Climate Change and Political Scientists: Defining a Research Agenda

The following guest post is from University of Notre Dame political scientist Debra Javeline, who is collaborating with Notre Dame biologists, computer scientists, and other faculty on an interdisciplinary project on adaptation to climate change. She is leading a survey of the world’s top environmental biologists on how they assess the scientific, ethical, economic, and legal issues surrounding wildlife adaptation to climate change.


President Obama recently announced a plan to deal with the single most important global problem, climate change.  Included in the plan are policies to mitigate (reduce greenhouse gas emissions and thereby slow, stop, or in a dare-we-dream scenario, reverse climate change) and adapt (reduce our vulnerability by preparing for the inevitable impacts of a changed climate).  While the natural and physical science on the climate is clear and less disputed than on the vast majority of scientific topics, the politics of climate change is extremely complicated and understudied, which offers an important research opportunity for political scientists.

To date, political science has engaged climate change primarily in three areas:  (1) international relations, especially the lack of cooperation among nations on climate policy, (2) political theory, especially climate justice, and (3) the most obvious observations about the influence of fossil fuel interests in shaping policy and environmental outcomes.  However, there remain many other important research and policy questions about climate change that could be fruitfully addressed by political scientists.

For example, important debates about climate change require understanding the costs of mitigating and adapting to climate change, compared to the costs of not mitigating and adapting.  While political scientists may not be equipped to estimate these costs and benefits, they are precisely the scholars to analyze how politicians and constituents perceive costs and benefits and whether those perceived costs and benefits match the economists’ assessments.  Political scientists are the scholars who can tell us how political leaders and ordinary citizens behave in response to the perceived costs and benefits of mitigation and adaptation.

For another example, important issues surround voting, which is currently not climate-based.  There is no evidence from the voting literature or even journalistic reports that most voters have a climate change litmus test for candidates or even factor climate issues into their voting decisions.  On average, citizens have just not perceived a sense of urgency in dealing with climate change.  Could it happen?  What explains why some citizens do perceive urgency?  What explains how a climate change denier comes to accept the climate reality and ultimately elevates the priority of climate change in voting or other political action?

Political scientists who study media and public opinion could also help understand what accounts for the use and effectiveness of political language as it relates to the climate change discussion, much as they do when analyzing political campaign advertisements.  For example, why are some forms of activism designed to prevent deforestation, fracking, and other hazardous activities called “ecological terrorism,” while mountaintop removal is not?  Who controls the language and dialogue surrounding climate change, is the language evolving over time, and how do changes in language matter for the success or failure of climate action?

Another important question is why policy on climate change is sometimes highly partisan and sometimes not.  For mitigation, politicians in the United States seem to divide predictably along party lines, and it is in the more localized and therefore self-serving arena of adaptation that partisanship seems to offer few if any clues about climate policy preferences.  Individual politicians such as New Jersey Governor Chris Christie take action to defeat mitigation efforts while simultaneously scrambling to find funds to adapt.  Perhaps more puzzling is why policies to address climate change are met with so much more partisanship in the US than elsewhere: Political parties in most of Europe, for example, are not polarized about climate change policy, whether mitigation or adaptation.  What explains partisan cooperation and contestation over climate change policy is an important agenda for future research, particularly if the research could offer insights into the fostering of cooperation.

Moving to the international arena, the president pointed out the dilemma of asking developing nations to contribute to mitigation by halting their development –to live without cars, air conditioning, and other amenities to which Americans feel entitled—when the relative contributions of these nations to the climate problem has been very small.  He explained that gaining cooperation from developing nations, including emerging economies in areas highly vulnerable to climate change, rests to some extent on the wake-up call of adaptation: As these nations watch their coastlines recede, water supplies diminish, agriculture fail, forests burn, and populations suffer from increased disease and disaster, they may enter into productive partnerships with wealthier nations that can help them reduce vulnerability.  Development experts outside of political science are leading the charge in research on climate change policy and development, arguing that the problems are highly intertwined and cannot be studied in isolation.  Political scientists could contribute their insights to this growing literature by systematically studying the effects of climate policy (mitigation and/or adaptation) on development and development on climate policy and climate change itself.

The above are just examples of political science research questions relevant to the climate discussion.  There are dozens of others involving subfields across the discipline, meaning we are all relevant to the discussion.  The time has passed for us to “do something” about climate change.  We are at the point where we need to do everything.  As scholars, we have a responsibility to contribute whatever our respective specialties allow us to contribute.

10 Responses to Climate Change and Political Scientists: Defining a Research Agenda

  1. RobC July 12, 2013 at 1:18 pm #

    Professor Javeline throws the pointed question, “For example, why are some forms of activism designed to prevent deforestation, fracking, and other hazardous activities called ‘ecological terrorism,’ while mountaintop removal is not?” Perhaps I’ve missed the subtleties of the issue, but I reckon it has a lot to do with whether the person removing the mountaintop owns the mountaintop or has the owner’s permission. If I remove my mountaintop (in accordance with all applicable laws, to be sure), that’s not terrorism. If on the other hand I remove Professor Javeline’s mountaintop, and do so with the aim of intimidation or obstruction, that’s terrorism. Similarly, if I take my children to the beach, that’s a nice day at the beach. If without her permission I take Professor Javeline’s children to the beach, that’s kidnapping.

    I remember visiting a property law class when someone asked the professor, “Isn’t the fundamental question whether all property is theft?” (You won’t be surprised to learn this was in 1968.) The professor replied, “That’s a question so fundamental we’re not even going to address it.” Judging from Professor Javeline’s question, that student’s approach to property lives on in the academy.

    • Debra Javeline July 12, 2013 at 9:08 pm #

      RobC, Interesting points. The problem is that the effects of mountaintop removal are far, far reaching, well beyond private property and into public water supplies, soil, and air. The same with deforestation and fracking. The private-public line is not as clear as might have been described in the property law class.

      • RobC July 12, 2013 at 10:13 pm #

        It’s perfectly legitimate to enact laws to prevent use of land or other property in ways that society deems undesirable. Lots of those laws exist, and perhaps there should be lots more. What seems to me illegitimate is to suggest that if the laws permit removal of a mountaintop, it is terrorism to engage in that lawful activity. Terrorism doesn’t mean any action we disapprove of–or at least it shouldn’t. I may disapprove of the way you argue your point, but I wouldn’t say you’ve engaged in an act of terrorism by doing so. That would be ridiculous and unworthy of a serious intellectual discussion.

        • Debra Javeline July 13, 2013 at 1:42 pm #

          Fair enough. The word “terrorism” is loaded and misused. The question, though, is whether it is appropriate to use the loaded terminology for an activist trying to draw attention to harmful and often unlawful activity. The activist would probably dispute not just the desirability of the activity but the lawfulness of the activity, since extraction is often accompanied by numerous violations that are not penalized, i.e. laws “exist” on the books but are not enforced. The point of my including this question among many is simply: The use of loaded terminology in climate discussions and how that influences our ability to address the climate crisis is worthy of study by political scientists.

          • Tony Noerpel July 15, 2013 at 11:28 am #

            Hi Debra

            I’m with you on this. Terrorism may be loaded but it is accurate. If RobC would concede that there exists state sponsored terrorism, then we are done. Mountaintop removal destroys not only the “private” mountaintop but also the adjacent valleys. People in West Virginia die of cancer. Impoundments leak, thousands of miles of streams are polluted and communities are destroyed.

            I don’t know if you or RobC have ever visited these blighted areas. This is a trip worth taking. If it were strictly legal then it would be no better than Soviet style central planning but in factall the mining companies break the law.

            • Debra Javeline July 15, 2013 at 8:24 pm #

              Hi Tony, I have watched documentaries on mountaintop removal but not visited (yet). I think West Virginia and other coal regions may hold the key to addressing the climate crisis, if we can figure out a way to include these regions in the upcoming profits of cleaner technologies. Right now, residents of these areas (victims, as you describe) often feel they have no choice but to support the continuation of coal because they have not been offered alternative livelihoods. Wouldn’t it be nice to offer tax and other incentives so that the end of coal not only restores human and environmental health to the regions but also keeps people in those regions employed.

              • Tony Noerpel July 16, 2013 at 9:39 am #

                Hi Debra

                RobC’s point about disagreement defining terrorism is a red herring. Of course it doesn’t. And his argument that anything that is legal cannot be terrorism is simply not true. And just because an act is illegal doesn’t make it terrorism.

                While there may be hundreds of definitions of terrorism they do include state sponsored and corporate sponsored terrorism where presumably the terror has been made legal.

                You are of course correct to point out that offering alternatives to mountaintop removal both in terms of employment and energy are helpful, they sidestep the reality of the intimidation that coal companies use. Alternative livelihoods have been offered such as installing wind generation on the tops of the mountains rather than blowing them up.

                They also sidestep what I think is the real problem. The fossil fuels industry has trillions of dollars of profits locked up in the ground and to avoid a climate catastrophe, we have to keep those profits there. Giving up profits is simply not in the corporate genetic code. And we need to be realistic that corporations will both lie and engage in terror in order to extract those profits. Denying that reality is simply naive.

                Larry Gibson was an acquaintance of mine and I’ve visited with him a few times before his death. This is a quote from his wiki page:

                “Money was not the only tactic that was employed to stop Gibson; he is only to keen to show visitors bullet holes in the wood of his cabin,[3] the same cabin that was also ransacked at one point.[6] There have also been attempts on his life when his truck was run off the road on a few occasions by coal trucks,[2] at one point with a Washington Post reporter inside.[6] Two of his dogs were killed.[6][8] He had effigies of him burned, endured threatening phone calls and was beaten up more than once.[2]

                “Gibson was arrested on numerous occasions and had no fear in doing so; one fellow activist said that she could not count the amount of times he was arrested during his campaigns.[1] On more than one occasion, he was arrested at the Capitol Building in Washington whilst protesting with others on the government’s lack of backing for the campaign.[7]”

                Clearly the coal mining companies engage in terrorism and mountaintop removal is terrifying. I don’t know if RobC wants to argue that running somebody’s vehicle off the road is legal provided there is a Washington Post reporter inside. I don’t know the finer points of jurisprudence nearly as well as I should.

                Please visit while there are still mountains. :+)

                RobC, you are invited too. Get yourself out of those law classes and into some fresh air. :+)

  2. Rick Valelly July 12, 2013 at 10:47 pm #

    This is the best short run down of the political science of climate change that I’ve ever read. Many thanks! One possible focus: the prospects for geoengineering. We’re already engaged in geoengineering every day – the transition to openly discussed geoengineering strikes me as a major opportunity for analysis and description.

  3. Roger Karapin September 5, 2013 at 8:37 pm #

    There is another, though body of political science work not mentioned here. It examines many different causes of mitigation policies, going far beyond fossil-fuel interests to examine political institutions, economic structures and development, partisanship, the development of ideas, the role of climate skepticism and public opinion, advocacy coalitions, framing, and more. A few examples:

    Harrison and Sundstrom, Global Commons, Domestic Decisions
    Compston and Bailey, Turning Down the Heat
    Rabe, Greenhouse Governance

    • Debra Javeline September 8, 2013 at 5:21 pm #

      Great comment, Roger. Thanks, and apologies for the oversight, including your 2012 articles on climate change. Downloading now and looking forward to reading.