A deeper analysis of ACF applications to climate change provides a wealth of knowledge regarding coalitions in climate change policy. These key lessons and takeaways are explored in depth by posing four questions: (1) What are the characteristics of advocacy coalitions involved in climate change? (2) How do coalitions behave? (3) How effective have coalitions been in achieving policy change? And (4) To what extent—if at all—are coalitions learning and adapting? This analysis also largely confirms what the ACF has found across various contexts and applications in that coalitions tend to fight over time to achieve policy dominance for their position. The section concludes with possible directions for future research.
What are the characteristics of advocacy coalitions involved in climate change?
The structure of coalitions is crucial in understanding how policy actors coalesce around climate change as a policy issue, pursue policy solutions, and interact with allies and opponents. Regardless of subsystem and governing system, most applications identified two advocacy coalitions. These coalitions tended to represent either a pro-climate position in favor of mitigation or adaptation policies or an anti-climate position in opposition to climate-conscious policies.
Depending on the topical foci explored, these coalitions differed in their specific policy preferences and structure. In other words, pro- and anti-climate coalitions manifest in a panoply of coalitional descriptions. Highlights include:
Pro- and anti-coal phase-out coalitions in the Netherlands (Akerboom et al. 2020)
Pro-oil status-quo coalition and anti-oil challenging coalitions in Norway (Bang and Lahn 2020)
Fossil fuel and sustainability coalitions in the Dutch electricity sector (Dekker and van Est 2020)
Economy first and pro-environment coalitions in the energy debate in Victoria Australia and in Sweden (Edmonds 2020; Newell 2018)
A status-quo economic coalition and energy security coalition in Hawaii (Edmonds 2020)
Pro-economy and pro-ecology coalitions in Swiss climate policy (Ingold 2011; Ingold and Fischer 2014; Ingold and Gschwend 2014)
The descriptions reflect the choice of the researcher to concentrate their study on a part of the complexity of climate-related issues and the diversity of political forces that have mobilized around climate change issues in different parts of the world. It, thus, lends evidence of the rippling effects of climate change politics in any governing system, from electricity to energy security (Dekker and van Est 2020; Edmonds 2020; Lindberg and Kammermann 2021; Rietig 2016; Roßegger and Ramin 2012).
The pro-climate conscious coalition often included environmentalists, environmental and climate non-governmental organizations, research institutes, pro-climate politicians and bureaucrats and green parties, academia, non-profits, and environmentally friendly business (Aamodt 2018; Aamodt and Stensdal 2017; Edmonds 2020; Elgin 2015a, b; Higa et al. 2020; Stensdal 2014; Weiss et al. 2017).
The anti-climate coalition was generally composed of pro-business/industry and pro-economic growth groups that emphasized the negative economic impacts of policies to deal with climate change (Aamodt and Stensdal 2017; Bulkeley 2000; Edmonds 2020; Higa et al. 2020; Ingold 2011; Ingold and Fischer 2014; Ingold and Gschwend 2014; Ingold and Varone 2012; Kukkonen et al. 2017; Kukkonen et al. 2018; Markard et al. 2015; Niederberger 2005; Rietig 2016; Roßegger and Ramin 2012; Ruysschaert and Hufty 2020; Winkel et al. 2011; Ydersbond 2018). These groups often represented the status quo, opposed to transitioning away from fossil fuels (Akerboom et al. 2020; Babon et al. 2014; Bang and Lahn 2020; Gottschamer and Zhang 2020; Hudson 2019; Pollak et al. 2011; Wagner and Ylä-Anttila 2018).
While business and industry typically sided with the anti-climate coalition, this was not always the case in countries with more advanced transitions to renewables where business and industry benefitted from furthering climate-friendly development, as is the case in several European Union countries (Dekker and van Est 2020; Lindberg and Kammermann 2021; Patt, val Vliet, Lilliestam, and Pfenninger 2019; Szarka 2010). Additionally, green business was often identified as a member of the pro-climate conscious coalition in studies with a subnational focus (Elgin and Weible 2013; Knox-Hayes 2012). Differing from other coalitions, Edmonds (2020) presents a particularly unique case in Hawaii in which the status-quo coalition is being challenged by an energy security coalition led by the public utility interested in diversifying the composition of the island’s energy grid.
When researchers identify more than two coalitions, they often identified an independent or adaptation coalition consisting of government affiliates or scientists (Gronow et al. 2019; Gronow and Ylä-Anttila 2016; Kukkonen et al. 2017; Niederberger 2005; Ulmanen et al. 2015). Governments siding with either the pro- or anti-climate coalition vary across applications. However, legitimation of a coalition via government action and/or legislation improves the success of coalitions in terms of their hegemony in the climate change policy space (Francesch-Huidobro and Mai 2012; Karapin 2012; Li 2012; Kwon and Hanlon 2016; Lovell 2007; Pollak et al. 2011; Roßegger and Ramin 2012).
Some applications indicated that government support for pro-climate conscious coalitions is critical to promote their acceptance by the general public; the push for centralization is critical to achieving legitimation, then decentralization is necessary to promote subnational implementation (Haukkala 2018; Mann and Gennaio 2010; Milhorance et al. 2021; Niederberger 2005; Stensdal 2014;). Government support for anti-climate conscious coalitions has the potential to severely hinder pro-climate coalition progress, particularly when business and industry are affiliated with the anti-climate coalition (Gronow and Ylä-Anttila 2016; Ylä-Anttila et al. 2020). Evidence from Indonesia and Vietnam indicates that governmental actors may also be more influential than other actors at influencing belief change (Gronow et al. 2021).
How do coalitions behave?
The ACF expects advocacy coalitions, given their value-based origins, will show stability over time, an argument confirmed across many settings and studies (Weible et al. 2020). When looking at coalition behavior across the applications, in many cases, coalitions and their policy core beliefs remain stable over time (Markard et al. 2015; Sotirov et al. 2021; Szarka 2010; Winkel et al. 2011). Additionally, congruence on policy core beliefs appears to sustain coalitions and bind together actors with shared beliefs, sometimes for decades (Ingold 2011; Ruysschaert and Hufty 2020). From a different perspective, inter-coalition instability characterized by policy core belief incoherence compromises coalitions, even with dense network ties (Gronow et al. 2019).
In conjunction with coherent policy core beliefs, broad collaboration among allies also appears to be important in maintaining stable coalitions (Howe et al. 2021; Ingold and Fischer 2014). Interacting with allies, consensus building, advanced information management, and cooperation structures facilitated effective collaboration and broadening coalitions (Gronow and Ylä-Anttila 2016; Gronow et al. 2019; Ingold and Fischer 2014; Satoh and Gronow 2021). Policy brokers can also play a significant role in mediating beliefs and facilitating collaboration, as can organizational resources and influence (Gronow and Ylä-Anttila 2016; Ylä-Anttila et al. 2020). On the other hand, in terms of interacting with opponents, Elgin (2015a, b) suggests a roughly equal number of interactions with both allies and opponents, though extreme beliefs present a barrier to interactions and any potential coordination or cooperation. However, across the articles, interactions with opponents are understudied. Moving forward, a study of cross-coalitional dynamics is important for understanding the factors that prevent collaboration and for examining directions for overcoming group cleavages.
How effective have coalitions been in achieving policy change?
Regarding coalition effectiveness and policy change, broad coalitions appear to be more effective when taking advantage of a critical juncture, policy window, or opportunity structure (Aamodt 2018; Aamodt and Stensdal 2017; Edmonds 2020; Setiadi and Lo 2016; Wellstead, Davidson, and Stedman 2006; Ydersbond 2018). In terms of operationalizing such effectiveness, Ruysschaert and Hufty (2020) identify four criteria that indicate effective coalitions; they “1) sustain an action for over a decade; 2) learn from own past failures marked by the evolution of their policy core beliefs; 3) take an advantage over economic power by acting strategically and timely when changes occurred; and 4) closely monitor and disseminate knowledge and learning, helping the coalition to change its behavior and act strategically” (p. 1). Opportunity windows can take the form of existing environmental movements (Aamodt and Stensdal 2017), changing of government, and new scientific information (Aamodt and Stensdal 2017; Stensdal 2014). This confirms expectations that events, broadly defined, do not lead to policy change by themselves; they require a coalition to exploit them, and even when this happens, policy change remains difficult and infrequent due to the difficulties associated with implementing sweeping political change, particularly in the face of path-dependent economic interests.
Both internal (von Malmborg 2021) and external shocks can catalyze these opportunities, though stable coalitions are more resistant to external shock (Knox-Hayes 2012; Markard et al. 2015). For example, Markard et al. (2015) show that while coalitions in Switzerland currently remain stable after debate surrounding energy sources and the country’s energy transition was sparked following the Fukushima nuclear disaster, belief heterogeneity in support of the transition to clean, non-nuclear energy has solidified among the public. This leaves a window open for the pro-ecology coalition to solidify their position in the face of widespread public uncertainty around nuclear energy and a desire to transition to clean and safe energy sources. Similarly, public protest can also create policy windows and legitimate coalitions (Lintz and Leibenath 2020). The role of public pressure, however, necessitates more exploration in the context of climate change and the ACF, particularly in regard to the conditions that facilitate effective public protest, and how those protests intersect with coalitional politics.
Recent research by Gottschamer and Zhang (2020) on the renewable electricity transition in California indicates that when two stable and strong coalitions compete for dominance in a policy space, such competition drives policy instability and volatility, where policy decisions are inconsistent as are “policy enactment and lifespan” (p. 1). In this scenario, the fossil-fuel lobby is generally successful at repealing renewable incentives, but electricity capacity issues are simultaneously driving the uptake of renewables. The authors acknowledge the novelty of this finding and identify it as an area for future research.
Research also indicates that policy change can be catalyzed by interested policy brokers when they have a reasonable amount of political power and influence and can feasibly mediate across coalitions (Faling and Biesbroek 2019; Higa et al. 2020; Ingold 2011; Ingold and Varone 2012; Ylä-Anttila et al. 2020). For example, in Swiss Climate policy, policy change in stalemate situations is only possible when mediated by a policy broker (Ingold 2011; Ingold and Varone 2012).
To what extent—if at all—are coalitions learning and adapting?
Across the applications, coalitions appear to be undergoing a moderate amount of learning, as identified by the authors of the sample articles, though for the most part, coalitions often remain stable and, to some degree, stagnant if policy learning is not catalyzed by, for example, network connection, cooperation, and information sharing (Bulkeley 2000; Gronow et al. 2021; Pattison 2018; Ylä-Anttila et al. 2020). Consensus building, changes in public opinion, and scientific and expert knowledge are the most common drivers of policy learning in this sample. Consensus building across opposing coalitions can also help to change belief systems (Szarka 2010; von Malmborg 2021). As discussed above, shifts in public opinion can also force learning and belief change (Bang and Lahn 2020). Additionally, scientific knowledge and analytically traceable issue discussion in a professionalized forum can also facilitate belief change (Stensdal 2014; Ulmanen et al. 2015).
While science, as often depicted as an objective and politically neutral form of knowledge, can play an impartial and independent role (Hansen 2013; Ingold and Gschwend 2014; Niederberger 2005; Swarnakar, Rajshri, and Broadbent 2021), these applications echo the broader observations of science politicization (Ingold and Gschwend 2014; Kukkonen et al. 2017; Litfin 2000; Niederberger 2005; Rietig 2016). Scientist and science-based experts (along with their associated scientific, technical, and expert-sourced information and knowledge) serve and interact with anti- and pro-climate change coalitions. Given the importance of science as a source of legitimacy in making government decisions (e.g., the discourse “based on science”), it becomes the raw materials in contributing content found in debates, argumentations, and acts of persuasion in circles of allies within a coalition, in back-and-forth debates between coalitions, and in seeking influence in shaping shifts in attention, problem perceptions, and policy preferences among the public and in forming the choices and non-choices of governments. Indeed, research on environmental issues under the ACF documents how scientists become more central within a coalition network the higher the conflict, showing both the need for scientific information in political debates and how that same scientific information might wrap policy conflict in a façade of scientific and technical uncertainty and disagreement when the foundations of such policy conflicts source to value-based disagreements (Sabatier and Zafonte 2001; Weible et al. 2010).
In climate change issues, scientists and experts sometimes assume the role of strategic policymakers, though their role is largely impacted by subsystem politics (Ingold and Gschwend 2014). Coalitions tend to fit science into their particular beliefs and selectively incorporate that which fits their beliefs and agendas (Hansen 2013; Litfin 2000). In other words, this suggests a link between the standpoints found in scientific disciplines and policy actor beliefs, so environmentalists might align with ecologists while pro-business affiliates might align with economists (Barke and Jenkins-Smith 1993; Weible and Moore 2010).
Science and expert knowledge can function as an informal (Hansen 2013) or formal component of a coalition. Science, like government, can also be a driver for climate change policy in some contexts, as was the case in China and Brazil, where scientific knowledge regarding climate change pushed the government to transition rapidly towards more sustainable environmental policies and practices (Aamodt 2018; Aamodt and Stensdal 2017; Stensdal 2014). In many contexts, science-driven climate change policy also incorporates expert actors across sectors and local, national, and international decision-making levels (Ingold and Fischer 2014). Though we lack controls and measures across these political systems, the evidence reinforces expectations that the constructive, instrumental, and destructive use of science depends on the political system being collaborative, adversarial, or authoritative (Jenkins-Smith 1990; Weible 2008).
While the literature supports consensus building, changes in public opinion, and scientific and expert knowledge as drivers of policy learning, the processes and mechanisms that drive learning remain poorly understood. Additionally, as suggested by Gronow et al. (2021), future research should prioritize analyzing whether mature policy subsystems and their associated coalitions are more resistant to policy learning than nascent ones. Additionally, research should also prioritize whether interdependencies regarding climate change and its associated issues across scales (i.e., subnational, national, international) are forcing policy change, as Litfin (2000) asserts, “the twin phenomena of economic globalization and the internationalization of environmental affairs are blurring the distinction between some policy subsystems and the international arena. Thus advocacy coalitions should be understood as operating increasingly along ‘the domestic-foreign frontier’” (p. 236).
Summary: coalitions and climate change
In sum, the applications of ACF on climate change essentially confirm the vignette laid out in the summary of the framework but with nuances. First, we tend to find competing coalitions (usually two) that form around shared values and beliefs and remain stable over time. These coalitions consist of a plurality of policy actors inside and outside government. Second, we confirm the ACF’s pathways to policy change involving coalitions capitalizing on the circumstances and overcoming change resistance. Third, we see learning and science furled into politics, leading to belief reinforcement across coalitions as scientific knowledge is politicized and used piecemeal to support the positions of various coalitions.
The nuances of climate change emerge in the diversity of coalitions and the elevated importance of science and experts in these politics (compared to, for example, issues anchored more to morality issues). Climate change also mobilizes coalitions across a broad range of subsystem issues, from forests and water to nuclear phase-outs to energy systems, and in forums across scales from the subnational to global.