Sep 10 2014


Reviewed by Danya Rumore, Massachusetts Institute of Technology

The book fails to provide a cohesive message or specific take-aways

Climate Change Adaptation in Practice: From Strategy Development to Implementation, Wiley-Blackwell, 2013

For those working in the field of climate change adaptation, the fundamental question is, “What does effective adaptation look like in practice?” We have many theories and ideas about how to help communities and ecosystems become more resilient; yet, just how these approaches will play out remains to be seen. Hence, it was with quite a bit of curiosity—as well as some skepticism—that I picked up Climate Change Adaptation in Practice.

The book draws together diverse case studies from the European Climate Change: Impacts, Costs, and Adaptation in the Baltic Sea Region (BaltCICA) project. The chapters, written by a range of academics and practitioners, review case studies ranging from efforts to support participatory adaptation decision-making in Kalundborg, Denmark, to ways of modeling climate change effects on groundwater in Hanko, Finland.  In so doing, the book seeks to illuminate a wide variety of technical and political approaches to preparing for and managing climate change risks.

While it does provide a snapshot of early adaptation efforts, possible technical approaches, and various engagement strategies, the book’s usefulness is limited.  The cases are largely descriptive, devoid of empirical evaluation. Although it is written in a scholarly style, the cases offer little by way of theoretical development. Additionally, like many scholarly collections, the book fails to provide a cohesive message or specific take-aways. Given that adaptation scholarship and practice are still in their early stages, a descriptive collection like this may prove useful to those looking for information on what is going on in communities worldwide, particularly the Baltic Region of Europe; however, beyond this, it is not clear that Climate Change Adaptation in Practice makes an important contribution to the field.

Jan 30 2014


Reviewed by Peter R. Mulvihill, Faculty of Environmental Studies, York University, Toronto, Canada

Worldwatch Institute’s latest edition of State of the World uncovers the rampant misuse of the term “sustainability” in marketing today and attempts to restore meaning to the cause.


State of the World 2013: Is Sustainability Still Possible?, by The Worldwatch Institute, Island Press, 2013, 200 pp.

This latest report in an ongoing series manages to be fresh and provocative, even as it reiterates messages that are depressingly familiar to many. More than a compilation of sobering news, trends and indicators, State of the World 2013 offers fresh perspectives and alternatives. At a monumental 34 chapters, it leaves few sustainability issues unaddressed, and it offers, as usual, a wealth of data and analysis.

While acknowledging the pitfalls of “sustainability” as an overarching term, the report seeks to add nuance in exploring the many dimensions of “true sustainability,” an even deeper and more complicated challenge than was probably imagined not so long ago. The implications are far reaching: novel interactions unfolding amidst increasing connectivity, speed and scale; footprint and planetary boundaries increasingly exceeded; and wicked problems and social inequities confounding solutions. Compared to earlier State of the World installments, the tone has shifted. In past decades a core message involved the possibility of a grand global turnaround. However, now it is clear that irreversible losses have been incurred, and we must turn our attention to more strategic management of diminishing options.

Notwithstanding the relentless gloom, some will be inspired by the many possibilities. For example, not all of the freshwater sustainability thresholds have yet been reached; increased consumption of anchovies offers an alternative to tuna collapse; opportunities for advances in renewable energy abound; and waste management solutions continue to be identified. In the education sector, greater emphasis on “Big History” may lay the groundwork for changing values and attitudes and re-engineering cultures.

Among the more provocative chapters, we are offered a highly critical examination of environmental studies programs and their “big tent” ethos, an exploration of missionary movements and their lessons for environmentalism and a discussion of the “Cuba Paradigm” as a possible sustainability model. On the strength of its comprehensive reach and insights, State of the World 2013 should be of considerable interest to both newer and older audiences.

Sep 27 2013


Reviewed by Kathleen Araújo, Harvard University

In this book, Joanna Lewis, provides a detailed account of China’s role in the global climate change situation and the innovative measures they are taking towards a greener future.

Green Innovation in China: China’s Wind Power Industry and the Global Transition to a Low Carbon Economy, by Joanna I. Lewis, Columbia University Press, 2013, 304 pp.

Recent international challenges, like the global recession and sovereign debt crises, may have caused some people to miss a subtle, but important development – China has become a leader in “newer” forms of renewable energy. The Asian energy technology latecomer (widely known for installing one coal-fired power plant a week) has created top-ranked wind and solar energy industries in recent years, leading some national policy-makers from other countries to ask how their own domestic efforts to do the same could be so quickly outpaced. In her book, Green Innovation in China, Georgetown University Professor of Science, Technology and International Affairs Joanna Lewis begins to answer this question by examining the rise of the Chinese wind industry.

In a well-researched argument, Lewis makes the case that China is becoming a hub for global innovation with domestic and foreign wind technology firms. Drawing upon interviews, policy documents, and energy data, she details the way in which China transformed itself from a country with no real experience in wind turbine manufacturing to one which can produce state-of-the-art wind technology systems and now leads in cumulative installed wind capacity. Acknowledging that conventional indicators, like R&D spending or patents, can be insufficient to capture the science and technology learning dynamics in play, she argues that licensing and government policy support were critical. She also includes discussion of issues like trade secrets, quality control, and slow grid connection, then speculates that intellectual property rights will probably become more important to Chinese companies as they becomes increasingly vested in wind technology exports. As a China policy consultant and scholar, Lewis brings an unusual, embedded perspective to her closing evaluation of competition and cooperation between the United States and China – the world’s largest energy consumers, greenhouse gas emitters, and economies.

While this book is accessible to a broad audience, it will be particularly valuable for policymakers and industry decision-makers interested in emergent technology markets. Broader questions about the efficacy of the World Trade Organization or debates about China’s role in global technology transfer leave ample room for a sequel. For now, though, those wanting to deepen their understanding of green jobs measures, intellectual property issues in emergent technology markets, or strategic partnering with China will not want to miss what Lewis has to say.

Mar 22 2013


Reviewed by Leah Stokes, Massachusetts Institute of Technology

Putting Social Movements in their Place: Explaining Opposition to Energy Projects in the United States, 2000–2005, by Doug McAdam and Hilary Schaffer Boudet, Cambridge University Press, 280pp

Social movement theory has typically focused on what many would call the dependent variable: successful mobilization. As a result, it is unclear how often mobilization occurs and whether or not it is successful. Instead of following this pattern, McAdam and Boudet seek to understand whether mobilization against energy infrastructure is a common or a rare phenomenon. They develop a unique research method, rooted in fuzzy set theory and qualitative comparative analysis (QCA). Focusing on energy infrastructure proposals, they randomly selected 20 cases, and after imposing some constraints, study 18 projects across 12 American states between 2001 and 2008. These include liquefied natural gas (LNG) terminals, nuclear power plants, cogeneration facilities, hydroelectricity projects and a wind farm. The authors are trying to find a middle ground between rigorous case research and large N statistical work.

Overall, they find very little mobilization: only one energy project out of 18 triggered a sustained social movement. A mere 50% of the projects experienced a single protest event. They suggest that three key factors affect social mobilization against energy projects: risk, political opportunity and civic capacity. In addition, they think context matters, including whether a community is experiencing economic hardship, has previously mobilized against a land-use project or already hosts a similar industry. Finally, they argue that political opportunity and civic capacity provide objective measures of whether a community could mobilize, while context helps people interpret whether or not they should mobilize.

The book presents a unique research approach and very rich findings. Future work could examine networked social movements against wind turbines, which seem to be increasing in prevalence.

Feb 1 2013


Reviewed by Kathy Araújo
, Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Harvard Kennedy School of Government

Benjamin Sovacool and Scott Valentine propose and evaluate a novel, interdisciplinary framework to explain key influences in nuclear adoption pathways.

The National Politics of Nuclear Power: Economics, Security and Governance, by Benjamin Sovacool and Scott Valentine,  Routledge, 292pp

Conventional policy writing on nuclear energy routinely turns to questions of safety and security, proliferation risk, siting, waste management, and opposition, among other considerations. However, much less is understood about underlying sociopolitical economy factors which shape national development trajectories. Benjamin Sovacool and Scott Valentine attempt to demystify this subject by presenting a provocative theory on conditions which shape propensities for nuclear energy development.

Extending earlier work, such as Henry Nau’s National Politics and International Technology: Nuclear Reactor Development in Western Europe (1975), Sovacool and Valentine analyze eight cases of nuclearized countries from North America, Asia, and Europe. Indicating a principally neutral stance on the acceptability of nuclear energy, the two argue that six conditions are historically essential to sustaining commercial nuclear power development: (1) national security and secrecy; (2) technocratic ideology; (3) economic interventionism; (4) a centrally controlled energy stakeholder network; (5) subordination of opposition to political authority; and (6) social peripheralization. Going further, they contend that this set of conditions must exist simultaneously for there to be robust and fluid development of nuclear energy. Sovacool and Valentine also observe that undemocratic regimes are where nuclear development tends to flourish.

Criticism could arguably challenge the scope of determinants and development that are evaluated, or the decidedly inductive nature of the study. Yet reasonable responses exist for both. For the former, the authors acknowledge the novel nature of their framework and encourage further testing. For the latter, statistical analysis could miss deeper and more complex explanations.

Fundamentally, this writing enhances our understanding of nuclear power in areas which intersect with sustainability, governance, and planning, as well as security and development. Taken together, the strengths of the book lie in its lucid discussion of nuclear technology, its cross-country assessment of discrete adoption pathways, and its predictive examination of relevant conditions. At a time when the world muddles through its post-Fukushima thinking on nuclear energy, this book enlightens with a fascinating and timely contribution.

Oct 9 2012

THE OIL CURSE by Michael Ross

Reviewed by Saleem Ali, University of Queensland

Michael L. Ross looks at how developing nations are shaped by their mineral wealth.

The Oil Curse: How Petroleum Wealth Shapes the Development of Nations, by Michael Ross, Princeton University Press, 296pp

The distortions in economic development that  natural resource wealth can cause have been well-studied for many years by social scientists. UCLA political scientist Michael Ross’s new book, The Oil Curse is premised on his view that hydrocarbon wealth has four key attributes that lead to its potential for being “cursed”: scale, source, stability, and secrecy. Hydrocarbon projects have massive capital investment (scale), are not funded by citizen taxation or innovation incentives and are hence less connected to democratic parameters (source),  are beholden to volatile commodity markets (stability) and have easily concealed revenues from oil, due to the contract norms between companies and governments (secrecy).

Ross further contends that the curse started to gain traction when state-run oil companies became more common. Such companies have much less accountability than privately held firms, and Ross considers their structure a major cause for perpetuating the “oil curse.” Therefore, although corporate executives may find Ross’s negative revelations about the essential lubricant of modern capitalism to be troubling, they can gain some solace that he strongly blames this outcome on government control of industry.

However, Ross remains nuanced about assigning culpability by also noting that private-sector management still needs some government oversight to be constructive. Ross’s key prescription to grapple with the oil curse is developing mutual accountability between the private and public sectors. Though he tends to make some broad causal statements and relies far too much on regression for his insights, Ross’s work is an important contribution to the literature on the consequential role of oil in development planning.

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