Teaching Environmental Politics

I recently decided to split my environmental politics course into two rotating courses — one on US Environmental Politics and Policy, which I taught this past spring, and one on Global Environmental Politics, which I will teach next spring.  In thinking about how I would teach the latter course, I encountered an interesting tradeoff between emphasizing environmental issues in international relations and comparing environmental governance across countries.  I was curious about how other professors have dealt with this tradeoff, and exploring it further with them in person.  I therefore wrote and presented a paper on the topic, “Engaging the International Relations and Comparative Politics Nexus:A Content Analysis of Global Environmental Politics Syllabi and Texts,” at the International Studies Association annual conference in Atlanta this past spring.  I found that the 43 global or international environmental politics syllabi I analyzed did not cover a common set of issues, concepts, or theories.  They also generally did not take a comparative national perspective, and were more likely to focus on international issues and institutions.  While this lack of a holistic, multi-level approach to the teaching of environmental politics is concerning, it also represents an opportunity to more effectively bring together the insights of comparative politics and international relations scholars on environmental challenges. 

AESS in San Diego!

AESS logoEver since my first year at Davidson, I’ve been teaching a course called Environmental Social Sciences, which is a required foundation course for our environmental studies major and minor.  Given its breadth and complexity, it has gone through several iterations — the first time I taught it (with Matt Samson) we organized it around different issues and problems, while the second time I took a more thematic approach, organizing the syllabus around major themes such as power, markets, and culture.  The challenge with such a course is how to effectively bridge the many social science disciplines that deal with environmental challenges — without getting spread too thin.  I thought it might be useful to systematically look at how other teacher/scholars have come at this problem, and I presented the results of my exploration at the 2015 annual conference of the Association of Environmental Studies and Science (AESS). It was held on the UC San Diego campus, and I continue to find it a great opportunity to meet and share ideas with colleagues from a diversity of disciplines and interests.  If you are interested, you can view my presentation below.

International Environmental Communication Association

IECA logoIn June 2015, I had the opportunity to attend the International Environmental Communication Association’s Communication and the Environment conference.  The conference was held on the University of Colorado’s Boulder campus, which was beautiful at this time of year.  I really enjoyed the panel and plenary sessions I attended — some great work by communication scholars on a fantastic range of issues.  I presented work on values activation that I am collaborating with Chris Johnson, one of my students at Davidson, and Brian Southwell, a colleague from RTI, UNC, and Duke University.  The audience was really engaged and provided some helpful feedback on our research.  The paper is now under review and we hope to publish it soon!  In the meantime, you can read the abstract here: https://theieca.org/conference/coce-2015-boulder/presentations/bridging-values-divide-communicating-and-activating.

Paper published in Business and Politics

How do businesses signal their credibility to their potential customers and other stakeholders?  This is a particularly important question in the context of environmental product claims, given the high levels of distrust that exist among consumers.  My article published in Business and Politics addresses this question, and develops a novel theoretical framework that builds on the literature on signaling theory, legitimacy theory, and agency theory.  It then applies this framework to an analysis of my dataset of 245 cases of eco-labels and sustainability ratings, and reveals the importance and complexity of independence, transparency, and expertise as signals of credibility.   You can access the article at the following link: http://www.degruyter.com/view/j/bap.2015.17.issue-2/bap-2014-0028/bap-2014-0028.xml?format=INT.

Paper published in Political Research Quarterly

My paper, “Independent Labels? The Power behind Environmental Information about Products and Companies,” has been published by Political Research Quarterly as an OnlineFirst article. The paper develops a method to estimate the power of different actors over an organization, and then uses this method to analyze the power of the public, private, and civil sectors within an original dataset of 245 cases of product and corporate environmental evaluations, such as ENERGY STAR, LEED Certification, and Newsweek’s Greenest Company Rankings. You can access it at the following link: http://prq.sagepub.com/content/68/1/46. The print version will be included in the March 2015 edition of PRQ.


AESS 2014: Association for Environmental Studies and Sciences in NYC

AESS conference logoI attended the fifth annual meeting of the Association for Environmental Studies and Sciences (AESS) last month.  I had attended the inaugural meeting in Wisconsin in 2009 and the third meeting in Santa Clara in 2011, and had very much enjoyed these interdisciplinary gatherings of scholars who study the environment and society.  This meeting was hosted by Pace University in New York City, which was a nice change of pace from the less urban venues of past meetings.

I spoke on a panel focused on environmental policy, and presented some of my research on “The Meaning of  Embedded Values in Environmental Certifications and Ratings.”  It was a great opportunity to talk about my plans for the second chapter of my book manuscript, which analyzes the development of information-based environmental governance strategies.  In this particular chapter, my goal is to explore the role of values in determining the extent to which consumers and organizations pay attention and respond to sustainability ratings and labels.  I mapped out some of the ideas I want to cover in the chapter in the presentation, and received some helpful questions and feedback that I am looking forward to incorporating into my next draft.

I also attended several other interesting panels at AESS, including ones on the Montreal Protocol, sustainable business, synthetic chemicals and society,  and US climate policy.  One of the highlights of the meeting was the field trip I went on to the new Sims Recycling Plant in Brooklyn.  It was an odoriferous but fascinating tour of where now much of New York City’s recyclable materials goes for processing.  Supposedly it is the largest recycling facility of its kind in the US.  They have an educational exhibit and classroom for local schoolkids and citizens (and environmental studies conference participants) to learn more about the recycling process.  See the photos below for a glimpse into that process — and a great view of NYC from the facility!

NYC recycling plantGraham Bullock @ NYC recycling plantNYC skyline NYC recycling plant

ISEAL’s Global Sustainability Standards Conference

location of ISEAL conferenceIn May, I attended ISEAL’s Global Sustainability Standards Conference in London, England.  ISEAL is an alliance of standards organizations, such as FairTrade International, the Rainforest Alliance, and the Forest Stewardship Council, that is working to “to strengthen sustainability standards systems for the benefit of people and the environment.”  Amy Jackson, ISEAL’s Senior Credibility Manager, had invited me last year to speak on a panel at the conference, and I thought it would be a great opportunity to learn more about the organization, meet both practitioners and scholars working on sustainability standards, and share some insights from my research.

The title of the panel was “The Claims Jungle,” and focused on “how to improve consistency and trust in claims and labeling and avoid label confusion and misleading claims.”  I was fortunate to have three distinguished individuals with me on the panel with rich and diverse sets of experiences relating to sustainability standards —

  • Amanda Long, Executive Director, Consumers International
  • Adam Lavis, Senior Policy Adviser – Sustainable Business, UK Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs
  • Blake Lee-Harwood, Communications & Strategy Director, Sustainable Fisheries Partnership

My talk started off the session, and provided an overarching framework for thinking about the current “claims jungle.”  It also laid a foundation for the insights from the other panelists and their various backgrounds.  Our combination of academic, consumer, government, business, and NGO perspectives made for a great blend of perspectives on the cacophony of labels that have emerged in recent years.

The rest of the conference was engaging as well — representatives from businesses such as IKEA, McDonalds, Chipotle, Mars, and HSBC, advocacy organizations such as Greenpeace and WWF, and a host of  certification organizations spoke at a wide range of plenary and breakout sessions.  While I didn’t see any “magic bullets” to the challenges that sustainability standards face, it was clear that there are many innovative efforts to to make these standard systems work as best they can.  I had the opportunity to meet and talk with a good number of the conference attendees who are working on these initiatives, and look forward to following up with them and learning more about their work in the future.

The conference was held at The Crystal on Royal Victoria Dock in East London, which is a very new and “green” conference facility (with Outstanding BREEAM and Platinum LEED accreditation) built  by Siemens that explores the future of cities (see photo above).  It features “the world’s largest exhibition focused on urban sustainability,” which was indeed very impressive and well-designed.  You can learn more about the facility and the exhibition by clicking here.

Duke Nicholas School of the Environment Seminar Series

Duke Nicholas School logoLast week I gave a talk as part of Duke’s Nicholas School of the Environment Spring Seminar Series, which is organized by the Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions and the University Program in Environmental Policy.  The goal of the series is  to feature “leading experts discussing a variety of pressing environmentally focused topics,” and last fall Professor Erica Weinthal of the Nicholas School had asked if I had wanted to present some of my work on environmental certifications and ratings as part of the series.  I thought it would be a good opportunity to share some of the work I have been doing during my sabbatical, and so agreed to give a talk on “The Purveyors of Green: The Organizational Legitimacy of Eco-Labels and Sustainability Ratings.”

It actually turned out to be perfect timing to do this presentation, because I had just received an invitation to revise and re-submit an article on precisely this topic.  I am also in the process of working on Chapter 2 of my book manuscript, which is also focused on the organizational legitimacy and credibility of information-based governance strategies.  I was particularly interested in getting feedback on a new conceptual framework I have been working on that uses principal-agent and delegation theory to connect the concepts of legitimacy, credibility, and accountability.

A good mix of students and faculty attended the talk, including some from outside the Nicholas School, which was nice to see.  I got about halfway through the talk before questions from the audience started coming in, which was great as it allowed for more interaction and back-and-forth about my research.  Audience members were interested in discussing not only my theoretical model, but also learning more about my research methods and empirical results, and it was nice to have the opportunity to talk about them in more depth.  Definitely a helpful discussion, and I plan to incorporate many of the comments into my next drafts.

Midwest Political Science Association (MPSA) Annual Conference

mpsa chicago booklet coverEarlier this month, I made a quick trip up to Chicago to present a paper at the Midwest Political Science Association (MPSA) Annual Conference.  I was on a panel titled “Understaniding Opinions on Contemporary Issues,” and presented a revised version of the carbon tax paper that Alex Theodoridis and I have been working on.  We had been able to incorporate the feedback we had received from colleagues at Duke into the new version, which was entitled “Respond and Deliver? Examining the Risks and Rewards of Responsive Accommodation in the Politics of Climate Change.”  In particular, we had changed how we presented the data, and were looking forward to hearing the impressions of other political scientists.

Turnout was unfortunately pretty low, perhaps because of the applied focus of the panel and its lack of a clear connection to the sub-fields and sections of MPSA.  Nevertheless, the discussant who had read our paper, Donald P. Haider-Markel from the University of Kansas, had some very helpful comments on the paper and was generally very positive about both our conceptual framework and methodological approach.  Several audience members also had some interesting insights about how to interpret our results.  Our next steps are to make our final revisions and submit the paper, hopefully later this spring!

Duke University Political Science Department Seminar Series

Duke campusLast month, I had the opportunity to present a paper at Duke University’s Behavior and Institutions (B&I) Seminar Series.  The series is hosted by the Political Science Department at Duke, and held in their beautiful new space in Gross Hall (right).  I presented the paper on carbon taxes that I am working on with Alex Theodoridis and had presented in DC at the Dupont Summit.  We had made some significant revisions to it since then, and were looking forward to getting comments from a more academic audience.

Turnout at the seminar was great, and included a mix of graduate students, post-docs, and faculty members.  I had invited a few faculty members from outside political science and around campus who I thought might be interested in our work, and was glad to see that several colleagues from the Energy Initiative, Nicholas School, Law School, and Business School were able to attend.  I received some very insightful comments about the paper that will help guide our next round of revisions.  They also pointed to some interesting directions for future research, which we look forward to following up on as well.