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II. Theories of International Environmental Politics
A. Mainstream Theories of International Environmental Politics
B. The Neo-Malthusian–Anti-Malthusian Debate
C. Radical Theories of International Environmental Politics
D. A Theoretical Synthesis? Ecological Modernization
III. Applications and Empirical Evidence
IV. Policy Implications and Future Directions
Customers in Beijing and San Francisco restaurants enjoying orange roughly contribute to the collapse of ocean fisheries off New Zealand and Australia. Automobile drivers sitting in Chicago and London traffic add to greenhouse gas emissions that threaten ice sheets in Greenland and Antarctica, which, in turn, may submerge low-lying coastal population centers and displace millions of people from New Orleans to Bangladesh. Beef consumed in Madrid and plywood sold in Tokyo encourage deforestation in Amazonian and Indonesian rainforests, driving species extinction and intensifying climate change. The export of computer waste from France and Canada to China and West Africa results in the release of carcinogenic fumes and heavy metals into rivers and groundwater on which impoverished people depend. The national and international regulations of production and commerce that address or fail to address the consequences of all these activities are shaped by governments, citizens, interest groups, and multinational corporations all over the globe.
In 1971, ecologist Barry Commoner wrote The Closing Circle, describing his first and second laws of ecology as follows: Everything is connected to everything else, and everything must go somewhere—nothing goes away. International environmental politics is nothing if not a cautionary tale on these two basic points. The complex, interconnectivity of the modern world in which the human population nears 7 billion persons and global gross domestic product topped $65 trillion in 2008 raises important issues of environmental sustainability and social justice that inspire a similarly interconnected web of intellectual and scholarly activity. The subject of international environmental politics involves national, state, and local governments as well as global institutions like the United Nations and World Bank, policies at all levels, markets, technology, interest groups and businesses, and social movements of citizens and consumers. And, of course, it involves the nonhuman world: plants and animals, soil and water, and the intricate processes through which they relate and on which we depend. Finally, the subject of international environmental politics is composed of values, ideas, and philosophies that interpret all of the aforementioned and, on the basis of those interpretations, motivate some actions and discourage others.
The stakes involved in international environmental politics are high. Air and water pollution contribute to the deaths of millions of people of each year; natural resource scarcity endangers the welfare of billions more. The voracious rate of tropical deforestation is a key factor in the current wave of mass extinctions, eroding the planet’s biodiversity created by millions and millions of years of evolution. The most dramatic international environmental issue is global warming, which could displace tens of millions of persons, disrupt weather patterns, and alter climate, thus harming agricultural industries across the globe. Understanding the nature of these events and appropriate responses to them has been the principal objective of scholars of international environmental politics.
II. Theories of International Environmental Politics
Political scientists are interested in the acquisition and implementation of power on an empirical level—that is, they are interested in how power is acquired and used, but also on a normative level that asks how power should be acquired and used. Some political scientists are more interested in empirical questions, and others are more interested in normative ones, but it is the presence of both forms of inquiry that makes this field of scholarship useful.
How the environment is defined is an important factor distinguishing theories of international environmental politics. Is the environment appropriately understood primarily as a bundle of resources for human use and as a sink for our wastes? Are nonhuman organisms potential commodities to be harvested for our own purposes, disposed of when convenient? Is the environment a resilient, limitless place capable of handling rough treatment? Or should we understand the environment in more reverential terms, as spiritual places, as a fragile network of living systems endowed with intrinsic rights to exist? How the environment is conceptualized is a critical element of the various theories that explain international environmental politics.
A. Mainstream Theories of International Environmental Politics
The characterizations of international environmental problems typically involve natural resource scarcity, transboundary pollution, and general environmental quality problems. These problems are conventionally described by mainstream theories of political science as common-pool resource problems. Common-pool resource problems are famously described by Garret Hardin (1968) in his essay “The Tragedy of the Commons.” Hardin uses a metaphorical pastoral setting to argue that self-interested individuals seeking to maximize their individual interests will exploit the commons to the point of ecological collapse. Awareness of their collective interests in sustainable use is no help, according to Hardin, for while curtailing your own consumption would benefit the collective good, it would also provide opportunities for competitors to take advantage of your public spiritedness. Thus, altruistic actions on behalf of collective environmental interests impose costs on any individual taking such action, while directly benefiting his or her competitors.
This argument is consistent with public choice theory. Mancur Olson (1965) identifies problems in motivating political action to achieve public goods—goods and services that create nonexcludable benefits. If a policy goal involves a good or service that would create benefits for everybody (whether you help pay for that good or not), why contribute to the achievement of that policy? The possibility of free riding (enjoying the benefits without paying for them) means that relying on voluntary actions to create public goods like clean air will result in insufficient support. Government regulation is needed to compel support for public goods such as sustainable use of common-pool resources. The alternative, argues Hardin, is to privatize the commons, giving individuals incentives to care for what directly benefits them.
Elinor Ostrom (1990) accepts Hardin’s premise that the incentive structures of common-pool resources encourage individual resource users to overuse the resource and discourage individuals from trying to preserve the resource on their own. But she offers compelling counterarguments to the inevitability of degradation in the absence of coercive regulation or privatization.
Ostrom (1990) finds that ecologically sustainable use of common-pool resources can be voluntarily negotiated by resource users to the extent the following conditions are present among them: (a) a rough consensus about the impending harm from resource exploitation; (b) roughly equal vulnerability to harm; (c) high value placed on sustainable future use of the resource; (d) low information, monitoring, and enforcement costs; (e) a minimal sense of reciprocity and trust exists; (f) relatively low numbers of resource users negotiating exists. The arguments of Hardin and Ostrom reflect different degrees of pessimism or optimism regarding the ability of political actors to negotiate solutions to environmental problems.
Consider these perspectives applied to the global level where the oceans and the atmosphere function as commons and nation-states as individual resource users in an anarchic context. Since the current political arena lacks a global government and is predicated on the concept of national sovereignty, individual nation-states must negotiate solutions among themselves. Studying global politics is the domain of international relations (IR), and the dominant debates within IR on global environmental problems have been consistent with liberal and realist theories of state behavior (Paterson, 2000). In viewing the need for individual states to negotiate solutions to global environmental problems, one sees shades of Hardin-like pessimism in realist theories and shades of Ostrom-like optimism in liberal ones.
Liberal IR scholarship focuses on the emergence and performance of international environmental regimes— defined as a set of negotiated norms, principles, values, regulations, and procedures for decision making to align the interests of states on some international environmental issue. To overcome collective action problems, states collaboratively establish institutional regimes to shape their individual behaviors and serve their mutual interests. Examples of large-scale international collaboration include treaties on acid rain, ozone depletion, whaling, the ban on trafficking in endangered species and ivory, international trade of toxic substances, biodiversity loss, and climate change (Bryner, 2004). Analyzing international responses to oil spills, acid rain, stratospheric ozone depletion, pollution in the Baltic and North Seas, fisheries mismanagement, farm chemical regulations, and overpopulation, Robert Keohane, Peter Haas, and Marc Levy (1993) find grounds for optimism in the ability of states to negotiate sustainable solutions to global environmental problems.
The degree to which such regimes warrant optimism is a function not only of the facts associated with the particular issues, but also of the analytical perspectives of the observers. Liberals are more committed to diplomacy because, among other reasons, they see it as more possible (please see the Research Paper on Realism and Neorealism and Research Paper on Idealism and Liberalism). The ends of negotiation—international regimes—are perceived differently as well. Realist theory expects little to come of the regimes; liberal theory has more faith in their efficacy (Paterson, 2000).
A lack of faith in regimes leads many realists to see environmental problems as intractable. This spurs an interest in environmental security. Scholars, particularly realists, are exploring relationships between environmental stresses and the probability of increased rates of social instability, interstate competition, and conflict (Homer-Dixon, 1991). Whether planning for domestic security or for the prospects of international conflict, environmental degradation has increasingly become a legitimate consideration of states.
The debate over nation-states’ willingness and capability to collaboratively solve global environmental problems misses important political activities of nonstate actors involved in such issues. Environmental nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) not only target states in order to influence government behavior at legislative and implementation stages of the policy process but also engage in political activity beneath the level of the state, shaping societal norms and attitudes in ways that support their agendas, motivating political action that may or may not require state involvement (Wapner, 1995). The extension of markets, cultural symbols, and social connections across national boundaries has facilitated the emergence of a global civil society where private groups and individuals meet and interact to achieve public ends. Grassroots organizing, public demonstrations, and boycott campaigns are all tools used by transnational environmental NGOs to shift public attitudes and citizen and consumer behavior.
An effective role for transnational environmental NGOs in a global civil society signals a more active role for citizens and consumers than what might be inferred from an otherwise state-centric literature. The theory that democracy has a special relationship with environmental problem solving is based on the history of social movement politics and the passage of environmental legislation. Robert Paehlke (1989) argues environmentalism has evolved to a point where it functions like a distinct progressive ideology with inherent preferences for decentralized, democratic, participatory decision making. Environmentalism, in other words, has been very good for democracy. Other researchers have argued the inverse, that democracy is inherently conducive to environmentalism (Payne, 1995). That is to say, democracies are far less likely to harm the environment and more willing to take measures to protect it.
B. The Neo-Malthusian–Anti-Malthusian Debate
British scholar Thomas Malthus (1766–1834) argued that human suffering was inevitable, given that food production only increased arithmetically while population increased exponentially. Although Malthus failed to accurately account for the rate of productivity increases due to industrialized agriculture and the advent of petroleum-based herbicides, pesticides, and fertilizer, his ideas that unchecked population growth would outpace the growth of resource production never really faded and were revitalized in the 1960s and 1970s. During that time, Stanford biologist Paul Ehrlich (1968) wrote The Population Bomb, popularizing concerns about environmental and social consequences of exponential population growth.
Four years later, a group of scholars published The Limits to Growth, expanding the theme of population by focusing on exponential growth of production and consumption to illustrate the unsustainability of human activity relative to the natural environment (Meadows, Meadows, Randers, & Behrens, 1972). Early ecological economists refined their arguments in the 1970s, led by Herman Daly’s (1977) Steady State Economy. Daly challenges conventional economic assumptions that reduce the environment to nothing more than discrete subsets (natural resource industries) of the larger economy. Daly argues that it is the economy that is a subset of the larger environment, which provides two critical functions often ignored by conventional economists: The environment is (a) a source of a whole range of necessary materials and energy and (b) a sink into which wastes are put. Both functions are seen as inherently limited by the first two laws of thermodynamics: the conservation of matter and energy and the law of entropy. The implication is that material growth of the economy cannot be sustained in the long run, nor can energy dependence on nonrenewable fuels. Sustainability can be attained, according to ecological economists, by understanding the value of the natural capital base on which societies depend, thus uncovering the real costs of our actions.
But ecological economics has only marginally impacted policy. Certainly economic growth remains a prime objective of governments the world over. During the 1970s, exponentially expanding population and rates of resource consumption and waste production led to dire predictions of ecological catastrophes and political theories about how to avoid them. William Ophuls (1977; Ophuls & Boyan, 1992) and Robert Heilbroner (1974) were prominent eco-authoritarians expressing profound pessimism about the prospects of achieving sustainability through democratic means.
Ophuls (1977) argues economic growth in liberal democracy is necessary for the political-economic elite to resist demands of the working classes for wealth redistribution. Although numerically few, the elite disproportionately influence policy and won’t agree to dramatic wealth redistribution, while the masses, with less power per capita but considerable influence in the aggregate, won’t accept freezing current unequal patterns of ownership. Thus, economic growth placates the voting masses with expectations of rising income at little or no cost to the wealthy. What to do about a politically popular but environmentally unsustainable policy? For Ophuls, ecologist-kings are needed to bring the economy to a sustainable steady state, while imposing patterns of income and wealth to maximize political support.
Whether they call for authoritarian responses or not, Dryzek (2005) argues that neo-Malthusians like Ophuls and Meadows (whom he calls survivalists) have the following in common: (a) a deep concern about a finite carrying capacity of the planet for the human species and (b) taking a cue from Hardin, pessimism about human nature’s propensity for personal sacrifice for collective ends.
Anti-Malthusians, referred to as Prometheans by Dryzek (2005), reject the basis for neo-Malthusian concerns about environmental sustainability. Humans should be seen as problem-solving resources rather than as sources of environmental degradation. More people means more resources. The most prominent scholars espousing this perspective are Julian Simon and Herman Kahn (1984), who argue that markets generate prices that function as signals of scarcity, creating incentives to (a) conserve or reduce consumption, (b) develop technology to improve efficiency, or (c) find substitutable resources. Thus, trends in human population and economic growth are just part of a larger story of progress, and economic institutions and human ingenuity will solve environmental problems as they arise. Government intervention is generally seen to be unnecessary or counterproductive in that it serves as a drag on economic growth.
These two theoretical perspectives offer starkly different, and in ways dichotomous, interpretations of the world and humanity’s relationship to it. However, on a more practical level, these perspectives are poles of a spectrum measuring two variables: capacity of the environment to provide resources and absorb waste and capacity of humans to maximize resources and minimize wastes.
Concern over questions posed by this spectrum fueled interest in theories of sustainable development throughout the 1980s. In 1983, the United Nations created the World Commission on Environment and Development chaired by the prime minister of Norway, Gro Harlem Brundtland, and charged it with addressing the questions of how the international community should respond to environmental degradation and achieve ecological sustainability.
The World Commission on Environment and Development (1987) published a widely read document, Our Common Future, which outlined sustainable development as political-economic activity that meets two critical criteria: intragenerational equity and intergenerational equity, defined as development that allows current generations to meet their needs without compromising the ability of future generations to meet theirs. Our Common Future affirms a global obligation to address both environmental crises and promote social justice for the world’s poor, rejecting Garret Hardin’s (1974) so-called lifeboat thesis that aiding the world’s poor only exacerbates the unsustainability problem.
At the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro in 1992, world leaders expressed support for sustainable development in terms of intra- and intergenerational equity and environmental sustainability as legitimate national and international objectives. Dryzek and Schlosberg (1998) note that widespread support for sustainable development is a function of its ambiguity. They also note that within environmental scholarship, sustainable development has its defenders despite its ambiguity and its critics because of it.
In relation to other ideological frameworks, many within the neo-Malthusian and survivalist position are in line with modern liberal, social welfare-state perspectives, while the anti-Malthusian and Promethean position aligns more comfortably with classically liberal, libertarian thought. Both perspectives, however, share a primary concern for humanity and view the environment in terms of what it provides for societies and economies. A number of increasingly significant theories of the environment and human relationships to it challenge this assumption.
C. Radical Theories of International Environmental Politics
Robyn Eckersley (1992) argues that certain elements of environmentalism have challenged Western political thought by attacking the premise of anthropocentrism (the notion that the value of the natural world resides in its utility to human beings) and offering in its place ecocentrism, the belief that all life, and the ecological systems on which life depends, possess intrinsic value. Environmentalism associated with mainstream politics and with neo-Malthusian arguments equates the environment with natural resources, focusing on the need to manage these resources in equitable and sustainable fashions. To the extent some environmentalists think in these terms, Eckersley contends, they merely modify various forms of conventional political theory. Where environmentalism is truly transformative is where it takes seriously the idea of inherent value in places and nonhuman life and envisions how we might order societies in such ways that acknowledge and respect that.
Deep ecology is one such theory. Largely based on the writings of Norwegian philosopher Arne Naess (1973), deep ecology challenges the necessity and appropriateness of conceiving the self in individual terms. Instead, deep ecologists call for a recognition that, individually, we are all enmeshed in and dependent on social and ecological communities and that our identities—ourselves—ought to reflect those connections and dependencies. The personal and psychological transformations that come with this redefinition of self will facilitate a more sensitive, peaceful, and nonhierarchical transformation of our relations to each other and the natural world.
This notion of hierarchy as the dynamic behind environmental degradation is shared by ecofeminists. For deep ecologists, the hierarchy is anthropocentric: humans dominating the natural world. For ecofeminists, the hierarchy is also patriarchal: men dominating women (Warren, 1996). These forms of domination are not mutually exclusive, and ecofeminists argue that they reinforce each another in a multitude of ways. Warren identifies these forms of association between women and nature as historical, conceptual, empirical and experiential, epistemological, symbolic, ethical, theoretical, and political. Women and nature, according to various versions of ecofeminist thought, are consciously as well as unconsciously associated with each other in ways that rationalize their subjugation to men and male-dominated societies. Effectively responding to environmental crises requires an understanding of the ways men perceive and mistreat both women and nature and altering these sexist belief systems and the patterns of behavior they attempt to justify. Like deep ecology, the basic end for the many versions of ecofeminist thought is nonhierarchical societies based on respectful, reverential senses of reciprocity and mutuality between human and nonhuman life.
There are many other radical environmental thinkers, including bioregionalists, social ecologists, eco-socialists, and eco-anarchists. They are united by a desire to transform social systems to create “new patterns of production, reproduction and consciousness that will improve the quality of human life and the natural environment” (Merchant, 1992, p. 9). They possess preferences for grassroots, decentralized approaches to political action. With a local focus and a preference for changing social attitudes within civil society rather than engaging largely unredeemable states, many radical environmental thinkers end up ceding key portions of the international arena to more reform-minded theorists. But because they also refuse to accept as legitimate forms of value and thought that they see as inherently oppressive, political-economic institutional processes based on those forms of thought tend to exclude them as well.
D. A Theoretical Synthesis? Ecological Modernization
What makes mainstream theories of international environmental politics mainstream is the extent to which they accept the suitability of preexisting political-economic institutions and prevailing cultural and philosophical viewpoints to address global environmental problems. Where one comes down on this question of suitability is really a function of two factors: one’s perception of the sustainability question addressed by the neo-Malthusian– Anti-Malthusian debate and the degree of faith one has in both the political-economic institutions and the dominant cultural values themselves. One may seriously believe in the inability of ecosystems to bear much more stress from expanding levels of human population and consumption and still believe that the bases of preexisting political-economic institutions are (a) worth saving in their own right through environmentally minded reformation or (b) inevitable and therefore must be so reformed since no acceptable alternative awaits.
The theory of ecological modernization emerged in Germany, the Netherlands, and Britain during the 1980s and takes seriously the belief that the world’s ecosystems are limited and that carrying capacities are real and constitute boundaries that societies cross at their peril. But ecological modernization theorists also maintain that industrial capitalist societies can reform their central institutions and practices so as to achieve conditions that are environmentally just and sustainable. By enlisting the aid of businesses to develop new technologies and renewable energies, ecological modernization theory expects capitalist societies to improve efficiency and lower waste and emissions, simultaneously increasing wealth while reducing harm to the environment. This will involve active governments committed to environmental protection in all that they do, primarily by working in partnership with business to assist industry and commerce to incorporate ecological ideas. A key assumption of ecological modernization theory is that collaboration and negotiation are more effective at achieving a sense of common purpose, and thus more capable of constructing coalitions willing to support and strong enough to enact the kinds of policies to restructure society along ecologically sustainable lines (Hajer, 1995).
III. Applications and Empirical Evidence
Measuring the success or failure of international environmental policies is complicated for empirical and theoretical reasons. As an empirical matter, environmental politics cover wide-ranging and complex subjects, and understanding current conditions of large-scale ecosystems requires longitudinal data that are often incomplete or nonexistent. When such data exist, their interpretation invariably involves scientific uncertainty, which is compounded when modeling future consequences. Latent effects and the potential for unforeseen negative and positive feedback loops make assessment of current conditions difficult and accurate predictions of future outcomes of policies even more so.
Assessing the desirability of policy outcomes involves formal or informal comparison of benefits and costs, which are often hard to quantify. How should we measure the value of lives saved, illnesses reduced, and beautiful and biologically diverse places preserved? Techniques exist to measure such things but are methodologically limited and conceptually controversial. Problem displacement is another complicating factor; resolving one particular problem often involves shifting harm to other areas. For example, the Oslo and Paris Conventions created an international regime to reduce pollution in the North Sea. To comply with restrictions on ocean dumping, Britain increased land-based dumping and incineration, reducing ocean pollution but raising levels of land and air pollution (Skjaerseth, 1998). Given the complexity of the contexts in which international environmental problems occur, it is also often difficult to ascribe causality to a given policy when multiple ecosystem and jurisdictional boundaries are involved.
Theoretically, there is no consensus on the nature of environmental problems that would allow us to objectively define success. The criteria by which we define it involve an assortment of normative assumptions. If one begins with an ecocentric assumption that nonhuman life and ecosystems deserve respect in their own right independent of their utility to humans, it is very unlikely that one will perceive much progress in international environmental issues.
These difficulties aside, some consideration of global environmental issues can shed light on the efficacy of international environmental policies. Research suggests there is a good deal of variation in the rate of success or failure for international environmental treaties (see Research Paper on International Law, for an overview of the associated challenges such efforts face). Some regimes are successful, others much less so. The Antarctic Treaty System took effect in 1961, successfully preventing international conflict over the continent of Antarctica and facilitating scientific research there (Young, 1997). The Montreal Protocol on Substances that Deplete the Ozone Layer was passed in 1989 to reduce emissions of industrial and commercial chemicals that break down stratospheric ozone, which blocks harmful ultraviolet solar radiation. Although challenges in developing nations and in black markets persist, the Montreal Protocol is successfully addressing this global environmental problem, having achieved a 95% reduction in use of ozone-depleting chemicals and resulting in tangible ozone recovery (Parson, 2003).
Sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxide emissions create acid rain, adversely affecting aquatic and forest ecosystems, crops, and buildings. In the 1970s, there were no regulations specifically addressing acid rain, and the use of higher smoke stacks to improve ambient air quality may have increased the problem (Munton, Sooros, Mikitina, & Levy, 1999). In 1979, led by Sweden, Norway, and Finland, 33 states agreed to the Convention on Long-Range Transboundary Air Pollution (LRTAP). Lacking specific rules or prescriptions because of opposition from the United States, Britain, and Canada, the treaty nevertheless contributed to behavior changes in its signatories (Munton et al.). The full extent to which the acid rain problem has been solved is debatable, but sulfur dioxide emissions in North America and Europe have declined markedly, as have, to a lesser extent, nitrogen oxides.
Many international regimes to protect ocean fisheries have been failures. But one of the more successful regimes in inducing behavior change in its membership is the International Whaling Commission (IWC) created by the International Convention for the Regulation of Whaling in 1946 (Andresen, 1998). Originally an instrument to promote whaling, the IWC passed policies that encouraged intensive whaling practices in the 1940s and 1950s, severely depleting many whale populations. In the 1970s, however, NGOs like Greenpeace made the whale an icon of environmentalism, successfully increasing public opposition to whaling. Anti-whaling states swelled the ranks of the IWC and are transforming it into an instrument for whale preservation, evidenced by the moratorium on commercial whaling passed in 1982. Although Japan continues to practice so-called scientific whaling, overall the commercial catch of whales has declined dramatically (Andresen).
Progress addressing the most prominent global environmental problem—global warming—has been much harder to achieve. Greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions like carbon dioxide and methane trap solar radiation within Earth’s atmosphere as it radiates from the surface. The increased composition of greenhouse gases is correlated with rising global temperatures and shifting climate patterns. The composition of GHG in the atmosphere has fluctuated naturally throughout Earth’s history, but since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, anthropogenic contributions from the combustion of fossil fuels have contributed significantly.
In 1988, the United Nations Environment Programme and the World Meteorological Organization established the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) to assess the scientific literature on climate change in order to provide guidance to political leaders and the public about causes and consequences of and possible responses to global climate change. As an agency for gathering and publicizing information, the IPCC has been successful, issuing major assessment reports in 1990, 1995, 2001, and 2007 and winning the Nobel Peace Prize in 2007. Moreover, the first IPCC report served as the basis for the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) written at the Earth Summit at Rio de Janeiro in 1992.
The goal of the UNFCCC was to stabilize anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions at safe levels. It created a national GHG emissions inventory to track the amount of emissions and a nonbinding commitment by industrialized nations to stabilize GHG emissions at 1990 levels by 2000. The UNFCCC divided signatory states into three categories: developing states that would not be expected to meet the 1990 emission targets, developed states that would, and a subset of developed states that would financially assist developing states in implementing emission-reducing technologies.
In 1997, the signatory states adopted the Kyoto Protocol, amending emission reduction targets to 5% below 1990 levels by 2008 to 2012 for industrialized countries collectively (national targets vary) and making them legally binding. Among industrialized nations, only the United States (until 2006 the world’s largest emitter of carbon dioxide) has refused to ratify the Kyoto Protocol. Despite widespread participation, however, anthropogenic carbon dioxide emissions grew 4 times faster after 2000 than in the 1990s. Although growth of emissions from industrialized nations slowed, they did grow, and emissions in developing nations, particularly China and India, grew rapidly. These developments support critical assessments of the international environmental regimes on climate change (Victor, 2002).
Research assessing potential consequences of global climate change notes the likely displacement of 200 million persons due to rising sea levels, rising death rates from malnutrition and heat stress, increasing flooding during wet seasons, drought during dry seasons, and the extinction of 15% to 40% of the planet’s species if warming trends go unabated (Stern, 2007). Costs of global warming have largely been viewed in terms of future impacts, but increasingly researchers are identifying current harms. One recent report estimates that already 300,000 people per year die of causes related to climate change, and $125 billion in average annual economic costs occur as well (Global Humanitarian Forum, 2009). Although these estimates are approximations reached with controversial methodologies, it is unequivocal that many people in the world today are harmed and die as a result of environmental problems, and many others lead tenuous lives made vulnerable by degraded environmental conditions.
The UN’s Human Development Programme estimates more than 1 billion people lack regular access to safe drinking water; one result is that 1.8 million children die each year from treatable and avoidable diseases caused by unsanitary water (Watkins, 2006). Comparable numbers of people suffer from chronic hunger due to food insecurity. Outdoor air pollution causes more than 2 million premature deaths annually. Elevated cancer rates are associated with cities, hazardous waste sites, areas downwind from certain industrial activities, and farming states and are linked to known carcinogenetic substances in solvents, petro-chemicals, dioxins and other industrial by-products, and pesticides. Although global in nature, costs created by pollution are, like natural-resource vulnerability, not experienced equally. The poor within and across nations are at greatest risk, underscoring how little sustainable development has actually been achieved and how much the aspirations of environmental quality and equity espoused by Our Common Future have gone unmet (Sneddon, Howarth, & Nordgaard, 2006).
IV. Policy Implications and Future Directions
Given the mixed record of international political efforts to resolve global environmental problems, what lessons can be drawn about how to craft effective environmental regimes? If the larger picture of overall global environmental conditions is as troubling as much of the evidence suggests, what does that imply for larger political-economic systems? This section addresses these questions in brief.
Research by Young (1997) and Victor, Raustiala, and Skolnikoff (1998) identify factors that account for the range in effectiveness of international environmental regimes. Such regimes are more likely to effectively change state behavior in positive ways to the extent that Pareto improvement (win–win, or at least win–not lose) situations have been identified and agreed on (Young). Regimes in situations with zero-sum outcomes are far more likely to be resisted or subverted by likely losers. One potentially useful response is the use of nonbinding targets, which may put states facing considerable compliance costs more at ease. One example is the LRTAP convention to reduce acid-rain-causing pollutants discussed earlier (Munton et al., 1999). A potential danger at the stage of defining targets is states purposely setting conservative targets that are easily met, allowing them to achieve legal compliance without significantly addressing the problem. This danger is less likely when there is transparency in the policy process, the problem to be addressed is salient, and high levels of public involvement exist (Victor et al., 1998).
Flexibility in how regime goals are met creates significant advantages in that it allows states with unique circumstances to take those circumstances into account in crafting policy approaches, yet when flexibility leads to a diversity of policy responses, the evaluation of the regime as a whole is made more complicated. Evaluation is important, for it helps identify situations where states willfully neglect their obligations, as well as situations where states have poorly planned or miscalculated (Victor et al., 1998). The combination of flexibility in rule making and good evaluation data allows states to practice adaptive management, which is taking corrective actions as new conditions emerge and understanding of issues improves (Young, 1997).
International environmental regimes are more likely to be effective when there are active domestic constituencies within the individual states who have a stake in the success of the regime (Young, 1997). When these constituencies involve both the industry targeted by the regime and environmental nongovernmental organizations, opportunities to accumulate data on implementation and negotiate mutually acceptable policy amendments are improved (Victor et al., 1998). States with domestic constituents with interests in regime effectiveness are more likely to be pressured into actions that will bring them into compliance.
These factors for international environmental regime effectiveness are consistent with other observations on the evolution of environmental policy more generally. Theorists and activists have begun to advocate shifts away from conventional, command-and-control regulatory responses to environmental problems where government sets a particular standard of behavior and compels regulated parties to meet it. Instead, more pragmatic and collaborative approaches to problems in which stakeholders are allowed to negotiate over a variety of solutions ranging from public participation to the inventive use of property rights are seen as generally more effective and efficient in achieving results (Durant, Fiorino, & O’Leary, 2004). The aforementioned principles may be useful in crafting better, more effective international environmental regimes in the future.
A range of such policy tools to address climate change have been developed, the most prominent being cap-and-trade systems, carbon taxes, and carbon offsets. All are potentially useful and will play roles in national and international responses to climate change. A real sticking point in negotiating new protocols will be how to treat different states in terms of their obligations to reduce emissions. Emissions from China and India have grown faster than those of the rest of the world. Yet they are poorer and less developed, and their leaders argue the developing world deserves to advance its economic conditions, as did the developed, industrialized states. Moreover, because greenhouse gases are persistent in the atmosphere, much of the problem has already been created by industrialized developed states. Many critics of industrialized states ask why developing states should bear equal responsibility for fixing a problem that they played only a minor role in creating.
The theory of ecological modernization seems likely to play a prominent role in decades to come. It has, however, been mainly a European phenomenon, both in theory and in practice. What can it offer developing nations? Arthur Mol (2003) argues that although economic globalization has led to widespread instances of environmental degradation, it also has created situations where environmental outcomes have improved. Regional integration can raise environmental standards in laggard states, where a multitude of nonstate actors, NGOs, popular social movements, and multinational corporations can foster environment-oriented discourse within civil society at local, national, and global scales. Identifying instances where globalization has led to environmental improvements and reduced poverty in the developing world is of critical importance given its overall disheartening track record.
The scale and scope of the human presence on Earth has reached a point where the aggregate consequences of both appear to be affecting the ability of the planet to continue to sustain us and our actions for much longer. Our presence, in terms of population and economic activity, has heightened the interconnectivity of the modern world. Our actions no longer, if they ever did, exist in isolation. Issues of ecological sustainability and equity—intragenerationally, intergenerationally, and across species—all involve compelling questions and challenges.
Can competitive and self-interested states sustainably manage common-pool resources? Are neo-Malthusian fears of a surpassed planetary carrying capacity valid? Should anti-Malthusian faith in human ingenuity, markets, and technology be enough to allay those fears? If not, can liberal capitalism be sufficiently greened? Aconcern for the welfare of humanity motivates religion and philosophy and serves as the guiding passion of much environmentalism. But a passionate concern for humanity can mask an exclusive concern for humanity, and in viewing the world and its life forms around us as mere resources, we may promote an abuse of the natural world that not only does an injustice to the rights and interests of nonhuman life but also may undermine our own welfare in the process. The academic field of international environmental politics tries to understand these questions and issues, identify possible answers to them, and shape effective solutions on the basis thereof.
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