Changing the Atmosphere in Political Science: Ten Key Political Questions about Climate Change

11 September 2019, 2200 EDT

We’re re-upping this guest post as part of our series on changing the field. #IRChange. This is the second post (the first is here).

This is a guest post from several authors including:

Climate change is arguably the most urgent problem facing humankind. It is not a single policy problem, but rather pervades all aspects of state and society – affecting everything from geopolitics to local planning. Yet, one is hard pressed to reach this conclusion given the current landscape of political science.

Excellent work appears occasionally in premier journals on the variety of political questions that climate change raises.  But given the centrality of politics in contributing and responding to the climate change problem, there is not enough of this work and — critically — much of it occurs outside the central discourses and journals of our discipline. Some political scientists are instead engaging climate change debates in policymaking, assessment and public venues. For example, Science and Nature seem to value contributions by political scientists. But what of our discipline? How is it responding to climate change?

We are not the first to note the absence of climate change from the mainstream of political science (Javeline 2014, Keohane 2015, Green and Hale 2017). We build on these works to demonstrate why climate change is not just “an environmental problem,” but a problem that speaks to critical questions of our discipline. Political scientists should focus more attention on climate change, not just because of its urgency, but because it engages many of the discipline’s fundamental questions, as well as specific debates in the subfields of American politics, comparative politics and international relations.

More importantly, climate change is already reconfiguring many of the basic political and governance institutions that are the objects of study of political science. It has contributed to polarization in American politics, reframed the meaning and practice of development, and transformed international law. Given the global and multi-scalar reach of impacts and responses, climate change provides myriad important cases for political scientists to test our theories and examine our assumptions. In this post, we present ten concrete questions and ideas for climate-related research of interest to political scientists.

1. What is the role of business in politics?

The fossil fuel industry is often identified as a key obstacle to progressive climate policy (Layzer 2012).  Yet, political scientists could shed light on the causal mechanisms connecting these efforts to political agendas, mass opinion shifts, and policy outcomes. This work could build on the rich tradition in American politics of studying business influence through campaigns and elections (Powell and Grimmer 2016), Congressional lobbying (Hall and Deardorff 2006), and rulemaking (Yackee and Yackee 2006). It also could leverage the tools of American Political Development or take a comparative approach, analyzing past instances where industry has resisted large economic transitions.

Relatedly, comparative politics can help shed light on accelerating decarbonization (Aklin and Urpelainen 2018, Breetz et al. 2018). Restructuring major segments of the economy raises questions about when and how new industries begin to exercise political influence, and how they sort themselves across parties. Why do firms in similar sectors, but based in different national and local political contexts, react to climate change and similar bodies of scientific information differently?

2. How does party polarization affect policy?

Climate change is one among the most partisan issues for the American public (Dunlap, McCright & Yarosh 2016; Egan and Mullin 2017). The polarization trend is particularly striking considering that only thirty years ago, climate change emerged as a bipartisan issue. The emergence of such a large gap over a short time period creates opportunities to examine the dynamics of polarization within a single issue area. We know that polarization occurs through feedbacks between the behavior of elites and ordinary voters (McCarty, Poole, and Rosenthal 2016; Levendusky 2013). With respect to climate change, climate denialism originated from elites, sowing doubt as the public was still developing views on climate change. Industry and think tanks have played a role in climate skepticism (Brulle 2014; Oreskes and Conway 2011), raising broader questions about the extent to which this process applies to other polarized issues. Future work could compare climate change to other issues that have been on the public agenda for longer, and comparative work could more closely examine why climate change induces greater polarization in some polities, but not others.

3. How do emerging economies affect the configuration of global power?

Climate change is reconfiguring state power. The rise of emerging economies notably China, India and Brazil, provides them with new structural power with respect to climate politics (Hochstetler and Milkoreit 2014).  Recently, China has sought to position itself as a leader in climate politics, filling the vacuum left by the US announcement that it will withdraw from the Paris Agreement.

Industrial policy is also a key part of the reconfiguration of power (Hughes and Meckling 2017). Emerging economies challenge the status quo by investing in development of renewables industries, often raising barriers to trade in the process (Lewis 2014). Yet at the same time, some, like China, continue to finance coal-fired power generation under the One Belt, One Road initiative (Zhang et al 2017).  These structural shifts provide opportunities for political scientists to see how the consumption and provision of natural resources create structural power and shape prospects for cooperation.

4. How do domestic interest groups affect international cooperation?

Climate change is a useful test case for the relationship between domestic politics and international cooperation (Milner 1997). As national governments negotiate, implement, and enforce agreements, their behavior both shapes and is constrained by domestic politics. Governments’ international commitments are not credible if they cannot be implemented because of domestic political constraints, but the very implementation of these commitments also influences the nature of domestic politics (Putnam 1988).

Domestic energy policies are shaped by interest group politics under varying international conditions, as winners and losers from clean energy sources vie for influence (Aklin and Urpelainen 2013). Domestic political institutions, such as regime type and electoral system, affect governments’ responsiveness to calls for climate mitigation (Bättig and Bernauer 2009). Since the Paris Agreement allows countries to set their own climate targets, domestic considerations are now at the forefront of international cooperation. Climate can therefore provide a useful comparison to other contentious issues such as trade or migration, where domestic politics provide a hard constraint on international cooperation.

5. How do global and subnational actors interact?

Climate change scholarship has documented the massive growth in subnational actors’ interaction over the last two decades (Betsill and Bulkeley 2006; Krause 2012). Since the 1990s, there has been an explosion of network-based organizations created to connect cities on mitigation and, more recently, adaptation policy (Shi, 2016). Municipal leaders — often in partnership with private foundations, firms, governmental agencies, and NGOs — have constructed institutions to undertake a variety of governance functions (Bulkeley et. al 2014; Hoffmann 2011). The proliferation of these networks is an example of a general phenomenon driving the transnationalization of policymaking (Slaughter 2004).

The growth of transnational policy networks illustrates that international relations scholars trying to understand multilevel and transnational governance have much in common with American and comparative politics scholars grappling with processes, outcomes and changes in federalist and quasi-federalist states and societies (Selin & VanDeveer 2012). Mayors, urban professionals and city councilors now attend national and global events, seeking to influence policymaking across a host of climate change related issues. Climate change thus provides an excellent opportunity to understand the effects of the increased blurring of levels of governance, and the lines between public and private (Steinberg & VanDeveer 2012).

6. How do national institutions affect domestic politics and policy?

Climate change is an important case for comparativists trying to understand the impacts of variation in political parties, type and degree of democracy, constitutional structures, and political culture. More generally it can shed light on how national institutions shape policy outcomes and discourses. For example, how can we understand the gaps between EU-level climate policies and domestic policies of its member states without reference to national level institutions (Selin & VanDeveer 2015)? Or, what can we learn about the influence of domestic institutions by comparing U.S., Canadian and Australian climate politics and policy outcomes?

Climate change can also advance understanding about how institutions operate within nations. In the United States, for example, climate change is a high priority for the environmental interest groups tied to the Democratic party network (Grossmann and Dominguez 2009), but the issue has not been prioritized by party leaders (Guber and Bosso 2013). Climate change could provide a lens for understanding the influence of different coalition members on party agendas (Bawn et al. 2012). The rise of the climate justice movement, the growth of the renewable energy industry, and the increasing willingness of scientists and the media to link extreme weather and natural disasters with climate change all indicate pathways for the creation of new climate coalitions.

7. What are the effects of inequality?

Climate change exacerbates existing inequalities and creates new ones.  Historically, developing nations have contributed negligibly to greenhouse gas emissions, yet they will bear the brunt of the impacts (Ciplet et al 2015). Moreover, these inequalities will affect migration patterns in the future, with potentially profound geopolitical consequences (Koubi et al. 2016). 

At the national and subnational levels, disadvantaged communities are disproportionately affected by climate change. These impacts are both a function of historical patterns of settlement that leave some communities exposed to more risk and political choices that can diminish resilience and ability to adapt. Recent work on spatial distributions of populations (Cho, Gimpel and Hui 2013; Nall 2018) can provide insights into how the differential impacts of climate change are in part, a function of citizens spatial self-sorting along racial, economic and partisan lines. In turn, the residential patterns that result may influence provision of public goods that can protect communities from harm (Trounstine 2016).

8. Does the proliferation of institutions promote international cooperation?

Climate change is a paradigmatic case of institutional proliferation, with the expansion of multilateral fora and growing number of transnational and subnational efforts and actors (Ostrom 2010, Green 2014). The growth in the number and types of institutions involved in international cooperation has been an active area of research in international relations; climate change can contribute to a better understanding of the causes and consequences of the institutional proliferation.

In general, climate scholars are sanguine about proliferation, which can promote innovation and learning, enhance accountability, and provide scale-appropriate solutions to the diversity of problems that constitute climate change (Ostrom 2010, Jordan et al 2018). By contrast, works in other issue areas suggest that institutional complexity is less benign. It favors powerful states with the resources to navigate multiple venues, and select those with favorable rules (Drezner 2009). Thus, climate change can provide more data for assessing the effects of this proliferation across a variety of issues in world politics.

9. How do non-state actors and social movements shape governance?

The new forms of governance in the climate change regime can help inform broader discussions within international relations about “governance without government,” (Rosenau and Czempiel 1992). Climate change is a useful case to engage long-standing questions such as: under what conditions do non-traditional governance arrangements arise (Green 2014; Johnson 2014)? What are the mechanisms through which they exert influence (Wong 2012; Hadden 2015)? When and why are they effective at achieving their goals (Stroup and Wong 2017)? How and when does scientific and technical information shape politics or policy (Haas 2016)?  

More broadly, there is ample research on the effects of domestic environmental social movements on national environmental policy, often working in combination with international actors and institutions, in nations such as Brazil (Hochstetler & Keck 2007), Ecuador (Lewis 2016) and India (Khagram 2004; Kashwan 2017). This research suggests that climate change should not be seen as minor “niche” issues for a few voters or activists. Rather, these actors can play a key role in reshaping national political institutions related to democracy, public participation, resource allocation and constitutional rights (Gellers 2017), potentially “greening” states and societies in political processes comparable to the emergence and growth of the welfare state (Meadowcroft 2012; Death 2016).

10. What causes violent conflict?

There is considerable scholarly consensus that climate change likely raises the risks of violent conflict by amplifying many of its well-documented drivers – and that it is likely to impact the national security policies of most states (Adger et al 2014). In comparison to other questions outlined in this paper, political scientists have done comparatively more research on the relationship between violent conflict and climate change. Debate about possible relationships between violent conflict and climate change dates back to the 1990s (Homer-Dixon 1999; Gleditsch & Urdal 2002), but has grown rapidly in the last decade, expanding from reliance on case studies to use of quantitative assessment (Swain and Ojendal 2018).

Yet work on climate and security extends beyond the issue of conflict to security more broadly construed (Busby 2018).  Recent work on climate change and conflict identifies myriad pathways: reduced precipitation lowers agricultural yields contributing to large and small-scale political conflicts (Hendrix and Saleyhan 2012); slower economic growth resulting from climate change may increase competition among groups, depending on the political system (Koubi et al. 2012). Disentangling causal factors and the pathways that link climate change to violent conflict could provide important contributions to the larger literature on conflict.


This essay emerged from a conversation about what, if anything, political science has to say about climate change. All of us have been asked versions of this question by students and colleagues, from our discipline and others. Yet our discipline remains largely silent on this critically important problem. 

Climate change is an important test for the discipline of political science. As the questions raised in this essay demonstrate, climate change is fundamentally about politics, policy and governance. The questions it raises are not specific to climate change, nor to a particular subfield. Rather, the multi-scalar nature of political responses to climate change suggests fruitful avenues for collaboration across subfields and issue areas. Political scientists can contribute to understanding barriers to effective climate mitigation and understand a wide range of political issues by studying the case of climate change.