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Climate Change and Political Scientists: Defining a Research Agenda

- July 12, 2013

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.