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Seeing complexity: visualization tools in global environmental politics and governance


  • Kate O’Neill

    () (UC Berkeley)

  • Erika Weinthal

    (Duke University)

  • Patrick Hunnicutt

    (University of California)


Abstract Can visualization tools and applications help scholars of global environmental politics and governance understand problems that are complex, linked, and cross-scalar—the critical characteristics of contemporary environmental problems? Surprisingly, such tools have been rarely used in this literature despite widespread availability and use in other fields to make sense of complex data. We trace the history of visualizations from the early work of Minard and Snow up to the sophisticated, web-based interactive graphics we have today, and identify forms of visualization and their uses. We apply these tools to a specific preliminary case study: the number, location, and timeline of waste disposal projects in developing countries registered with the Clean Development Mechanism as climate offsets. This preliminary case gets at unexpected linkages across climate and waste governance at the international level, and allows us to start to see local impacts of global mitigation and market mechanisms. Using Tableau, we have generated a series of maps and other visualizations that make trends and patterns visible—helping to spark further research. We conclude by discussing the implications of visualization tools for fields of global environmental politics and governance, and critiques of visualization from practical and theoretical viewpoints. We note their connection to wider political debates around accessibility of data and science.

Suggested Citation

  • Kate O’Neill & Erika Weinthal & Patrick Hunnicutt, 2017. "Seeing complexity: visualization tools in global environmental politics and governance," Journal of Environmental Studies and Sciences, Springer;Association of Environmental Studies and Sciences, vol. 7(4), pages 490-506, December.
  • Handle: RePEc:spr:jenvss:v:7:y:2017:i:4:d:10.1007_s13412-017-0433-x
    DOI: 10.1007/s13412-017-0433-x

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    References listed on IDEAS

    1. Victoria Wibeck & Tina-Simone Neset & Björn-Ola Linnér, 2013. "Communicating Climate Change through ICT-Based Visualization: Towards an Analytical Framework," Sustainability, MDPI, Open Access Journal, vol. 5(11), pages 1-18, November.
    2. David Ciplet, 2014. "Contesting Climate Injustice: Transnational Advocacy Network Struggles for Rights in UN Climate Politics," Global Environmental Politics, MIT Press, vol. 14(4), pages 75-96, November.
    3. Richard G. Newell & William A. Pizer & Daniel Raimi, 2014. "Carbon Markets: Past, Present, and Future," Annual Review of Resource Economics, Annual Reviews, vol. 6(1), pages 191-215, October.
    4. Lisa M. Campbell & Catherine Corson & Noella J. Gray & Kenneth I. MacDonald & Peter Brosius, 2014. "Introduction: Studying Global Environmental Meetings to Understand Global Environmental Governance: Collaborative Event Ethnography at the Tenth Conference of the Parties to the Convention on Biologic," Global Environmental Politics, MIT Press, vol. 14(3), pages 1-20, August.
    5. Dana Fisher & Philip Leifeld & Yoko Iwaki, 2013. "Mapping the ideological networks of American climate politics," Climatic Change, Springer, vol. 116(3), pages 523-545, February.
    6. Ariel Dinar & Shaikh Mahfuzur Rahman & Donald F. Larson & Philippe Ambrosi, 2011. "Local Actions, Global Impacts: International Cooperation and the CDM," Global Environmental Politics, MIT Press, vol. 11(4), pages 108-133, November.
    7. Branch, Jordan, 2011. "Mapping the Sovereign State: Technology, Authority, and Systemic Change," International Organization, Cambridge University Press, vol. 65(1), pages 1-36, January.
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