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Defining Environmental Issues and Policy Problems

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Defining Environmental Issues and Policy Problems

This topic employs concepts in political science, economics, and policy analysis and applies them to the field of environmental policy. Students learn about different potential sources of market failures that can lead to harmful environmental outcomes. Students also learn about the different policy instruments that are available to policymakers in their efforts to produce socially desirable environmental and economic outcomes.

Topic Learning Outcome: Upon mastering this topic, students will understand the most important common reasons why governments sometimes intervene in markets in order to protect the natural environment. Students will understand the common sources of market failures that can lead to environmental harm and understand the advantages and disadvantages of various policy instruments that are sometimes used to mitigate those harms.

Core Concepts Associated With This Topic: Carbon Dioxide; Ecology.

Recommended Reading

UCLA Public Policy 252 and Urban Planning 263

Lovelock, James, E. Hands up for the Gaia hypothesis. Nature, Vol 344, 8 March 1990. 

Taylor, Bron and Michael Zimmerman. Deep ecology. In Taylor, Bron (Ed.), Encyclopedia of Religion and Nature, London & New York: Continuum, 2005.

Ostrom, Elinor et al. 1999. “Revisiting the Commons: Local Lessons, Global Challenges,” Science 284: 278-282.

Stavins, Robert N. 2011. "The Problem of the Commons: Still Unsettled after 100 Years." American Economic Review, 101(1): 81-108.

Students may also wish to consult:

Did The Supreme Court Choose Wisely (national security vs. wildlife)? Wednesday, November 12, 2008. National Journal Energy & Environment Expert Blogs.

Popular media articles with respect to Germany’s nuclear power phaseout

Resources for the Future ( weekly policy commentary, in particular: James K. Hammitt. “The Successful International Response to Stratospheric Ozone Depletion.”


Sample Assessment Questions

1.)   What is market failure? Why is this an important concept to understand in the field of environmental policy?

2.)   Carbon taxes and cap-and-trade programs are sometimes referred to as “market based policy instruments” for responding to climate change. What is meant by this claim?

3.)   What are externalities? Provide one example, real or hypothetical, of a policy action that is intended to correct a market failure by internalizing externalities.

Write a one page response agreeing or disagreeing with the following statement: “Essentially, the field of environmental policy is about managing important trade-offs between environmental protection and economic growth.”


Page Created By: Katherine Valiquette, 20 March 2015; edited by Ben Eisen.


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© University of Toronto 2008
School of Public Policy and Governance