Collective and individual interests are central to theories of global climate politics. Yet, for all its sophistication, research on global climate negotiations often manages these concepts using methodological short-cuts. Theoretically, the beliefs of diplomats as agents are conflated with the beliefs of their principals or set by assumption through rational choice or constructivist frameworks. Empirically, variation in negotiator preferences is proxied by public opinion surveys or read as constrained by these easier-to-measure public preferences through concepts like audience costs.
In an important new book, Manjana Milkoreit offers a different way forward. Milkoreit still positions the motivations of political elites at the center of theoretical explanations for climate cooperation, but she argues that these motivations must be treated as a cognitive variable in their own right that requires theoretical elaboration and empirical scrutiny. The result is Mindmade Politics, an extremely ambitious book that meets the study of climate cooperation where its theories require, not where data collection is most convenient.
The book’s first contribution is its careful effort to build a bridge between scholarship on global environmental politics and cognitive psychology. Milkoreit offers readers a nuanced but accessible survey of psychological theories of mental representation, cognition, and emotion. These sections alone provide an important primer on the politics of the mind that will interest readers of many backgrounds.
Its second contribution stems from its creative efforts to empirically elaborate the belief structures of climate negotiators. Using a series of novel methods, Milkoreit systematizes the mental models of dozens of climate policy–making elites. These include thirty-six senior climate diplomats—including twelve delegation heads—who represent a diverse cross section of thirty countries. Milkoreit also engages with nineteen nonstate actors from eight nationalities who represent a range of negotiation participant types.
Mindmade Politics analyzes the mindscapes of these actors in two ways. First, it uses a cognitive–affective mapping (CAM) approach. Milkoreit conducts in-depth interviews with each diplomat and nonstate actor and then uses cognitive psychological methods to diagram the semantic structure and emotional valence associated with their worldviews. This integrated portrayal of both cognitive and emotional content is particularly novel. The outcome is a series of cognitive–affective maps that Milkoreit uses to compare belief structure about climate change. For instance, these maps allow Milkoreit to contrast the relative centrality of particular negotiating concepts to climate cooperation. Second, Milkoreit deploys Q methodology on a subset of respondents. This approach invites individuals to rank order a large set of beliefs. Milkoreit can then analyze structural similarities in these rankings to elicit common sets of coherent belief structures.
These efforts represent a heavy empirical lift, but the payoff is substantial. The book’s rich data allow Milkoreit to draw out the interplay of self-interest, norms, and identity that structures climate negotiations. She describes these interrelated components as the “cognitive triangle” of cost, identity, and justice. By examining the structure of this cognitive triangle across different climate negotiators, Milkoreit finds that two distinct belief systems motivate political elites. One group of climate negotiators focuses on human survival and suffering. These individuals have belief systems that are structured by moral judgments and involve strong emotional content. By contrast, a second group of negotiators focuses more directly on material climate risks, such as specific climate threats to national economies or infrastructure. This group’s worldview has less emotional content and remains rooted in a more consequentialist ethic.
What explains variation in negotiator belief structures? Here Milkoreit emphasizes the importance of an individual’s sense of group membership. Among individuals who feel their ingroup is directly threatened by climate change, the first, emotional, belief structure dominates. By contrast, the second belief system dominates among individuals who do not perceive an immediate risk from climate change to their ingroup or who see the threat as being distant. In this way, she traces how support for collective action is structured by actors’ perceptions of their ingroup’s vulnerability to climate change. At the extreme, negotiators who identify with all of humanity can have strong emotional belief structures, even if their individual country is only moderately threatened by climate change.
Beyond this central thesis, Mindmade Politics also draws out dozens of smaller but no less insightful features of climate cognition. In her analysis of belief structure using Q methodology, Milkoreit documents how shared priorities shape many climate negotiators’ belief structures, while highlighting the areas where substantial differences remain: the value of moral frames for climate action, the importance of markets to risk mitigation, the breadth of participation necessary for effective climate treaties, and the importance of societal value shifts. Milkoreit also dives into a fascinating discussion of the inconsistent ways climate change is understood by some negotiators, including around such issues as lags in the climate system and climatic tipping points.
Of course, like any book with similar ambitions, Mindmade Politics asks more questions than it answers. It proposes new methods that will require additional replication as the scholastic community grapples with the study of the mind. The book is admirably forthright in describing the methodological limitations associated with both CAM and Q methodology. This will provide a clear guide for future work that builds on Milkoreit’s approach.
Future scholars could also address two areas where the book’s argument feels less complete. Milkoreit identifies important sources of variation in mental processes across different negotiators. Limited sample sizes prevent her from linking these directly to negotiation outcomes, but the book could engage more with the dynamics of climate negotiations in practice. How can unpacking the mental processes of negotiators concretely explain otherwise puzzling empirical features of global climate policy making?
Relatedly, the book could do more to elaborate the stakes of its empirical analysis for theories of climate cooperation. A fascinating concluding chapter reflects on the book’s implications for practitioners. Yet the elaboration of negotiator belief structure has substantial implications for theories of climate cooperation. For example, in Milkoreit’s account, concerns over free riding are mostly absent from the minds of climate diplomats, despite free riding being the starting point for most theoretical accounts of climate politics. Further elaboration of these issues would help emphasize the importance of taking the mind seriously in climate politics.
These reservations hardly detract from the many ways this original book is sure to stimulate necessary debates about global climate cooperation. It opens a new dialog with cognitive psychology that deepens our empirical understanding of climate negotiations. And it does the hard work of studying the motivations of political elites central to our theories but too rarely addressed empirically. Mindmade Politics does the field a great service and should persuade environmental politics scholars to take the mind more seriously in environmental governance research.