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.
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The winners can be viewed at https://unite.un.org/ideas/closed/851.
We use the terms “applications” and “tools” interchangeably. Although there is a technical distinction between them (an application consists of a range of functions and a tool is more specific to one task) in practice there are many simple applications and many complex tools. Both, incidentally, are a subset of software programs, which are developed for the end user, as opposed to the system software that keeps the computer running.
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A GWP of 72 means that 1 t of a given GHG emitted today is equivalent to 72 t of CO2. See https://www.ipcc.ch/publications_and_data/ar4/wg1/en/ch2s2-10-2.html.
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Again, this list is not exhaustive, and was determined based on the project methodology and information provided in the UN’s Project Design Documents.
The first project in the data set is dated 11/8/2004. We coded 16 projects for 2005, and 140 for 2006, then 147 projects between 2007 and 2009, and 56 projects between 2010 and 2012.
Other visualizations from this series are available upon request.
Color selection is automated by Tableau, but can be tweaked to emphasize particular relationships. For example, if you are mapping countries by risk of violent conflict, the color schemes could be (1) continuous (from transparent to opaque shades of red) or (2) categorical (red, orange, and green). For our visuals is that colors should be randomized so as not to create false emphasis. Using a traffic-light color scheme to display project types may convey that red projects are somehow worse than green projects.
At this point, we speculate that many internationally financed waste projects in non-Annex 1 countries went after CDM registration because of the advantage of gaining CERs—at least up until 2012, when the price of carbon collapsed—though we do not know for certain.
Methane storage facilities are often located near communities, and flaring and leakage can be a very serious risk.
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We acknowledge Angela Zoss, Data Visualization Coordinator, Data and GIS Services, Duke University, for her significant assistance with this paper, and also thank Aseem Prakash, Karen Litfin, Fariborz Zelli, Alastair Iles, Maria Ivanova, and Rachel Morello-Frosch for their input. Early versions of this paper were presented at the Duck Family Colloquium Series, University of Washington Center for Environmental Politics (December 4, 2015) at the Political Science Seminar Series, Lund University, Sweden (February 3, 2016), at the Annual Meeting of the International Studies Association, Atlanta, GA (March 2016), and at the ESPM Seminar, UC Berkeley (April 7 2016).
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O’Neill, K., Weinthal, E. & Hunnicutt, P. Seeing complexity: visualization tools in global environmental politics and governance. J Environ Stud Sci 7, 490–506 (2017). https://doi.org/10.1007/s13412-017-0433-x
- Global environmental politics
- Clean development mechanism