2017 in Environmental Politics

Until we solve environmental problems, every year is an interesting one for environmental politics. In 2017, there were small and large gains. The Minamata Convention on Mercury entered into force and held its first meeting. China launched a national cap and trade system for its power sector, renewing motivation to secure access to the market through trading “Internationally Transferred Mitigation Outcome (ITMOs)” in the UN climate talks.

2017 saw a significant shift in the global agenda. Climate change used to dominate the attention of the public, scholars, and policy makers. Now, we’re talking about plastics and oceans. And, on all these issues, 2017 showed that when these major economies shudder, the world shakes, as China and the US took domestic action with international ramifications for climate change and waste.

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Five Advice Nuggets for New PhDs

Congratulations! You’ve earned a spot in a PhD program and are about to start on a new chapter in your professional life. I remember this time being exciting and confusing, particularly because I was coming from five years away from academia. In the early years, I stumbled around, finding my way.

Below are five advice nuggets for PhD students. Each one has tips from my own experience and crowd sourced from Twitter. We have the answers now, of course, because we’re on the other side of our dissertations. It’s easy to sit and dispatch advice. It’s a perk you’ll have one day too.

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From ORID to ORIT: Focused Conversations in the Classroom

It’s difficult times, perhaps especially for those of us teaching politics. Colleagues are debating how to approach situations like Charlottesville in their classrooms. Perhaps a trick I learned in my previous life as a facilitator could help (it’s worked for me in the classroom at least). It acknowledges how students feel, while keeping the focus on the facts, and honing critical thinking abilities.

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Jane Fonda & Parachute Activism

Jane Fonda is the latest celebrity to visit Canada’s crown jewel of greenhouse gas emissions. James Cameron, Neil Young, Leonardo DiCaprio, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Neve Campbell, Robert Redford, Darryl Hannah, and Bill Nye (among others) made similar journeys. Several viewed the facilities from the air and landed to visit First Nations peoples in Fort Chipewyan.

Celebrities touring the oil sands if the most visible form of what I call “parachute activism” – an activist from outside the community, even the country, arrives to protest a specific problem, or a symbol of a larger trend. Parachute activists lack local knowledge and context. As outsiders, they are largely ignorant of the nuances of political governance and certainly do not understand local narratives, cultures, and social institutions surrounding the target of their activism.

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Carbon prices victims of federal politics

Canada’ new carbon price is adept federal politics. It leaves the provinces with a series of tricky decisions. The policy is insufficient to meet our (meagre) pledge toward the Paris Agreement. It is also incremental, providing time the provinces and territories to get used to the idea and decide which instrument – tax or cap and trade – will work best for them. It dips Canada’s toes in chilly October waters long enough to accept the feeling.

What’s left to be seen is if Canadians will be angry with the federal government for creating the minimum price, or with the provinces for not giving them their money back. The carbon price takes effect in 2018. By that time, the provinces will have their policies in place, including whether or not the price will be revenue neutral. Provinces could follow BC’s lead and return the proceeds of a tax to their citizens.

Alternatively, Canadians could blame their governments for taxing them in the first place. Cap and trade applies to industries only. Companies buy and sell carbon credits, and in so doing set the price of carbon through the laws of supply and demand. Unlike a tax, the government does not see the revenue. There is nothing to return to citizens. While consumers may see some increased costs, something that is not guaranteed or the experience in other jurisdictions with cap and trade systems, they will not see a return from the carbon price in their wallets.

These decisions are only really difficult for politicians. Many companies are already on board, and indeed well ahead of Canada’s elected officials. Over 140 companies – including oil companies, airlines, banks and mining companies, joined the Carbon Pricing Leadership Coalition calling for a carbon price. Shell and other oil companies already have an internal ‘shadow’ price to anticipate and manage risk from future regulatory action. When an oil company says a carbon tax is a good idea, you know you’ve fallen behind.

All these discussions of prices are on one side of the ledger. Canadians will reap cost savings in the health system. We could save up to US$250 billion per year in health costs, more than offsetting the costs of mitigation, according to the WHO. We’ll have cleaner air, predictable precipitation and weather patterns, and fewer natural disasters. This is only good news to Canada’s economy and citizens.

A carbon price is one part of a climate policy. Renewable energy needs an even playing field, which could man increasing investment to leverage the sector’s already impressive job creation record. Or, it could mean reducing the $3.3 billion in fossil fuel subsidies Canada currently doles out. We’re already paying these companies to pollute. All this meagre carbon price does is get a little of our money back.

Clark's Carbon Pause Passes the Buck

Christie Clark’s climate plan buys time, not leadership. The government’s advisory panel recommended to increase the tax $10/tonne every year from 2018-2050, but the Premier hit pause. Clark passed the buck to the federal government, who would have to handle any fallout from a possibly unpopular tax decision.

In her comments on The House, Clark placed the blame on other province’s inaction. She stated that industries will move to other provinces without a carbon tax, where the cost of doing business is lower. In the climate world, this is known as carbon leakage. Emissions are not reduced, just moved elsewhere.

This underestimates the immobility of some large emitters. Some industries are place-based such as mines, oilsands facilities, or agriculture. Other industries have large set up costs. An incremental increase in a carbon tax would not be far less than the costs of dismantling in one place and setting up in another.

Instead, the plan relies on forests. Forests soak up carbon dioxide, but emit it when they are cut or burnt down. This province faces wildfires every year; the forest industry is still recovering from the pine beetle. It is not the time to rely on the forest sector to meet climate goals. It is creative carbon accounting, hoping to soak up the carbon spill into the air, rather than plug the source.

As Maclean’s surveyed the national situation: BC’s carbon tax is $30/tonne, a figure Alberta won’t approach until 2018. The cap and trade system used by Quebec, and soon Ontario, currently values carbon around $16/tonne (Maclean’s fails to mention that the price under a cap and trade system is set by the market and can change more quickly). All this to conclude, aptly, “The objective of a coherent national climate change policy should be a single, consistent price across the entire country.”

The assessment is correct. A single, consistent price provides regulatory certainty for industries and provinces. Whether your business is farming or cement, in BC or Newfoundland, you know the cost of doing business. Provincial leaders don’t need to worry about a carbon tax becoming an election issue. Canada’s climate policy is a patchwork quilt, mirroring the global picture of carbon markets.

The Canadian story of policy experimentation underlines the need for leadership. We are a (very) federal country; provinces control several (now) important portfolios. Equalization payment further support experimentation, providing provinces the funding to try new things. This equation of federalism plus equalization loomed in the background of the health care experiment in Saskatchewan. The last element is leadership. Without vision to reframe the debate about what government should do, and what goods we should (or in the climate case, should not) value, policy experiments never begin or grow.

Clark chose safe.  Now decision in federal hands, in cooperation with the provinces. Clark could have continued to show that economic growth can decouple from carbon emissions. That climate action is not only possible but popular.  Instead, she limped in with a soft plan before an election. This are not the things that leadership is made of. It will not secure us a consistent, cross-country carbon price.  The Prime Minister needs leaders, he is finding few.

Teaching Global Environmental Politics

This summer, I’m teaching my own course – Global Environmental Politics. It is a third-year course crunched into 6 weeks, 6 hours per week. In theory, this should roughly equal the time spent in a course over a regular term. In practice, I can cover about 2/3 the material I ordinarily would, requiring hard choices.

Teaching is political. Rather than a kitchen-sink approach to the field. I decided to focus on what broader goals I want the course to contribute to.  Content serves the larger lessons I would like to impart. Students rarely leave classes with an appreciation for a concept; they remember how an idea, concept, or lesson resonated with their lives. As the instructor, I have the ability, dare I say power, to direct the course in a given direction, exposing students to ideas about how to proceed along a more environmentally-conscious life.

The class serves, in its small way, two goals: that the students become conscious consumers and critical thinkers. Both these skills not only help realize a future generation more capable of protecting the environment, but also more able and empathetic global citizens.

Other than these, it is important to me to not focus exclusively on climate change. Yes, climate change is crisis. Yet, overlooking the health, environmental, and social ramifications of hazardous chemicals and wastes, overfishing, land degradation, and biodiversity loss is, to me, irresponsible. Not all environmental issues are climate-related, and can stand on their own in terms of normative, empirical, and theoretical importance.

So, here is my syllabus (Syllabus_POLI 375_Final). It is gender equal (which is not that difficult, thanks to http://womenalsoknowstuff.com/), in an attempt to buck the trend that women are underrepresented on IR course syllabi.

The syllabus under represents the material covered in the class, since I won’t lecture strictly on the material. This is my way to provide balance – if a reading, video or podcast take a pro-market or critical perspective, the lecture can propose another view.

The next trick is to somehow pull off this magic trick in front of 65 students.

Ratification Math of the Paris Agreement

Everyone needs to calm down, but just a little. Announcements that China and the US will ratify the Paris Agreement on Climate Change this year sparked speculation that the Agreement could enter into force by the end of 2016. The math shows that this is unlikely.

It is true that the Paris Agreement does not stipulate that the agreement will enter into force in 2020. The mandate was to “to develop a protocol, another legal instrument or an agreed outcome with legal force under the Convention applicable to all Parties, which is to be completed no later than 2015…and for it to come into effect and be implemented from 2020.” While 2020 was in the back of everyone’s minds, it was never put on paper, leaving the door open to early entry into force.

The math proceeds on two fronts. First, is a simple tally – 55 countries have to ratify the Kyoto Protocol. Signing it on April 22 is not enough. Signing the Agreement is a promise that a country will ratify it. A country then has to take domestic action – such as passing legislation, or executive action – to formally agree to be bound by the treaty. Only ratification makes a country a party to the agreement. And we need 55 parties for the Agreement to take effect (i.e., enter into force).

So far, three countries took the domestic steps to ratify: Fiji, Palau, and the Marshall Islands. Ratification can take time, depending on a country’s domestic legal and political structure. Getting 52 more countries on board within a year is a tall task.

Others have announced their intent. Tuvalu announced it would ratify very soon. India announced its intent to ratify the Agreement on April 22 – the day of a big signing ceremony in New York. This would make India the first major emitter to ratify. With the US and China, another 48 countries need to be on board. This is a daunting number of countries to pass domestic legislation quickly – we’re talking most of the African Continent, or the EU and 20 other countries – but the second front is where the math gets more tricky.

Second, the Agreement needs 55% of global emissions represented by those who ratify. This is a safeguard, to ensure that the major emitters of the world participate before implementation of the Agreement can get underway. The Kyoto Protocol’s experience underlines how important the participation of major emitters is to the success of the agreement, and how difficult it is to bring them on board.

The UNFCCC gleaned the information on emissions for calculating the emissions math. The three Pacific states that already ratified do little to help the cause on the second front. They contribute essentially nothing to global emissions, but are uniquely vulnerable. The heavy hitters will decide their fate, and the fate of the Paris Agreement.

The US and China represent 17.98% and 20.09% of global emissions, respectively. It’s a big dent – 38.07% of global emissions. China could pass domestic legislation to ratify relatively quickly.

The US may be able to ratify – or, more accurately acede to the Agreement – this year, and probably must do so this year. The US became the first party to the Minamata Convention on Mercury through unusual means. The Obama Administration acceded without the Senate, arguing that the Convention required nothing new of the US, and therefore executive action was sufficient. With the bottom-up approach of the Paris Agreement, the same case is possible. President Obama could accede to the treaty (internationally, similar to ratifying, it has the same effect in terms of the math) without the Senate.

With the US and China adding their emissions shares to the ratification bank this year, just 11.93% of global emissions remain. So close, but so far.

One state cannot put us over that threshold alone. There are two scenarios, both seemingly unlikely to fully play out in time for entry into force this year:

  1. A coalition of the ‘lesser’ major emitters: India does ratify the Agreement this year, adding its 4.10% to the tally. This leaves 7.83% – so, so close! Russia (7.53%) could not repeat history and deposit the linchpin ratification – as it did for the Kyoto Protocol. A coalition is necessary, including some grouping of Japan (3.79%), Brazil (2.48%), Canada (1.95%), Mexico (1.70%), Indonesia (1.49%), or Iran (1.30%).


Under this scenario, there are four combinations: India, Russia and one other major emitter; India and at least three of the other major emitters; Russia and at least two of the other major emitters, excluding India; or at least three major emitters, excluding Russia and India.


  1. The EU ratifies: When the US and China deposit their instruments of ratification, the EU becomes the linchpin, representing 12.08% of global emissions. In March, the European Commission started the many steps necessary to get the 28 member states to ratify the agreement. The EU will need time, more time than the average (future) party to the Agreement.

The last wrinkle that the Paris Agreement will not enter into force this year is the 90-day rule. The Agreement enters into force 90 days after the last country informs the Secretariat that they ratified the agreement. By September, both frontlines – 55 countries and 55% of global emissions – would need breakthroughs. That’s 6 months. International relations, and the domestic politics of 55 countries does not move that quickly.

Yet politics is often more about the message than the math. The Paris Agreement is premised more than many other treaties on the messages it sends to the markets – that change is inevitable and investments will flow toward greener technologies. Rapid entry into force will make countries’ actions transparent, and write the message to the markets in permanent ink.