The environment

Antje Brown, Gabriela Kütting

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapter


The environment in international and global politics is gradually becoming one of the most pressing issues of the early twenty-first century. It has been recognized that many, if not all, problems of environmental degradation are transboundary in nature and therefore need an international solution. National policy measures essentially cannot cope with international environmental problems because the source of pollution or the impact of pollution may not be within a particular state's jurisdiction. Traditionally, international environmental problems have been addressed at international environmental conferences where treaties are designed that commit the signatories to controlling the problem in question. Since the 1970s the number of international environmental agreements (IEAs) has risen to reach record numbers. There is a loose assumption that this is a good thing and that this rise has resulted in a commensurable improvement in environmental protection. But is this actually the case? In fact, many would argue that there is little positive correlation at all. What are the connections between environmental diplomacy and environmental protection and how can environmental protection be achieved? IEAs are international legal instruments adopted by a large number of states and intergovernmental organizations with the primary purpose of preventing, and managing, negative human impacts on natural resources. IEAs can take the form of a single instrument or a series of interlinked documents such as conventions, followed by protocols and amendments. For example, The Framework Convention on Climate Change (FCCC) and the Kyoto Protocol are part of the same framework. IEAs cover a broad range of policy areas, from biodiversity to regulating humanmade greenhouse gas emissions into the atmosphere, and the control of chemicals and hazardous wastes. The implementation of IEAs is a complex process, involving coercion of a wide range of actors into accepting environmental goals and subsequently implementing the necessary behavioural changes. To these ends, IEAs adopt a series of constitutional measures: a Conference of Parties (COP) to act as a decision-making body on behalf of the policy; a secretariat to support the COP and administer the policy, and various other executive and subsidiary bodies to advise and report on the policy on a non-mandatory basis. Institutional arrangements such as international (or multilateral as they are also called) environmental agreements reflect negotiated compromises at the policy level and are the sum total of what is politically feasible to achieve. However, these compromises also tell a story about priorities in policy-making which reflect the interests of the most powerful actors in this policy process or indeed other overlapping policy processes. These priorities can be manifested in economic terms, in social terms, in agenda-setting in general and in evaluations or definitions of the environmental problem in question. As the case studies presented in this chapter will show, there is very often a lack of connection between the political compromises that shape an international agreement on the environment and the ecological demands of a particular environmental problem. There is also often a level of abstraction to policy remedies that do not account for social inequalities between states but also between social groups in states and how they are affected by an environmental problem and how the economic and social cost of a solution affects them. It is felt by many analysts and activists of global environmental politics that the state-centric form of agreement-making marginalizes the environment and many of the world's citizens. They see the actors in global environmental politics as a triangular set of relations rather than as an issue of the state that regulates everything with other actors subordinate to the state. So a triangular vision would see the state, economic actors and civil society actors all vying to influence environmental outcomes. It cannot be denied that since the 1980s non-state actors have experienced a significant rise in influence on the international scene. States are still the only sovereign actors (the ones with the legal and military power to make decisions) but nonstate actors have been integrated into all international decision-making processes and perform important stakeholder functions. Non-state actors may not be able to sign legal documents but they perform agenda-setting tasks, influence meetings, provide information, act as a voice of caution or reason, and also bring in new dimensions to any discussion. We now have an international and global field of politics in which there are international legal agreements on the environment between states, legal agreements signed by states and other actors (legally binding for the states) and agreements between non-state actors that are seen as equally influential as state-led arrangements (not legally binding, although very much in the spotlight). Non-state actors are defined simply as actors not representing governments and can range from environmental non-governmental organizations (NGOs) to community advocacy groups, scientific think tanks and multinational corporations (MNCs). Since the 1970s, environmental policy has seen a dramatic intensification of non-state actor involvement and subsequently environmental policy-making and international regime building can no longer be described as a singularly government/state centric activity (it is currently estimated that 40,000 NGOs are operating in international regime building). Environmental policy-making represents a complex and ambiguous policy process whereby both state and non-state actors shape the content and implementation of IEAs. Additionally, the process of economic and media globalization has further blurred the line between actors. The assumption is that with these trends we as a global society have the means to move away from abstract agreements driven by economic rationality and political compromise and hampered by the constraints of lengthy lead times to a more democratic form of decision-making that can focus more on the most pressing challenges of the twenty-first century. However, these trends do not resolve the fundamental problem of growing inequality among various social groups on this planet, nor do they address the debate between technological progress and consumption. The question remains whether the existing frameworks for dealing with environmental problems are adequate to rise to this seemingly insurmountable challenge.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Title of host publicationIssues In International Relations
Subtitle of host publicationSecond Edition
PublisherRoutledge Taylor & Francis Group
Number of pages16
ISBN (Print)0203926595, 9780203926598
StatePublished - Jun 5 2008

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Social Sciences(all)


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