Dr. James Patterson

Dr. James Patterson

Universitair docent
Environmental Governance
030 253 1509

"Sustainability now depends, more than ever, on our ability to transform political institutions and realise ambitious policy action"


I am an interdisciplinary social scientist working at the intersection of political science and environmental studies. My research focuses on the politics and governance of complex public good problems, especially climate change. I am the Principal Investigator of a 5-year research project funded by the European Research Council (2021-2026) titled: ‘Climate Backlash: Contentious Reactions to Policy Action (BACKLASH)’ (grant no. 949332). This project investigates backlash to climate policy in advanced industrial democracies. It combines insights from political science, sociology, and climate change governance, and both large-N and small-N analysis. I also have a longstanding interest in the politics and governance of sustainability transformations. Previously, I have worked on topics such as climate change adaptation, urban governance, multi-level environmental governance, and collective action in The Netherlands, Canada, and Australia.


Selected publications:

Backlash to Climate Policy - In this paper, I examine why and how policy backlash arises in response to 'hard' climate policy (such as regulation, taxes/pricing, and phaseouts). Drawing on insights from several bodies of literature, I argue that backlash is driven by a sense of contested legitimacy within a political community. The paper provides a basis for future comparative analysis on the emergence, dynamics, and effects of backlash in climate politics.


Culture and identity in climate policy - In this commentary, I argue that climate policy needs to take better account of cultural and social identity aspects if it is to be successful. I survey different ways that scholars tend to think about issues of culture and identity, to find complementarities and differences. This can help us to think more about how to engage with culture and identity in climate policy making. 


The political effects of emergency frames in sustainability - In this collaborative paper, we synthesize the diverse political effects of declaring sustainability issues as 'emergencies'. Scientists, civil society, and policy makers call for declarations of climate and biodiversity emergency, and the frequency and severity of climate-related disasters is also increasing. But this can have a range of intended and unintended effects. Our work provides a systematic foundation for debates about the politics of emergency in sustainability. 


Remaking Political Institutions: Climate Change and Beyond - In this compact book, I explore the politics of deliberate institutional change in the face of mounting institutional failures in contemporary governance. I argue that we need to better understand how to ‘remake’ institutions from nonideal starting points, rather than viewing this as a question of design on a blank slate. This involves continuous political struggle and work. I show how environmental governance scholars can 'put theory to work' to think prospectively about how institutions can be improved. 


Political feasibility of 1.5°C societal transformations: the role of social justice - In this collaborative paper, we explore the problem of politically feasible climate action. Specifically, we consider how attention to social justice can make climate action more politically feasible. But we also identify possible risks of emphasising social justice such as being deployed against climate action. This shows how social justice issues interact with the politics of climate action. A knowledge brief developed by the International Science Council based on this work is also available here


Scientific leadership


I am a member of the Scientific Steering Committee of the Earth System Governance Project (since 2018), and was previously the Co-Chair from 2019-2021. This is the largest global network of social science researchers in environmental politics and governance. 


I am Editor of the 'Policy and Governance' domain of the journal Wiley Interdisciplinary Reviews: Climate Change





  • Research Skills (GEO1-2415)
  • Sustainable Land Use (GEO3-2121)



  • Research Design (GEO4-2314)
  • Master Thesis Sustainable Development (GEO4-2321)
  • Earth System Governance Track Coordinator, Masters of Sustainable Development program