Subnational Variations in Environmental Policymaking in China and India

Rustin Armknecht, Government & Law, 2020
Thesis advisor: Professor Il Hyun Cho


How and when did you select your advisor and the thesis committee members?

Professor Cho is my advisor. I selected him because we have a very close relationship. I took three classes with him, did EXCEL research for him, and completed an independent study with him. He is also my academic advisor for Government and Law. He has been my academic mentor during my time at Lafayette. He knew my capabilities and my passion for environmental policymaking, so he helped convince me to complete a thesis. Professor Cho agreed to be my thesis advisor during junior fall. I went abroad in the spring, so I needed to confirm with him before I left for winter break. I really recommend doing a thesis with a professor who you have worked with in the past. For my thesis committee members, I chose professors that are knowledgeable and passionate about environmental/climate change policies and have experience with the Asian region. I think choosing professors that understand your topic is the most beneficial. I asked professors around spring break to join my thesis committee.

When did you start thinking about your thesis? How did you select your topic? How did you develop your research question?

I knew I wanted to complete research on environmental policymaking in the Asian region by junior fall. I’m very interested and passionate about climate change and Asia, so it was a perfect fit. However, I did not know the specifics of my question until senior fall. My advisor wanted me to have a set question and complete some work over the summer, but I had a demanding summer internship. So, I was still finalizing my question during the first three weeks of senior year. I developed my question by looking for a “puzzle.” I selected China and India because they are some of the world’s top polluters. They both are increasing their efforts to mitigate climate change as well. Past literature points to political factors (i.e. state capacity) for China’s environmental success while legal and social factors (i.e. judiciary activism and an active civil society) aid India’s environmental success. However, both countries experience internal variation in environmental outcomes regardless of what factor is prioritized at the national level. Thus, my research question was “What components are needed for subnational areas in an emerging nation to create the most effective policies to improve their environmental state?”

How did you start tackling your thesis project at the very beginning?

Once I figured out my “puzzle,” I started researching subnational areas in both China and India. I looked for subnational cases that represent a differing degree of environmental success while sharing many similarities (similar GDPs, economic sectors, population density, regional location, ethnic majority, and ecological environments). Within each nation, groups of two or three subnational cases were linked together because they shared these similarities while also having very different environmental outcomes. Once I narrowed down on which subnational cases to examine, I researched the environmental status of each in order to rank the five cases in each country. Then, I was able to research the potential factors that could explain these differing environmental outcomes.

Did your advisor explain the structure of a thesis project to you?

My advisor was great at describing what each chapter should contain for a Government and Law thesis. Chapter one includes the introduction, literature review, argument, and methods. The middle chapters discuss the empirical evidence. The last chapter includes the summary of your findings as well as policy and theoretical implications. This structure helped me plan my thesis and know what work to complete. I had a set timeframe that helped me stay up on my work. I recommend asking your advisor to give you due dates, so you do not fall behind.

Did you have to do a literature review? Had you ever done one before?

Yes. I had a literature review. More generally, it discussed past research on factors (political, economic, social, and external) that have led to environmental success. Specifically, I included existing literature about China and India’s environmental success. I’ve done many literature reviews in the past.

Do you remember receiving correspondence from the library about your honors thesis?

Yes. I think I received an email from the library when each semester began.

What did you find most challenging about your thesis project?

The most challenging aspect of my thesis was finding data for the levels of air pollution in the subnational regions of India. China’s national statistics was much more organized, so it was easy to find the pollutant’s level for each year in all the provinces. This data allowed me to compare pollution levels over a period of time—thus highlighting progress or deterioration in air quality. India, on the other hand, only included levels of air pollution in a few states—rather than all of them. It instead included every city’s air quality, which made it difficult to determine levels of air pollution for the state as a whole. So, I had to use different sources to determine air quality for Indian states rather than one source for all of them. Specific data about air quality for India’s subnational regions is very difficult to find, so many hours were spent on finding this data. In the end, I was able to provide an accurate description of the state’s air quality as a whole for every Indian case. Yet, there is nothing more frustrating than researching for hours but not finding anything useful.

What did you find most rewarding about your thesis project?

The most rewarding aspect of a thesis is that you become a mini expert on your specific topic. It is so gratifying to be able to talk for hours about your thesis and teach others about what you have discovered.

What assistance did your advisor/department offer you throughout the course of the year?

I met with my advisor every Thursday via Facetime because he was on sabbatical. He provided much needed direction. He set due dates for each section as well as providing useful comments and insights about my research discoveries and my chapter drafts. He also just provided encouragement and support that emotionally helped me complete all this research. The department provided some assistance during the thesis proposal session, such as asking a few questions and one professor even later emailed me a few sources to check out.

Did you meet with librarians in the course of conducting your research? How many times and at what stages of your research?

I met with Terese Heidenwolf early in the fall to refresh myself on the available library resources. I was abroad, so it had been awhile since I used the online databases on the library website. It was very helpful.

What other kind of support did you rely on throughout the year to accomplish your thesis (parents, friends, etc.)?

My friends were great. They joked about how much time I spent in the library the whole year, but after my thesis defense, they sent me a great gift.

Were you able to get access to all of the research materials you wanted for your project?

Yes. Most sources were available through the school. However, if they were not, I would just request them. I requested probably about 50 sources. They all digitally arrived very soon after requesting them. It was super easy to get all the sources I needed.

Would you do anything differently if you went through the process again?

I would ask my thesis committee members earlier than around spring break. COVID-19 happened right around spring break, which caused much anxiety and stress, so it was more difficult for professors to commit to being on a thesis committee.

What advice would you offer other honors thesis students, especially in your department?

If you have time, I would solidify your research question before starting senior year and maybe even start the research process. I did not do both of those things, so I had a late start compared to everyone else. I had to do more work during the school year. Also, when choosing your advisor, make sure you have worked well with them in the past. You will be working with this professor for a full year, so getting along with your advisor is crucial. Make sure that your advisor is not committed to a ton of other theses as well. Being a thesis advisor is a time commitment, so you want to choose someone that you know has the time to be dedicated to you.