Global Environmental Politics celebrates twenty years

A conversation with Global Environmental Politics’ coeditors, to talk about the origins, evolution, and goals of the journal 

Global Environmental Politics (GEP) is celebrating twenty years of publication in 2020. We recently sat down with Matthew Hoffmann and Erika Weinthal, two of the journal’s coeditors, to talk about the origins and goals of GEP, the evolution of the study of the intersection of global political forces and environmental change in the last two decades, and the groundbreaking work collected in the journal’s special anniversary volume.

A stream and edited transcript of the podcast can be found below.

Chris Gondek: Hello and welcome to the MIT Press podcast. I’m your host Chris Gondek, and today I’ll be speaking with Matthew Hoffmann and Erika Weinthal, the editors, along with Steven Bernstein, of the journal Global Environmental Politics, which is published by the MIT Press. Matthew Hoffmann is a professor of political science at the University of Toronto and co-director of the Environmental Governance Lab. Erika Weinthal teaches at Duke University and specializes in global environmental politics and environmental security, with a particular emphasis on water and energy. Stay tuned after the interview for more information about the show. Erika Weinthal and Matthew Hoffmann, thanks for being on the MIT Press podcast today.

Matthew Hoffmann: Great to be here.

Chris Gondek: So, for those people who might not have heard about the journal, Global Environmental Politics, we’ll start with you, Erika. Could you tell us what the journal’s mission is?

Erika Weinthal: This is a journal that has been around now for 20 years, and it began as a way to bring together scholars who were working in the area of the global environment within primarily the field of political science, but also other social sciences, to look at issues of environmental change, to look at issues of local global interactions for environmental management, and to think about how states come together to address some of the most important and pressing environmental problems. It has focused on a wide range of issues over the years, everything from climate change to the trade in global waste, to water issues, to global finance, to the role of the private sector.

Matthew Hoffmann: Erika explained that really well. The only thing I would add is from the beginning, the goal of Global Environmental Politics, and something we’ve tried to continue as the latest editors, is to publish the best research on that intersection Erika talked about, between global environmental changes and global environmental problems, and the political and social solutions that all kinds of different actors from states to NGOs and corporations are attempting. By best, I also mean here the best research, I mean a broad range of theories and approaches that encompasses the breadth of questions and dynamics that make up environmental politics in the world. The only other thing I would add is that underlying our academic mission has always been also an attempt to publish work that can contribute to debates and politics outside the academy as well.

Chris Gondek: Is there anything you can learn from looking at the most popular articles that have been downloaded from the GEP over the last 20 years?

Matthew Hoffmann: We’ve broken some substantive of ground in a number of areas. We’ve broken ground on the ways in which actors other than nation-states play a significant role in global environmental politics. That’s not to say that our articles haven’t delved into the international politics of a lot of global environmental politics or issues, especially climate change and ozone and trade and the intersection between trade and environment, but one of the things that we’re known for is seeing politics in a broad sense. We’ve, over 20 years, have broken ground on that. Some of our more popular articles have broken ground on the critical side and thinking about what’s the critical way that we can analyze the relationship between politics and capitalism, and politics and economics, and how those two forces drive a lot of both the global environmental problems that we see, and global environmental politics as well.

Erika Weinthal: One of the things I did in preparation for our conversation today was to go back and look at some of the early articles. I was struck by how in the first few years of the journal, there were a lot of issues that were tackled that are still relevant today, including a special issue or a collection of articles that focused on the role of consumption and the role of the individual, and what we can do as individuals in our everyday lives in thinking about how to tackle these very large global problems. This is still relevant today when we see all the activism of young people across the world, who are really thinking about, what does this mean for my own personal life while at the same time being part of this larger collection of individuals, communities, and nation-states?

In many ways, Global Environmental Politics has been at the forefront of trying to make the journal relevant for individuals, but also infusing recommendations and dialogue into policy debates. Over the years, we’ve seen the journal expand in the topics that we’ve addressed, everything from thinking about the role of norms, bringing in indigenous politics into the journal, and trying to reach a wider array of disciplines and methods. The journal has grown in many ways as the field has grown within the academy and its reach outside of the academy.

Matthew Hoffmann: I would just add to that we’ve demonstrated, and this is to the credit of the editors that have preceded us and we’re just trying to carry on that legacy, that an interdisciplinary journal—because that’s what Global Environmental Politics is, we draw on research from geographers, from environmental studies, significantly from political science, but also economics and environmental humanities—can be rigorous and inclusive. We can build a community of folks that are answering these kinds of questions about global environmental politics from very different perspectives. That gives the journal a unique place in the literature as a place where people from very different perspectives, very different methodological approaches, and very different disciplines can come together and ask similar questions or at least contribute to an ongoing conversation in this area.

Chris Gondek: In that conversation, can you give us just some examples of perhaps how the journal has affected the development in education of environmental politics and leadership in environmental politics since its debut 20 years ago?

Matthew Hoffmann: One of the key things is that it’s the flagship journal for the environmental study section of the International Studies Association, which is itself a broadly interdisciplinary approach to the study of global politics. The community in that environmental studies section and that environmental studies community has grown as the journal has grown, and we have an important place in that community. On a very practical level, we also publish quite a few junior scholars and we’ve been an important outlet for scholars that are starting to make their name and starting to get their careers going, and that has been very important.

I don’t have data on it, but I use Global Environmental Politics articles in my classes a lot, and my experience there is not unusual. We publish the kind of articles that are useful in university classes, precisely because we’re asking the big questions. Our authors are asking the big questions, and they’re asking them for multiple perspectives.

Erika Weinthal: You know, one of the things that we do often is have special issues, and often these special issues become really useful for use in the classroom as Matt had noted. For example, one of the special issues, one of the first ones that we were able to oversee, had to do with the global environmental politics of food. That is a topic that has become increasingly important in the study of global environmental politics, just because of, as Matt also noted, these intersections between agriculture, sustainability, the role of multinational corporations in the food sector. The articles tackle a whole array of issues that you can use as a collection in the classroom.

We’ve also been a place where scholars can put forth new methodologies, using different forms of ethnography as a method in global environmental politics or having a larger number of articles using network analysis. The journal has helped incubate a lot of this cutting-edge research that’s been taking place in global environmental politics, but it’s important to note that scholars over the years have begun to be very cognizant of not wanting their work just to be in the academy. One of the things that we’ve been doing is partnering with the Environmental Security and Change Program at the Woodrow Wilson Center with their New Security Beat, and we often ask our authors as we’re going to press whether they would like to write a blog regarding one of their articles so they can reach a broader audience. We’ve been trying to encourage our authors to really engage with social media and we’re seeing this increasingly as a way to connect more to the policy world.

Matthew Hoffmann: We also—and this has been in the journal for quite a few years but we’ve been happy to continue it under our editorship—structurally, have a section of the journal that’s called the Forum. Those articles are specifically written for broader audiences, the academy and policymakers or the academy and activists, and we’re trying to provide a translation service as well, getting some of the vast stores of knowledge that we have in the academy out into the broader world.

Chris Gondek: Well, Erika, in that answer, you had mentioned special editions, and I know that we’re recording this in January, late January of 2020. Next month, the 20th anniversary edition of Global Environmental Politics will be coming out. Could you talk about some articles that you’d like to highlight for the listeners?

Erika Weinthal: That’s sort of a tease. What we’re doing is curating what would be an online special issue, where we’ve taken 10 articles that we have thought have had an impact on the field of global environmental politics, with a few caveats—we didn’t want to profile articles by previous editors and we didn’t want to pick some of the most recent articles. It will be made available online. It captures how the field has grown, where articles tackle everything from environmental activism, to the role of private environmental governance, to transnational NGO activism. Of course, we’re going to have articles on climate change governance, but also issues related to environmental justice and civic science. There will be a very broad collection of articles that will be made available free online as part of the celebration of the journal being 20 years old.

Matthew Hoffmann: Yeah, and part of the process that we went through to put this together—it was really quite fun—we contacted all of the previous editors and asked them for their greatest hits and got a lot of great suggestions for some really fun articles. I’m sure the previous editors had fun going back through their issues and seeing which articles really stuck with them. From that list we’ve curated and knocked it down to the 10. That was a difficult process because one of the things that has been great about doing this special edition for the 20th anniversary is just realizing how much excellent work has come out of this journal.

I’ll add a caveat to what Erika said, that we’ve picked 10 articles for this 20th anniversary edition to try and talk about some of the breadth of and be representative of the excellence that’s come out of the journal. We could’ve picked another completely different set of 10 and had just as good as an edition. People will enjoy looking back and thinking about what’s really come out of the journal over the last 20 years and the important role that it’s really played in developing this field.

Chris Gondek: Well, in this interview we’ve been focusing quite rightly on the journal and its 20th anniversary. But it is about politics and this is 2020, and obviously the big political event of this year is going to be the US presidential election. I would guess there are certain parts of this election moving forward that you are watching, and I can think of multiple things that are coming up, issues of the Green New Deal, the Paris Climate Accord. Obviously, some of the climate change that’s been happening in Australia earlier this month was of such a magnitude that the media couldn’t look away. I’ve also read recently that now there are states that are petitioning the federal government in the United States for help with climate change, even though they aren’t coming out and saying climate change because of political considerations they have within their constituencies. So, I’ll start with you Matt, and of course Erika afterwards. What is it that you are looking at, what you’ll be watching in this upcoming presidential election in the United States?

Matthew Hoffmann: Well, I guess one of the things I’ll be looking at is to see what role climate change actually plays in the election. Frankly, I’m worried that even though I think this election is probably the single most important election in my lifetime for climate change, that it’s not going to play that big a role because the two parties are such that it’s hard to convince people on the other side. I’m really worried that the importance of this election for climate change is not going to be reflected in the debates and in the campaigns themselves. I think the Democratic side will push on climate policy, the Green New Deal is going to be big in the Democratic primaries, and differences amongst the Democratic candidates around climate policy is going to be big in the Democratic primaries. But we’ll see how it plays out in the general election. That said, I am very worried because I think that this election is going to be a fulcrum or a pivot point to see if the United States is going to come back into reasonable and sane climate and environmental policy, or if it’s going to have to be all done at the sub-national level and amongst private actors. Because if the Trump administration is reelected, I don’t see environment or climate policy at the national level recovering.

Chris Gondek: Erika, your thoughts?

Erika Weinthal: What was interesting about the journal in the field of global environmental politics is that the field grew out of wanting to study the role of states in addressing these huge global environmental challenges. What has happened within at least the US political system over the last few years, is this pullback from an understanding of why we need a strong state, why we need bureaucracy, why we need regulations.

What I’ll be looking for and hoping for is leadership that is understanding of what the role of government is in addressing many of these collective action problems and these environmental problems both globally and at home, that we will go back to trusting science, privileging science in decision-making, in re-staffing, and beefing up our Environmental Protection Agency so that it is a player in the United States and can work with other environmental agencies and ministries worldwide. What I’m hoping for is that, as the field has become broader and said, “Oh, there’s all these other actors out there, the private sector matters and individuals matter,” that we also begin to recognize that we need strong regulations and strong bureaucracies to play a role too in governance.

Twentieth Anniversary Issue of Global Environmental Politics is completely open access, articles are free to read and download worldwide