Domestic Distribution and International Influence: The International Political Economy of Protected Areas and Biodiversity Conversation

My dissertation examines the international political economy of protected areas and biodiversity conservation. Despite their tremendous growth in the last several decades (growing from 4% of land surface in 1990 to 17% today), science still shows that the current network is inadequate both in terms of total size and location efficiency, resulting in massive loss of biodiversity with profound negative consequences for humans and nonhumans alike. Protection varies drastically within and across countries. What accounts for this insufficient, inefficient, and inconsistent investment in ecosystem protection, and what factors shift outcomes toward more protection? Past research has either pointed to economic opportunity cost, where valuable land is not protected in order to maintain access to extraction, or focused on local politics near the sites of PAs. I build on these insights by analyzing the politics of PAs at local, national, and international scales. In the context of escalating environmental crises, understanding the political dynamics of an understudied element of environmental policy is critically important.

I argue that extractive interests have an outsized influence in determining local PA policy, but that factors the political science literature typically considers weak, like green NGOs and nonbinding international institutions, can shift distributive bargaining toward more protection through facilitating mobilization and directly persuading governments. I further argue that this distributional conflict is mediated by national political and economic structures in surprising ways: national-level dependence on natural resource extraction, commonly accepted to be detrimental to protection, leads to more protection in more democratic settings. Degradation causes mobilization of local, national, and international pro-protection interests, which demand more PAs in response. This mobilization is both more wide-spread and more effective in democracies. I combine this layered theoretical approach with multi-method research designs based on novel geographic information systems (GIS) techniques, newly collected data on PA designation over time, deep case knowledge, and careful attention to causal inference. 

Working Papers

Extraction, Green Mobilization, and Conservation: Natural Resource Dependence and Protected Area Designation (draft available as part of IGCC working paper series). Job Market Paper, under review. Latest draft available here.


Biodiversity decline and ecosystem loss are among the gravest transnational crises facing the planet, with deep implications for climate change. What determines how different countries choose to protect nature? Previous work has argued that economic dependence on natural resources undermines green policies. I instead argue that resource dependence can lead to mobilization in favor of protection. Citizens experience the negative consequences of environmental degradation and ecosystem loss firsthand, and domestic and international green groups take notice. Although mobilization occurs across regimes, in democracies these groups can more effectively advocate for protection once mobilized. The adverse effects of resource dependence, therefore, mainly apply to less democratic countries, where extractive interests are most able to steer policymaking and mobilization is less likely to succeed. To test this argument, I employ a mixed-methods research design. I employ a novel panel regression discontinuity design at country borders for all terrestrial country-border pairs from 1992 to 2020, using new geospatial data on protected area (PA) designation over time. I find that the effect of natural resource dependence is conditional: when democratic institutions are weaker, natural resource dependence leads to less biodiversity protection. When democracy is stronger, natural resource dependence increases the likelihood that protected areas are established. I complement these results with a qualitative case study of the history of conservation in Costa Rica as a typical case for my mechanisms. These findings highlight the mitigating role that democratic institutions can play between natural resource dependence and biodiversity protection, and have important implications for our understanding of environmental politics and the role of mobilization among various actors in shifting policy.

Conserving What’s Left: The International Political Economy of Protected Areas (draft). Under review.


Protected areas (PAs) are a key policy response to the twin crises of climate change and biodiversity loss. Despite their importance, we know little about how political factors affect PAs. I argue that decisions to protect land are inherently political, and interest group contestation often leads governments to place PAs in areas with low economic value rather than threatened ecosystems. I examine the role of domestic and international “green” forces in shifting this distributive conflict toward protection. I test my propositions using an original geospatial dataset on the coverage of 846 ecoregions worldwide from 1992-2020. I find that when a country becomes more deeply embedded in the international environmental regime, or has more environmental groups active, an average ecoregion is more likely to be protected. However, an ecoregion’s underlying economic value is still highly predictive of its likelihood to be protected, and biodiversity density overall is not a strong predictor of protection. These findings demonstrate that pro-environmental forces can have an effect, even though economic incentives still outweigh biodiversity interests. This paper furthers our understanding of an understudied but critical area of environmental and land use politics.

Information Technologies and the Quality of Democracy (upon request). With Emilie M. Hafner-Burton and Christina J. Schneider


The rapid globalization of access to information and communication technology across and within borders has been an important feature of the contemporary era. The internet is at its core. Until recently, the common wisdom had been that the rise of this Liberal International Information Order (LIIO) would be beneficial for the spread and health of democracy. That common wisdom has become increasingly contested, as political actors in democracies and autocracies alike have learned to use the internet to maneuver information to enhance government popularity and suppress or delegitimate the opposition. In this paper, we argue that the spread of the internet has contributed to recent trends in democratic backsliding. The internet’s spread has made backsliding more likely in several ways, but we focus especially on how it can increase political polarization, a known driver of democratic backsliding. We test the empirical implications of our theory with a mixed-methods approach that combines a large-n quantitative comparative analysis of democratic backsliding in 97 democracies after the Cold War with a typical case study to trace the underlying causal mechanisms of the theory. Together, the findings indicate that with growing access to the internet has come the increased likelihood of democratic backsliding, mediated in part by polarization. These findings have important implications for democracy in an integrated world characterized by the spread of information technologies like the internet. 

Works in Progress

Transnational NGOs and Delegated Governance: The Logic and Effects of Foreign Protected Area Management

Climate Change and Democratic Backsliding with Emilie M. Hafner-Burton and Christina J. Schneider