Anxieties of Climate Change: Thoughts from the SSRC Working Group on Climate Change

It is not surprising that climate change was identified as one of the initial pieces of the Social Science Research Council’s Anxieties of Democracy program. Climate change is an ever-increasing threat. International agreements have been slow in coming and lack enforcement mechanisms, and in the United States, partisan politics has thwarted necessary steps toward mitigating greenhouse gas emissions. We are at a critical moment of understanding and at a critical moment in political time. We are in need of explanations for the current political situation and prescriptions for meeting the challenge. We are keenly aware of political philosopher John Dunn’s caution: “democracy is no talisman for ensuring satisfactory political outcomes.” Democracy may conflict with many of our most urgent purposes and deepest commitments. Is that the case with climate change? Anxiety is warranted.

To address these questions, the Anxieties of Democracy program 1 convened a working group on climate change. The group was originally proposed by Professor Robert O. Keohane in October 2014; Professor Nancy Rosenblum, who serves on the advisory committee of the Anxieties of Democracy program, supported its formation and agreed to be cochair. The climate change working group was the program’s initial engagement with a specific policy arena. Its purpose is to catalyze social scientific work and work in political theory on the politics of climate change policy.

Keohane’s 2014 James Madison Lecture, “The Global Politics of Climate Change: Challenge of Political Science,”2 challenged political scientists to bring their scholarly resources to bear on this enormous, complex, global, and in many respects unprecedented problem. The working group provides a venue for identifying key elements of the social science and the democratic theory of climate change policy. It assembles scholars from several disciplines, working from historical and comparative perspectives, to share, stimulate, and support research on some of the main issues. Our mandate is broad, and we decided to keep the working group small to ensure committed participation in shaping and guiding our work. 3

The subject, of course, is broad, encompassing international institutions, the comparative politics and economics of climate policy, American politics and policy-making in particular, and democratic theories of deliberation and participation. Deciding on an agenda for the first stage of the group’s work was a daunting but enormously stimulating business! The steps we took are instructive. They indicate the difficulty of selecting fruitful areas of study and fruitful approaches, and they indicate that leaving things out is a large part of the task–at the end of this narrative we refer to several areas we set aside. So, it is worth spelling out the process by which we approached anxieties of climate change in some detail.

At our initial meeting at the SSRC’s Brooklyn office in March 2015, we decided to break the climate change problem down into manageable pieces by creating three subgroups focused on three areas of research. The first area is civil society and climate change, with a focus on how the climate change question is framed and whether and how political mobilization takes place. The second group looks at breaking up the comprehensive problem of climate change into smaller pieces, focused on linkages among issues, sectors, countries, and regions, consistent with the “bottom-up” architecture that later emerged at the Paris meeting in December 2015. The third group took on the task of studying whether key aspects of climate change call into question orthodox assumptions in normative democratic theory.

Each subgroup was then charged with articulating areas for research. Toward this end, the members of each subgroup produced a summary of where scholarship in its area stood, a bibliography of key publications, and a set of proposals for the direction of new research. Those papers–a combination of comprehensive literature review and agenda-setting–should be of use to scholars generally and will be available on the SSRC website this spring (2017).

At a meeting in November 2015, the climate group as a whole discussed the three assessments of the state of scholarship and proposed areas for research. Together we refined the research questions and broke them down into multiple components. One set of questions focuses on public opinion and political mobilization in response to climate change. The second focuses on the politics of climate mitigation strategies. The third examines how climate change challenges prevailing views of deliberation and participation in contemporary democratic theory.

Mobilization on Climate Change

Our discussion of mobilization began with a puzzle: Why is there so little mobilization on issues of climate change, as compared to issues such as race and poverty? This question leads naturally to a research question: Under what conditions is mobilization more or less likely to occur on issues of climate change? Our discussion identified three distinct potential research approaches, each focused on issues of mobilization but using different research strategies:

(1) Comparative empirical study of mobilization campaigns with different framings. In a variety of countries at a variety of times, activists have sought to mobilize publics on climate change; during the same time period as these efforts, there have been mobilization attempts also on non-climate-change issues. How did the outcomes of these campaigns differ, and what are the conditions (explanatory variables) that seem to explain variation in outcomes?

(2) In-depth interviews with individuals. On the basis of public opinion polling, we expect most respondents to say they regard climate change as genuine and caused substantially by human action; on the basis of observation of lack of mobilization, however, we expect very few respondents to have taken any action related to it. In-depth interviews would probe for attitudes explaining this combination of concern and inaction.

(3) Experimental analysis with different framings. One very promising research direction is to use experiments of various kinds, including survey experiments. Such experiments will need to be designed with particular attention to the audiences of the messages and to focus not just on attitudes but also on actions. One possible experiment that we discussed could take as the outcome variable subjects’ allocation of funding to different causes. The treatment could be priming, perhaps a month earlier than the survey, with messages about the seriousness of climate change. Such messages could be varied on a scale from coolly objective to emotionally laden.

The Politics of Climate Mitigation Strategy

We identified three research directions under this heading:

(1) The comparative political economy of climate strategies. This topic is closely related to issues of social mobilization, particularly the question of how formal political institutions mediate between citizen inputs and policy outcomes. Among and within democracies there is substantial variation in climate strategies. In the vicinity of 40 jurisdictions have adopted carbon taxes or cap-and-trade regimes, either to limit emissions or for other purposes–most notably the European Union. Many other democracies, including the United States, Canada, and Australia, have not–although certain provinces or states in Canada and the United States have done so. There is substantial empirical material available to ask some systematic comparative and historical questions on these topics.

(2) The impact of international mobilization on domestic politics. For over 35 years scholarship in international political economy has emphasized that what happens at the international level–institutions and interactions–affects domestic politics as well as vice versa. This “second image reversed” perspective4 is clearly relevant to issues of climate change. How does variation, especially over time, in international institutional arrangements and associated policies, affect national policy? Insofar as major decisions on climate change are made in Paris, how will they reverberate in democratic politics at the national level?

(3) Conditions for coordination on technical standards and its significance in affecting climate strategies. The idea here is that cooperation–taking costly actions that are only valuable to the actor taking them if other actors do the same–is difficult; but coordination–acting in concert to take actions that will even pay off, if others do not reciprocate–is relatively easy. On this logic there should be more emphasis on coordination, which often takes place over technical standards as in the Montreal Protocol.

Climate Change Challenges and Democratic Theory

We identified aspects of climate change that have been comparatively neglected by political theorists and by historians interested in democratic decision-making and participation. We focus on two: standard models of the role of science and standard models of the role of affect. We ask how climate change challenges these, whether these challenges are unique to climate change policy, and how altering assumptions about science and emotion might alter normative understandings of democracy.

(1) Science and Democratic Decisions

What are the responsibilities of scientists and democratic publics–legislators, citizens, media, and other political actors and shapers of the climate narrative–for the use and abuse of science in understanding and responding to climate change? Among the topics on the agenda for exploration are:

• Assessing the range of views on the proper role of scientific authority: deference to expert authority; rejection of scientific consensus (in this and other contexts “denial” of scientific authority as elitist, captured, partisan, or even the product of conspiracy); and “scientism,” meaning complacency that scientific progress will provide the answer to the problems science (and economic organization) creates.
• Theorizing an alternative division of labor between scientific authorities and democratic citizens is central to this inquiry. What networks and institutions enable this division of labor? Is the challenge of climate change unique?
• A related question zeros in on the move from norms of research and technical communication internal to the scientific community to scientists’ responsibility for translation and modes of communication sensitive to the political reception of their work. Why and how might scientists take into account the ideological context and mind-sets that will embrace or reject their authority? Whether and how to combine expert knowledge and political knowledge in communication to the public–or to differentiated publics?

(2) Affect and Democratic Participation

What place do democratic theorists afford emotion, fear in particular, in political understanding and activism? The history of political thought assigns central place to fear as a catalyst for political action and as an instrument of political manipulation and control. We could expect fear to play a part in responses to the possibility of climate catastrophe, and arousing fear to be central to advocacy for the urgency of collective action. Yet, contemporary theories of popular deliberation and participation–in Enlightenment models, pragmatist theory, epistemic, and deliberative democratic theory–commonly neglect or disparage emotion. Has fear’s reputation as an obstacle to democratic decision-making been painted with too broad and unhistorical a brush? What can we learn from the history of political thought on the manipulation of fear? Among the topics for exploration are:

• How democratic theorists cabin or admit affect in accounts of deliberation, participation, and institutional design. What is the significance of these theoretical moves for how democracy ought to confront climate change?
• How should normative theorists make use of the work of political psychologists who debate the positive and negative role of affect in framing issues, in mobilizing political participation, and in political cognition?
• In addition to the manufacture of fear to produce mobilization for climate change policy on the one hand and resistance to climate change policy on the other–i.e., job loss, energy costs, etc.–other dynamics are at work. One is the normalization of fear resulting in complacency and procrastination–that is, the disconnect between conditions that should generate rational fear and the apparent absence of this passion. Another is the constructive role of “rational fear” in political agency. We are interested too in the role of hope. What does democratic theory–contemporary and historical–contribute to our understanding of hope and fear?

An Initial Conference

With this rich agenda in hand, the working group chose to stimulate new research by convening a meeting of scholars, particularly younger scholars, who are either working on these questions or are prepared to reorient their work to questions of climate change policy. We cast our net widely, issuing a general invitation to scholars to submit applications for participation in a conference at Princeton University on November 10-12, 2016. From these proposals the working group culled eighteen paper proposals for presentation. (Generous funding was provided by the Climate Program at Princeton University.)

The panels were chaired by Robert Keohane and Nancy Rosenblum. The papers were, with one or two exceptions, works-in-progress. The discussion–aimed at critiquing argument, evidence, method, and conclusions–was lively and constructive. There was a good mix of political analysis, policy proposals, institutional analysis, and attention to normative facets of each paper. The final session was devoted to airing thoughts about the public role of scholars: whether and in what capacity academics enter the political storms around climate change. We were impressed with the enthusiasm with which the group–especially the younger scholars–entered this discussion of the professional and civic costs and benefits of scholars’ political engagement. The anxiety of climate change is mirrored in anxiety about scholarship/activism.5

The papers, grouped under five thematic headings, were presented in the following panels.

Entrenched Conditions

Nancy L. Rosenblum

Melissa Lane
Professor of Politics, Princeton University


“What Would it Mean to Understand Climate Change?”
Deborah R. Coen
Professor of History, Barnard College

“Lack of Trust and the Deployment of Clean Technologies: A Research Design”
Michaël Aklin
Assistant Professor of Political Science, University of Pittsburgh

“Statehood Experience, Legal Traditions and Climate Change Policies”
James Ang
Professor of Finance, Florida State University
Per Fredriksson
Professor of Economics, University of Louisiana

Institutions and Climate Change

Robert O. Keohane

Michael Oppenheimer
Albert G. Milbank Professor of Geosciences and International Affairs, Princeton University


“Nitrogen Governance Post-COP 21”
David Kanter
Assistant Professor of Environmental Studies, New York University

“Enhancing Transparency in the Paris Agreement”
Henry Jacoby
William F. Pounds Professor of Management Emeritus, Massachusetts Institute of Technology
Y.-H. Henry Chen
Research Scientist: The Science and Policy of Global Change, Massachusetts Institute of Technology

“All Climate is Local: Provincial Preferences and Coal in China”
Meir Alkon
PhD Candidate in Politics, Princeton University
Audrye Wong
PhD Candidate in Security Studies, Princeton University

Public Opinion

Robert O. Keohane

David Konisky
Associate Professor of Public and Environmental Affairs, Indiana University, Bloomington


“Climate Change: US Public Opinion”
Patrick Egan
Associate Professor of Politics and Public Policy, New York University
Megan Mullin
Associate Professor of Environmental Politics, Duke University

“Community Reactions to Extreme Weather Events”
Hilary Boudet
Assistant Professor of Sociology, Oregon State University
Doug McAdam
The Ray Lyman Wilbur Professor of Sociology, Stanford University

“Issue Framing, Mobilization, and NGO Influence in Global Climate Politics”
Jennifer Hadden
Assistant Professor in the Department of Government and Politics, University of Maryland

Representation, Coalitions, and Climate Change

Robert O. Keohane

Jessica Green
Assistant Professor of Environmental Studies, New York University


“Information, Accountability, and American Climate Policy: Proposal for a Field Experiment”
John Marshall
Cecil and Ida Green Professor of Oceanography, Massachusetts Institute of Technology
Johannes Urpelainen
Associate Professor of Political Science, Columbia University

“Congressional Irresolution and Climate Change Policy”
Eric Beerbohm
Professor of Government, Harvard University

“Power Politics: Renewable Energy Policy Change in the US States”
Leah Stokes
Assistant Professor of Political Science, University of California, Santa Barbara

“The Logic of Double Representation in Climate Change Policymaking”
Matto Mildenberger
Assistant Professor of Political Science, University of California, Santa Barbara

Emotion and Risk

Nancy Rosenblum

Johannes Urpelainen
Associate Professor of Political Science, Columbia University


“Signaling and Sanctioning: Old Solutions to a New (Climate) Problem?”
Ezra Markowitz
Assistant Professor of Environmental Conservation, University of Massachusetts, Amherst

“The Wages of Fear and the Promise of Hope: How Should We Feel When We Talk About Climate Change?”
Alison McQueen
Assistant Professor of Political Science, Stanford University

“Long-Term Risk Governance: When Do Societies Act Before Crisis?”
Rachael Shwom
Assistant Professor of Climate and Society, Rutgers University
Bob Kopp
Associate Professor of Earth & Planetary Sciences, Rutgers University
Associate Director, Rutgers Energy Institute


The Working Group on Climate Change is ongoing. Our three subgroups remain intact, and we are currently discussing how to best move ahead with research. Several elements we had set aside when we set our initial agenda kept emerging in discussion, and we are considering turning to them now. Among them are geo-engineering and the political and policy issues–including distributional issues–surrounding adaptation to climate change. Suggestions will be most welcome.

  1. The Anxieties of Democracy program receives generous support from The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, the Ford Foundation, the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, and the Rockefeller Brothers Fund.
  2. Robert O. Keohane, “The Global Politics of Climate Change: Challenge for Political Science,” PS: Political Science & Politics, 48, no. 1 (2015): 19–26, doi:10.1017/S1049096514001541
  3. We were gratified by the enthusiastic reception to our invitation to join the working group by Professors Scott Barrett (Columbia University), Jessica Green (New York University), David Konisky (Indiana University), Melissa Lane (Princeton University) Doug McAdam (Stanford University), Michael Oppenheimer (Princeton University), Naomi Oreskes (Harvard University), and Johannes Urpelainen (Columbia University).
  4. Peter Gourevitch, “The Second Image Reversed: The International Sources of Domestic Politics,” International Organization 32, no. 4 (Autumn, 1978): 881-912,
  5. Paper abstracts from the Princeton conference will be posted on the SSRC’s Anxieties of Democracy website this coming April. It is understood that most of the papers are works-in-progress, and that they will continue to undergo revision, in part in response to the comments provided at the workshop. Final versions will be made available fall, 2017.
About the Author
Nancy Rosenblum is Harvard University Senator Joseph Clark Professor of Ethics in Politics and Government Emerita. Her field of research is historical and contemporary political thought. Rosenblum's most recent book is Good Neighbors: The Democracy of Everyday Life in America, published by Princeton University Press in 2016. She is editor of Thoreau: Political Writings, Cambridge Texts in the History of Political Thought. Rosenblum is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. She is past President of the American Society for Political and Legal Philosophy, past Vice-President of the American Political Science Association, past Board Member of the Russell Sage Foundation, and past Chair of Harvard’s Department of Government, from 2004 to 2011. She is currently Co-Editor of the Annual Review of Political Science, serves on the Anxieties of Democracy program’s Advisory Committee, and co-Chairs its Working Group on Climate Change.

Robert O. Keohane is the Professor of International Affairs at Princeton University. He is the author of After Hegemony: Cooperation and Discord in the World Political Economy (Princeton University Press, 1984/2005) and Power and Governance in a Partially Globalized World (Psychology Press, 2002). He is coauthor of Power and Interdependence (with Joseph S. Nye, Jr; Pearson, 1977/2012), and of Designing Social Inquiry (with Gary King and Sidney Verba; Princeton University Press, 1994). He has served as the editor of International Organization and as president of the International Studies Association and the American Political Science Association. He won the Grawemeyer Award for Ideas Improving World Order, 1989, and the Johan Skytte Prize in Political Science, 2005. He is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the American Philosophical Society, and the National Academy of Sciences; he is a Corresponding Member of the British Academy. His most recent papers (co-authored with different partners) include “Contested Multilateralism” (Review of International Organizations, December 2014); “Anti-Americanism and Anti-Interventionism in Arabic Twitter Discourses” (Perspectives on Politics, March 2015), and “Organizational Ecology and Institutional Change in Global Governance” (International Organization, Spring 2016). He cochairs Anxieties of Democracy's program Working Group on Climate Change.