Political Economy of Climate Change

A worker looks over a solar farm
Credit: Stephen Yang / The Solutions Project

The politics of climate change are a politics of investment (Aronoff, Battistoni, Cohen and Riofrancos 2019; Cohen 2020b, Paul and Cohen 2020). Stale debates about sacrifice have always missed the real politics of climate action: struggles over how to steer trillions of dollars in climate-linked investment, year after year, in a way that effectively decarbonizes the economy, adapts the build environment and social structures to already inevitable climate shocks, and at the same time radically reduces inequalities of race, class, gender, and nation. Unfathomably intense change is coming. Investments and social struggles will transform everything. Neoliberalism is dying, and fascist forces growing. But we have not yet defined and established a new, attractive system to replace the old and fight off the reactionary. We can drift into ever grimmer eco-apartheid, or build a more democratic economy while stabilizing the earth system.

We also face a dilemma in the research communities tackling these questions, at least in the United States where (SC)2 is based. On the one hand, there’s a world of scholars and actors, disproportionately white and male, focused on issues like decarbonization, infrastructure, investment, political economy, and related keywords / practices. On the other hand, there’s a world of scholars and actors, much more diverse, who focus on inequalities of various kinds, community-level environmental and climate injustices, disparities in impacts, adaptation, and related keywords / practices.

How can we bring the insights and questions from this second realm into the first? How can social scientists collaborate most productively with the engineers who are expert in the climate-friendly technologies and systems we seek to develop? It will be impossible to achieve equity and justice if those of us concerned with those values simply cede the conversations over massive investments and the energy system to a narrow group of people (however well-intentioned they are!). After all—it is through the great struggle of decarbonization that the economy and built environment of the whole world will be remade, one way or the other (Cohen 2020a). Our view is that we need to speak directly about colonialism and racial capitalism, about class conflict, about new patterns of eco-apartheid, about widespread contempt for rural spaces. This won’t distract from decarbonization or other climate solutions; it will build a broader tent, and that should enable smarter projects to achieve climate goals with genuinely majority support—an essential prerequisite to decades of transformative policy and economic change. There’s no reason that equity-oriented social scientists, and equity-oriented engineers and other technologists, shouldn’t collaborate in the literal rebuilding of the world.

Our political economy of climate change research agenda involves a consistent focus on the political coalitions and mobilizations needed to deliver rapid and thorough-going action; the intersections of the climate emergency with other emergencies of social inequalities; a focus on policy mechanisms that can deliver rapid, effective, egalitarian change—from mainstream ideas about targeted investment in disadvantaged communities to overarching new paradigms like the Green New Deal; an interest in how states and firms might cooperate to accelerate effective decarbonization and adaptation; a focus on the social specificities and political openings of technological system change; and a restless search for the most important new barriers to climate action, and the most exciting opportunities to build a majoritarian coalition in support of massive climate-friendly investments.

Based in the United States, we often focus our work here; but we also look to other countries, especially in Latin America (based on our community’s current area of expertise), as well as broader questions of global climate and economic governance (Cohen and Riofrancos 2020; Cohen, Aronoff, Battistoni and Riofrancos 2019). And we aim to work as much as possible with a public face; (SC)2 helped incubate the Climate and Community Project—a progressive climate policy think tank—and the two groups continue to work closely together, transcending obsolete boundaries between specialist and public research.

Below we describe some of our key research areas in the political economy of climate change. 

Social barriers to decarbonization: From securing consent to transforming projects

We are investigating the social barriers to decarbonization in the U.S. and around the world with a political economy framework. Why aren’t technically feasible solutions being implemented? How must transformative projects be changed to deliver effective, just, and equitable decarbonization? When asking these questions, we must resist the temptation to assume that the already prevalent decarbonization proposals are adequate. To win social and political support, we may need to change those proposals to make them just, equitable, and even populist. To defeat the rising fascist right, we need decarbonization pathways that are intuitive, exciting, and backed by broad political coalitions. By growing the dialogue between climate science, energy engineering, and other technical fields on the one hand, and political sociology, political economy, and other intersecting social science subfields on the other, we can create common ground for climate social science. Our early research in has focused in particular on investigating the uneven fortunes of low-carbon urban politics in Brazil and the United States (Cohen 2016, 2017, 2018c; Rice, Cohen, Long, and Jurjevich 2019; Wachsmuth, Cohen, and Angelo 2016). In forthcoming work, undertaken in partnership with Nicholas Pevzner, Samantha Love, Salma Elmallah, Irem Inal, and others, we are investigating the politics of clean energy buildout in rural parts of New York State, and elsewhere in the U.S. We have also worked with the Climate and Community Project and Data for Progress on a number of policy reports that lay out equitable decarbonization policies, largely by building out the Green New Deal framework (Cohen et al 2019a; 2019b; 2019c; Cohen et al 2021; Fleming et al 2019; Freemark et al 2022; Rodriguez et al 2021).

Decarbonizing adaptation

How can the great imperatives of decarbonization and adaptation be more productively combined to deliver holistic climate action at the needed speed and scale?  How can conjoined green investments to transform the built environment tackle climate vulnerabilities exacerbated by racial inequality and enduring colonialism? We are beginning a project that looks at the opportunities and pitfalls of linking these imperatives at the concrete project level (with a focus on both technical dimensions and political contestations), emerging financial mechanisms that could combine these imperatives, how questions of equity and power pervade these new struggles, and how trillions of dollars in investment in decarbonization and adaptation are an essential opportunity to define new paradigms for transcending and replacing neoliberal climate governance. Daniel Aldana Cohen and Meg Mills-Novoa are leading the project, in collaboration with Kate Cullen and Priyanka Mohanty. The project is a partnership between (SC)2 and Mills-Novoa’s Climate Futures Lab.

Delivering frontline community investment

How can targeted, green community investments attack the climate emergency and inequalities of race and class at the same time and in the same places? This works stream is focused on analyzing American policy approaches to targeting green investment in officially designated disadvantaged communities. Our major work is reviewing and understanding the implications of New York State‘s implementation of targeted climate investments—aiming to deliver 35% to 40% of benefits to disadvantaged communities. We are also developing recommendations for how the federal government can deliver on its Justice40 pledge to deliver 40% of climate-linked investments to disadvantaged communities. Based on our research on the implementation of similar policies in California, we have written a discussion draft making recommendations for New York State; a final draft will follow shortly (Cohen et al 2022). Collaborators in this work stream include Daniel Aldana Cohen, Mijin Cha, Nick Graetz, Raka Sen, and Aaryaman “Sunny” Singhal.

Climate Internationalism and the global Green New Deal

It is impossible to deliver climate justice in one country. Research on green political economy must always involve dialogue with other thinkers and groups around the world. (SC)2 has hosted and co-sponsored two events focused on the Green New Deal and Latin America, an event on Vienna’s green social housing model, an event on global climate justice, and an event on US-Chinese climate cooperation. Ongoing collaborators on global climate justice include Daniel Aldana Cohen, Meg Mills-Novoa, and Thea Riofrancos.

Democratizing green industrial policy and green innovation

How can green innovation be democratized? How can green industrial policy advance an equitable decarbonization agenda, with social movements and community groups exercising meaningful agency? How can these efforts combat racial inequality? (SC)2 is in the early stages of tackling these questions. Daniel Aldana Cohen and Juan Dutkiewicz have begun work on a democratic green innovation agenda. Patrick Bigger, Daniel Aldana Cohen and the broader Climate and Community Project have begun a new project on green industrial policy; we’ll post more information shortly.

Eco-apartheid, racial capitalism, and the climate emergency

(SC)2 has begun to develop a stream of work on eco-apartheid. We will share more details about our scholarly production shortly. Collaborators include Daniel Aldana Cohen, Nick Graetz, Seth J. Prins, and Michael Esposito. New work will deepen and extend some early, provisional work on the theme (Cohen 2018a, 2018b, 2019).


Kate Aronoff, Alyssa Battistoni, Daniel Aldana Cohen, and Thea Riofrancos. 2019. A Planet to Win: Why We Need a Green New Deal. New York: Verso.

Cohen, Daniel Aldana. 2020a. Confronting the Urban Climate Emergency: Critical Urban Studies in the Age of a Green New Deal. City: Analysis of Urban Change, Theory, Action. (24)1-2 (February-April 2020): 52-64.

Daniel Aldana Cohen. 2020b. How a Green Stimulus Would Lift Up Workers and Communities and Rebuild Our InfrastructureThe Century Foundation. May 29.

Daniel Aldana Cohen. 2019. Eco-Apartheid is RealThe Nation. July 26.

Cohen, Daniel Aldana. 2018a. Water Crisis and Eco-Apartheid in São Paulo: Beyond Naive Optimism About Climate-Linked DisastersInternational Journal of Urban and Regional Research. “Spotlight on Parched Cities, Parched People” series. November.

Daniel Aldana Cohen. 2018b. Stop Eco-Apartheid: The Left’s Challenge in Bolsonaro’s Brazil. Dissent magazine. November 14.

Cohen, Daniel Aldana. 2018c. Climate Justice and the Right to the City. White Paper. Kleinman Center for Energy Policy, Penn Institute for Urban Research, and Perry World House. University of Pennsylvania.

Cohen, Daniel Aldana. 2017. “The Other Low-Carbon Protagonists: Poor People’s Movements and Climate Politics in São Paulo.” Pp 140-157. In Miriam Greenberg and Penny Luce eds. The City is the Factory: Social Movements in the Age of Neoliberal Urbanism. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.

Cohen, Daniel Aldana. 2016. The Rationed City: The politics of water, housing, and land use in drought-parched São Paulo. Public Culture, 28:2, 261-289.

Cohen, Daniel Aldana and Thea Riofrancos. 2020. Latin America’s Green New Deal. NACLA Report on the Americas. (52)2: 117-121.

Daniel Aldana Cohen, J. Mjin Cha, Nick Graetz, Raka Sen. 2022. Discussion Draft: Securing Climate Justice Investments in New York’s Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act. Socio-Spatial Climate Collaborative, or (SC)2. University of California, Berkeley. March.

Cohen, Daniel Aldana, Tara Raghuveer, Sean McElwee, Jack Nicol, John Ray. 2019. The Green Homes Guarantee is Popular. Polling Memo. Data for Progress. Report Co-Sponsored by (SC)2. October 19.

Daniel Aldana Cohen, Kate Aronoff, Alyssa Battistoni, Thea Riofrancos. 2019. For a Global Green New Deal. In Road Map to a Green New Deal: 3.N Internationalism. Common Wealth. London, July, pp 4-11.

Cohen, Daniel Aldana, Billy Fleming, Kira McDonald, Nick Graetz, Mark Paul, Alexandra Lillehei, Katie Lample, Julian Brave NoiseCat. 2019. A Green New Deal for New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA) Communities. Research Report. Data for Progress. November 14.

Cohen, Daniel Aldana, Billy Fleming, Kira McDonald, Julian Brave NoiseCat, Nick Graetz, Katie Lample, Alexandra Lillehei, Mark Paul, Anunya Bahanda. 2019. A Green New Deal for American Public Housing Communities. Data for Progress. Report co-sponsored by (SC)2. November 22.

Fleming, Billy, Daniel Aldana Cohen, Nick Graetz, Katie Lample, Alexandra Lillehei, Kira McDonald, Julian Brave NoiseCat, Mark Paul. 2019. A Green New Deal for American Public Housing Communities. Research Report. Data for Progress. Report co-sponsored by (SC)2. December 16.

Freemark, Yonah, Billy Fleming, Caitlin McCoy, Rennie Meyers, Thea Riofrancos, Xan Lillehei, Daniel Aldana Cohen. 2022. “Toward a Green New Deal for Transportation: Establishing New Federal Investment Priorities to Build Just and Sustainable Communities.” Climate and Community Project. Report co-sponsored by (SC)2. March.

Cohen, Daniel Aldana, Rachel Mulbry, A. L. McCullough, Kira McDonald, Nick Graetz, Billy Fleming. 2021. A Green New Deal for Public Housing to Deliver Racial, Economic, and Climate Justice. Philadelphia: Climate and Community Project. Report co-sponsored by (SC)2. April 19.

Bozuwa, J, T. Riofrancos, S. Knuth, P. Robbins, S. Baker, A.L. McCullough, K. McDonald, C. Mackin, D. Aldana Cohen, B. Fleming, N. Graetz, N. Shah. 2021. “A New Era of Public Power: A Vision for New York Power Authority in Pursuit of Climate Justice.” Philadelphia: Climate and Community Project. Report co-sponsored by (SC)2.

Mark Paul and Daniel Aldana Cohen. 2020. The Green New Deal’s Public Infrastructure Should Be Funded by the Public. Dissent. September 21.

Akira Drake Rodriguez, Daniel Aldana Cohen, Erika Kitzmiller, Kira McDonald, David I. Backer, Neilay Shah, Ian Gavigan, Xan Lillehei, A. L. McCullough, Al-Jalil Gault, Emma Glasser, Nick Graetz, Rachel Mulbry, and Billy Fleming. Transforming Public Education: A Green New Deal for K–12 Public Schools. Philadelphia: Climate and Community Project, 2021. Report co-sponsored by (SC)2.

Rice, Jennifer L, Daniel Aldana Cohen Joshua Long Jason R. Jurjevich. 2019. Contradictions of the Climate‐Friendly City: New Perspectives on Eco‐Gentrification and Housing Justice. In International Journal of Urban and Regional Research. (44)1,145-165.

Wachsmuth, David, Daniel Aldana Cohen, and Hillary Angelo. 2016. Expand the frontiers of urban sustainabilityNature, 536:7618, 391-393.