Science, Policy and Outcomes: Cohen’s Framework for Environmental Policy

Cohen, S. (2006). Understanding Environmental Policy. New York: Columbia University Press.


After a few days’ worth of deliberation about how and where to begin my “new” discussion – specifically, my discussion of environmental policy from a wider frame, that of communications studies, public policy, etc. – I decided that the middle of the conversation is just about as good a place to start as any other. First, though, before delving in, I feel as though it would be useful to contextualize my broader agenda, so I’ll begin with a sort of preface outlining my short- and longer-term goals for the summer, before delving into a more specific analysis of how I’m beginning to understand environmental politics, beginning with Cohen’s Understanding Environmental Policy.

I’ve chosen to focus this summer’s scholarship on a study of science and politics. Although such a topic may initially seem out of focus from English: Rhetoric/Composition and my scholarship in the sub-discipline of the rhetoric of science, I see a growing space – and therefore growing demand – for interdisciplinary opportunities among rhetoricians of science with scholars of public policy, ecology, communications studies, etc. … and I see much value in investing my time in the rhetorical complexity of the science/policy mesh. (As a quick aside, I was extremely encouraged to read that Cohen agrees … in his conclusions about how we ought to improve the education of environmental professionals, he calls for a new type of professional, who would be “…trained in science, communication, and the analysis of policy, politics, and management [because] the environmental problem is only solved by a thorough understanding of earth systems and the macro-level thinking required to manage those systems. This requires an understanding both of ecological and planetary sciences and of organizational and network management” (149).) And from what I’ve been reading after only a couple of days, I’m excited about the parallels I’m seeing. For me, these parallels are extremely positive and valuable for their usefulness in providing reflective yet distinct perspectives on topics of concern, such as the “quintessential international issue” of climate change (Cohen 105). As Cohen explains, environmental problems necessitate multidimensional analysis because “the environmental problem is multidimensional, linked to the inescapable fact that human beings are biological entities that depend on a limited number of resources for survival” (11). A multi-faceted problem requires a multi-faceted approach, and Cohen suggests that his framework (explained in more detail below) provides a method for considering environmental problems from more than one perspective so that we are better able to “observe aspects of the issue that might otherwise be easily ignored” (10).  

Concerning the quintessential international issue of climate change, it is the environmental problem I’m most interested in studying, problematizing, and ideally, developing creative and feasible propositions about; therefore, I’ve recently drafted a case study of local (Tampa Bay, FL) response to climate change policy/knowledge-sharing about effective resiliency practices: “Constructing the Leviathan: A Case Study of the Rhetoric of Resiliency at Resilient Tampa Bay 2011” – which is, in fact, the primary “deliverable” of my summer scholarship re: science and policy (click here for my syllabus, “Summer C Reading List KPL May 5 2011”*, the title of which is adapted from Arizona State University’s “Consortium for Science, Policy & Outcomes”). It is the short-term goal of my summer scholarship to have developed a syllabus/reading list that is broad enough to speak to a variety of perspectives, across time, about environmental politics, while expanding the case study to include a variety of perspectives, and – it is hoped – a more insightful analysis of how this multi-faceted problem is best approached from a multi-disciplinary ideology. The longer-term goal of my summer scholarship is to continue revising my case study so that speaks to a broader, more useful, and more insightful interpretation of climate change politics as they’re practiced at the local level (which Cohen also suggests is intrinsic to effective policies because almost always, what’s in contention is the certainty with which we understand an issue: “as we seek to understand an environmental issue, an important dimension to consider is the level of scientific knowledge and certainty associated with the problem and its potential solution” (29) and  a major component to developing more certain hypotheses about environmental problems is proximity to the problem…)

Understanding Cohen’s Framework: AKA the beginning of my “new” discussion

In deliberating about where best to begin, I finally decided that in order to make the most sense of how I’ve been thinking about and analyzing Cohen’s text against/with my understanding of the rhetoric of science, I wanted to begin with a brief contextualization of Cohen’s thesis, and then move into a discussion/explanation of his framework, then onto the ways in which he models the application of his framework, and finally turn to a list of key terms that are particularly significant for the variety of scholarly and professional perspectives concerning climate change that I’m beginning to develop propositions about.

  • Contextualization

Cohen reiterates throughout Understanding Environmental Policy that “studying the multiple dimensions of a policy issue clearly leads to a more complete understanding of the issue and in turn heightens insight into the processes of change” (59). His emphasis on the significance and usefulness of multiple (disciplinary) perspectives occurs prior to p. 59; however, it is at this point that his insistence on such an ideology became most apparent to me. So I’ll (finally) begin here, in the middle of the conversation, with an explanation of the primary tenets of Cohen’s thesis. The following points occur primarily throughout Cohen’s modeling of the framework, in which he systematically applies the framework to four specific environmental problems:

  • Environmental Problem One: concerned with “Why New York City Can’t Take Out The Garbage”
  • Environmental Problem Two: “Why Companies Let Valuable Gasoline Leak Out of Underground Tanks”
  • Environmental Problem Three: “Have We Learned to Clean Up Toxic Waste”
  • Environmental Problem Four: “Have We Made the Planet Warmer, and If We Have, How Can We Stop?”

The points below represent a few of the most significant claims made throughout the modeling of each of the problems above.

*Attitudes, Values, and Beliefs

  • Concerning New York City’s solid waste issue, although “… some form of government-funded infrastructure is required, the type of infrastructure that might be developed is constrained by attitudes toward waste and the politics based on those attitudes … the public’s attitude toward “out-of-sight, out-of-mind” philosophy makes it difficult to combat the NIMBY mind-set” (59)
  • Essentially, attitudes, values, and beliefs often trump scientific data on environmental impacts when the data appears to conflict with existing values, etc.
  • Most importantly, “solutions (to NYC’s garbage crisis) must take into account the various dimensions of each issue regarding values, politics, technology, policy, and management and also consider their interactions” … and “Although we have the technology and management capacity to solve the problem, a cost threshold must be crossed before improved policy outweighs consumer-oriented values and the NIMBY syndrome” (60).


  • “It is sometimes more cost-effective in the short run to let a tank leak (for instance) than to stop the leak. Effective environmental policy provides incentives for institutions and individuals to alter the behaviors that are contributing to environmental damage” (70)


  • Re: the case of why companies let valuable gasoline leak out of underground tanks, Cohen suggests, “… tank owners have plenty of motivation to behave ‘correctly.’ Perhaps they simply lack the capacity to do what is in their obvious self-interest” … the organizational capacity to manage this environmental problem is incredibly complicated because of “the sheer number of them and the multiple actions required to ensure compliance” (71); the growing amount of work, compounded with the number of miles traveled by vehicles in the United States, and – most significantly – Cohen suggests that “the complexity of this work has also increased with the advance in technology and the implementation of many more regulations” (72)

*Economics and Values

  • The last two points I want to cite pertain to the ways in which attitudes, values, beliefs, incentives, capacity/management, and economics mesh. Within “What Have We Learned About Environmental Problems?” Cohen writes:
  • The capacity of economic interests to drive and manipulate the shape of environmental values over the past twenty years has been impressive and irrefutable. Our need to circumvent this basic fact is part of my motivation to develop a multifaceted framework for understanding environmental policy” (133)
  • I do not believe that a fundamental change in our value system is a realistic solution to environmental problems. Instead, we need to develop policy approaches that acknowledge the deep roots of our behavior and the critical need to solve our problems but without a fundamental change in the way we life” (134)  

Cohen’s perspective is unique in that it emphasizes:

  • Multi-disciplinary perspectives
  • Attitudes, values, and beliefs as THE primary factors affecting the viability of environmental policy/solutions to environmental problems
  • Attitudes, values and beliefs as deeply rooted – FUNDAMENTAL – and stubbornly resistant to change

This last component to Cohen’s thesis is the most interesting to me, considering the context of what I’ve been studying and writing about so far. To put it all-too-simply, (from the way I’m seeing things now, influenced primarily by a rhetoric of science but moving towards Cohen’s environmental politics) the rhetoric of science seems less leery of proposing large-scale/systemic changes in ideology, values, etc. and often sees the articulation of a large-scale ideological change as the primary concern of work in the philosophy of science/rhetoric of science. Although practice is subsequently demanded, theory is primarily emphasized. Cohen’s environmental politics, on the other hand, sees such changes – such changes in foundational ideology – as unrealistic. For the rhetoric of science, and even more specifically, philosophies of like Morton’s, radical changes in ideology, values, and policies are necessary for progress toward more intelligent and respectful ecological practices. For Cohen, successful environmental policy hinges on developing approaches to policy that allow for the persistence of current attitudes, values, and beliefs, while addressing – or at the very least, keeping up with – the consequences of such practices. This is a contentious point for me, and I certainly wonder whether such an ideology can provide impetus enough for the productive development of propositions that prove effective in resolving compelling environmental issues.

In the conclusion to Understanding Environmental Policy, Cohen reiterates a major component of his perspective: that a large number of environmental problems persist because of management, and “effective management may seem simple and is often assumed to already be in place, but it is frequently the missing piece of the policy puzzle” (137).

  • Framework

Cohen’s framework constitutes the theoretical foundation of Understanding Environmental Policy, which is applied throughout the majority of the text in four environmental problems, as a way of modeling how his framework enables engagement in trans-disciplinary conversations. Again, for Cohen, trans-disciplinary cooperation is integral to analyzing, problematizing, and ultimately solving environmental crises. As he succinctly states, “In the effort to understand environmental policy, one must learn some science, engineering, economics, political science, organizational management, and even other branches of learning” (9). Concerning his framework, Cohen articulates five major foci- which, again, he applies to environmental problems with the intention that such a theoretical foundation can provide “… a method for looking at environmental issues from more than one perspective [so that in] applying the framework to specific cases, a practitioner, student, or analyst is able to observe aspects of the issue that might otherwise be easily ignored” (10). At its most basic level, the framework concerns:

  • An issue of values
  • A political issue
  • A technical and scientific issue
  • A political design and economic issue
  • A management issue

In a succinct synopsis of the framework, Cohen suggests that “… the strength of the framework is that it can be used to understand the causes of environmental problems, the way our society’s systemic and institutional policy agenda defines them, as well as their evolution over time” (12).

  • Key Terms

The key terms I’ll be elaborating on within a subsequent posting on Cohen are:

  • crisis
  • visibility
  • nature
  • uncertainty
  • definition
  • fear
  • technology
  • climate change politics
  • thinking

About klangbehn

Doctoral Candidate: Rhetoric of Science University of South Florida 4202 E. Fowler Avenue Tampa, FL 33620-5550 View all posts by klangbehn

2 responses to “Science, Policy and Outcomes: Cohen’s Framework for Environmental Policy

  • Steve Cohen

    Karen- Your analysis recently came to my attention and it is a very sophisticated and insightful read of my work. I revised the book and applied the framework to some new cases a couple of years ago,

    • klangbehn

      Dr. Cohen –
      Thank you! It would be great to hear about your recent work and to ask your advice about my dissertation research. I’d be happy to share my proposal, or just provide a generalized description, if you think it would be useful for us to talk about it further.
      Apologies for taking so long to respond – and thank you, again!


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