Apr 9 2023

Klimat: Russia in the Age of Climate Change

Reviewed by Shekhar Chandra, Department of Social Policy, London School of Economics and Political Science, London

How has the recent Russia-Ukraine war impacted the implications of climate change on the Russian economy, and how does this impact Gustafson’s conclusions?


Klimat: Russia in the Age of Climate Change, by Thane Gustafson, Harvard University Press, 2021, 336 pp

The harmful consequences of climate change are occurring and its impacts on temperatures and weather patterns are already visible. Georgetown political scientist Thane Gustafson’s engaging book, Klimat: Russia in the Age of Climate Change, describes sector-by-sector impacts of climate change on Russia’s economy and what its diversification policy options could be to manage these unfolding changes. The book stands out in its sophisticated research methodology and insights on how the economy will react to the changing environment and declining global demand of fossil fuels caused by the global transition toward renewable energy. The chapter on the Arctic especially stands out how Gustafson rightly mentions the way the Arctic defines Russia (p. 184) both as a challenge and an opportunity. The Arctic is a challenge as its northern areas are warming faster than the rest of Russia and an opportunity as decreasing ice covering would open up the Northern Sea route for faster navigation between Europe and Asia, which might herald in an era of economic prosperity. What especially makes sense is Gustafson’s discussions on Russia’s unpreparedness and inertia of its state institutions captured by elites to invest in post-carbon alternatives effectively as the world starts relying more on renewables.

While a majority of the discussion points are important, recent geopolitical developments in the wake of the Russia-Ukraine war have radically impacted the implications of climate change on the Russian economy both qualitatively and quantitatively. The book broadly concludes that the positive impacts on the economy might well be overshadowed by the negative impacts due to climate change. In the wake of the war while the reverberations of Russian actions are being felt by all economies, its local impacts might be more catastrophic than what Gustafson suggests. Since the book was written before the war, its findings should be viewed through the lenses of war.

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.

Apr 9 2023

Community Resilience When Disaster Strikes: Security and Community Health in UK Flood Zones

Reviewed by Lidia Cano Pecharroman, Massachusetts Institute of Technology

How can communities come back after they are hit by floods?

Community Resilience When Disaster Strikes: Security and Community Health in UK Flood Zones

Community Resilience When Disaster Strikes: Security and Community Health in UK Flood Zones by Sonny S. Patel, Springer, 2020, 200 pp.

This book gives the reader a chance to reflect on the multiple dimensions of community resilience in response to flooding. The book offers a clear message: community flood resilience cannot be oversimplified, and even though we can get closer to a more systematic understanding of it, local idiosyncrasies will always be key when planning. Although written from an academic angle the book is recommended for students, researchers and practitioners alike. Having stand-alone chapters, it can be used as a go-to manual to learn about one of the topics covered without having to follow a particular order. The chapters are structured as research papers containing a background literature review and detailed methods sections, followed by the results and discussion. This format makes the book particularly useful for students interested in conducting research in this field and who are just getting started. Exploring community resilience, the book identifies nine core elements that structure the research and findings across the book. These elements are local knowledge, community networks and relationships, communication, health, governance and leadership, resources, economic investment, preparedness and mental outlook. These overarching themes allow for the knowledge contained in a chapter to be put in conversation with the findings of others. Read in its entirety, the book provides a multidimensional overview of what the field knows so far about community resilience to flooding and where are the gaps to be filled. The book is the result of an extensive literature review that is further informed by qualitative and quantitative analysis of the data collected on the ground. Even though the field research is focused on the United Kingdom, readers who are looking to understand flood and community resilience beyond the United Kingdom should not be discouraged. The book sustains a constant dialogue between the existing resilience literature and community knowledge on the ground that provides valuable insights into risk perception, governance and lessons learned. These lessons, although not always transferable, will be useful when thinking about community resilience in other geographies. Overall, the book provides a comprehensive review of the topic that will serve both as a theoretical reference and as a basis for future empirical evidence production in the field.

Apr 9 2023

Rethinking Smart Cities

Reviewed by Jungwoo Chun, Massachusetts Institute of Technology

What is the 15-minute city concept and how can it be combined with future technologies in cities to enhance livability and achieve decarbonization goals?

Rethinking Smart Cities

Rethinking Smart Cities by Zaheer Allam and Yusra Raisah Takun, 2022, Edward Elgar Publishing Limited, 180 pp.

In Rethinking Smart Cities, the authors explore what they call the 15-minute city concept—which promotes human livability by ensuring that residents have access to the basic needs within the 15-minute travel time either by walking or cycling. They argue that this concept will gain more prominence when combined with future technologies in cities such as 6G, AI applications and digital twins. Their vision is that this approach will not only enhance livability but also help achieve other goals like global commitments to achieve decarbonization.

The key in my view is their effort in emphasizing that technology cannot be decoupled from the human element (i.e., beyond a technocentric approach) when urban residents ought to participate in the informed process of improving resilience and livability in cities. Technology is not just an application of a product—it’s a network of systems—the socio-political, economic and cultural systems.

The book conveniently introduces what a smart city is and offers a historical landscape of basic technological advancements in cities. Yet, “smartness” is not everything. Today, cities face numerous challenges including the ability to cope with emerging smart technologies (i.e., both the physical infrastructure and social aspects). Relatedly, the next several chapters provide an overview of some of the key issues smart cities ought to address—such as sustainability, inclusivity, efficiency and data security—as an opportunity to embed collaborative problem-solving in the planning process. Finally, the last few chapters offer a vision for what’s emerging: 6G technologies (and IoT), a 15-minute city planning concept and augmented automation.

The book leaves incredible room for afterthought. We as implementers or users of smart technologies in cities ought to think carefully about how we can participate meaningfully in the planning process—and collaboratively anticipate future challenges or vulnerabilities—as new technologies continue to emerge and become integrated into urban livelihoods. Perhaps truly “smart” cities will have figured out public participation and informed decision-making in future planning practices.

Apr 9 2023

Dangerous Earth: What We Wish We Knew About Volcanoes, Hurricanes, Climate Change, Earthquakes and More

Reviewed by Sudhirendar Sharma

Dangerous Earth: What We Wish We Knew About Volcanoes, Hurricanes, Climate Change, Earthquakes and More

Dangerous Earth: What We Wish We Knew About Volcanoes, Hurricanes, Climate Change, Earthquakes and More by Ellen Prager, 2022, Harper Collins, New Delhi, 272 pp.

What are the challenges in predicting natural disasters and how can we best prepare for them?

The history of human existence has been fraught with such exigent calamities that led societies from pre-historic times to offers prayers for “peace to be in the universe.” Explained through religion or myth, such prayers have been a way of dealing with the dangers of living on earth. While the earth remains a wondrous planet, its frustratingly complex existence had a violent past to which it seems to be returning. Marine biologist Ellen Prager examines the awesome forces of creation which are equally devastating and remain perplexing. Through an illuminating look at the range of natural events, from earthquakes to volcanoes and from tsunamis to hurricanes, Prager lists the wish-we-knew about the dynamic phenomena that continue to remain unknown while frustrating and fascinating the scientific community.

The book seeks to respond to the most compelling question: Why can’t we better predict the natural disasters? Part of the answer to this question is that the Earth’s processes are dynamic, ephemeral and their origin are hidden from view. Furthermore, our historical record of events is a blip in the planet’s billions of years of existence. Does that reflect upon human inability to predict the future? By studying some of the devastating events in recent times, Prager concludes that preparation and not prediction holds the key to prepare for what lies ahead. This could be disturbing news but she has valid reasons to extend her argument.

Take the case of Miami where since 2006 the average rate of sea-level rise is three times the global average of about 3 millimeters rise per year. The sunny days flooding in Miami has forced the local government to spend hundreds of millions of dollars in infrastructure without being aware about how long the situation will continue to worsen. Given that there are more than seven hundred million people living in low-lying coastal areas across the world, the science of sea-level rise has yet to deliver credible forecast about the impending threat. Consequently, how far and how fast will the sea rise remains open to speculation.

Prager writes with all the imaginative sympathy of a storyteller, with an overarching concern on the gaps in research to understand the nature of change better. Picking detailed stories of some of the game changing major events—Mount Pinatubo volcano of Philippines, Indian Ocean Tsunami of Sumatra, Hurricane Harvey in Texas—the author highlights what remains unknown about these dynamic phenomena. In addition to giving insights on each of the events, one gets to know recent attempts at advancing scientific quest toward understanding earth’s warning signals. Dangerous Earth makes absorbing reading on the unexpected and acts as an alert on knowing how to protect lives, property and economic stability.

Much has been written in recent times on climatic events, but it is the well-reasoned and engaging explanation offered by Prager that makes it a riveting read. Given the recent spurt in extreme weather events, scientists now consider this a whole new field of science which may be with or without the influence of climate change. The list of climatic unknowns is only beginning to expand, throwing new challenges to understand dangers and the risks involved. No wonder, the recent thundery development that caused widespread damage in some parts of Delhi during May this year had caught the India Meteorological Department (IMD) off guard. Prediction is indeed crucial, but preparedness is no less important.

While highlighting the need for focused research on climatic events and capturing the new areas of scientific enquiry, Prager points out toward the inevitability of dramatic change that is upon us—turning the beautiful planet against its own inhabitants. There can be no denying that there have been similar periods of warming in Earth’s past, it is not the actual temperature that is the issue but the rapid pace at which the global thermometer is rising that is unusual and problematic. It is the comprehensive undertaking on the extreme events that will open new avenues of research in reducing the impacts of extreme events. Loaded with in-depth narratives on recent catastrophic events, Dangerous Earth is an eye opener and a call to devise and develop ways and means of reducing the impacts of a violent planet on its inhabitants and infrastructure.