Many of the barriers to progress in addressing environmental problems, such as climate change, are political. We argue that politics should not be seen only as a constraint but be recognized as a target of intervention to advance environmental solutions. We use the example of climate change to illustrate how insight into politics can help policymakers craft strategies to address three gaps: the ambition gap, the implementation gap and the international action gap. Focusing on politically effective choices that are feasible today and have the potential to ease political barriers to future policy action can broaden the solution space.
This is a preview of subscription content, access via your institution
Access Nature and 54 other Nature Portfolio journals
Get Nature+, our best-value online-access subscription
$29.99 / 30 days
cancel any time
Subscribe to this journal
Receive 12 digital issues and online access to articles
$119.00 per year
only $9.92 per issue
Rent or buy this article
Get just this article for as long as you need it
Prices may be subject to local taxes which are calculated during checkout
Clark, W. C. & Harley, A. G. Sustainability science: towards a synthesis. Annu. Rev. Environ. Res. https://doi.org/10.1146/annurev-environ-012420-043621 (2020).
Emissions Gap Report 2021: The Heat is On: A World of Climate Promises Not Yet Delivered (UNEP, 2021).
Aklin, M. & Mildenberger, M. Prisoners of the wrong dilemma: why distributive conflict, not collective action, characterizes the politics of climate change. Glob. Environ. Politics 20, 4–27 (2020).
Colgan, J. D., Green, J. F. & Hale, T. N. Asset revaluation and the existential politics of climate change. Int. Organ. https://doi.org/10.1017/s0020818320000296 (2020). This paper conceptualizes the distributive politics of climate change, identifying key lines of conflict between winners and losers.
Genovese, F. Sectors, pollution, and trade: how industrial interests shape domestic positions on global climate agreements. Int. Stud. Q. 63, 819–836 (2019).
Kennard, A. The enemy of my enemy: when firms support climate change regulation. Int. Organ. 74, 187–221 (2020).
Cory, J., Lerner, M. & Osgood, I. Supply chain linkages and the extended carbon coalition. Am. J. Polit. Sci. 65, 69–87 (2021).
Green, J., Hadden, J., Hale, T. & Mahdavi, P. Transition, hedge, or resist? Understanding political and economic behavior toward decarbonization in the oil and gas industry. Rev. Int. Polit. Econ. 29, 2036–2063 (2022).
Aklin, M. & Urpelainen, J. Renewables: The Politics of a Global Energy Transition (MIT Press, 2018).
Meckling, J. Oppose, support, or hedge? Distributional effects, regulatory pressure, and business strategy in environmental politics. Glob. Environ. Politics 15, 19–37 (2015).
Culhane, T., Hall, G. & Roberts, J. T. Who delays climate action? Interest groups and coalitions in state legislative struggles in the United States. Energy Res. Soc. Sci. 79, 102114 (2021).
Mildenberger, M. Carbon Captured: How Business and Labor Control Climate Politics (MIT Press, 2020).
Mahdavi, P., Martinez-Alvarez, C. B. & Ross, M. L. Why do governments tax or subsidize fossil fuels. J. Politics 84, 2123–2139 (2022).
Meckling, J., Sterner, T. & Wagner, G. Policy sequencing toward decarbonization. Nat. Energy https://doi.org/10.1038/s41560-017-0025-8 (2017).
Meckling, J. & Allan, B. B. The evolution of ideas in global climate policy. Nat. Clim. Change 10, 434–438 (2020).
Bayer, P. & Urpelainen, J. It is all about political incentives: democracy and the renewable feed-in tariff. J. Politics 78, 603–619 (2016).
Oye, K. A. & Maxwell, J. H. Self-interest and environmental management. J. Theor. Politics 6, 593–624 (1994).
Dubash, N. K., Khosla, R., Kelkar, U. & Lele, S. India and climate change: evolving ideas and increasing policy engagement. Annu. Rev. Environ. Resour. 43, 395–424 (2018).
Rabe, B. G. Can We Price Carbon? (MIT Press, 2018). Drawing on cases from North America, Europe and Asia, this book examines the feasibility and durability of carbon pricing.
Harrison, K. The Political Economy of British Columbia’s Carbon Tax Report No. 19970900 (OECD, 2013).
Raymond, L. Reclaiming the Atmospheric Commons: The Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative and a New Model of Emissions Trading (MIT Press, 2016).
Klenert, D. et al. Making carbon pricing work for citizens. Nat. Clim. Change 8, 669–677 (2018).
Gaikwad, N., Genovese, F. & Tingley, D. Creating climate coalitions: mass preferences for compensating vulnerability in the world’s two largest democracies. Am. Polit. Sci. Rev. https://doi.org/10.1017/s0003055422000223 (2022).
Mildenberger, M., Lachapelle, E., Harrison, K. & Stadelmann-Steffen, I. Limited impacts of carbon tax rebate programmes on public support for carbon pricing. Nat. Clim. Change 12, 141–147 (2022).
Egan, P. J. & Mullin, M. Climate change: US public opinion. Annu. Rev. Polit. Sci. 20, 209–227 (2017).
Fisher, D. R. The broader importance of #FridaysForFuture. Nat. Clim. Change 9, 430–431 (2019).
Fisher, D. R. & Nasrin, S. Climate activism and its effects. Wiley Interdiscip. Rev. Clim. Change 12, e683 (2021).
Feldman, L. & Hart, P. S. Climate change as a polarizing cue: framing effects on public support for low-carbon energy policies. Glob. Environ. Change 51, 54–66 (2018).
Bättig, M. B. & Bernauer, T. National institutions and global public goods: are democracies more cooperative in climate change policy? Int. Organ. 63, 281–308 (2009).
Finnegan, J. J. Changing prices in a changing climate: electoral competition and fossil fuel taxation. Comp. Polit. Stud. https://doi.org/10.1177/00104140221141853 (2022).
Aldrich, D., Lipscy, P. Y. & McCarthy, M. M. Japan’s opportunity to lead. Nat. Clim. Change 9, 492–492 (2019).
Lachapelle, E. & Paterson, M. Drivers of national climate policy. Clim. Policy 13, 547–571 (2013).
Meckling, J. & Nahm, J. When do states disrupt industries? Electric cars in Germany and the United States. Rev. Int. Polit. Econ. 25, 505–529 (2018).
Finnegan, J. J. Institutions, climate change, and the foundations of long-term policymaking. Comp. Polit. Stud. 55, 1198–1235 (2022). This article shows that electoral rules and state–business relations affect the stringency of national climate policies.
Meckling, J. & Nahm, J. Strategic state capacity: how states counter opposition to climate policy. Comp. Polit. Stud. 55, 493–523 (2022).
Dubash, N. K. et al. National climate institutions complement targets and policies. Science 374, 690–693 (2021).
Guy, J., Shears, E. & Meckling, J. National models of climate governance among major emitters. Nat. Clim. Change 13, 189–195 (2023).
Lockwood, M. A hard Act to follow? The evolution and performance of UK climate governance. Environ. Politics 30, 26–48 (2021).
Climate Action Tracker: Warming Projections Global Update (New Climate Institute, Ecofys & Climate Analytics, 2018).
Rosenbloom, D., Meadowcroft, J. & Cashore, B. Stability and climate policy? Harnessing insights on path dependence, policy feedback, and transition pathways. Energy Res. Soc. Sci. 50, 168–178 (2019).
Jordan, A. J. & Moore, B. Durable by Design? Policy Feedback in a Changing Climate (Cambridge Univ. Press, 2020). This book identifies design features of policies that unleash positive feedback and build climate policy support, drawing on cases from the EU.
Stokes, L. C. Short Circuiting Policy: Interest Groups and the Battle Over Clean Energy and Climate Policy in the American States (Oxford Univ. Press, 2020).
Stokes, L. C. Electoral backlash against climate policy: a natural experiment on retrospective voting and local resistance to public policy. Am. J. Polit. Sci. https://doi.org/10.1111/ajps.12220 (2015).
Stefes, C. H. & Hager, C. Resistance to energy transitions. Rev. Policy Res. 37, 286–291 (2020).
Hochstetler, K. Political Economies of Energy Transition: Wind and Solar Power in Brazil and South Africa (Cambridge Univ. Press, 2020). This book examines the politics of clean energy transitions in developing countries, showing how climate concerns intersect with economic considerations.
Downie, C. Fighting for King Coal’s crown: business actors in the US coal and utility industries. Glob. Environ. Politics 17, 21–39 (2017).
Newell, P. Power Shift: The Global Political Economy of Energy Transitions (Cambridge Univ. Press, 2021).
Breetz, H., Mildenberger, M. & Stokes, L. The political logics of clean energy transitions. Bus. Politics 20, 492–522 (2018). This paper shows how the political challenges change over the course of the diffusion of clean technologies.
Levin, K., Cashore, B., Bernstein, S. & Auld, G. Overcoming the tragedy of super-wicked problems: constraining our future selves to ameliorate global climate change. Policy Sci. 45, 123–152 (2012).
Aklin, M. & Urpelainen, J. Political competition, path dependence, and the strategy of sustainable energy transitions. Am. J. Polit. Sci. 57, 643–658 (2013).
Jacobs, A. M. Governing for the Long Term: Democracy and the Politics of Investment (Cambridge Univ. Press, 2011).
Biber, E. Cultivating a green political landscape. Vanderbilt Law Rev. 66, 399–462 (2013).
Schmid, N., Sewerin, S. & Schmidt, T. S. Explaining advocacy coalition change with policy feedback. Policy Stud. J. https://doi.org/10.1111/psj.12365 (2019).
Meckling, J., Kelsey, N., Biber, E. & Zysman, J. Winning coalitions for climate policy: green industrial policy builds support for carbon regulation. Science 249, 1170–1171 (2015).
Pahle, M. et al. Sequencing to ratchet up climate policy stringency. Nat. Clim. Change 8, 861–867 (2018).
Edmondson, D. L., Kern, F. & Rogge, K. S. The co-evolution of policy mixes and socio-technical systems: towards a conceptual framework of policy mix feedback in sustainability transitions. Res. Policy https://doi.org/10.1016/j.respol.2018.03.010 (2018).
Fukuyama, F. What is governance? Governance 26, 347–368 (2013).
Greenstone, M. & Hanna, R. Environmental regulations, air and water pollution, and infant mortality in India. Am. Econ. Rev. 104, 3038–3072 (2014).
Karplus, V. J., Zhang, S. & Almond, D. Quantifying coal power plant responses to tighter SO2 emissions standards in China. Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA 115, 7004–7009 (2018).
Ewing, J. Faster, Higher, Farther: How One of the World’s Largest Automakers Committed a Massive and Stunning Fraud (WW Norton & Company, 2017).
Meckling, J. & Nahm, J. The power of process: state capacity and climate policy. Governance https://doi.org/10.1111/gove.12338 (2018).
Keohane, R. O. & Victor, D. G. Cooperation and discord in global climate policy. Nat. Clim. Change 6, 570–575 (2016).
Eckersley, R. Moving forward in the climate negotiations: multilateralism or minilateralism? Glob. Environ. Politics 12, 24–42 (2012).
Nordhaus, W. Climate clubs: overcoming free-riding in international climate policy. Am. Econ. Rev. 105, 1339–1370 (2015).
Barrett, S. Climate treaties and ‘breakthrough’ technologies. Am. Econ. Rev. 96, 22–28 (2006).
Falkner, R. A minilateral solution for global climate change? On bargaining efficiency, club benefits, and international legitimacy. Perspect. Politics 14, 87–101 (2016). This article examines the benefits and challenges of different types of climate clubs.
Sabel, C. F. & Victor, D. G. Fixing the Climate: Strategies for an Uncertain World (Princeton Univ. Press, 2022). This book demonstrates how decentralized policy experimentation facilitates technological change and global climate cooperation.
Meckling, J. & Chung, G. Y. Sectoral approaches for a post-2012 climate regime: a taxonomy. Clim. Policy 9, 652–668 (2009).
Victor, D. G., Geels, F. W. & Sharpe, S. Accelerating the Low Carbon Transition: The Case for Stronger, More Targeted and Coordinated International Action (Brookings Institution, 2019).
Banks, G. D. & Fitzgerald, T. A sectoral approach allows an artful merger of climate and trade policy. Clim. Change https://doi.org/10.1007/s10584-020-02822-2 (2020).
Koester, S., Hart, D. M. & Sly, G. Unworkable Solution: Carbon Border Adjustment Mechanisms and Global Climate Innovation (Information Technology and Innovation Foundation, 2021).
Allan, B., Lewis, J. I. & Oatley, T. Green industrial policy and the global transformation of climate politics. Glob. Environ. Politics 21, 1–19 (2021).
Hale, T. & Urpelainen, J. When and how can unilateral policies promote the international diffusion of environmental policies and clean technology? J. Theor. Politics 27, 177–205 (2014).
Meckling, J. & Hughes, L. Global interdependence in clean energy transitions. Bus. Politics 20, 467–491 (2018).
Nemet, G. How Solar Energy Became Cheap: A Model for Low-Carbon Innovation (Routledge, 2019).
Nahm, J. Collaborative Advantage: Forging Green Industries in the New Global Economy (Oxford Univ. Press, 2021).
Kim, S. E. & Urpelainen, J. Technology competition and international co-operation: friends or foes? Br. J. Polit. Sci. 44, 545–574 (2013). This article shows how international competition to develop clean technology industries can promote international climate cooperation.
Lewis, J. I. The rise of renewable energy protectionism: emerging trade conflicts and implications for low carbon development. Glob. Environ. Politics 14, 10–35 (2014).
Popp, D. International innovation and diffusion of air pollution control technologies: the effects of NOX and SO2 regulation in the US, Japan, and Germany. J. Environ. Econ. Manag. 51, 46–71 (2006).
Giang, A. & Selin, N. E. Benefits of mercury controls for the United States. Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA 113, 286–291 (2016).
Davidson, K., Coenen, L. & Gleeson, B. A decade of C40: Research insights and agendas for city networks. Glob. Policy 10, 697–708 (2019).
Bulkeley, H. et al. Transnational Climate Governance (Cambridge Univ. Press, 2014).
Hoffmann, M. J. Climate Governance at the Crossroads: Experimenting with a Global Response after Kyoto (Oxford Univ. Press, 2011).
Green, J. F. Rethinking Private Authority: Agents and Entrepreneurs in Global Environmental Governance (Princeton Univ. Press, 2013).
Andonova, L. B., Hale, T. N. & Roger, C. B. National policy and transnational governance of climate change: substitutes or complements? Int. Stud. Q. 61, 253–268 (2017).
Hale, T. & Roger, C. Orchestration and transnational climate governance. Rev. Int. Organ. 9, 59–82 (2013).
Hale, T. Catalytic cooperation. Glob. Environ. Politics 20, 73–98 (2020).
Meckling, J., Lipscy, P. Y., Finnegan, J. J. & Metz, F. Why nations lead or lag in energy transitions. Science 378, 31–33 (2022). This article shows how insulation and compensation are political pathways to adopting costly climate policies.
Keohane, R. O. & Victor, D. G. The regime complex for climate change. Perspect. Politics 9, 7–23 (2011).
Kelsey, N. International ozone negotiations and the green spiral. Glob. Environ. Politics 21, 64–87 (2021).
Cashore, B. & Bernstein, S. Bringing the environment back in: overcoming the tragedy of the diffusion of the commons metaphor. Perspect. Politics https://doi.org/10.1017/s1537592721002553 (2022).
Peng, W. et al. Climate policy models need to get real about people—here’s how.Nature 594, 174–176 (2021).
Beck, S. & Mahony, M. The IPCC and the politics of anticipation. Nat. Clim. Change 7, 311–313 (2017).
Hirt, L. F., Schell, G., Sahakian, M. & Trutnevyte, E. A review of linking models and socio-technical transitions theories for energy and climate solutions. Environ. Innov. Soc. Transit. 35, 162–179 (2020).
Stern, N., Stiglitz, J. & Taylor, C. The economics of immense risk, urgent action and radical change: towards new approaches to the economics of climate change. J. Econ. Methodol. 29, 181–216 (2022).
CAT Emissions Gap (Climate Action Tracker, 2022); https://climateactiontracker.org/global/cat-emissions-gaps
Policy Instruments for the Environment Database (Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, 2021); https://www.oecd.org/env/indicators-modelling-outlooks/policy-instrument-database/
State and Trends of Carbon Pricing 2019 (World Bank Group, 2019); https://openknowledge.worldbank.org/entities/publication/0a107aa7-dcc8-5619-bdcf-71f97a8909d6/full
Renewables 2020 Global Status Report (REN21, 2020); https://www.ren21.net/gsr-2020/
State and Trends of Carbon Pricing 2020 (World Bank Group, 2020); https://openknowledge.worldbank.org/entities/publication/bcc20088-9fbf-5a71-8fa0-41d871df4625/full
Renewable Power Generation Costs in 2019 (IRENA, 2020); https://www.irena.org/publications/2020/Jun/Renewable-Power-Costs-in-2019
Evolution of Solar PV Module Cost by Data Source, 1970–2020 (IEA, 2022); https://www.iea.org/data-and-statistics/charts/evolution-of-solar-pv-module-cost-by-data-source-1970-2020
Meckling, J. Carbon Coalitions: Business, Climate Politics, and the Rise of Emissions Trading (MIT Press, 2011).
Jenkins, J. D. Political economy constraints on carbon pricing policies: what are the implications for economic efficiency, environmental efficacy, and climate policy design? Energy Policy 69, 467–477 (2014).
Skocpol, T. Naming the Problem: What it will Take to Counter Extremism and Engage Americans in the Fight Against Global Warming (Harvard University, 2013).
Karplus, V. J., Zhang, J. & Zhao, J. Navigating and evaluating the labyrinth of environmental regulation in China. Rev. Environ. Econ. Policy 15, 300–322 (2021).
Zhang, J. & Wang, C. Co-benefits and additionality of the clean development mechanism: an empirical analysis. J. Environ. Econ. Manag. 62, 140–154 (2011).
Zhang, D. et al. Integrity of firms’ emissions reporting in China’s early carbon markets. Nat. Clim. Change 9, 164–169 (2019).
Falkner, R. The Paris Agreement and the new logic of international climate politics. Int. Aff. 92, 1107–1125 (2016).
Karapin, R. The political viability of carbon pricing: policy design and framing in British Columbia and California. Rev. Policy Res. 37, 140–173 (2020).
We thank H. Jacoby, D.G. Victor and members of the Energy and Environment Policy Lab at UC Berkeley for valuable feedback. J.M. acknowledges funding from the USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture, Hatch Project Accession Number 1020688.
The authors declare no competing interests.
Peer review information
Nature Sustainability thanks Anthony Patt and Robert Keohane for their contribution to the peer review of this work.
Publisher’s note Springer Nature remains neutral with regard to jurisdictional claims in published maps and institutional affiliations.
Rights and permissions
Springer Nature or its licensor (e.g. a society or other partner) holds exclusive rights to this article under a publishing agreement with the author(s) or other rightsholder(s); author self-archiving of the accepted manuscript version of this article is solely governed by the terms of such publishing agreement and applicable law.
About this article
Cite this article
Meckling, J., Karplus, V.J. Political strategies for climate and environmental solutions. Nat Sustain (2023). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41893-023-01109-5