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The Governance and Politics of Global Climate Change

Digging Theories in Environmental Policy and Management Seminar

Michele Betsill

Colorado State University

Since the mid-1990s, my research has focused on the politics and governance of global climate change, which means I am broadly interested in understanding and explaining the types of policies, institutions, laws, and rules that have been developed to steer society toward a low carbon future. I approach these issues from an international relations perspective, and my work is generally situated in literature and debates on global (environmental) governance where scholars seek to understand the changing nature of governing (or steering) society in the pursuit of public goals in the face of globalization (Andonova and Mitchell 2010; Dingwerth and Pattberg 2006; Keohane 2002; Rosenau 1995). Traditionally, the authority to govern global issues (issues that cut across national borders) has fallen to nation-states whose legitimacy rests on notions of sovereignty. Nation-state based global governance has relied heavily on hierarchical modes of governance including the negotiation of multilateral agreements and the creation of intergovernmental organizations. Today, the authority of the nation-state to govern global issues is being challenged by globalization, both in terms of reducing the ability of national governments to control what goes on within their border and empowering non-nation state actors to assert their authority to develop rules and steer behavior. This has led to the emergence of “global governance beyond the nation-state,” which is characterized by networked and market-based forms of governance involving a range of actors in the public and private spheres and occurs at multiple levels of social and political organization(Andonova, Betsill, and Bulkeley 2009; Bäckstrand 2006; Betsill and Bulkeley 2004, 2006; Bulkeley 2005; Conca 2006; Haufler 2009; Hoffmann 2011; Lipschutz and Mayer 1996; Paterson, Humphreys, and Pettiford 2003; Pattberg 2006; Slaughter and Zaring 2006). This raises important questions about the changing nature of authority in global governance and the effectiveness of governance arrangements that rely on the authority of actors other than national governments (Bernstein 2011; Bernstein and Cashore 2007).
My research focuses on global governance beyond the nation-state on the issue of climate change. It has now been widely documented that while national governments have struggled to agree on a comprehensive multilateral climate treaty, a broad array of climate governance initiatives have been developed at multiple levels—from the global to the local—driven by non-nation-state actors such as corporations, NGOs, and sub-national governments(Andonova, Betsill, and Bulkeley 2009; Betsill and Hoffmann 2011; Betsill and Bulkeley 2006; Betsill and Rabe 2009; Bulkeley and Betsill 2003; Bulkeley and Newell 2010; Gustavsson, Elander, and Lundmark 2009; Hoffmann 2011; Keohane and Victor 2011; Newell and Paterson 2010; Ostrom 2010; Rabe 2007; Schreurs 2010). My work addresses four general questions about the phenomenon of climate change governance beyond the nation-state: 1) Who governs climate change and by what authority? 2) What are the governance mechanisms being developed to address climate change and how do they govern? 3) What are the politics of governing climate change? 4) Does climate change governance moving society towards a low-carbon future?
Although my research is situated in the realm of global (environmental) governance, I don’t tend to rely on a specific theoretical perspective or methodology. Rather, my work is characterized by what Sil and Katzenstein (2010) call “analytical eclecticism, ” which they define as “an intellectual stance that supports efforts to complement, engage, and selectively utilize theoretical constructs embedded in contending research traditions to build complex arguments that bear on substantive problems of interest to both scholars and practitioners” (p. 411). Analytical eclecticism is characterized by: 1) a pragmatic ethos focused on the world of policy and practice; 2) interest in problems that are wide in scope (as opposed to narrowly defined theoretical puzzles); and 3) the goal of providing complex causal stories.
I’ve been drawn to analytical eclecticism for a couple of reasons. First, my research typically develops in response to interesting empirical observations rather than theoretical puzzles. Most of my projects come about because I want to understand something I’ve seen in the arena of climate change politics and governance, and I look to different theories and methods that help me analyze and understand different aspects of that particular phenomenon. That’s not to say I’m not interested in theory, but I’m more of a middle-range theorists interested in how theory can help us understand and explain a particular instance of a phenomenon and how that particular instance can help us theorize about that general phenomenon. Second, the majority of my research for the past 5 years has been collaborative, which has allowed me to draw on many different theoretical perspectives and methodological skills that push me beyond what I could do otherwise and I think has led to more interesting insights.
I am currently working on three projects on the politics and governance of global climate change. The first project—“State-Local Relations and the Transition to a Low-Carbon Future: A study of Colorado’s ‘New Energy Economy’”—looks at the politics of Colorado’s efforts to transition from an economy based on extractive energy sources to one based on clean and renewable energy. I am working on this project with Dimitris Stevis, a colleague in the political science department, and four political science graduate students at CSU. The project, which is funded by the CSU Clean Energy Supercluster, includes a case study of the Ritter Administration’s “New Energy Economy” initiatives; a survey of municipal officials in the state to document local efforts in the areas of climate change/environmental protection, energy, and economic development and assess whether and how local authorities have interacted with the new energy economy to advance their goals in these areas; and case studies of four communities in Northern Colorado to understand how actions at the local level are shaping the trajectory of the state’s energy transition. We have determined that the Ritter Administration’s efforts are part of a longer transition process that has been underway in the state since the 1970s and that the policies and programs associated with the “New Energy Economy” can be understood as an attempt to accelerate this process through “transition management” (Rotmans, Kemp, and Van Asselt 2001). We find that the trajectory of Colorado’s energy transition are shaped by interacting political and economic forces at the state, national and global levels and that there is a powerful constellation of forces working against the transition. In addition, it appears that some local authorities have gained access to material resources for municipal climate protection/energy policy but that these have been relatively modest and short-term and thus have not led to transformative change.
A second project is entitled, “Governance and Legitimacy of Carbon Markets.” This project is a collaboration with Matthew Hoffmann and Steven Bernstein (University of Toronto) and Matthew Paterson (University of Ottawa) and is funded by the Canadian Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council. This project explores how carbon trading came to be a central component of the global response to climate change, how different actors govern carbon markets, and how debates about the legitimacy of markets as a climate policy instrument are shaping the development of carbon markets as a climate policy instrument. We have created a database to document the ongoing development of carbon markets as governance practices and systems to deal with climate change even as multilateral treaty negotiations have stalled and argue that there remains a strong normative consensus about such markets, and a deepening set of transnational governance practices, which only partly depend on the interstate negotiations (Bernstein et al. 2010; Betsill and Hoffmann 2011). Despite this normative consensus, we find variation in carbon market discourse and practice We are currently using social network analysis to explore the role of a transnational emissions trading network in explaining why carbon markets discourse and practice have varied in Europe and North America (Paterson et al. 2011). This project will also involve a series of case studies in the US, Canada, and Australia to examine how transnational and local forces shape market development and politics.
The third project on “Transnational Climate Change Governance” comes out of a collaboration led by Harriet Bulkeley (University of Durham) and supported by a network grant from the Leverhulme Trust, which allowed 16 scholars to meet four times over three years. This project explores the ways in which climate change is being governed transnationally (that is across national borders but by non-nation-state actors). We have developed a database of 60 transnational governance initiatives operating in the climate change domain, building on our collective knowledge and allowing us to build on much of the case study research on transnational environmental governance which has focused on a few high profile cases (e.g. the Forest Stewardship Council and the World Commission on Dams) to establish a more general understanding of the character and importance of transnational governance. In a forthcoming article, we survey the landscape of transnational climate change governance by analyzing the 60 cases on a number of dimensions (Bulkeley et al. forthcoming). We find that such initiatives have some features in common—they are relatively recent (38% of initiatives were established after 2005); they tend to focus on mitigation especially in the energy sector and through markets; they are established by actors in the global North but usually involve actors from the global South in their operation; and they are engaged in sharing information, capacity building, setting targets and taking direct action on climate change. There are also some key differences. For example, we find two distinct groups of initiatives in terms of the governance functions they employ: one involved in providing funding, which on average have been founded earlier and tend to be hybrid in character (involving actors in both the public and private spheres) and often include action on adaptation, and one focused on rule-setting, which tend to be private (e.g. no public actors involved) and focused on mitigation. These findings point to the importance of considering patterns emerging across different types of initiatives and the relationships between them as critical in shaping the emerging governance landscape. We are in the process of writing a book which explores questions of why climate change governance has become transnationalized and seeks to explain particular patterns in the transnational climate governance landscape drawing on a range of different theoretical perspectives including rationalism, constructivism, complexity, governmentality, and critical political economy. We will also analyze issues of legitimacy and authority in transnational climate change governance and evaluate the effectiveness of these initiatives.



Andonova, Liliana B., Michele M. Betsill, and Harriet Bulkeley. 2009. Transnational Climate Governance. Global Environmental Politics 9 (2): 52-73.

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