Last week I had the pleasure of attending the 2017 Environmental Politics and Governance Conference at Indiana University. I had not participated in the previous years, so I was quite curious to see where the study of environmental politics is going in political science.

In general, I was quite impressed with the conference. Many of the papers had good ideas on important topics and were sufficiently rigorous in execution that a meaningful discussion was possible. Such papers would have been impossible to imagine in the subfield just five years ago.

Although American politics and quantitative methods dominated, the conference did feature a wide range of studies from air pollution in China to international regimes in Antarctica. I was glad to see many graduate students presenting ambitious and interesting research.

But I also saw some pretty major challenges for the ongoing effort to mainstream environmental politics in political science.

A key issue with the conference agenda was the uneasy balance of substantive/methodological diversity and the ambition to break through to the leading journals of political science: APSR, AJPS, JOP.

Environmental issues are by their very nature interdisciplinary, and there are many good reasons to call for greater diversity in substance and methods. Alas, editors and referees of political science journals could not care less about any of this.

Breaking into our discipline’s top journals requires a relentless focus on contributing to political science and maximizing empirical rigor. I have banged my head against that wall with varying degrees of success. Mostly, I have failed.

At the conference, I saw a certain degree of wishful thinking. Scholars of environmental politics still seem to have a pretty poor understanding of modern standards in political science, and I did not see enough serious focus on perfecting papers for the brutal referee process at our leading journals.

If the authors listen to some of the more positive commentary and send their papers out too early, there will be many broken hearts and lots of frustration in the future. My comments were probably the harshest in the group, but that’s only because I wanted to make it very clear to the authors how much work remains to be done for a publication in a top journal.

I am slowly realizing that the problem with environmental politics in political science is pretty fundamental. The subject matter calls for interdisciplinary research, which is less rigorous and more confusing than disciplinary research by necessity — bringing disciplines is not much easier than convincing the GOP to embrace climate policy. But the professional standards of our discipline call for prestigious publications, and those publications require extreme obsession with disciplinary framing and research design.

 

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