Can practitioners and analysts join forces to address largescale environmental challenges?


Efforts to promote collaboration between practitioners and analysts in establishing and administering governance systems to address largescale environmental challenges regularly fall victim to a two cultures problem. As a popular saying has it: analysts look at issues from 30,000 feet, while practitioners are down in the weeds. This article considers prospects for overcoming this problem. Using the concept of the policy cycle as a framing device, it examines contributions practitioners and analysts can make during the stages of agenda formation, collective choice, implementation and administration, and evaluation and reform. The article then turns to practical steps for overcoming the barriers to productive engagement between the two communities caused by the lack of a common language for thinking about specific needs for governance and by the influence of negative stereotypes about each other’s contributions that color the day-to-day activities of practitioners and analysts alike. The empirical focus of the article is on efforts to create effective governance systems to address largescale environmental challenges. But many features of the two cultures problem are generic. The ideas this article articulates may apply as well to efforts to foster collaboration between practitioners and analysts in other issue domains.


Efforts to promote collaboration between practitioners and analysts in establishing and administering governance systems to solve largescale environmental challenges (often called international regimes) regularly fall victim to a two cultures problem. Practitioners are individuals who participate actively either in making decisions about matters of public concern or implementing the resultant policies on a day-to-day basis. Immersed in the details of concrete situations and motivated by a desire to craft timely and politically acceptable solutions, they often regard analysts as occupants of ivory towers who trade in vague generalizations and lack the depth of understanding of the relevant challenges needed to deal effectively with the issues at hand. Analysts, on the other hand, are individuals motivated primarily by a desire to enhance understanding to explain or predict the outcomes of policy processes. They are apt to regard practitioners as wooly-minded thinkers lost in anecdotal accounts of the minutiae of particular problems and lacking a sophisticated understanding of the classes of situations to which specific challenges belong. Practitioners regularly dismiss the thinking of analysts as hopelessly abstract; analysts criticize practitioners as lacking the ability to move beyond reliance on simplistic analogies to past situations or formulaic panaceas. As a popular saying has it: analysts look at issues from 30,000 feet; practitioners operate down in the weeds.

Those located in think tanks endeavor to produce policy-relevant analyses. But these negative stereotypes regularly result both in the absence of a common language and a lack of mutual respect between members of the two communities, conditions that rule out or severely hamper efforts to join forces to produce effective responses to specific needs for governance. There are exceptional individuals—sometimes referred to as “pracademics”—who are able to function effectively both as practitioners and as analysts (Posner 2009). Among those who have taken an interest in largescale environmental challenges, people like Abram Chayes, Peter Sand, Gus Speth, Konrad von Moltke, and Ernst von Weizsäcker come to mind. But such people are few and far between. What is more, pracademics active in this realm often shift gears, working in one mode or the other at any given time. Abram Chayes, to take a specific example, served as legal advisor to the US Department of State during the administration of John Kennedy during the 1960s. Much later, as a professor at the Harvard University School of Law, he made important contributions to our understanding of (non)compliance with the provisions of international legally binding instruments (Chayes and Chayes 1993). As a result, the efforts of such people seldom suffice to bridge the gap, promoting timely synergistic engagement between practitioners and analysts seeking to address major environmental issues whose solutions require institutionalized cooperation transcending national boundaries.

Although there are success stories, it will come as no surprise, then, that institutional arrangements intended to address specific needs for governance are difficult to create. In cases, where agreement is reached on paper, the arrangements often fail to make the transition from paper to practice in a coherent fashion. Even when they do become operational, they frequently prove inadequate to solve the problems motivating their creation. There are no necessary conditions for failure in this realm. But sufficient conditions abound. Numerous factors, singly or in combination, can cause poor performance or even lead to the outright failure of governance systems created to address specific environmental problems.

In this article, I direct attention to one major source of failure in creating well-designed governance systems and in operating them successfully: the limited capacity of practitioners and analysts to engage constructively, pooling their expertise and experience in the interests of grasping the essence of specific problems, crafting governance systems well-matched to the conditions at hand, and administering them in a sophisticated fashion over time. A concern for the two cultures problem impeding constructive engagement between practitioners and analysts is not new. Others have examined the impact of the problem in a variety of settings. But there are several reasons to take a closer look at the problem as it arises in efforts to address largescale environmental challenges. These issues arise in transnational, often global, settings, where experience with procedures for engaging practitioners and analysts is more limited than in domestic settings. In addition, coming to terms with largescale environmental challenges is not simply a matter of making and implementing discrete choices. Rather, it requires creating more or less complex governance systems or regimes and administering these systems successfully in settings featuring limited resources coupled with a dearth of precedents to inform day-to-day practice.

To explore this theme, I proceed as follows. The next section introduces the idea of the policy cycle in general terms and touches on several concerns regarding the use of this framework to organize thinking about the creation and operation of environmental governance systems. This provides a point of departure for a series of four parallel sections dealing with distinctive contributions practitioners and analysts can make in each of the major stages of the policy cycle: agenda formation, collective choice, implementation and administration, and evaluation and reform. The concluding section turns to prospects for engaging practitioners and analysts more actively in efforts to deal with largescale environmental challenges. It highlights some steps we could take to mitigate negative stereotypes and promote synergy in interactions between members of the two communities in dealing with these environmental challenges.

Two clarifying observations will help to set the stage for the following account. Much of what I have to say maps onto recent examinations of the science/policy interface (Kasperson 2011). But I prefer to use the terms practitioner and analyst, because not all analysts are scientists in the ordinary sense of the term and not all practitioners are policymakers. Interactions between scientists and policymakers fit within the universe of cases I consider, but they do not exhaust it. My empirical focus involves largescale environmental problems, complex matters that cannot be addressed effectively in the absence of collaboration that transcends national borders. We can expect general propositions regarding the engagement of practitioners and analysts to apply to cases arising in this realm. But readers will want to ask critical questions regarding the extent to which conclusions derived from a consideration of efforts to address largescale environmental challenges apply to interactions between practitioners and analysts in other issue domains.

An overview of the policy cycle

Both practitioners and analysts interested in meeting needs for governance organize their thinking in terms of what is generally characterized as the policy cycle and recognize that making headway at different stages in the cycle calls for the deployment of distinctive skills (MacRae and Wilde 1979). As depicted in Fig. 1, the cycle begins with agenda formation, runs through the stages of choice and implementation and eventuates in the stage of evaluation, which often leads to the identification of new issues to be fed back into the cycle.

Fig. 1

Policy cycle

Agenda formation encompasses both the identification and framing of issues featuring needs for governance along with an assessment of where to locate specific issues in the policy queue. The stage labeled collective choice includes two distinct elements. The identification of options relating to specific needs for governance is a matter of engaging in institutional diagnostics to identify alternative ways to proceed in addressing these needs. In the absence of a dominant actor able to control the decisionmaking process, making choices among the available options involves some form of bargaining or negotiation among major stakeholders. Implementation, too, is a compound stage of the cycle. It features moving from paper to practice, a matter of establishing the organizational arrangements needed to administer or operate a governance system day-to-day. This stage includes as well the establishment of monitoring and compliance mechanisms or, more generally, procedures required to ensure that individual actors live up to commitments made during the negotiations occurring in the preceding stage. For its part, evaluation is a matter of assessing the performance of governance systems, asking questions about the extent to which a regime is working to solve the problem that led to its creation and whether it is producing more or less significant (negative or positive) side effects. Addressing these matters commonly produces suggestions for reform, feeding back into the stage of agenda formation as new issues come into focus.

In the interests of avoiding simplistic thinking, it is important to recognize immediately several complications regarding the idea of the policy cycle, especially as it relates to addressing needs for environmental governance. The principal stages in the cycle are not nearly as discrete as they appear on paper. For example, decisionmakers may continue to debate alternative framings relating to a need for governance long after they start to engage in negotiations regarding the provisions of a governance system designed to address the issue. Efforts to implement some of the provisions of an agreement may occur even as negotiators are hard at work on the content of additional provisions. Evaluation may occur throughout the process. It is perfectly possible, for instance, to assess the merits of an agreement relating to governance without waiting until the agreement is implemented fully, much less has compiled a significant track record.

As those who study policy processes have noted, moreover, it is a mistake to think of the cycle in linear terms (Jann and Weyrich 2007). Problems arising at the negotiation stage may send the process back to the stage of agenda formation in search of new information or alternative ways to frame the issues at stake. Efforts to implement the terms of an agreement may make it clear that the agreement is unworkable, sending the process back to the negotiation stage, or even to the stage of issue framing. There is no need to wait until a governance system is fully operational to begin the process of evaluating the terms of an agreement and, in some cases at least, considering new issues to be placed on the policy agenda.

So, the process of responding to needs for governance is typically a good deal messier than the simple visualization provided in Fig. 1 would suggest. Nevertheless, this does not alter the central idea I want to explore regarding the engagement of practitioners and analysts. The various stages in the cycle differ markedly with regard to the sorts of knowledge and skills needed to produce positive results. Whereas spotting emerging issues in a timely manner requires perspective and the freedom to think expansively about broad trends (e.g. the onset of the Anthropocene), success in negotiating the terms of favorable agreements requires an understanding of bargaining processes and a close attention to the details of specific cases. Implementation, by contrast, requires a mastery of administrative practices and an ability to make the best use of the human, institutional, and material resources available to operate a governance system on a day-to-day basis. The point is not to assert that practitioners are uniquely qualified to engage in some of these activities, while analysts have the skills needed to handle others. However, because the relevant activities differ markedly from one another, both the opportunities for and obstacles to constructive engagement between practitioners and analysts will vary from one stage of the policy cycle to another.

Agenda formation

Agenda formation starts with spotting issues likely to give rise to needs for environmental governance in a timely manner (Kingdon 1995). This is by no means a straightforward process. While it is comparatively easy to agree that there is a need for governance regarding some issues (e.g. the conservation of heavily exploited fish stocks), the need for governance regarding other issues (e.g. various types of air pollution) is controversial, especially during the early stages in the development of these problems. Given the fact that policy horizons are typically short, moreover, there is a natural tendency to ignore or postpone consideration of issues that may turn into serious problems over time but that do not seem urgent in the short run. In cases like climate change, where the relevant biophysical and socioeconomic systems are highly complex and where the most serious impacts of emergent problems are likely to be felt some distance into the future, there is a pronounced tendency to put off adding issues to the active agenda or even to deny that the issues feature needs for governance. When some stakeholders have good reasons to avoid addressing an issue actively, this tendency becomes even more significant. This is clearly a major factor in thinking about many types of air and water pollution likely to be framed as problems featuring a need to internalize social costs. Though the case of climate change is a particularly prominent example, it is in many respects representative of a broader class of concerns.

How can practitioners and analysts work together to address this aspect of agenda formation? In many cases, needs for environmental governance remain invisible in the absence of significant advances on the part of analysts. Until the later part of the nineteenth century, for example, most observers believed that human actions could not cause serious depletions of marine fish stocks. Advances in fisheries science gave rise to fisheries management as a suitable realm for the introduction of governance systems (Bolster 2012). A similar observation is in order regarding the emergence of climate change as a matter producing a need for governance in recent decades (Archer and Rahmstorf 2010). In both cases, it is worth noting, significant and continuing disagreements within the relevant science communities have complicated efforts to reach agreement on the importance of these issues with regard to needs for governance.

There is room for constructive engagement between practitioners and analysts when it comes to spotting emerging needs for governance. Analysts can sound the alarm with regard to problems like the depletion of fish stocks or the disruption of the Earth’s climate system; practitioners can assess the extent to which these issues are suitable for consideration in various policy settings. Analysts can produce the evidence required to document needs for governance regarding such matters; practitioners can evaluate the extent to which this evidence is likely to prove credible to policymakers in various settings. The emergence of new issues on the governance agenda is (or should be) a process involving collaboration between the two communities rather than pronouncements coming from one community with an expectation that members of the other community will pay attention.

Closely related to spotting emerging issues is the matter of determining the proper way to frame these issues for consideration in relevant policy arenas. Here, the need for engagement between the two communities is particularly striking. Analysts play key roles in developing the conceptual tools required to understand the nature of specific needs for governance. Consider the idea of collective-action problems, including classics like the tragedy of the commons and the free rider problem, as a case in point (Schelling 1978). While practitioners have long been aware of the tensions between individual rationality and social welfare on an intuitive basis, there is no doubt that the work of analysts has contributed greatly in recent decades to our toolkit for thinking rigorously about such matters (Olson 1965; Hardin 1968). Similar remarks are in order regarding the effort to understand differences among policy instruments (e.g. taxes, permits, command-and-control regulations in the case of climate change) available to guide the behavior of those actors whose activities give rise to needs for governance.

At the same time, the contributions of practitioners are critical to efforts to apply these conceptual constructs to specific cases. The tragedy of the commons occurs under some conditions but not under others. Free riding is far less prevalent in many real-world settings than simple analytic models would lead us to believe. Whether taxes or permits are likely to produce better results in dealing with externalities (e.g. emissions of greenhouse gases) depends on particular features of specific cases. There is thus a need for those with in-depth knowledge of specific situations to sort out the applicability of the contents of the analytic toolkit on a case-by-case basis. Of course, analysts may acquire detailed knowledge of specific cases, and practitioners may acquire considerable sophistication regarding the nature of key analytic constructs. But this does not alter the importance of encouraging members of the two communities to join forces to pool their expertise in efforts to frame specific needs for governance in a manner that makes them actionable in terms of policymaking while maximizing the likelihood of creating governance systems that prove effective in meeting these needs.

The third element of agenda formation centers on determining the location of specific needs for governance in the queue of issues vying for attention at any given time. Policy agendas are always congested. There are many needs for governance, but the capacity of policymaking bodies to address distinct issues effectively is severely limited. As a result, those seeking to address specific issues have strong incentives to push their issues to the head of the policy queue as a means of ensuring that they are not lost in the shuffle. Decisions regarding the ordering of issues in the policy queue are often subject to high-level political considerations; stakeholders commonly work hard to advance concerns of particular importance to themselves to more prominent positions in the queue. Many factors, ranging from the dynamics of electoral politics to lobbying efforts on the part of powerful interest groups, can and often do play a role in determining the ordering of issues in particular policy arenas. There are even cases of what is known as forum shopping arising when influential actors endeavor to move issues into policy arenas, where they expect their concerns to receive favorable treatment.

Nevertheless, both analysts and practitioners can contribute constructively to this aspect of agenda setting. The role of analysts is to provide well-documented evidence regarding the importance of specific issues from the perspective of needs for governance. This is exactly what bodies like the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) seek to do (IPCC 2014). But simply piling up evidence regarding the importance of a need for governance is not sufficient to move it to the head of the policy queue. The issue must be recognized as actionable in the sense that there is a reasonable chance that launching negotiations regarding the issue will lead to a successful outcome. This is where the experience and expertise of practitioners comes into play. Even where there is no reason to distrust the judgment of analysts regarding the importance of a particular need for governance, practitioners may know a great deal about the prospects for success in efforts to create a regime designed to address the issue. It is the combination of these distinct inputs that is likely to make a difference regarding the attention devoted to an issue in a given policy setting, even allowing for the impacts of political forces referred to in the preceding paragraph.

Collective choice

Once an issue moves beyond the stage of agenda formation, it enters a stage typically referred to as collective choice. But note that this transition may feature a protracted and highly uncertain process. Consider the case of marine biodiversity in areas beyond national jurisdiction (BBNJ) in this context. In 2005, the UN General Assembly “established an ad hoc open-ended informal working group to study issues relating to the conservation and sustainable use of BBNJ” (EENB 2017). Some 10 years later in 2015, this effort led to the creation of a Preparatory Committee to make recommendations to the General Assembly regarding the timeliness of convening an Intergovernmental Conference intended to work out the provisions of a legally binding agreement in this realm. Following a positive decision on the part of the assembly in December 2017, the Intergovernmental Conference commenced work on the terms of an agreement in September 2018. It is unclear at this writing if and when this process will produce a legally binding instrument on biodiversity beyond national jurisdiction, much less when such an agreement might enter into force (De Santo et al. 2020). It seems reasonable to say that the efforts of the working group starting in 2005 belong to the stage of agenda formation and that the work of the Intergovernmental Conference starting in 2018 belongs to the stage of collective choice. But specifying a particular moment of transition from one stage to the next is both arbitrary and for the most part unnecessary.

This stage of the policy cycle encompasses two elements, one featuring the identification of options relating to the problem at hand and the other centering on negotiations aimed at hammering out agreement on the specific terms of a regime designed to solve the problem. Both elements provide opportunities for constructive engagement between practitioners and analysts. But the nature of this engagement differs markedly from one element to the other.

Identifying options is the domain of what we have come to think of in addressing environmental problems as institutional diagnostics. Briefly, this is a matter of matching the features of a governance system to the distinctive attributes of the problem at hand (Young 2002, 2008,2019; Ostrom 2007). Focusing attention on compliance mechanisms, for example, is important only in cases, where there are likely to be substantial incentives to cheat and the consequences of even a few violations are expected to be serious. Similarly, the relative merits of adopting decision rules calling for consensus versus some form of qualified majority will be sensitive to the willingness of a regime’s members to accept outcomes even when they do not find themselves in tune with the preferences of the majority (Breitmeier et al. 2006).

Institutional diagnostics can benefit from close collaboration between analysts and practitioners. Analysts are good at generating innovative options that may be worthy of consideration in coming to terms with specific problems. Practitioners are likely to have the detailed knowledge of specific situations needed to judge whether particular options are well-suited to the circumstances surrounding a given need for governance. Joining forces in this connection can encourage a search for institutional innovations while minimizing the likelihood of ending up with an arrangement that seems appealing in theory but fails to take into account the realities of the case at hand.

Although institutional diagnostics can help to identify the relative merits of different institutional options, the actual terms of the governance systems established to address specific needs for governance will be the product of institutional bargaining among actors pursuing their own interests, though they may all agree on the need to address a particular need for governance (Young 1989). Although participants typically vary (sometimes greatly) with regard to bargaining strength and the sophistication of their negotiators, outcomes always reflect the pulling and hauling of the bargaining process, a fact that generally leads to the creation of hybrid governance systems incorporating elements preferred by different participants or negotiating blocs in the bargaining process.

Whatever the consequences for the effectiveness of specific regimes, bargaining processes again offer attractive opportunities for engagement between practitioners and analysts. Negotiating the terms of deals on specific issues and hammering out actual language to be included in the texts of international agreements require an in-depth awareness of the moment-to-moment course of negotiations that few analysts are able to attain. This is the domain of practitioners who have personal knowledge of the players in a negotiation and who are in a position to engage in repeated discussions of the pros and cons of alternative formulations of the terms of particular articles to be included in a formal agreement (Sebenius 1984).

As the work of researchers like Thomas Schelling makes clear, however, analysts can make contributions of a more general nature to bargaining processes (Schelling 1960). Although practitioners must hammer out the actual terms of agreements, they stand to benefit from a clear understanding of the nature of contract zones and contract curves and the role of various types of committal tactics. Even the simple advice regarding “getting to yes,” associated with the thinking of analysts like Roger Fisher, can prove helpful to those who risk getting bogged down in protracted negotiations about specific points that are not critical to addressing the issue(s) at hand (Fisher and Ury 2011). The challenge in this regard is not only a matter of cultivating feelings of mutual respect between practitioners and analysts but also a matter of creating mechanisms that allow members of the two communities to interact informally and constructively, even as the negotiations are proceeding in the relevant formal arenas.

Implementation and administration

As those who study implementation regularly note, nothing is more common than the occurrence of significant changes in the character of governance systems as they make their way from paper to practice (Pressman and Wildavsky 1984). Decision rules calling for qualified majorities devolve into consensus procedures. Flexibility mechanisms (e.g. the Clean Development Mechanism of the Climate Regime) often fail to work as intended. Pledges regarding funding designed to assist developing countries often degenerate into paper commitments. In some cases, arrangements agreed to during the stage of choice never actually enter into force at all or get off the ground as operational arrangements. The 1988 Antarctic minerals convention, which includes highly innovative institutional arrangements but never entered into force, provides a striking example.

Regimes that do get off the ground commonly experience more or less fundamental changes over the course of time (Young 2010). The ozone regime, for example, has gone from strength to strength. Today, it functions not only as an effective arrangement to control a long list of ozone-depleting substances but also as the most significant arrangement created so far to deal with emissions of greenhouse gases (Velders et al. 2007). The regime for the regulation of whaling, on the other hand, started out as an arrangement intended to promote sustainable harvesting but has shifted over time to become an arrangement dedicated to terminating the harvesting of whales, except for limited exceptions covering aboriginal subsistence whaling (Friedheim 2001). Thus, there is no basis for assuming that the job is done regarding the effort to solve largescale environmental problems once the terms of an international agreement are in place and the agreement has entered into force.

With regard to the contributions of practitioners and analysts, a central element of the implementation stage involves establishing and administering the organizational apparatus needed to operate an institutional arrangement on a day-to-day basis. Regimes vary substantially in these terms. Some regimes (e.g. the climate regime) spawn intergovernmental organizations that have legal personality, sizable professional staffs, and indicative budgets. Others operate on a shoestring. During the first several decades of its existence, the regime for Antarctica created under the 1959 Antarctic Treaty operated with no secretariat or other administrative apparatus of its own. Yet this regime is widely regarded as a success story in the realm of international governance (Berkman et al. 2011). A first-order concern regarding implementation, then, is whether a regime needs any organizational apparatus at all and what form this apparatus should take in cases where some administrative capacity is deemed important.

This may seem like an area suitable for treatment on the part of the community of practitioners. Many of the relevant issues are somewhat technical in nature and can be dealt with effectively by drawing on experience accumulated in the course of operating a sizable number of governance systems. Without doubt, there is a measure of truth in this observation. Still, there are important questions in this realm with regard to which the contributions of analysts may prove significant. Under what circumstances, for example, does it make sense to integrate or merge the administration of regimes dealing with related topics (e.g. the Basel Convention on Transboundary Movement of Hazardous Wastes, the Rotterdam Convention on Hazardous Chemicals and Pesticides in International Trade, and the Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants) (Ripley 2017)? Are there benefits to be derived from locating administrative arrangements for a range of regimes within the broader structure of the UN Environment Programme? Would upgrading the status of UNEP (e.g. making it a UN specialized agency) increase its effectiveness as a platform for the development of administrative arrangements needed to operate specific regimes (Biermann and Bauer 2005)? As we move from the narrower administrative concerns associated with individual regimes to broader structures of international governance, the contributions of analysts to thinking through the options can be expected to rise.

Recent research has made it clear also that the secretariats of international environmental regimes can engage in activities extending well beyond technical administrative roles (Biermann and Siebenhüner 2009; Jinnah 2014). These bodies can become active in efforts to identify emerging issues and to think about options for responding to these new concerns. The leaders of secretariats also may become players in efforts to increase the coherence of regimes or to expand their scope over time. The role that Mostafa Tolba played over a number of years in the evolution of the ozone regime offers a prominent example (Tolba 1992). Nevertheless, these are sensitive matters. Secretariats that stray too far into the realm of politically sensitive concerns may compromise their status as professional administrative arrangements, thereby jeopardizing their ability to perform effectively at the operational level. This is a matter that practitioners who operate on the ground on a day-to-day basis are likely to understand well. While analysts have much to contribute regarding opportunities for growth in the operation of regimes over time, therefore, practitioners have an essential role to play in making sure that the lure of imaginative initiatives does not undermine the capacity of administrative arrangements to perform essential tasks.

An essential element of the implementation stage is the effort to induce those subject to a regime’s provisions to adjust their behavior to conform to the regime’s requirements. In the first instance, this is a matter of encouraging compliance, a topic that has captured the attention of practitioners and analysts alike (Chayes and Chayes 1993; Mitchell 1996; Raustiala and Slaughter 2002). How do various theories of compliance map onto the behavior of key actors in real-world settings? When is enforcement required to elicit compliance on the part of major players, and what sorts of sanctions are likely to be available for use in conjunction with the operation of specific regimes? Do some regimes require higher levels of compliance than others to function effectively? It is not surprising, under the circumstances, that a person like Abram Chayes, operating at different stages in his career as a practitioner and as an analyst, focused on issues of compliance and made important contributions to our thinking in this realm (Chayes and Chayes 1995).

While regulatory measures constitute a central concern in thinking about environmental governance, regimes influence the behavior of key actors in a number of other ways. These include defining roles (e.g. coastal, port, and flag state under the law of the sea), coordinating actions designed to meet a common goal (e.g. nationally determined contributions under the terms of the 2015 Paris Agreement on climate), and generating new knowledge relating to the nature of the problem at stake (e.g. the status of endangered species). In all these cases, there is room for synergy in the activities of practitioners and analysts concerned with the issues at stake. Analysts have taken the lead in the development of the idea of ecosystem services, for example, but practitioners have a comparative advantage in figuring out how to address issues relating to ecosystem services under the terms of specific agreements like the Convention on Biological Diversity (MEA 2005). Similarly, analysts are well-placed to think systematically about the relative merits of cap-and-trade arrangements and carbon taxes as instruments for reducing greenhouse gas emissions, but practitioners are apt to be far more sensitive to the interplay of interests that will determine what instruments are acceptable to key players in specific situations and what it would take to administer these instruments over time in such a way as to make progress toward the achievement of the common goal (Stern 2007; Nordhaus 2008).

Evaluation and reform

Conceptually, evaluation fits comfortably into this line of thinking as the final stage of the policy cycle. We want to know whether regimes that have been in place for some time have proven successful in solving the problems that led to their creation and whether there are feasible adjustments that could improve their performance going forward. In an important sense, however, evaluation is relevant throughout the policy cycle. Could we introduce better mechanisms to provide early warning regarding emerging problems? Are there ways to improve institutional diagnostics to gain a better understanding of the defining features of largescale environmental problems (Young et al. 2018)? Can we devise new compliance mechanisms capable of inducing actors to adjust their behavior in appropriate ways, even in the absence of conventional enforcement procedures (Victor et al. 1998)? Still, it is helpful in this discussion of enhancing the engagement of practitioners and analysts to consider issues relating to evaluation and reform as distinct from agenda formation, collective choice, and implementation and administration.

Although their motivations may differ, both practitioners and analysts take a strong interest in the performance of environmental regimes and, more specifically, in identifying the determinants of the effectiveness of regimes in solving international environmental problems (Young 2011). Whereas practitioners seek such knowledge to create effective regimes on a case-by-case basis, analysts are interested in the development of more general propositions applicable to explaining or predicting success among members of the relevant universe of cases. In practice, however, these interests intersect. Especially when they are employing qualitative methods (e.g. process tracing and thick description), analysts will join practitioners in seeking in-depth knowledge of the performance of individual regimes. Although practitioners are unlikely to join in efforts to identify necessary conditions for success or to formulate design principles relevant to sizable universes of cases, it is easy to see that the results of such analyses may prove helpful to practitioners in their efforts to address specific cases (Young 2016).

The key point is that members of the two communities can contribute to our understanding of the determinants of effectiveness by joining forces. In-depth knowledge of specific cases may help to identify important factors that can be framed as hypotheses to be evaluated using evidence derived from a sizable number of cases. Practitioners can use propositions developed by analysts (e.g. statements about necessary conditions for success) in their efforts to design effective regimes to address specific problems; applications to specific cases can also play a role in testing hypotheses formulated by analysts. This sort of interplay can occur even when practitioners and analysts do not engage in conscious efforts to profit from each other’s efforts. But to maximize synergy arising from such interplay as a means of enhancing our understanding of the determinants of success, it will help to promote deliberate initiatives on the part of members of the two communities to communicate with one another both about modalities for joining forces and about interesting results arising from their combined efforts.

Similar observations are in order regarding efforts to understand institutional dynamics and to bring knowledge regarding how institutions change over time to bear in addressing specific environmental problems. Once they make the initial transition from paper to practice, regimes experience continuous processes of change driven by a combination of internal and external forces (Young 2010). Some regimes (e.g. the ozone regime) go from strength to strength becoming increasingly effective in solving the relevant problems. Others (e.g. the climate regime) run into powerful opposition and struggle to make progress in terms of problem solving. Still others (e.g. the whaling regime) experience profound changes that may extend to a reframing of the nature of the problem to be solved. A knowledge of institutional dynamics will be helpful to practitioners seeking to introduce reforms of existing regimes in the interests of improving performance in specific cases. At the same time, the development of more general knowledge regarding the nature of institutional dynamics has emerged as a major focus of attention among analysts seeking to enhance our general understanding of the role institutions play in addressing international issues.

Here, too, there is much to be gained from joining the contributions of practitioners and analysts. Consider the case of stratospheric ozone depletion as a prominent example. Reflective practitioners, such as Richard Benedick and Mostafa Tolba, have helped us to understand both the negotiations leading to the adoption of the 1987 Montreal Protocol and the forces at work in the early life of the ozone regime featuring the acceleration of phaseout schedules and the creation of the Montreal Protocol Multilateral Fund (Benedick 1991; Tolba 1992). Analysts, such as Peter Haas and Edward Parson, have analyzed the development and dissemination of scientific knowledge regarding ozone depletion and helped us to understand how the interactions between science and policy drove the progressive strengthening of the provisions of this regime (Haas 1992; Parson 2003). There remain unresolved questions regarding the development of the ozone regime. For example, what did executives at DuPont, the leading producer of ozone-depleting substances, know about the feasibility of producing effective substitutes at various stages in the process of strengthening the terms of the regime? There are as well many questions concerning the extent to which knowledge relating to institutional dynamics in this case can be applied in a helpful way to improve understanding in other cases. Was the combination of factors that made it possible to accelerate phaseout schedules for ozone-depleting substances unique to this regime? Yet there is little doubt about the benefits of melding the insights of practitioners and analysts in seeking to understand the institutional dynamics of the ozone regime.

The way forward

Some interactions between practitioners and analysts regarding the development of environmental regimes occur on an unplanned and entirely informal basis. Practitioners sometimes pick up on constructs developed by analysts (e.g. the tragedy of the commons, the free rider problem), though they do not always use them with sufficient care or precision to avoid misunderstandings. Many analysts find ways to attend conferences of the parties to environmental regimes, observing the proceedings and conducting interviews with participants in an effort to accumulate data to be used in framing or testing hypotheses relating to the creation and performance of regimes.

Nevertheless, these activities are not sufficient to alleviate the two cultures problem that regularly impedes constructive engagement between practitioners and analysts interested in largescale environmental challenges, much less to point the way toward synergistic interactions. The disconnect has deep roots; it would be naïve to suppose that we can find simple means to overcome the problem. Still, there are ways to improve the dialogue between members of the two communities in a manner that can help us to solve or at least to alleviate the array of environmental problems confronting us today.

It is worth noting at the outset that high-level political considerations sometimes drive responses to environmental problems in ways that both practitioners and analysts have little ability to influence. Whether or not to prioritize an issue like climate change over issues dealing with health care, job creation, national security, and a host of other concerns that compete for priority in policy queues will turn on complex political calculations that differ from country to country. The fate of efforts to persuade the United States to ratify agreements like the 1982 UN Convention on the Law of the Sea will be affected by political pressures that have little to do with the substantive provisions of the convention itself. A decision concerning whether or not to withdraw from an agreement like the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement will reflect the interplay of partisan politics driven by forces that have little to do with the terms of the agreement itself.

That said, there are ways to overcome or at least to ameliorate the two cultures problem that regularly blocks or distorts interactions between practitioners and analysts concerned with largescale environmental challenges. A critical step in this regard is to create opportunities for members of the two communities to step out of their day-to-day roles, interacting in off-the-record or informal settings that encourage participants to set aside prejudicial stereotypes and treat one another as thoughtful individuals who have interesting perspectives to share on issues of mutual concern. When such interactions occur in a timely manner and in settings that minimize distractions, the results can make a demonstrable difference in the treatment of environmental problems. I conclude with a pair of examples drawn from my personal experience with international cooperation regarding Arctic issues that will help to make this observation concrete (Young 2016).

Sensing an opportunity to promote international cooperation regarding Arctic issues afforded by the waning of the cold war, a group of us obtained funding from an American foundation in 1987 to initiate the Working Group on Arctic International Relations (Young 1996). The working group, meeting at regular intervals in Arctic locations over a period of several years, brought together a group of practitioners and analysts from all eight Arctic countries. As we came to know and respect each other on a personal bases, we found it possible to engage in frank and innovative conversations about ways to capitalize on common concerns regarding Arctic issues like environmental protection and sustainable development, while steering a course designed to avoid issues not likely to produce cooperative outcomes. There is good evidence that the work of this mixed group of practitioners and analysts contributed to the creation of the International Arctic Science Committee in 1990 and the Arctic Environmental Protection Strategy in 1991, paving the way for the establishment of the Arctic Council in 1996.

With the passage of time, a number of actors, including the European Parliament and major environmental NGOs, began to advocate the formalization of Arctic cooperation through the negotiation of a legally binding Arctic Treaty modeled after the 1959 Antarctic Treaty. To evaluate the persuasiveness of this proposal, we initiated the Arctic Governance Project in 2009 with a steering committee composed of a mix of prominent practitioners and analysts and with a mandate to review responses to needs for Arctic governance from a variety of perspectives. The result was an influential report in which the practitioners and the analysts converged on a series of conclusions, noting that it would not make sense to expend time and energy on a fruitless effort to negotiate a legally binding Arctic treaty but calling instead for a variety of measures to strengthen the Arctic Council (Arctic Governance Project 2010). The work of the project influenced the treatment of the issue in key policy forums; it also contributed more general insights regarding the conditions under which the formalization of international governance systems through the adoption of legally binding instruments is (or is not) a preferred strategy.


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Young, O.R. Can practitioners and analysts join forces to address largescale environmental challenges?. GPPG (2021).

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  • Governance
  • Governance system
  • Effectiveness
  • Two cultures problem