling inside ethnography at a local environmental bureau in 2013, Ding provides evidence of the daily work of performative governance and the excessive strain that officials feel to respond to hundreds of citizen complaints a day. There are vivid descriptions of the detailed on-site inspections made in various factories as the smell is so strong it makes people ill. Officials even started inspections in the middle of the night, with full knowledge that factories are working illegally. While so much work was happening, there was little significant change in industry behavior or even a fine. There is ample evidence that the government office has well-qualified staff and appropriate and high-tech equipment to test and understand the sources of the pollution from polluted industries, so that is not contributing to the inaction, removing an often-cited cause (and solution). Rather its low capacity is the result of its limited political authority.

The subsequent chapters use public surveys, analysis on-line media and interviews to understand how citizen’s view performative governance, finding that it has contributed to approval of the environmental bureau’s work. The final chapter applies performative governance in other contexts including the Flint water crisis, COVID-19 in Wuhan and water pollution in China and Vietnam, finding that performative governance is best suited to a society with information control. The book is well-researched and an enjoyable read. It would be a great addition to an environmental policy or China politics class.

Nov 10 2021

Environmental Problem-Solving: Balancing Science and Politics Using Consensus Building Tools; Guided Readings and Assignments from MIT’s Training Program for Environmental Professionals

Reviewed by Lidia Cano, Massachusetts Institute of Technology

A mediation and consensus-building perspective on learning, teaching, and imbuing oneself in the world of environmental problem solving

Environmental Problem-Solving: Balancing Science and Politics Using Consensus Building Tools
Environmental Problem-Solving: Balancing Science and Politics Using Consensus Building Tools; Guided Readings and Assignments from MIT’s Training Program for Environmental Professionals, by Lawrence Susskind, Bruno Verdini, Jessica Gordon and Yasmin Zaerpoor, Anthem Press, 2020, 506 pp.

This book is a great tool for practitioners, teachers, students, and others looking to inform their theory of practice and gain a better understanding of environmental problem solving. It guides the reader through three initial considerations with which every environmental problem solver should be acquainted: the environmental policy-making process (and ways to influence it), the ethical dilemmas that arise when attempting to address environmental management challenges, and the diverse array of policy and project analysis tools that decision makers usually use when faced with such challenges.

The book sends a clear message: when it comes to environmental problem solving “there are no right answers.” This compendium of readings is carefully selected to help the reader reflect on key conundrums surrounding environmental problem solving from the policy-making, technical and ethical perspectives. At the end of each unit, the reader quickly realizes that the proposed study exercises are aimed at putting future problem-solvers on the spot—urging them to define their personal theory of practice.

The fact that the book’s main objective is to help learners define their own theory of practice does not mean that the authors refrain from showcasing their own. In fact, the opposite is what provides the richness of the many commentaries presented in the book. After reflecting on the work of multiple authors in the first three units, the book’s authors present a series of arguments demonstrating that environmental management decisions can never be made in an objective way. Instead, they require finding a balance between science and politics and confronting key ethical choices and non-objective judgments. This claim frames the book’s grand finale in unit four.

This unit reveals how and why consensus building is the most valuable tool for achieving the delicate balance that is needed in practice. Open public deliberation and stakeholder participation across different stages of decision-making, the authors argue, allows scientists, elected officials and stakeholders to collaborate in generating the kind of information and analyses that are needed to inform technically and politically credible decision making. And finally, consensus building can empower citizens to understand and, when necessary, challenge the assumptions on which public policy decisions are made, allowing them to contribute to the nonobjective judgments embedded in all complex environmental decisions. Such democratic engagement, despite its challenges, “can lead to ‘fairer, more stable, wiser and more efficient’ processes and outcomes,” the authors argue. Upon reading this last unit, learners can clearly see how the arguments and commentaries offered throughout the book contribute to the theory and practice of collaborative problem-solving.  This is certainly what distinguishes the book from other books about environmental problem solving.

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.