A blessing in disguise? Why Trump’s pull-out of the Paris Agreement may open up a window of opportunity

Following his campaign promise and a period of intense speculation, on Thursday June 1, the President of the United States announced his intention to withdraw from the 2015 Climate Accord previously ratified by his predecessor, Barack Obama, claiming it undermines U.S. competitiveness and jobs, and would have a negligible impact on the world’s climate. Inevitably, the series of events were quickly compared to another defining moment in history, when, in 1997, the newly instated United States Government of George W. Bush failed to ratify the Kyoto Protocol negotiated under the Clinton-Gore presidency.

World leaders were quick to condemn the unilateral decision, with the Secretary General of the United Nations calling it a “major disappointment for global efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and promote global security”, and the leaders of France, Germany and Italy almost immediate issuing a joint statement reaffirming their strong commitment to implement the agreement.

Trump’s decision to withdraw from the Paris Agreement appears to be the latest in a string of failures to protect the (global) environment, including executive orders to roll back the Clean Water Rule (giving the federal government authority to limit pollution in major bodies of water, rivers, streams, and wetlands) and review the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) Clean Power Plan, ending restrictions on coal power plants. Having installed Scott Pruitt, a known climate-sceptic as the head of the EPA, President Trump – famously calling climate change a hoax “created by and for the Chinese in order to make U.S. manufacturing non-competitive – proposed slashing the agency’s budget by 31 per cent (or $2.6 billion) and to get rid of the EPA “in almost every form”.

However, while the U.S. withdrawal will almost certainly affect the effectiveness and realisation of the goals of the Paris Agreement, all may not be doom and gloom. Contrary to popular opinion, I would argue that this latest decision may actually hold an important silver lining, in that it may open up a ‘window of opportunity’.

First of all, Trump’s decision to withdraw from the agreement, and particularly the period of uncertainty leading up to it, has resulted in regular attention for environmental regulation, in a news cycle that so often appears dominated by important issues such as possible Russian meddling in the elections of foreign governments, the refugee crisis, and international terrorism. Under the motto that ‘even bad press is good publicity’, it can be argued that the constant attack on environmental regulation means that the topic remains well and truly on the agenda and in the public eye. The official decision, rather than continued speculation, enables world leaders, business, citizens and the academic community to provide a targeted response. From a political perspective, Trump’s latest action opens up opportunities for other actors who are willing to take environmental action, allowing them to form alternative coalitions and advance changes previously blocked by the U.S. (Grossman, 2015, Saurugger and Terpan, 2016). On a structural level, the disappearance of existing structures and institutions (deinstitutionalisation) may thus be perceived as an opportunity to break with existing patterns of inertia and lock-ins, an important precondition for the development of new alternatives (Boin et al., 2008).

Initial evidence suggests that, rather than weaken the resolve of the international community, Trump’s withdrawal has strengthened the resolve of China and the European Union in particular who, despite being unable to produce a joint statement, have reiterated their intention to accelerate joint efforts to reduce global carbon emissions. Leaders of some of the biggest and most influential technology companies, including Google, Facebook, and Amazon have already expressed their continued support for the Paris Agreement and the effort against climate change. Even Trump’s own Secretary of State, and former head of the oil-giant ExxonMobil, signed an international declaration highlighting the importance of the Agreement. Furthermore, the Democratic Governor of California, Jerry Brown has announced a pact with the governors of Washington and New York to uphold the Agreement even without federal support, as did the mayors of 71 small and large American cities from blue and red states – including cities like Los Angelos, New York, Chicago, Washington and Austin, in an open letter to then president-elect.

There may be a long way, but ultimately, the formal decision may thus backfire on Trump, creating the exact opposite of what he intended – with citizens, business and federal governments increasing their climate efforts, leaving the White House out in the cold.

Pim Derwort is a PhD-student in the Leverage Points project and a member of the research group ‘Governance, Participation and Sustainability’ at Leuphana University. His current research focuses on the productive functions of institutional failure and decline.

BOIN, A., MCCONNELL, A. & ‘T HART, P. 2008. Governing after Crisis. The Politics of Investigation, Accountability and Learning, Cambridge, New York, Cambridge University Press.
GROSSMAN, P. Z. 2015. Energy shocks, crises and the policy process: A review of theory and application. Energy Policy, 77, 56-69.
SAURUGGER, S. & TERPAN, F. 2016. Do crises lead to policy change? The multiple streams framework and the European Union’s economic governance instruments. Policy Sciences, 49, 35-53.

New project: Governance of global telecoupling – and two open post-doc positions

By Jens Newig

In recent years, more and more research has been pointing to the importance of distant connections of natural and social processes for issues of global unsustainability. Land-use scientist have labelled this phenomenon, which might entail global commodity chains, migration, or the spread of diseases, “telecoupling”. While there have been substantive advances in describing the flows and the associated implications for environmental sustainability, we know little about how to govern such telecoupled global linkages.

Our new project, which is jointly led by Andrea Lenschow from Osnabrück University, Edward Challies and myself, will investigate how state, private and non-governmental actors have sought to govern the (un)sustainability implications of telecoupling in the past; what (polycentric) policy-networks have emerged in doing so; and, together with key state and non-state actors we will map out scenarios for more effectivley governing global telecoupling for environmental sustainability.

We’ve already published two papers on this (see below), which seek to contribute to a conceptual framework.

For deepening conceptual work and conducting empirical case studies, we will be employing two full-time post-docs for three years. The job ad can be downloaded here.

Funding: German Research Foundation.

> More information on the project GOVERNECT.


Challies, E., Newig, J., & Lenschow, A. (2014). What role for social-ecological systems research in governing global teleconnections?. Global Environmental Change : Human and Policy Dimensions, 27, 32-40. 10.1016/j.gloenvcha.2014.04.015

Lenschow, A., Newig, J., & Challies, E. (2016). Globalization’s limits to the environmental state? Integrating telecoupling into global environmental governance. Environmental Politics, 25(1), 136-159. doi:10.1080/09644016.2015.1074384. [Free Open Access Content]

Collaboration – a panacea!?

For several years now, more collaboration between different types of stakeholders has been suggested as a contribution to solving various environmental and sustainability problems. Recently, this trend of pointing out that more collaboration would make things better has increased, at least in my perception: In many of the presentations I heard at the 12th IFSA Symposium at Harper Adams University, UK it was suggested that people need to collaborate to solve this and that problem. Just now, I read yet another article arguing that farmers need to collaborate to find common ground for land stewardship and, based on this, discuss future redesign of agri-environmental schemes (Raymond et al. 2016) – aside from countless other publications putting forward similar arguments. To exacerbate this, I myself am deeply involved with collaboration: In my PhD, I myself have used the collaboration argument (Velten et al. 2015) and am working on finding out what makes collaboration for sustainable agriculture successful. Additionally, in the project MULTAGRI, of which I’m part, we seek alternative governance approaches that enable farmer collaboration for more meaningful biodiversity management in agricultural landscapes.

Having said that, I have my doubts about the power of collaboration to solve seemingly all (environmental and sustainability) problems that there are and I’ve become a bit frustrated with this concept. There are (at least) three sides to these doubts and frustrations: First, collaboration does not automatically lead to sustainable outcomes. I recently heard an example of farmers with neighbouring fields who collaborated to get rid of the strips of natural vegetation separating their fields: They agreed on an alternating ownership of these strips so that in one year one farmer would be allowed to plough under the strip and add it to his field, in the next year the other farmer would be allowed to do the same. Thus, in this case collaboration did not foster sustainable land management, which would preserve or even enhance biodiversity, but rather served the self-interests of the farmers. One could say that this happened because only farmers and with that only one type of interests were involved in this collaboration. And indeed, there is evidence that if stakeholders who are inherently interested in the preservation of ecological assets are involved in collaborative decision-making processes, the generated outcomes are of better environmental quality (Brody 2003). However, involving ENGOs, for instance, is not a guarantee for sustainable outcomes because groups representing environmental interests may be co-opted while collaborating with groups dominated by other interests (Kochskämper et al. 2016). Thus, even bringing together different types of stakeholders does not necessarily prevent collaborative decision-making processes from bringing about outcomes that contribute little to overall sustainability.

Second, collaboration is easy to suggest but hard to do. While collaboration certainly has great potential to help identify common ground, complement resources, increase innovation potential, improve social capital etc. it also is very time and energy-intensive. If we all followed the suggestions for more collaboration that have been made, we literally would not be doing anything else than sitting in different groups of people and discussing what we would like to do in our neighbourhood, in our children’s schools, about the forest next to our city, about infrastructure in our city, about water management, about the agriculture and food system in our region, about energy generation in our community etc. Furthermore, finding common ground and agreeing on goals, plans, and measures with people whose mental frames and dominant values are very different from one’s own can be very stressful and sometimes impossible. So, what I am saying here is that collaboration may be one way to find solutions but people’s restricted time and other resources set a limit to it.

Third, making the point for more collaboration seems to be very fashionable at the moment. Thus, if we just argue in our publications that collaboration can help solve the issues we identify and address in our research, this seems to be good enough as a conclusion. Of course, that does not really prevent us from thinking more thoroughly and deeply about other solutions. Yet, having the ‘obvious solution’ of collaboration at hand already, we have little incentive to look into different directions. Maybe it is just my personal impression, but I cannot lose the feeling that we are missing out on something as most of our attention is drawn towards collaboration.

Despite my doubts and frustrations with collaboration, I still think that having different, relevant actors solve a problem together can be very useful to tackle certain environmental and sustainability problems. However, in dealing with the concept and the practice of collaboration we should keep some things in mind in order to address the above-mentioned issues:

First, all collaborative efforts need an explicit normative framework that defines their purpose and overall goals, thus guiding the decisions and actions of the involved actors. Of course, we can hardly prevent the occurrence of merely self-interested or even malevolent collaborations. But at least for the collaborations that are established in order to foster sustainable outcomes, this purpose should be made clear to the involved actors. Thus, there is a chance that the outcome of the example of the collaborating farmers above would have been different if from the outset the explicit goal of this collaboration had been to bring preservation of biodiversity into accordance with agricultural production.

Second, we should generally not be too quick to present collaboration as the wondrous cure to whatever the problem may be. Rather, for each problem we should thoroughly weigh all kinds of (marginal) costs against all types of (marginal) benefits of a collaborative approach as well as all possible risks against all likely gains. And only if we come to the conclusion that collaboration could be worth the effort, we should go for it.

Linked to this is, third, that we should try to look beyond collaboration and think of different, maybe new solutions. At the moment, I do not know what these ‘different, maybe new solutions’ could be. But so it is even the more important that we keep our eyes and minds open for them.


Brody, S.D., 2003. Measuring the Effects of Stakeholder Participation on the Quality of Local Plans Based on the Principles of Collaborative Ecosystem Management. Journal of Planning Education and Research 22 (4), 407–419.

Kochskämper, E., Challies, E., Newig, J., Jager, N.W., 2016. Participation for effective environmental governance? Evidence from Water Framework Directive implementation in Germany, Spain and the United Kingdom. Journal of environmental management 181, 737–748.

Raymond, C.M., Reed, M., Bieling, C., Robinson, G.M., Plieninger, T., 2016. Integrating different understandings of landscape stewardship into the design of agri-environmental schemes. Envir. Conserv., 1–9.

Velten, S., Leventon, J., Jager, N.W., Newig, J., 2015. What is sustainable agriculture? – A systematic review. Sustainability 7 (6), 7833–7865.

Now published: Leverage Points for Sustainability Transformation

Ideas for Sustainability

By Joern Fischer

Finally, the first paper is out from our Leverage Points project. It’s led by Dave Abson, and lays out a conceptual framework and research agenda, all around the notion of “deep leverage points”. Please share it through your networks.

Screen Shot 2016-06-28 at 10.31.56.pngThe paper draws on Donella Meadows’ notion of “deep leverage points” – places to intervene in a system where adjustments can make a big difference to the overall outcomes. Arguably, sustainability science desperately needs such leverage points. Despite years of rhetoric on sustainability science bringing about “transformation”, the big picture is still pretty dull: globally at least, there is no indication that we’re starting to turn around the patterns of exponential growth that characterize our era. A potential reason is that much of sustainability science has focused on parameters and feedbacks, rather than system design or “intent” (see above) — when actually, it’s changing a system’s design…

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The perils of technocratism: Will environmentalists learn from Brexit?


Excellent thoughts by colleagues from Seattle, highlighting the role of justice and participation in sustainability transformation.


By Nives Dolsak and Aseem Prakash.  What do the Brexit vote, the rise of Trump and Sanders, and apathy towards climate change mitigation have in common? The perils of relying on technocratism to justify policy choices.

Much will be written on why the British have voted for Brexit. There are already dire predictions about the future of the United Kingdom, the European Union, and the world economy. Mainstream newspapers are puzzled as to why the British voted for the exit even though it might hurt them. They blame populism, the rise of the far right, fears about immigration, economic globalization and so on.

While this is true, the mainstream media has not seriously engaged with the source of voter dissatisfaction with the EU. More broadly, we ought to ask: why are voters less willing to take marching orders from the economic and scientific elites? Why are they willing to…

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New doctoral programme “Democracy under Stress” – 7 PhD positions

Leuphana’s Center for the Study of Democracy has been awarded a major grant for funding a total of 14 PhD scholars. The first 7 scholarships are advertised now.

The doc­to­ral pro­gram in­ves­ti­ga­tes how the new po­li­ti­cal, eco­no­mic, eco­lo­gi­cal, and cultural chal­len­ges (‘stress fac­tors’) that mo­dern de­mo­cra­cies en­coun­ter are per­cei­ved, dealt with, and sol­ved in view of the exis­ting ten­si­on bet­ween po­li­ti­cal le­gi­ti­ma­cy and re­stric­ted per­for­mance. It will fur­ther look into the im­pli­ca­ti­ons that dif­fe­rent mo­des of pro­blem-hand­ling have for the ‘sur­vi­val chan­ces’ of de­mo­cra­cy. This two­fold re­se­arch agen­da will be ana­ly­zed in three fiel­ds of stu­dy that re­pre­sent the core func­tions of de­mo­cra­cies: par­ti­ci­pa­ti­on, re­pre­sen­ta­ti­on, and in­clu­si­on.

The first field of stu­dy is con­cer­ned with how ci­ti­zens in de­mo­cra­tic so­cie­ties per­cei­ve cur­rent so­cie­tal – e.g. environmental or sustainability-related – chal­len­ges in light of in­cre­a­sing ’eman­ci­pa­ti­ve’ va­lue ori­en­ta­ti­ons and how the­se per­cep­ti­ons are trans­la­ted into po­li­ti­cal be­ha­viour (participatory democracy).

In the frame­work of the se­cond field of stu­dy, the re­pre­sen­ta­ti­ve ca­pa­ci­ty of po­li­ti­cal in­ter­me­di­a­ry or­ga­niza­t­i­ons as well as po­li­ti­cal in­sti­tu­ti­ons wi­t­hin and outs­ide the na­ti­on sta­te will be ana­ly­zed (representative democracy).

By me­ans of selec­ted po­li­cy fiel­ds (e. g. en­vi­ron­men­tal, cli­ma­te, sci­ence and me­dia po­li­cy) the third field of stu­dy looks into the is­sue of how new forms of po­li­ti­cal par­ti­ci­pa­ti­on in­ter­act with tra­di­tio­nal in­sti­tu­ti­ons, ac­tors, and pro­ces­ses of re­pre­sen­ta­ti­ve de­mo­cra­cy (inclusive democracy).

Deadline for submission of applications is 12 June, 2016.

For more information, please see http://www.leuphana.de/en/research-centers/zdemo-english/doctoral-program-democracy-under-stress.html