Governing Complexity:
Recent developments in environmental politics and policy

Bridget K. Fahey and Sarah B. Pralle


Using a large sample of articles and books published between 2012 and 2015, this review shows the recent trends in environmental politics and policy scholarship. Environmental policy scholarship has embraced the concept of governance to explain the variety of actors and institutions that surround environmental problems and solutions. Scholars in the past three years used theories and methods to capture these governing dynamics in far-reaching and complicated issues like climate change. This paper discusses recent patterns in the literature and demonstrates that new methods, recent theoretical focuses, and even the environmental issues covered by scholars reflect the field’s acknowledgement that scholars can and should account for complexity in their work. However, the literature has neglected certain regions and processes, such as the developing world and policy feedback processes, leaving significant gaps in our understanding.

Key Words

Environmental policy, environmental politics, policy process, climate change, governance, multiple methods, networks


Understanding environmental policies requires confronting two complex and evolving systems: natural environments and human policymaking and governance. Environmental policy scholarship has embraced the concept of governance to explain the variety of actors and institutions that surround environmental problems and solutions. Scholars in the past three years used theories and methods to capture these governing dynamics in far-reaching and complicated issues like climate change. This paper discusses recent patterns in the literature and demonstrates that new methods, recent theoretical focuses, and even the environmental issues covered by scholars reflect the field’s acknowledgement that scholars can and should account for complexity in their work. However, the literature has neglected certain regions and processes, such as the developing world and policy feedback processes, leaving significant gaps in our understanding.

The paper proceeds as follows: First, we discuss the methods employed to define the scope of environmental policy scholarship and to identify trends in the past three years. Second, we present patterns in the literature based on quantitative and qualitative analysis of journal articles and books, commenting on promising directions as well as what we see as gaps in the literature. Last, we provide concluding thoughts about the state of the field and offer critiques for scholars to consider in future work.

Methods for Defining the Scope and Content of Environmental Policy Studies

To capture a representative snapshot of environmental policy scholarship from 2012 to 2015, we took a dual approach for collecting and analyzing publications. First, we selected a representative sample of environmental policy publications. This sample was used to generate quantitative data to discover general patterns in the literature. Second, specific publications were chosen for an in-depth discussion based on patterns discovered in our quantitative analysis as well as new or interesting directions in the literature.

Selecting Publications

Journal Articles. To capture the interdisciplinary nature of environmental policy, we created a list of political science, public administration, public policy, and environmental policy journals. We used the Web of Science’s Journal Citation Reports from 2014 to generate a list of top political science and public administration journals.1 This allowed us to use a similar metric to select journals in relevant disciplines. Many of the top journals were not focused on environmental policy, so the top 100 journals in both public administration and political science were evaluated based on the journals’ mission statements. Those journals that did not mention public policy, public administration, governance, environmental politics, or environmental policy were dropped from the list. For instance, Political Analysis is consistently ranked #1 in political science, but because its substantive focus is on methods it was not included in this analysis. We selected the top 15 journals in both public administration and political science from this narrowed list. After accounting for journals that appeared in both lists we were left with 25 journals.2 However, several important journals were missing. Therefore, we added three environmental policy journals based on search results for “environmental policy” in the JCR database3 and included the Journal of Public Policy because of its importance in the field of public policy. Table 1 indicates that we reviewed articles from a total of 29 different journals in four broad focal areas. We acknowledge that this list is not comprehensive, but we are confident that our sample of journals and articles captures a significant portion of the field.

TABLE 1: Selected Journals

For each journal, we selected articles published between January 1, 2012 and July 1, 2015 whose titles or abstracts indicated a substantive interest in environmental politics and policy. The resulting 793 articles covered a range of issues, including biodiversity, climate change, pollution, and wetlands.

Books. To select academic presses, we relied on Giles and Garand’s (2011) study of top presses in political science based on a reputational ranking. We selected 67 peer-reviewed books published between January 1, 2012 and December 31, 2014 from the top 15 presses.4 In selecting books to include, we looked for books whose main emphasis was on environmental governance, policy, and politics. These categories included books on environmental economics, ethics, sustainable development, history, law, and regulation in so far as such books had implications for environmental policy and politics. We did not include books designed to serve as textbooks, nor did we include new editions of previously published books.

Sampling and Coding Methods

We selected a total of 393 articles for quantitative analysis to attain a confidence interval of ± 3.5 percentage points with a 95% confidence level for all of the descriptive statistics in this study. We used a stratified selection technique in order to ensure that every journal was included. For each journal, we selected every other article in chronological order starting on either the first or second article based on a coin flip.

We wrote initial descriptions of each article based on article abstracts (supplemented when needed with the body of the article) to use as a starting point for coding. We used inductive coding which allowed us to capture the variety in the articles but avoid selecting topics based on our backgrounds and interests. First, we looked for information about the articles’ methods, theoretical basis, geographic area of focus, location of the authors’ home institution(s), and topic(s) of focus (including political or policy theories and environmental issues). Second, we evaluated the initial descriptions to generate a list of variables. Then, we created codes for the following variables: (a) the geographic focus of the article; (b) the author’s home institution and whether it matched the geographic focus of the article; (c) nine environmental topics variables: pollution, energy, climate change, ecosystems, natural resources, agriculture and aquaculture, natural disasters, environmental justice, and sustainability; (d) 19 policy theory variables: theories of the policy process, organization theory, governance, networks, collective action, institutions, private sector, civil sector, economic instruments, agendas, policy design, implementation, evaluation, norms, conflict and security, risk management, science and technology, public opinion and participation, and spatial distribution6; and (e) the number and types of methods. Each article was then coded for these 33 variables using the initial descriptions. The resulting dataset allowed for frequency analysis and cross-tabulation analysis to identify patterns in this sample (described below).

The books were reviewed separately to account for edited volumes with multiple authors, topics, and methods. We noted the environmental topic(s) and main theoretical concepts covered in the books, but did not conduct quantitative analysis because of their lower number.

Selecting Articles and Books for Close Readings

In addition to the quantitative analysis, we selected 60 articles and 12 books for an in-depth qualitative discussion of trends in the environmental policy literature. To select articles, we looked at each article’s title and author to create a short list of more than 100 articles that matched the trends we were interested in exploring. Then, we read through abstracts and the body of the papers to select articles that exemplified the themes we identified in the literature. The articles were selected from the entire population (793 articles) to avoid amplifying any sampling errors. We made sure to include articles that represented new or intriguing directions in the literature, including some of the topics identified in Sabatier and Weible’s Theories of the Policy Process (Third Edition). We acknowledge that our chosen themes partly reflect the previous knowledge and interests of the authors; however we tried to rely on the quantitative data to avoid bias. We chose books that explained environmental politics and policy using key theories and concepts in political science, especially those found in the literature on policy processes, comparative politics, and international relations.

Patterns and Developments in the Literature

Geographic Scope and Scale

The 393 articles in the sample were written by 764 authors representing 42 countries. Most of the articles had two authors (62.8%) and a significant number had three or more authors (37.2%). There were 115 articles (29.3%) where at least one author’s home institution was in the United States and 86 articles (21.9%) where all authors were from U.S. institutions. Of the articles in the sample, 358 articles (91.1%) had at least one author from Europe, North America, or Australia. Only 35 articles were written by authors from South America, Africa, and Asia. When combined with the fact that slightly more than half of the articles (52.9%, 208 articles) examined a country where at least one of the authors lived, we see a clear geographic bias in the articles focusing on North America and Europe. While environmental policy scholars did not ignore Africa, Asia, Australia-Ocean, and South America, these areas received much less attention than North America and Europe.

Figure 1: Geographic Focus by Continent

As Figure 1 shows, about one-third of the articles (103 articles, 26.2%) had a global focus, meaning they looked at either international relationships or included three or more continents in their study. Studies looking at Europe (107 articles, 27.2%) and North America (89 articles, 22.6%) by far dominated the sample, with studies of Asia (46 articles, 11.7%), Australia-Oceania (19 articles, 4.8%), South America (16 articles, 4.1%), and Africa (11 articles, 2.8%) trailing far behind. Accounting for the geographic scope and scale8 of environmental policy research illuminates potential biases in the literature. The heavy focus on Europe and North America could reinforce assumptions about professionalized legislatures and bureaucracies that may not apply to less developed areas of the world. A bias toward Westernized countries might also mean that the literature includes more coverage of issues like hydraulic fracturing, as compared to salient issues in the developing world, such as the tension between agricultural development and forest conservation. Moreover, scholars are missing an opportunity to understand environmental politics in countries that have large impacts on the global environment--countries like China, India, and Russia—as well as countries that will be especially vulnerable to biodiversity loss and climate change, such as Indonesia and Bangladesh. Future researchers should be mindful of these gaps when choosing theory and empirical investigations.

Environmental Issues and Theoretical Orientations

As shown in Figure 2, climate change studies dominated the environmental policy literature in the last three years. Nearly half of the surveyed articles and one-third of the books discussed this topic. Other popular topics included ecosystem management, natural resources management, and sustainability studies. Although governance dominated the theoretical questions raised in the articles, questions about political economy or economics, institutions, and participation comprised a significant portion of the sample.

Figure 2: Article Topics and Methods Used

Methodological Approaches

Qualitative methods were used most often; two-thirds of the sampled articles (262 articles) used qualitative methods, of which 160 included case studies. Indeed, case studies dominated the methods employed; of the articles using a single method (51.1%, 208 articles) over a third were case studies (36.1%, 75 articles). Additional qualitative methods included content analysis, discourse analysis, and process tracing. The literature also included a large number of multiple method studies. Although only 29 articles (7.4%) used a mix of quantitative and qualitative methods, almost half of the articles (183, 46.6%) used at least two methods, such as case studies and content analysis or regression analysis and network analysis.9

Although environmental policy scholarship is dominated by case studies, some scholars have employed new methods in an attempt to capture the complexity of their topics. There were some notable examples of creative methods, especially in regards to studying networks. One example, Dallas Elgin’s study of climate change opponents and supporters in Colorado, employed a hyperlink analysis to determine the membership and online communications used by subsystem members (2015). As Elgin demonstrates, hyperlink network analysis can easily bridge quantitative and qualitative analysis with a single tool. Similarly, Craft and Howlett (2013) used virtual policy network analysis which examines information exchange over the Internet to understand the governance arrangements and institutional capacity of various United States and Canadian policy sectors to adapt to climate change.

The past three years have also seen a rise in new qualitative analysis approaches. A special issue of Global Environmental Politics introduced collaborative event ethnography (CEE) as a technique to understand nuances in structural power in international environmental negotiations (Büscher 2014; Duffy 2014). The technique requires a team of researchers to simultaneously engage in a reflective and reflexive ethnography at the same event. Many of the benefits of this form of ethnography emerge during deliberation after the observation phase. The special issue on the benefits of CEE included empirical studies examining institutional arrangements in biological diversity protection (Campbell, Hagerman, and Gray 2014; Gray, Gruby, and Campbell 2014), personal relationships between negotiators (Corson, Campbell, and MacDonald 2014), and policy area definitions (Scott et al. 2014).

While scholars chose qualitative methods over quantitative, a portion of the articles (19.6%) used quantitative methods. Several scholars developed stronger quantitative measures of complex environmental policies. In their study of U.S. state renewable energy policies, Berry, Laird, and Stefes (2015) demonstrated that more precise dependent variables are necessary to capture important dynamics like the effectiveness of state renewable energy targets and the influence of partisan control of state legislatures. They developed a variable that takes into account the presence or absence of a policy, the ambitiousness of the policy goal, and the timeframe for a state to reach their goal. The results of their study were significantly different from other state-level analyses because of their more nuanced measurements. For example, other analyses have found little or no impact of political party control of the legislature, whereas Laird and Stefes found it to be significant (2015).

Adam Eckerd (2013) presented an intriguing way to use quantitative modeling to simulate the environmental justice consequences of hazardous waste clean-up. Eckerd’s counterfactual simulation shows environmental agencies could prioritize clean-up efforts by focusing on areas with high amounts of pollution rather than those with high property values or with large minority populations. This approach avoids encouraging gentrification (effectively pushing out the population who was harmed by the hazardous waste once the environment is restored) by focusing on pollution risk. Overall, these efforts represent attempts to develop more sophisticated methods for capturing the complexity inherent in environmental policy development and governance.

Climate Change Politics and Policy

One of the most complex issues in environmental policy is climate change, and it was by far the most popular topic in our sample of articles and books. Almost half of the articles (48.1%; 189 articles) examined some aspect of climate change, and it was the prominent or a primary topic for about one-third of the published books. Scholars treat climate change as a multi-level and multi-jurisdictional problem requiring cooperation across numerous policy sectors and levels of government, and among multiple actors. Cooperation and coordination is needed for both climate mitigation and climate adaptation.

The 2015 climate agreement in Paris is a reassuring sign that international cooperation on climate change may yet prove effective, but actions at national and sub-national levels will remain crucial to realizing climate mitigation goals. Any international agreements must be carried out by national governments, and especially in the case of laggard states, sub-national governments will continue to serve as venues for advancing climate goals (Bomberg 2012, Harrison 2012, Rabe and Borick 2012). Bechtel and Urpelainnen (2015) claim that local climate policies serve as a way to pressure the international community to act on climate change, while others see sub-national policies as an alternative to international agreements (Geist and Howlett 2013; Krause 2012) or national policies (Owens and Zimmerman 2013). Regardless, some sub-national governments are moving forward with climate policies even in the absence of significant national or international action. In Canada, for example, British Columbia successfully enacted a carbon tax even while the (now former) Harper government withdrew Canada from the Kyoto Protocol (Harrison 2012). In the United States, where significant federal regulation on carbon emissions has only come recently in the form of executive actions, many states are enacting taxes and other measures that impact carbon use (Rabe and Borick 2012). In jurisdictions where invoking “climate change” and “taxes” may be politically risky, alternative ways of framing such policies can lead to policy success (Rabe and Borick 2012).

Climate mitigation policies, though, rarely come easily at any level of government. The barriers are familiar and fairly well understood; the interesting questions now concern how climate change reformers may overcome such barriers, particularly as they seek change across multiple levels and jurisdictions. These questions have become especially urgent in countries where public belief in and worry about climate change has decreased in recent years (Bomberg 2012, Lachappelle, Borick, and Rabe 2012). As Bomberg (2012) reminds us, building public awareness and increasing the salience of the problem is only the first step. Crafting alliances across constituencies is also critical, a job that European activists have accomplished more readily than their American counterparts in part due to institutional structures (such as the Green Party) that facilitate and cement such alliances (Bomberg 2012). However, alliance building is not enough; Bomberg argues that “mobilization networks”—entities that can “transcend levels, institutions, and interests”—are necessary to shift policy toward climate goals. These stakeholder networks are not held together by shared beliefs but rather shared interests in a low carbon future and by an exchange of resources. Like the case of alliance building, Bomberg finds that mobilization networks were more successful in the European Union than in the United States.

These mobilization networks often cross several national borders, and according to some scholars, play an increasingly important role in climate governance. Hoffman and his colleagues show that transnational climate initiatives are most common in the areas of energy, carbon markets and finance, forest preservation, and infrastructure (Hoffman et. al. 2014). They argue that these initiatives are not an adequate substitute for multilateral negotiations on climate change, but praise them for allowing direct, decentralized, and diverse approaches to combatting the problem. Such transnational governing initiatives have drawn in a growing number of actors and institutions, including subnational governments, non-governmental organizations, businesses, and even individuals, arguably improving climate governance by increasing participation and accountability.

While some scholars see greater opportunities for participation in climate governance outside the confines of formal multilateral negotiations, others claim that it is necessary and possible to democratize global climate institutions and processes, such as those taking place under the auspices of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). For Stevenson and Dryzek (2014), formal international negotiations should employ deliberative processes and include multiple perspectives and discourses. This would allow for more citizen input and public accountability in the negotiations. The authors’ attention to normative questions is echoed in several books on climate change, many of which provide advice on how to improve climate change governance and how to incorporate values and ethics into climate change policy processes (Arnold 2014, Gardiner 2011, Moellendorf 2014).

Justice and equity concerns have long been a component of international climate negotiations, of course. Even with the enactment of the 2015 Paris climate agreement, which sidestepped some tricky questions by leaving it up to individual countries to determine emissions reduction levels, such issues will continue to surround international climate policy and be topics of scholarly debate. Harris and Symons (2013), for example, address the equity implications of different emissions accounting schemes. In production-based accounting, emissions are assigned to the jurisdiction where the emitting good is produced, but in consumption-based accounting, emissions are assigned to jurisdictions where goods are consumed. Production-based accounting schemes encourage developed countries to import goods with large greenhouse gas footprints, a process the authors call “emissions off shoring” (p. 15). Policy agreements that consider only production-based emissions may encourage off shoring and inhibit the enactment of consumption-reducing policies.

Even if international, national, and local efforts to mitigate climate change succeed in limiting the rise in global temperature, the world must still grapple with adapting to the many impacts of climate change. Climate adaptation planning is in its infancy around the world, but scholars are examining these efforts in an attempt to understand what factors facilitate successful adaptation planning and policy implementation. A recurring theme is that governments currently lack the capacity to adapt to changes that will impact a host of policy sectors, including energy, transportation, forestry, agriculture, housing, zoning, and infrastructure. Many scholars see potential, though, in what is called “climate policy integration” (CPI), whereby existing policies are changed to include climate goals (Adelle and Russel 2013).

The goal of CPI—also referred to as “mainstreaming” or “proofing”—is to achieve climate adaptation goals without creating new institutions.10 Some scholars argue that CPI is potentially dangerous because it allows for symbolic commitment to climate goals without dedicating resources to adaptation (e.g. Uittenbroek et al. 2014). Others see mainstreaming as a politically feasible pathway to address climate change, especially in highly polarized political contexts where the issue may be taboo (e.g. Haywood et al. 2014). Mainstreaming requires extensive knowledge of ecosystems that are changing as a result of climate change, as well as the flexibility to adjust policies and practices over time. Janssen et al. (2015) point out the difficulties involved in mainstreaming what they call “green flood protection” in the Netherlands. Many experts endorse “soft” flood protection measures such as the rebuilding of wetlands over “hard” protections like levies. But mainstreaming these soft measures into everyday flood protection institutions and routines proved difficult, so advocates in the Netherlands had to go outside of existing institutions to achieve their goals (Janssen et. al. 2015).

In almost all political contexts, bureaucrats will play a particularly important role in facilitating CPI, but they do not always have the capacity and institutional leverage to see it through. Picketts, Curry, and Rapaport (2012) show that planners in British Columbia, Canada preferred that adaptation goals be incorporated into existing planning documents, but the planners lacked crucial knowledge about what adaptation was, how it differed from mitigation, and how to accomplish it. Additional studies of adaptation in Canada suggest that national and sub-national governments may give lip service to adaptation but often fail to provide the necessary resources for planning and implementation (Craft et al. 2013).

Climate change adaptation may also take the form of “layering” adaptation policies on existing policies and processes. These approaches are also likely to run into challenges, as agencies and existing policies can embody fundamental goals and values that are incompatible with, or exist in an uneasy relationship to, climate goals (Newman et al. 2013). In these cases, the lack of capacity is not due to information or funding gaps, but stem from the core beliefs of administrators and from embedded policies that shape future policy choices and designs. Bauer, Feichtinger, and Steurer (2012) call these “governance challenges” and speak of the need to integrate adaptation planning and policies across different sectors, as well as the necessity of engaging the public in adaptation governance to ensure fairness, promote grassroots commitment to adaptation goals, and to utilize local knowledge. The governance and participation themes are prominent in much of the literature in environmental politics and policy, a subject that we turn to in more detail next.

Policy and Politics Theory Testing and Development

Governance and Participation. Governance has been used as a way to examine the variety of actors and institutions that shape environmental policy, especially within multifaceted policy areas like climate change and ecosystem management. Governance was a dominant theme in 22.7% of the journal articles (89 articles), a reflection in part of the influence of public administration scholarship on public policy studies. Some key questions for scholars and practitioners include how to involve and coordinate a wide variety of actors in governance arrangements, develop positive working relationships among them, and empower less dominant voices. While there are many barriers to effective participation in environmental governance, Woods’ (2013) study of participation in the development of U.S. Environmental Protection Agency rulemaking reminds us that public and stakeholder participation can change the substance of policies. Consequently, the question of how to involve and incorporate multiple voices in environmental governance is likely to remain an important one.

The governance of multi-scalar environmental problems often requires involving officials from multiple jurisdictions (national, regional, local), stakeholders with overlapping but sometimes conflicting interests, and the wider public. Coordination and cooperation sometimes proves difficult, leading to implementation problems and a failure to meet policy goals. For example, Temby et al. (2015) ask about levels of communication, trust, and social capital in the trans-boundary governance of Pacific Salmon fisheries. They find low levels of trust among civil servants across jurisdictions and patchy communication, suggesting weaknesses in the governing arrangement. Newig and Koontz (2014) find that public participation is enhanced under the European Union’s requirement for extensive participation in all phases of the policy process. However, these participation requirements introduce national and EU-level debates into local level river basin, flood risk, and air quality policies, slowing down local implementation efforts.

Environmental governance has clearly moved in the direction of more participation, less hierarchical institutional arrangements, and more varied forms of governance. Still scholars and activists warn that marginalized voices can still be left out or drowned out. For instance, Duffy (2013) argues that global endangered species governing institutions delegitimize tribal communities in Africa who hunt endangered species. Duffy is critical of so-called “privatized” forms of governance where non-governmental actors (including NGOs and businesses) play a large role. She argues that these governance forms can depoliticize issues, making it seem as though all the players share common interests, when powerful actors are the primary beneficiaries. Klenk et al. (2013) found that cultural “rules” structuring participation significantly limited indigenous participation in Canadian and Swedish forestry governance networks, decreasing the legitimacy and effectiveness of network government.

Even when institutional systems enable participation, scholars identified barriers to public participation in environmental governance. For example, Delbourne et al.’s (2013) study of citizen deliberation before the Copenhagen climate conference found that the World Wide Views on Global Warming program11 succeeded in creating space for citizen deliberation, but concluded that citizens’ views were not effectively communicated to policymakers at the conference. In another example, the use of e-governance in developed nations does not guarantee public influence on environmental policy outcomes (Royo, Yatano and Acrete 2014). Policy decentralization, designed in part to improve citizen participation in local governance, may lead to more participatory processes but the extent varies across jurisdictions (van Laerhoeven 2014). In a study of environmental decision-making in municipal Brazil, van Laerhoeven found that deeper and broader forms of public participation were more likely to emerge when fewer government officials were involved, and when citizens had previous experience with similar participatory processes.

The focus on policy networks and complex governance has led some scholars to issue a warning that not all actors are equally important for understanding environmental policy outcomes. Duit’s edited volume, State and Environment: The Comparative Study of Environmental Governance (2014) argues that states remain important—indeed, central—players in environmental politics and policy. As stated in the preface of the book, industrialized countries’ environmental protection policies and institutions are the “most comprehensive response issued to environmental problems by society writ large, dwarfing the environmental efforts of markets, international organizations, and individuals in both scope and impact” (xii). So, while new forms of governance deserve our attention, scholars should take into account the outsized role of state actors.

Public Opinion, Interests, and Mobilization. Scholars interested in processes of agenda setting, policy enactment, and policy implementation continue to look at the role that public opinion, interest groups, and grassroots mobilization play in these processes. Some of the key theoretical questions raised by this research are whether public opinion matters for policy, how interest groups strategize and shape policy outcomes, and the impacts of grassroots mobilization around the environment

The attitudes of the public towards environmental policies can be viewed as an achievement of the environmental movement, as well as a necessary condition for the long-term success of the movement and continued progress toward environmental policy goals (Guber 2003, Harrison 2012). The U.S. environmental movement, for example, has succeeded in convincing the majority of Americans to embrace broad environmental values and goals, but the political salience of environmental issues remains low and the depth of the public’s commitment is questionable (Guber 2003). Moreover, public opinion on specific issues is elastic, shifting in response to political events, economic conditions, issue frames, and other factors. (In the case of climate change, even an individual’s experience of local weather patterns affects their opinions on climate change. See, for example, Lachepelle, Borick and Rabe 2012). One of the most dramatic examples of shifting opinion is the case of U.S. public attitudes toward climate change. Research shows a decline in public belief in climate change since 2009, driven in part diverging attitudes between self-identified Republicans and Democrats as the issue has become polarized along partisan lines (Lachepelle, Borick and Rabe 2012).

Issue frames also affect public attitudes on environmental issues. Oxley, Vedlitz, and Wood (2014) found that individuals were more concerned about climate change when the consequences were framed as severe and when individuals perceived the messenger as credible. The authors argue that increased concern should translate into greater willingness to identify climate change as the government’s responsibility and lead to greater support for climate solutions. The link between public attitudes and policy action is complex, however. While democratic political systems should translate public support into policies, scholars understand that several factors mediate this relationship, including electoral rules, interest group politics, and federalism. Lachepelle, Borick and Rabe (2012) find a correlation between supportive public opinion and climate mitigation policies in Canadian provinces, for example, but note the limits of inferring a direct causal relationship between the two. Indeed, they raise the intriguing possibility that public support for carbon taxes may be the result of policy change and implementation, as well as a cause of it.

The gap between public opinion and policy outcomes is evident in Ansolabehere and Konisky’s (2014) multi-year study of Americans’ attitudes toward energy technologies and policy. People’s attitudes toward energy are relatively stable, they argue, and are shaped by two key attributes of the fuels themselves: price and environmental harm. But people put much greater weight on the environmental impacts of different fuels, the most important being the local pollution that results from the extraction and (typically) burning of fossil fuels. This helps to explain public opposition to high volume hydraulic fracturing (and to New York State’s 2015 ban on fracking) even though it has led to lower energy prices for consumers. At the same time, renewable energy sources supplied only 10% of total U.S. energy consumption in 2014 and the U.S. leads the world in oil and gas production (U.S. Energy Information Administration 2016). Clearly, a gap exists between what the public wants in terms of its energy mix and national energy policy.

Understanding gaps between public preferences and policy outputs can lead to a focus on interest group politics. Judith Layzer’s Open for Business: Conservatives’ Opposition to Environmental Regulation (2012) describes the processes by which anti-regulatory interest groups, think tanks, and politicians in the U.S. have advanced an anti-environmental agenda. Layzer argues that the public popularity of environmental policies constrains the ability of opponents to wage direct attacks on environmental regulation. Anti-regulatory interests have thus embraced low-profile challenges that have weakened environmental laws and have prevented the advancement of new policies to address climate change and other emerging problems. Because these challenges are not highly visible to the public, environmental policies may weaken even in the context of relatively high public support for environmental goals.

Business groups have a more complicated relationship to environmental policy than Layzer’s book suggests, however. Several scholars address the role of business in advancing environmental initiatives and programs through, for example, voluntary programs. Prakash and Potoski (2012) found that voluntary programs are popular with businesses, especially in the context of weak institutions, but in another study conclude that such programs resulted in only moderate reductions in water pollutants and no significant reductions in air pollutants (Potoski and Prakash 2013). When considered from the business perspective, voluntary programs can inspire innovation (Lim and Prakash 2014) and provide reputational benefits as well as more tangible benefits like capital investments and information access (Hsueh and Prakash 2012). The authors admit that voluntary efforts are not currently producing significant environmental benefits, but argue for the potential for such programs to inspire future benefits.

Not everyone sees businesses’ environmental initiatives in a positive light. In Eco-Business: A Big Brand Takeover of Sustainability (2013), Dauvergne and Lister argue that corporations use sustainability as a business tool to capture market share in an increasingly globalized and volatile economy. Many environmental organizations, frustrated with the pace of government action around sustainability, lend legitimacy to these corporate efforts by partnering with Coca-Cola, Walmart, and the like on their sustainability programs. While such partnerships can benefit both businesses and environmental groups, and may lead to environmental improvement, the authors are skeptical. They fear that the movement toward green business could lull us into thinking we have solved the sustainability problem. More importantly, private corporations are increasingly crafting rules and creating monitoring and enforcement regimes in a growing set of policy areas. In short, they are governing and defining sustainability in ways that suit their own interests.

Other studies of interest groups focus on the growth and effectiveness of environmental advocacy groups. International climate negotiations have attracted a growing number of advocacy groups, which have proliferated in a transnational context in much the same way as they would in a domestic one (Hanegraaff 2015). Hanegraaff (2015) finds that groups with greater resources and more connections to policymakers were the first to participate in global climate summits, while subsequent waves of interest groups brought more diversity to the universe of represented groups. Success in mobilization and success in shaping policy outcomes may be linked. Andlovic and Lehmann (2014) and Bunea (2013), for example, find that groups trying to shape the development of E.U. environmental policies tended to have greater resources, greater access to policymakers (to provide information and issue definitions), and the ability to mobilize support.

Grassroots mobilization is often seen as a way to put environmental issues on public and governmental agendas. Konisky and Reenock (2013) show that grassroots mobilization can also shape bureaucratic and firm behavior in the context of regulatory compliance. Their theory of “compliance bias” posits that a mobilized community increases the costs to bureaucrats and firms of failing to comply with environmental regulations. Put differently, poor and minority communities that are better mobilized may decrease the likelihood that these communities will suffer injustices in the form of weak regulatory enforcement.

Policy Convergence. Do environmental policies in different countries and across jurisdictions become more alike over time, and if so, why? These questions have been at the heart of a growing literature on environmental policy convergence. One of the latest contributions is Understanding Environmental Policy Convergence: The Power of Words, Rules and Money (2014), edited by Jorgens, Lenschow, and Liefferink. Building on an earlier volume based on a large-scale quantitative study of environmental policy convergence, this volume uses a comparative case approach to study the mechanisms of policy convergence in four European countries. Identifying five basic mechanisms driving convergence—international harmonization, transnational communication, regulatory competition, imposition, and parallel problem pressure—the authors seek to understand how these mechanisms work to affect change (or not) in a country's domestic environmental policies. The two volumes together offer evidence of extensive policy convergence across European countries in the direction of more strict regulation.

While several scholars offer evidence of environmental policy convergence, David Vogel traces the divergence of state regulatory regimes in the United States and the European Union in The Politics of Precaution (2012). Vogel claims that the United States and the European Union have switched places when it comes to the stringency of their regulations around issues like air pollution, food safety, and chemicals and hazardous substances. The United States, once the leader in regulation around health, safety and environmental risks, has lagged behind Europe since 1990. California, once an “exporter” of more stringent regulatory standards to Europe, now borrows ideas from Europe, which moved beyond the United States in terms of the extent and span of its risk regulation. Vogel attributes this policy divergence to three factors: a shift in the political salience of risks (in the United States, salience has decreased among the public while in the European Union it has increased); changes in the political preferences of influential policymakers in the United States and European Union since 1990; and changes in the criteria used to assess risks. Vogel claims that the European Union has embraced more precautionary approaches to regulation, allowing policymakers to act in the face of scientific uncertainty, while the United States has emphasized scientific risk assessment and cost-benefit analysis, criteria that lead to less stringent regulation. He reminds us that the trajectory of environmental policies is shaped by domestic political contexts that may lead countries to look less alike over time rather than more alike.

Policy Process. Scholars in the past three years continued the tradition of using environmental policy topics to develop many of the major theories of the policy process.12 Researchers contributed empirical tests and theoretical development for the Multiple Streams Framework (e.g. Palmer 2015), the Punctuated Equilibrium Model (e.g. Busenberg 2013; Mondou, Skogstad, and Houle 2014), the Institutional Analysis and Development Framework (e.g. Arnold and Fleischman 2013), and the Advocacy Coalition Framework (e.g. Heikkila et al. 2014; Elgin 2015). Development of the relatively new Narrative Policy Framework (NPF) continues this tradition, as NPF scholars used the cases of wind power (Shanahan et al. 2013) and climate change (Jones 2014) to further build and refine the framework.

Beyond contributing to theories of the policy process, the literature has prioritized studies of agendas (47 articles, 12.0%), policy design (26 articles, 6.6%), and implementation (21 articles, 5.2%) over policy evaluation (7 articles, 1.8%) and feedback (no articles in the sample). Agenda setting scholarship included articles on advocacy group strategies and media framing. A common theme was identifying the agenda-setting power of the media and elites. News media outlets were found to have significant agenda-setting impacts by both Stoddard and Tindall (2015) and Jenner (2012), although it is important to keep in mind that the news media employs multiple frames and the presence of competing frames may mitigate their effects. Jenner’s work identified an interesting phenomenon where environmental news photographs had a greater effect on elites’ agendas than on the public’s agenda. Studies that focused on elites’ power to shape agendas, including Palmer’s (2015) study of EU biofuels policy entrepreneurs and Shin and Choi’s (2015) study of risk perception of climate change and energy in the United Kingdom, show that institutional power struggles limit elites’ influence.

Many of the policy implementation articles focused on long recognized environmental problems like pollution abatement and wetlands preservation, and highlighted the role of a bureaucrat’s personal experiences and attitudes in shaping implementation success. For example, Arnold (2014) finds that street-level U.S. wetlands regulators are more innovative when they are in touch with other bureaucrats through professional or peer networks. Denhardt (2014) shows that positive bureaucratic attitudes towards cost-benefit analysis predict its use as policy tool for German water policy. And Teodoro (2014) demonstrates that water utility managers who are engineers are more likely to fully comply with the U.S. Safe Drinking Water Act than non-engineers. These studies suggest that environmental scholars working on newer policy issues like climate change and sustainability need to consider the importance of buy-in from implementers as well as stakeholders.

Environmental policy scholars neglected the role of policy feedback in environmental policy processes. Only one article in the population of journal articles (but not included in the journal sample) explicitly used feedback concepts in it analysis. Jordan and Matt (2014) argue that climate change policy design should account for potential feedback effects and should include features that would maintain the policy over time. Layzer (2012) is one of the few scholars who explicitly drew on the social welfare literature and the ideas of scholars like Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson. In Open for Business, she argues persuasively that the environmental policy arena has exhibited policy drift and conversion similar to that found in U.S. social welfare policy.

We believe that more scholars should use theories and concepts that are loosely grouped into the policy feedback and policy retrenchment literature. Environmental politics is ripe with examples of policy feedback, whereby environmental policies have resource and interpretive effects that have reshaped subsequent politics. Environmental policies also build institutions and become institutionalized in a way that creates new facts on the ground. While environmental policy scholars may implicitly acknowledge such impacts and even detail them in their studies, they miss an opportunity to connect with policy feedback scholars by not explicitly using these theoretical constructs in their analyses. Moreover, we miss an opportunity to test, expand, and revise policy feedback theory with environmental policy case studies. Given the importance of environmental cases to building other policy process theories, this lack of attention to policy feedback theory is notable.


In this discussion, we show that the literature has risen to the challenge of studying the complexity inherent in environmental policy. Scholars looked at multi-layer and network governance, public participation and mobilization, the role and influence of interest groups and business interests, and policy convergence while studying important issues like climate change and natural resources management. The field has also posited important questions about how to encourage mobilization and participation for a wide variety of actors, how local governments can play a role in solving global issues, and how business interests shape policy outcomes for better or for worse. Yet, scholars left important areas unexamined in the literature in the past three years by focusing more on the developed world than the developing world, and barely addressing policy feedback and retrenchment. We encourage scholars to think about these gaps moving forward.

Bridget K. Fahey is a Ph.D. candidate in Political Science at the Maxwell School at Syracuse University, Syracuse, New York

Sarah B. Pralle is an Associate Professor of Political Science at the Maxwell School at Syracuse University, Syracuse, New York

1 There was no equivalent list for public policy or environmental policy journals. However, as shown in Table 1, this approach did capture important public policy and environmental policy journals.

2 Journals that appeared in both lists were Governance, the Journal of European Public Policy, Policy Studies Journal, Public Administration, and Regulation and Governance.

3 These journals were Environmental Politics, Environmental Policy and Governance, and the Journal of Environmental Policy and Planning.

4 The top 15 presses were: (1) Cambridge University Press, (2) Princeton University Press, (3) Oxford University Press, (4) University of Chicago Press, (5) Harvard University Press, (6) Cornell University Press, (7) University of Michigan Press, (8) Yale University Press, (9) University Press of Kansas, (10) CQ Press, (11) University of California Press, (12) Johns Hopkins University Press, (13) Brookings Institution Press, (14) Georgetown University Press, and (15) MIT Press. We did not include 2015 volumes because books tend to have more longevity than articles and 2015 books can therefore be included in the next review article.

5 The American Journal of Political Science and Political Behavior only had one environmental policy article published in the timeframe; each was automatically included.

6 The nine environmental topics and 19 policy theory dummy variables were not mutually exclusive. Although it was not the case, it was possible for an article to be coded as 1 (present) for all 28 dummy variables.

7 Percentages are reported to one decimal place and rounded up or down.

8 Scope is measured using dummy variables to account for which continents the article focuses on. The articles that examined more than one continent are counted towards both continents’ totals. Those articles that took on a truly global focus, like those studying United Nations conferences, are coded as globally focused. Unlike scope, scale is coded as a mutually exclusive variable and categorized into global, international, regional, multiple nations (without a regional focus), national, and subnational.

9 Often the multiple methods employed were either both qualitative or both quantitative approaches.

10 CPI is also found in climate mitigation policies and practices. See, for example, Rietig (2013).

11 Organized by the Danish Board of Technology, the World Wide Views on Global Warming program was a program that facilitated citizen deliberations in 38 countries on September 26, 2009 (Delbourne et al. 2013).

12 For instance, Baumgartner and Jones’ punctuated equilibrium theory was developed in part using nuclear power policy and pesticides regulation (2009); Elinor Ostrom’s Institutional Analysis and Design framework was influenced by her interest in environmental common-pool resources; and the Advocacy Coalition Framework had 128 empirical applications (57% of all applications) using environmental topics between 1987 and 2013 (Jenkins-Smith et al. 2014, 210).


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