Climate Change and Public Administration: An Introduction

Nives Dolšak & Aseem Prakash


Image result for image of climate change post paris meeting


Climate change is among the defining issues of our time. In spite of the US withdrawal from the 2015 Paris Agreement, almost all countries of the world along with several US states and cities continue to work on climate mitigation and adaptation. Given the enormity of the climate challenge and the crucial role of public policy and administration in responding to its many dimensions, this symposium showcases blog-commentaries on important ideas and themes in climate policy.

But how to present this important research in an accessible way? Academics get frustrated when policy makers do not learn from our work. But academics also share some blame for this. For one, even educated readers outside our discipline often find it difficult to understand our technical and jargon-infused writings.

One might argue that technical communication and analytical rigor are the essential tool kits of our trade. We agree, but suggest that academics need to expand their tool kit in order to enhance the policy impact of their work. Specifically, they need to communicate their powerful ideas clearly and in an accessible format.

This is where blog-commentaries make an important contribution. With their direct, jargon-free language and short lengths, they allow readers to engage with our ideas. As co-authors of over 40 blog commentaries, we can attest to the enormous interest blog commentaries can generate among scholars, practitioners, and concerned citizens. Further, blog-commentaries can be easily read on smart phones that have emerged as important devices for accessing information.

If we are to be believed, the job description of academics just got tougher! They need to expand their skill set: in addition to publishing high quality and technical research in peer reviewed journals, academics must acquire expertise in public scholarship.

Public Scholarship in Climate Policy

We decided to work on a “blog-commentary symposium” to showcase high quality and interesting work on climate change and public policy. We thought Public Administration Review (PAR) will be the ideal journal to host it.  In addition to its status as the premier global public administration journal, PAR is read by a wide range of practitioners. Among professional journals, it is in a unique position to further public scholarship on climate policy.

We approached Jim Perry, PAR’s editor-in-chief, with a proposal outline and received a quick and favorable response. We were elated.  Thanks to Jim, PAR’s “Speak Your Mind” initiative is hosting probably the first blog symposium of its kind in social science. We would also like to note the enormous effort Paige Settles, PAR editorial assistant, has put into designing the article layout and the web-based production process.

The Call for Submissions (which was circulated on various listservs) asked contributors to address issues such as:

  • How have various units of government (city, county, state, national, and supranational) responded to this profound human challenge? Specifically, what policies have they put in place for both climate change mitigation and adaptation? Have they created new units/agencies or have they simply added climate change mitigation or adaptation to the existing ones?
  • How is the scale of policy provision and policy production decided?
  • How do administrative units measure performance of their climate policies?
  • To what extent have these policies met their stated objectives? What might be the best practices that other governments might adopt?
  • How do these units finance climate policies? Are these policies crowding out other pressing policy needs?
  • To what extent are governments rebranding existing polices under the label of climate change? What is motivating this policy fudging?
  • How have governments collaborated with nonprofits and businesses in developing and implementing these policies?

Who Responded?

Based on the Call for Submissions, we received 39 pitches. In terms of diversity, 21 of these pitches had women as authors or co-authors; 11 pitches were from scholars working in non-US institutions. Given the excellent quality of these pitches, we have commissioned 20 blog commentaries (14 of which have women as authors or co-authors; 5 of them are from scholars located in non-US institutions).  Once the authors sent in their 1,000 word blog commentaries, we copy edited these commentaries. All authors, without exception, responded very well to our sometimes extensive editorial and substantive suggestions.



What Insights does this Symposium Provide?

Much of climate policy literature focuses either on climate change mitigation or adaptation. Because many polices have implications for both mitigation and adaptation, we decided to organize blog-commentaries along analytic themes. This way these blog commentaries will illuminate core theoretical concepts in the study of public administration and show how these issues could be studied via the lens of climate change. Here are some lessons.

  1. After the US withdrawal from the Paris accord, several commentators believe that cities and subnational units will pick up the policy slack. In addition to reducing their own carbon footprint, local governments could use their purchasing power to encourage climate action in their supply chains (Darnall, et al.). Further, cities probably will experiment with innovative collaborative solutions to climate problems (Sterett and Eckert; Clarke and Ordonez-Ponce; Baldwin).

While the excitement about local leadership on climate change is encouraging, scholars and practioners should recognize challenges as well.

–           The ability of local governments for policy innovation depends on the existing relationships of power and administrative mandates between the federal and state/local governments (Ang; Fuhr et al.).

–           In the US context, there are potential legal problems in local governments unilaterally adopting climate mitigation policies. Such adoption can create a patchwork of different regulations across the country and therefore face a legal challenge under the Commerce clause (Coglianese and Starobin).

–           When climate mitigation policies do not generate immediate and visible benefits, local governments may be reluctant to embrace them (Opp and Mosier).

–           How local governments respond to climate action depends on what administrative unit is assigned to work on it. Ironically, environmental departments are perhaps not ideally suited, especially if the goal is to develop a multi-faceted policy response to climate challenges (Woodruff). Further, city executives with planning expertise and training seem to be more likely to commit their governments to climate change mitigation and adaptation than mayors elected for their political prowess (Gorina et al.).

–           Many voluntary programs that cities have embraced might require participating units to spend substantial resources to document their activities and emission reductions. These “transaction costs” might discourage cities to participate in these programs in the first place, or leave these programs once they have joined them (Bendlin).

  1. Policies to generate public awareness about climate change adaptation can work even in poor regions of developing countries if the message is conveyed in local languages and the required behavioral changes are culturally appropriate (Das).
  2. Market-based instruments have their pros and cons (Turaga and Sugathan). A crucial challenge about emission trading is how the emission quotas are distributed (Patnaik and Rivera). Thus, instead of simply buying into the mantra of efficiency, we need to investigate who wins and who loses from quota allocations, and how short term efficiency goals cohere with long term decarbonization efforts (Mildenberger).
  3. Opposition to climate initiatives may come from unlikely sources. A carbon tax may not secure support from the environmental community if it seeks to be revenue neutral instead of raising revenues to fund new climate policies (Lenferna). To be successful, climate policy needs to incorporate other societal goals, and its policy processes actively include a range of stakeholders.
  4. Relocating communities as a strategy to rising sea levels or extreme weather events is complex and problematic (Day). In addition to dealing with history of forced relocation, it is not clear if there is a clear policy framework to address all dimensions of climate change induced relocation (Herrmann). Creating new specialized agencies to oversee or coordinate mitigation or adaptation efforts will be required for successful climate mitigation and adaptation.
  5. Local governments do not function in isolation on climate policy (Sciara). They are often linked with other units and these sorts of linkages can influence how they address climate challenges (Palazzo et al.).

To conclude, we hope readers will find this symposium to be exciting and accessible. Given its focus on analytic themes, this symposium could serve as an excellent pedagogical tool as well. For example, professors could ask students to comment on specific blog-commentaries, or illustrate a specific idea introduced in a commentary with an empirical example. Students’ comments could be posted on PAR’s website to allow all PAR readers to engage with them. These sorts of approaches will encourage students to become active public scholars. The pedagogical opportunities are immense and we hope this symposium will encourage pedagogical innovation.

Nives Dolšak is Professor and Associate Director of the School of Marine and Environmental Affairs at the University of Washington, Seattle. She is also a visiting professor at the University of Ljubljana, Slovenia.

Aseem Prakash is Professor of Political Science, the Walker Family Professor for the College of Arts and Sciences, and the Founding Director of the Center for Environmental Politics at the University of Washington, Seattle.