Environment and energy are key themes across the social sciences. Rapid economic and population growth generate major global problems, such as climate change, and mitigating them depends on a sophisticated understanding of behavioral obstacles to sustainable societies. Because environmental and energy policies are formulated in political processes, political science must play a central role in informing policy formulation.
Over this past semester, I have taught a graduate seminar on the political economy of energy and environment here at Columbia University (syllabus). Having finished grading the final projects, this is a good time to look back and reflect on lessons learned.
Let’s begin with some background on the class. Of the eight students enrolled in the seminar, three were political science PhD students and give were sustainable development PhD students. The class achieved a perfect gender balance, with four male and four female students. Students hailed from the Americas, Asia, and Europe. Issues with small sample size notwithstanding, this diversity is great news for the field — the study of environmental politics has traditionally been dominated by white males.
Overall, I was impressed with the quality of the student projects. The final project was a proposal for a major study, and students proposed a wide range of empirically ambitious designs. I was particularly delighted to see that the proposals covered a wide range of topics (public opinion, technology adoption, international security, and electoral politics being prominent themes) but insisted on credible research designs.
Environmental politics as a field has suffered significantly from weak research designs, but the next generation seems to be ready to solve this problem. If all goes well, this will trigger a virtuous cycle and scholarship on environmental politics begins to play a much greater role in the leading journals in political science. Environmental economics has already made such a breakthrough over the past decade, and environmental political science is on the verge of a transformation.
While this is an exciting time to study environment and energy in political science, a major difficulty in teaching a doctoral seminar on the topic is the paucity of progressive research agendas around core theories. Some areas of environmental and energy politics, such as the trade-environment nexus and the tragedy of the commons, are undergoing progressive theory development. Others, such as climate policy and energy access, are clearly behind and the literature mostly consists of isolated case studies and thought pieces. For the next iteration of the class, I plan to put much more emphasis on identifying theoretical and empirically rigorous research that can be considered to contribute to progressive theory-building in the spirit of normal science.
Another challenge for teaching the topic is interdisciplinarity. The Columbia sustainable development PhD program, for example, heavily emphasizes economics. The political science students were more familiar with canonical political science works in other areas, whereas the sustainable development students had a firmer grasp of the environmental economics literature. This is a major practical difficulty because academe today is heavily biased against interdisciplinary research and instead rewards major contributions to specific disciplinary agendas. Another important consideration for me is to find ways to support rigorous and ambitious research both in political science and economics. Political economy as a unifying framework is suited for this purpose in principle, but I am myself much more familiar with the conventions in political science than with the conventions in economics – and academic debates are all about fluency in disciplinary language.
Overall, there is much reason for excitement and enthusiasm. The political economy of environment and energy offers huge potential both in terms of academic contributions and practical relevance. It is a data-rich environment with lots of low-hanging fruit. With improved graduate training, healthy obsession over research design, and some community building to improve the referee pool, the future is bright for the field. Come join us!