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date: 17 January 2018

Environment in the Global Political Economy

Summary and Keywords

The literature on the political economy of the global environment is a hybrid of political economy, international relations (IR), and international environmental politics, looking at the formal and informal institutional factors which give rise to unsustainable habits. The physical environment has long been the subject of social scientists, who recognized that patterns of social activity might contribute to environmental degradation. One of the most common formulations of environmental issues as a collective action is through the metaphor of the Tragedy of Commons, which argues that overpopulation worldwide would undoubtedly contribute to extensive resource depletion. Following the formulation of the core properties of environmental issues as lying at the interstices of a variety of human activities, implications followed for how to conduct research on international environmental politics and policy. Realist and neorealist traditions in international relations stress the seminal role of power and national leadership in addressing environmental problems. Neoliberal institutionalists look at the role of formal institutional properties in influencing states’ willingness to address transboundary and global environmental threats. On the other hand, the constructivist movement in international relations focuses on the role of new ecological doctrines in how states choose to address their environmental problems, and to act collectively. Ultimately, the major policy debates over the years have addressed the political economy of private investment in environmentally oriented activities, sustainable development doctrines, free trade and the environment, environmental security, and studies of compliance, implementation, and effectiveness.

Keywords: political economy, global environment, international relations, international environmental politics, environmental problems, global environmental threats, ecological doctrines, sustainable development, free trade, environmental security


Humanity has trodden heavily on the planet. Modern societies have been pursuing unsustainable trajectories of production and consumption, leading to despoiling of the world’s ecosystems and the depletion of its resources. The literature on the political economy of the global environment looks broadly at the formal and informal institutional factors which give rise to such unsustainable habits, as well as shaping possible mitigating responses. The literature is a hybrid of political economy, international relations (IR) theory, and international environmental politics more broadly.

International environmental threats have commanded widespread attention since the late 1960s. They galvanized public concern, reached the international agenda, and became the matter of international politics following the publicity given to a number of unprecedented international environmental disasters, including oil spills in the open oceans and the discovery of DDT in Antarctica, as well as the emergence of environmental social movements in the industrialized countries.

To a large extent the study of environmental issues precedes much of the current concern with globalization, and the international environmental politics literature anticipates many of the descriptive features of globalization as well as the themes commonly applied to analyze the political and economic forces associated with globalization. Multiple definitions now exist for globalization, but general consensus exists that globalization refers to a multidimensional set of forces that have the effect of transferring the effects of decisions taken in one country to another country or the global commons. (For an array of descriptions of the key dimensions of globalization see Schaeffer 1997; Held et al. 1999; Keohane and Nye 2000; Hoffman 2002.) Much of the analysis of international environmental politics has helped to identify some of the more general features of globalization, as well as the mechanisms by which states and other actors generate globalizing forces, address globalization, and make public policy in various globalized domains. Indeed, many contemporary environmental problems constitute the collateral damage of economic and social progress played out on an increasingly international canvas, as resource scarcity and ecological degradation have occurred as a consequence of modern industrial growth based on the widespread use of fossil fuels and foreign trade. The contaminants from modern industrial development, as well as from traditional modes of resource use, have accumulated in parts of the world that are poorly politically represented, either because of the powerlessness of the individuals living there or because the territory is outside the traditional jurisdiction of the modern nation state (the “commons”). This displacement of environmental consequences of economic growth is now called the “ecological footprint,” and countries have been gradually turning since 1972 to address these problems (MacNeill et al. 1991; for an earlier and similar statement see Brown 1966; 1973). Environmental issues clarify some of the ways that societies influence one another, mediated through the physical environment. In addition, environmental problems cut across the traditional distinctions between security and economic issues on the international agenda. Environmental degradation is a threat to both prosperity and security, so that environmental politics gets examined on its own, as well as in conjunction with other areas that have traditionally been regarded as discrete areas for policy.

Studies of the political economy of the global environment emerged in large part as a way to better understand this complex array of issues, and to improve their collective management. Most research has focused on the questions of what drives human patterns of environmental destruction, what shapes responses, and what shapes compliance with responses.

A number of major analytic and policy-oriented perspectives have dominated the literature. Definitional and historical studies have looked at what is the environment and what are the major characteristics that require and challenge management efforts. In analytic terms, major theoretical approaches to the international political economy of the environment have been deployed from the major contemporary perspectives in IR: realism, institutionalism, radical political economy, domestic politics, NGOs and civil society, and constructivism. The major policy debates over the years have addressed the political economy of private investment in environmentally oriented activities, sustainable development doctrines, free trade and the environment, environmental security, and studies of compliance, implementation, and effectiveness.

As an early subject area of globalization, studies of the international environmental arena highlight two major themes in the study of globalization. Environmental problems, and the globalized issues that they foreshadow, are distinguished by the multitude of relatively new actors – civil society, NGOs, scientific networks, multinational corporations (MNCs), and indigenous groups – who are often actively involved in publicizing threats and trying to find solutions to shared environmental problems. Ken Conca writes that “global ecological interdependence makes it impossible to bound politics within the formal space of the state, and recognition of this fact forces us to reconceptualize a post sovereign world politics” (Conca 1997:503). Analytically, the defining characteristic of international environmental issues is their complexity, and the uncertainty they raise for decision makers about the appropriate national interest and what policies to pursue on its behalf (Simon 1981; Perrow 1999). They are complex because most environmental threats are the consequence of multiple intersecting activities, and because ecosystems themselves are made up of many interdependent ecosystems. Decisions made for environmental protection thus require attention to multiple intertwined and possibly non-decomposable areas of policy. In turn, decision makers are often uncertain about the likely causes of such problems, their consequences (anticipated and unanticipated), the desirable level of environmental protection, and what policies should be pursued in order to achieve those ends (Jervis 1993; Axelrod 1997).

In general, studies have focused more on responses to global environmental problems – largely through negotiated international institutions – rather than their causes. Institutional and rationalist accounts attribute environmental degradation to the flawed incentives for individuals to take account of the environmental consequences of their actions, but most other approaches to political science and international relations tend to ascribe different sets of reasons to the causes and responses to environmental threats, often relying on complicated interdisciplinary histories of human activities affecting the environment, based on demographics, history of technology, and the like (Turner II et al. 1990). International political economy writings have looked more closely at the technological decisions which contribute to environmental degradation, and changes which may enhance sustainability.

What Is “The Environment” and What Are the Implications for Its Study?

The physical environment has long been the subject of social scientists, who recognized that patterns of social activity might contribute to environmental degradation. Early regional abuses have been documented for ancient civilizations, including Greece and the general Mediterranean area (Hughes 1975; Braudel 1979; Ponting 1992; McNeill 2000).

Nineteenth century British political economists expressed concern about potential resource exhaustion (Jevons 1865; Mill 1884: vol. II, book IV, chs. 6, 7; Kenwood and Lougheed 1992:11). Later came the recognition that humans were capable of widespread and possibly irreversible systemic interference with global ecosystems (Marsh 1865/1965; Thomas 1956; Turner II et al. 1990). Humanity became seen as an agent in global change. In 1957, following the discovery of greenhouse gases in the upper atmosphere, Revelle and Seuss announced that “Mankind was conducting an experiment on planet earth.” With improvements in scientific technology, assessments of the magnitude and extent of human influence over the global environment became more precise, and politically worrisome (Vitousek et al. 1997). The true economic value of ecosystems was crudely estimated to be far more than that typically valued by economists conducting cost–benefit analyses and rates of return calculations for development projects, so that economists and economic development systematically undervalued the environmental costs of economic development, leading to extensive environmental degradation (Costanza 1991).

As the increasingly global effect of environmental degradation gained in appreciation, analysts came to describe the problems in terms of their effects encountered in time, space, and area of social activity. The consequences of action are treated as if they will be nonlinear and experienced in the future, and appear in separate functional areas and geographic zones (Meadows et al. 1971; Ward and Dubos 1972; Brown 1973; Meadows et al. 1992).

By the 1980s a new, more comprehensive research program was forged between social and natural scientists in international teams (Jacobson and Price 1990; Price 1990; Alker and Haas 1993). The research agenda became defined by the interlinkages between human and natural systems: analyzing the natural systems, analyzing the influence of natural systems on human societies (consistent with earlier traditions of social science described above), describing the human activities influencing them, analyzing the social institutions that influence human behavior (and which may discourage societies from protecting the environment and to neglect the consequences of their activities), and finally the feedback loop by which societies recognize their impacts and seek to modify behavior in order to achieve a desirable level of environmental quality (Clark and Munn 1986; Clark 1990; Choucri 1993). In policy spheres appreciation grew about the political questions involved: who participates, how are alarms sounded, how is the appropriate balance defined between human needs and environmental quality (for instance: given a growing population, should everyone have equal standards, should we return to the level of prosperity of the nineteenth century, or to what level?) and who is to bear the burden of the adjustment costs of improving environmental quality (Clark et al. 2001). Unlike early studies that focused on the effects of discrete environmental issues, researchers turned to focus on the interplay of environmental issues, and the full array of social forces that contribute to increasingly globalized environmental threats.

Following this formulation of the core properties of environmental issues as lying at the interstices of a variety of human activities, implications followed for how to conduct research on international environmental politics and policy. Because activities in one country affect conditions in other countries, the effective management of international environmental problems calls for international cooperation to monitor the environment and to coordinate national policies. Distinctions were drawn between transboundary and global problems, where conditions in different countries are directly affected by actions elsewhere, and ubiquitous problems, where indirect effects are experienced elsewhere (such as shifts in costs, or migration) (Jacobson and Price 1990). While both types of environmental problem affect the environment and human societies, the direct influences of transboundary and global problems require interstate cooperation, whereas ubiquitous problems may be resolved by common policy responses in the affected countries, and are thus more commonly studied by comparative politics scholars than international relations scholars.

Various research injunctions were also formulated for the study and management of international environmental problems. Effective environmental policy requires recognizing the complexity and uncertainty associated with environmental threats, particularly because of the nonlinear and long-term effects of human activity on the environment. Analysts should heed the scale and scope at which various problems are caused, and at which effects may be encountered, recognizing that they may not be the same for causes and effects. Research should be interdisciplinary to understand the full array of environmental problems, and to formulate responses. Policy analysis needs to take account of the extent to which threats are non-decomposable – that is, whether they can be addressed on their own or require attention to attendant social dynamics (Jacobson and Price 1990; Price 1990; Consortium for International Earth Science Information Network (CIESIN) 1992; Committee on the Human Dimensions of Global Change 1999; Lonergan 1999; National Research Council 1999; Young 2002).

Tragedy of the Commons and Collective Action

Mainstream approaches to the study of global environmental threats largely saw the nature of environmental issues as a collective action problem amongst rational, self-interested states. One of the most common formulations of environmental issues is through the metaphor of the Tragedy of the Commons. The fisheries economist H.S. Gordon introduced the idea in 1954 to explain overfishing. The biologist Garrett Hardin popularized the concept in 1968, as an argument that overpopulation worldwide would ineluctably contribute to extensive resource depletion and widespread misery. Although his historical analogy was misplaced – early British commons were in fact effectively managed (Buck 1998) – the logic of the argument proved powerful. Hardin’s parable suggested that environmental resources are public goods (or collective goods) and that if everyone does not pay the full marginal cost of using a resource, the resource will ultimately be overconsumed or degraded (as with ecosystems). Public goods generate externalities, and lack sufficient investment to make their management viable and sustainable. This view became widely accepted as a depiction of environmental problems as well as of the problems associated with multilateral governance more generally (Hardin 1968; Russett and Sullivan 1971; Ruggie 1972; Ciriacy-Wantrup and Bishop 1975; Snidal 1979; Wijkman 1982; Conybeare 1984). Extended to international environmental issues, this meant that in the absence of some strong control individual governments would be unable to harness the demands of their citizens. Hardin argued, along with William Ophuls, that this logic justified the creation of a strong centralized international authority: “mutual coercion mutually agreed upon.” The United States was most likely to fulfill this role in order to avoid widespread resource depletion and ecological collapse (Ophuls 1977).

Hardin’s argument was taken further by social choice theorists who broke environmental issues into a fourfold taxonomy, organized in a 2 by 2 matrix of whether environmental goods are rival and excludable (Barkin and Shambaugh 1999:3–4; for further discussion see Young 2002:140–7, 166–7; Feeny et al. 1990).

Table 1 Social choice taxonomy of environmental goods




Private goods

Forests, biodiversity

Common pool resources

Fisheries, semi-enclosed seas, atmosphere


Toll goods (or club goods)


Public goods

Rivalness means that consumption by one beneficiary directly subtracts from the ability of other potential beneficiaries to consume the good. Conversely, a good is nonrival if the benefit one beneficiary receives from the good does not affect the amount of benefit other potential beneficiaries might receive….Excludability refers to the ability of one beneficiary toe exclude others from access to the good.

Environmental issues are not purely public goods, but rather one of four varieties, as shown in Table 1, along with examples for each cell.

Elinor Ostrom has extended and refined the study of common pool resources (CPRs) (Berkes 1989; Committee on the Human Dimensions of Global Change 2002; Dietz et al. 2003). Ostrom writes in the tradition of social choice, but, as Oran Young points out, her work is consistent with other approaches that emphasize the influence of knowledge, values, and formal institutions in monitoring, verifying, and maintaining ownership rights (Young 2002:x). Whereas public goods are prone to abuse, environmental resources may be more effectively managed, and incentives to abuse them reduced, when social institutions are created that locate the issues in the other cells of the matrix. Common pool resources can be managed through common property mechanisms and through communal social relations (Berkes 1989). Tragedies are averted by social mechanisms for resolving, reconciling, and averting myopic individual action. For instance, they may be privatized through the creation of markets (especially when they are state-owned resources), or managed through a small coalition of users as toll goods subject to tight surveillance.

Ostrom’s distillation of the key factors that contribute to effective management of CPRs (Ostrom 1990:90; Committee on the Human Dimensions of Global Change 2002) has proved very useful in guiding research on the management of national CPRs. In 1995 Robert Keohane and Elinor Ostrom edited a volume seeking to apply insights about CPRs to the management of global environmental threats, and to apply insights from the international level to how national threats can be better managed (Keohane and Ostrom 1995). The most suggestive chapters (published previously) pointed to the potential role of the private sector in providing technological solutions for problems on which international institutions had focused national attention (Oye and Maxwell 1994), and the role of the insurance industry (and possibly other sectors if generalized to other issue areas) in enforcing states based regulations on the shipping industry (Mitchell 1994).

The recurring broader analytic themes have looked at what induces states to provide such demands on the private sector, and the incentives for the private sector to respond meaningfully.

Leadership and Power

The realist and neorealist traditions in international relations stress the seminal role of power and national leadership in addressing environmental problems. Without the systemic concentration of power, no state will take the lead in addressing common threats. Power is conventionally viewed in terms of material capabilities, so that the environment has historically been conceived by realist authors in terms of control by great powers over vital natural resources, be they be territorial or access to strategic materials (Deudney 1990; 1991; Zacher 1993; Deudney 1997).

By framing environmental issues in terms of their material capabilities aspects, most analysts of power and leadership have dismissed the environment as an unmeaningful feature of international politics (Waltz 1979: ch. 9). George Kennan’s background paper for the 1972 UN Conference on the Human Environment focused on issues of concern to industrialized countries, and argued that there was no need for a new international organization, as the OECD was an adequate institution for addressing such issues (Kennan 1970). Subsequently realists have tended to stress the disruptive effects of resource scarcity and of technological change as being the dominant features of environmental issues (Connelly and Kennedy 1994).

In general there has been little realist research on the environment because realists do not widely believe it to be an issue that poses a threat to vital national interests. To the extent that such a literature has emerged, it is generally in the vein of analyses of environmental security.

The realist tradition has shed little light on explaining multilateral responses to environmental issues (one of the few realist-inspired studies is Brenton 1994). State leadership has not played an especially important role in international environmental politics. In fact, much successful cooperation actually has occurred in the absence of strong state leadership, and the United States – the presumptive international hegemon – has not demonstrated any systematic pattern of behavior across environmental regimes in which it has been involved (Hopgood 1998; Falkner 2005).

International Institutions

Neoliberal institutionalists (Haas et al. 1993; Young 1997; 1999) look at the role of formal institutional properties in influencing states’ willingness to address transboundary and global environmental threats. Such work builds from earlier efforts in the 1970s to describe and understand the new emerging bodies of law, regimes, and practices in international environmental affairs (for instance, Skolnikoff and Kay 1972; Brown et al. 1977; Jacobson and Kay 1983). The conventional wisdom in international relations has been that states face collective action problems that can only be resolved through institutional mechanisms to reduce transaction costs and facilitate coordination. States are presumed to be rational actors, so that they will only choose to protect the environment if the net benefits exceed the net costs (Sprinz and Vaahtoranta 1994). However, international institutions may sway how individual states calculate their welfare, and thus encourage them to take actions on behalf of the environment. Strong institutions capable of exercising influence over member states have been found, through inductive techniques, to possess a number of distinctive properties and exercise an identifiable set of functions. The characteristics of strong institutions include small numbers (although these may be achieved through k-group dynamics and bloc bargaining if the membership numbers of the institution are large), iterated games, long shadows of the future, institutional financial and technological resources available to induce laggard states to compromise, clear focal points, strong compliance mechanisms, and the ability to reach out and educate publics within member states. A sense of uncertainty and of equitable negotiated outcomes is also likely to facilitate agreement, particularly in North–South encounters, as is the potential for forging tactical linkages to reward compromise and to achieve Pareto superior negotiated outcomes (Young 1989; 1991; Levy et al. 1992; Haas 1993; Levy 1993). Leadership may be exercised in an institutional setting by any of a wide group of actors able to wield these institutional instruments: NGOs, entrepreneurial secretariats, norm entrepreneurs, visionary individuals, and states.

Such studies have demonstrated that strong international institutions – either regimes or international organizations – that perform monitoring, verification, and capacity building are more likely to lead states to take meaningful collective action on behalf of the environment than are weaker institutions, or institutions that perform other functions. Yet recent comparative studies of regimes show that responses are far broader and committed than such an approach suggests, and that knowledge must also be considered as a driving force behind environmental governance (Andresen et al. 2000; Miles et al. 2002). By providing new sources of information, and empowering new groups, international institutions may lead states to transform their understanding of environmental problems, and of their own interests.

Radical Political Economy

Radical political economy perspectives on international environmental politics stress the inherent inequality and disharmony of interests between and within countries of the world. The international economic system has been accused of diverting environmental problems to the developing world, and inhibiting its ability to address those problems effectively. The Brazilian ambassador to the United Nations Conference on the Human Environment (UNCHE) expressed early concern that the international environmental agenda favored the North, and that there was a real need for financial resource transfers to developing countries if they were to address shared environmental problems effectively (Castro 1972). The Prime Minister of India, Indira Gandhi, went so far as to claim that the environmental problems of the South were based on poverty, not on affluence or industrialization. Johan Galtung reiterated that the problems facing the world were not limits to growth, but seriously maldistributed benefits from economic growth (Galtung 1973). He pointed to the neglected aspect of domestic and transnational class politics in the traditional analysis of international environmental politics. Finally, Wolfgang Sachs considers the linguistic and framing effects of the environmental agenda, and draws a mixed evaluation that the traditional environmental protection agenda may have discriminated against the interests of the South and of the poor, but that the more sophisticated sustainable development and ecological management visions of the 1990s may be capable of wedding the goals of economic development to environmental protection.

Subsequent efforts have stressed that a focus on responses to global environmental threats fails to address the fundamental causes of those threats (Dauvergne 2008; Speth 2008). They apply a critical eye to negotiated global arrangements that fail to apply principles of social justice and economic equality (Roberts and Parks 2007). In a positive vein, they stress the need for including capacity-building elements for developing countries in all negotiated international arrangements.

Domestic Politics

Studies of domestic politics have long complemented the international level of analysis by demonstrating that variation in national environmental policies and attitudes may be accounted for by differences in state–society relations and by state capacity (Enloe 1975; Weale 1992; Raustiala 1997b; O’Neill 2000; Darst 2001). Systemic-level explanations of environmental degradation and response may be inadequate to explain the full array of observed behaviors. Studies of domestic coalitions and their makeup may provide insights into national positions in international negotiations and the potential for compliance with international commitments (DeSombre 1995; Paarlberg 1999).

Domestic organizational studies reveal some of the administrative causes of environmental degradation. Administrative weaknesses are particularly acute in the developing world and in the countries in transition (Asher 1986; Bell 2000). Many poor countries with weak governments are forced by circumstances to encourage the depletion of their resources in order to raise foreign exchange (see also Dauvergne 1997). Politically weak states are easier for domestic constituencies to capture, and thus may pass policies that are favorable to groups who profit from unsustainable practices.

Even the United States (and thus hegemons) behaves in patterns that are not systemically explicable, and for which domestic politics explanations help to shed light on differential behavior across regimes. Robert Paarlberg and others attribute this inconsistency in US foreign environmental policy to the separation of powers and the pluralist nature of the American state (Paarlberg 1992; DeSombre 1995; Paarlberg 1999). Congress is responsive to domestic groups, and domestic interests are highly issue specific. Thus in the case of ozone depletion, where domestic environmental coalitions have been dominant, the US has taken a leadership role. In other cases, such as biodiversity and climate change, where environmental groups have been weaker than their industry counterparts, the US has opposed international environmental efforts.

Public opinion may also play a role in shaping governments’ willingness to address environmental threats. Whereas environmental concern has grown over the past 30 years in industrialized and developing countries, concern remains predominantly focused on local issues, and many citizens are reluctant to commit financial resources to their environmental aspirations (Dunlap and Mertig 1997).

NGOs and Civil Society

NGOs are increasingly active on the international environmental scene, although a coherent theory to explain variation in success remains absent (Wapner 1995; 1996; Raustiala 1997b; Ringuis 1997; Betsill and Corell 2001; Corell and Betsill 2001; Betsill and Corell 2008). In the 1990s scholars turned their attention to the role of civil society in international environmental governance, first involving studies of NGOs and their interactive (Keck and Sikkink 1998) influence with broader forces of democratization (Lipshutz and Conca 1993; Lipshutz and Mayer 1996; Florini 2000; Steinberg 2001) and then followed by studies of NGOs’ involvements with MNCs (Garcia-Johnson 2000; Hoffman 2001; Cashore et al. 2004; 2007). Although it is difficult to reduce such a wide array of literature to a single insight, most of the literature of NGO campaigns found that they were essentially opportunistic, and that their effectiveness was shaped by broader opportunities created by international institutions, states, and knowledge (Florini 2000; Steinberg 2001). For instance, successful rainforest campaigns were successful because of the key role pressure exercised by the US on the World Bank to influence Brazil.

Broad outlines of NGO campaigns and strategies and their functional consequences are provided by Keck and Sikkink (1999), drawn from Keck and Sikkink (1998), and by Jasanoff (Jasanoff 1998; Jasanoff and Wynne 1998). NGOs often engage in fact finding, consensus building, norm construction, and norm application or diffusion. NGOs can shape public perceptions and values about the environment and press governments to adopt and comply with more vigorous environmental positions, as well as educating publics and elites about the urgency of particular environmental threats, and transferring technology. More broadly, NGOs may influence agenda setting, framing, and improved compliance when they engage in verification and shaming of non-complying actors. In general, NGOs, when involved in environmental regimes, have expressed preferences for pursuing principled norms and pressing for strong commitments of principles to which governments may subsequently be held accountable. Most NGOs avoid recourse to precise formulations of regime rules, since they often lack the resources to carefully monitor compliance. NGOs’ own abilities to garner financial resources from public contributions often rest on their ability to put forward principled positions, and to embarrass governments and firms found in violation of their commitments. NGOs prefer regimes based on the prohibition of certain activities, rather than efforts to shape tolerable ranges of action (there is a parallel here between disarmament and arms control) or other doctrinal approaches such as the precautionary principle, which urges firms and governments to exercise environmental caution even in the absence of scientific consensus that specific activities may cause environmental damage.

NGOs have performed a variety of functions in global environmental governance. They contribute to agenda setting, public education, and delivery of development services on the ground, as well as circulating information to smaller delegations at conferences and negotiations (Chasek 1995). As part of the broader literature on norms and civil society in international politics, studies of NGOs have improved our understanding of the role of non-state actors in working with states and MNCs in environmental governance, as well as the role of civil society in promoting broader aspiration norms of environmental governance.

Ecological Ideas, Doctrines, and Epistemic Communities

The constructivist movement in international relations has recently returned to focusing on the role of ideas and understanding in shaping choices by goal-seeking states (Haas 1990; 1992; Ruggie 1998). As international politics becomes increasingly complex and uncertain, it becomes far fetched to assume that states are capable of clearly anticipating how national welfare will be affected by policy choice at home and in conjunction with others. Constructivists assume that states are incapable of searching for new information each time a decision is demanded, and that they satisfice and rely on prior cognitive frames to understand how national interests are likely to be affected by any particular decision. Ideas and consensual knowledge provide reasons for action. New ecological doctrines may thus play a role in how states choose to address their environmental problems, and to act collectively. As the ideas get institutionalized within domestic political administrations and procedures, prospects for policy enforcement are improved as well. The rest of this section and the next look at the substance of these new doctrines and their consequences for state behavior; the mechanisms by which new doctrines are developed and converted into state practices; and critiques of environmental ideas. Thus, ideas, and the actors associated with their development and circulation, construct state interests, preferences, and practices.

Since the late 1960s scientific consensus has been converging on the utility of a new comprehensive set of environmental guidelines for how environmental resources can best be managed in order to assure prosperity and avert conflict. The alarm concerning the need for a new paradigm of resource management was sounded at UNCHE (Ward and Dubos 1972). Paul Sears, an ecologist, deemed the field of ecology a “subversive” subject because its methods required its practitioners to see choices within a broader social context or field, and thus the technical activity of environmental policy could no longer be extricated from social policy and political theory about the design of a just society, and the proper allocation of resources in a sustainable manner (Sears 1964). In reviewing the intellectual history since the 1970s, Buttell, Hawkins, and Power document a shift in orientation from seeing collective problems in a technical, Malthusian vein of averting (or postponing) the limits to growth toward a more procedural and participatory approach that accepts an analytic framework of flux and even complexity, and seeks to devise policies that may assure development without exceeding the natural constraints on the earth’s ability to provide vital resources for economic activities (Buttell et al. 1990; see also Jantsch and Conrad 1976; Clark and Munn 1986). Harold and Margaret Sprout were among the first political scientists writing in international relations to argue that understanding environmental politics also entailed the development of a new “ecological viewpoint” for understanding politics in general, that took environmental capabilities, resource bases, historical experiences, and social attitudes about the environment into account when trying to formulate environmental policy and to explain patterns of environmental practices (Sprout and Sprout 1971; 1972).

These ideas have gradually acquired consensus amongst policy elites about how to conduct environmental protection, and environmental policy has grown from a narrow focus on resource conservation to a fuller agenda of ecosystem protection, attention to global change, and natural boundaries on human activities, as well as, more recently, on more diverse patterns of inclusion, representation, and participation in the international environmental policy process. Epistemic communities, groups of like-minded professionals – often scientists – who are engaged in policy making for particular environmental threats, are the social groups responsible for the formulation and dissemination of those ideas. Peter M. Haas introduced the idea of epistemic communities to the study of international environmental politics in his study of coordinated Mediterranean pollution control (Haas 1989; 1990; 2007). He argues that the gradual involvement of ecological epistemic communities led to the increasing frequency of comprehensive ecological practices by states. More generally, he argues that this phenomenon has occurred increasingly frequently within multilateral regimes over the past 30 years so that more environmental regimes reflect ecological doctrines than in the past, and that recent treaties are more comprehensive and ecological than previous ones (Haas 1999; 2001a; 2001b). In a jointly authored piece with Ernst B. Haas he argues that certain international institutions that enjoy autonomy from their member states are able to adapt these new doctrines and help to disseminate them to other international institutions and to governments (Haas and Haas 1995; see also Haas 2001a; 2001b; Haas and McCabe 2001).

Taken as a whole, this phenomenon of new ideas becoming institutionalized within international institutions and within state administrations is one of “social learning,” contributing to the pursuit of new common purposes globally, and possibly even improved prospects for achieving the regime targets of improved environmental quality.

Critical Constructivism

Critical constructivists look at the roles of language and of the concepts generated by analysts in shaping environmental practices (Epstein 2008; for a general approach see Shapiro 1984). A core concern for such writers has been how the idea of sovereignty constructs environmental problems. For instance, sovereignty itself is the legal and social condition that leads states to neglect the full environmental consequences of the activities of their citizens. Consequently, the concept of sovereignty needs to be challenged, and suitable substitutes should be found, if international environmental resources are to be protected (Conca 1994; Litfin 1997). By problematizing sovereignty, they hope to alert decision makers and the general public to the difficulty that this practice raises for effective environmental protection. In this regard words are a form of action, as they are intended to generate a conceptual reappraisal by the reader, and may lead to new practices through a more comprehensive and ecological framing of problems (Laferriere 1996). Peter Doran suggests that the discursive challenge needs to be extended more broadly to include patterns of mass consumption and industrial production, as such institutions or established practices “mobilize rules, codes procedures and legitimacy for particular institutional and political arrangements…they [also] embody power and may conceal relations of power, thereby serving an ideological function” (Doran 1995:193).

Political Economy of the Environment

Political economy studies (narrowly defined) focus on the array of incentives and disincentives for environmentally friendly behavior that face these actors. Commons and political economy approaches share an emphasis on individual rationality assumptions. One classic political economy study is Ronald Coase’s 1960 paper, in which he argued that both parties involved with pollution would be materially better off through any form of negotiated settlement (Coase 1960). The puzzle is how to overcome the transaction costs that inhibit the two actors from reaching a mutually beneficial outcome.

Since then, most of the work on market responses to environmental threats has focused on MNCs, and the array of incentives facing MNCs to protect or contaminate the environment (Cairncross 1992; Schmidheiny 1992; Gallarotti 1995). In most instances the costs of protection exceed the narrow benefits of a clean environment for the MNC, so analysts have looked for circumstances or arrangements other than unwieldy regulation that would induce self-interested firms to clean up their own operations or to invest in clean technology to create larger markets for green technology. Andrew Hoffman finds that recent corporate interest in environmental protection is a consequence of state regulation during earlier eras of multilateral environmental regime formation, combined with broader shifts in public consciousness in the 1990s (Garcia-Johnson 2000; Hoffman 2001). More recently, attention has moved to broader efforts at corporate social responsibility, which involves environmental protection, workers’ rights, and human rights (Ruggie 2004; Vogel 2005; Cashore et al. 2007).

Oye and Maxwell argue that at times firms can benefit by pursuing new markets. They call these situations Stiglerian solutions to collective action, where a firm may benefit from early entry into a market through the introduction of new environmentally friendly products, such as chlorofluorocarbon (CFC) replacements.

Ronald Mitchell and Scott Barrett present analyses of institutional design that may help to induce private actors to overcome barriers to cooperation and to investment in new technologies (Barrett 1990; Mitchell 1994; Barrett 2003). Mitchell points to the virtue of assigning enforcement responsibility to self-interested private economic actors, such as insurance companies, so that there is a strong private incentive for enforcing collective obligations vested in an influential self-interested economic actor. Barrett argues for a similar application of such a concept by privatizing international commons, or awarding tradable permits for their use.

In addition, many studies of MNC environmental policy focus on voluntary behavior by firms in response to non-binding guidelines, or to market signals. The argument is that voluntary behavior, the approach preferred by firms, may be more flexible over time, as firms are not committed to a fixed command-and-control set of technologies that may be eventually be replaced by environmentally superior practices or technologies. Many writers, however, wonder whether MNCs have adequate incentives to establish true best practices or whether there are sufficient mechanisms to ensure compliance (Prakash 2000; Kollman and Prakash 2001; Mendell 2002; Prakash and Potoski 2006).

To date, experience with voluntary guidelines and product entrepreneurship rests on pure microeconomic theory and a small set of anecdotes (Harrison 1999; Vogel 2005; Prakash and Potoski 2006). Many writers are concerned that in developing countries MNCs continue to exercise far greater political power than do states, so that MNCs are likely to engage in foreign investment that is insensitive to possible environmental effects, and that host countries lack the capacity to negotiate effectively with MNCs about environmental management standards (Dauvergne 1997; Clapp 1998).

In the 1970s writers were concerned that MNCs would be attracted to pollution havens: countries with weak environmental standards or countries that would deliberately use weak environmental standards as a way to attract foreign investment (Pearson 1985; 1987; for a review see Clapp 2001). Empirical studies of the role of environmental concerns in corporate decisions about direct foreign investment have found that, generally, large MNCs simply ignore national environmental standards and apply the environmental standards of the most stringent major economy in which they operate to all their operations around the world; such an approach is organizationally most efficient within the firm, it avoids the risk of responding to potentially changing regulatory climates, and the firms are worried about their reputations in the largest markets in which NGOs may launch consumer boycotts or shareholder campaigns (Gladwin and Walter 1980; Leonard 1988; Hoffman 2001; Wheeler 2001).

Sustainable Development

Policy makers have long been seeking to weigh the choice between economic development in the short term and environmental protection in the long term. The Russian geophysicist V.I. Vernadsky initially formulated much of what is now regarded as the foundations for this effort at reconciling contending social goals by arguing that all natural and human systems are intimately intertwined, or coupled, and cannot be effectively understood or managed in isolation (Vernadsky 1944). At UNCHE this tension was resolved through the substantive solution that environment and development were not exclusive, but rather complementary. Moreover, the 1972 formulation of environment and development implied that the industrialized countries would help to pay for the costs of environmental protection in the developing world, although the amount of bilateral and multilateral environmental assistance has never been adequate to satisfy the developing countries.

In 1987 the Brundtland Commission released the report Our Common Future, which popularized an expanded concept of sustainable development calling for development that “meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs” (World Commission on Environment and Development (WCED) 1987:8). Sustainable development served as the conceptual focal point for the 1992 United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED) and the 2002 World Summit on Sustainable Development. Sustainable development is a broader agenda than the environment–development agenda discussed in 1972. It argues that environmental degradation cannot be addressed without confronting the human activities that give rise to it. As a policy doctrine it argues for a simultaneous assault on environmental protection, economic development, poverty reduction, and social equity.

In the scholarly literature, the sustainable development approach internalized advances from environmental science. This had led to increasing concern about how environmental conditions influence economic and political factors as well. The sustainable development concept has given rise to a promising research program. A new field of ecological economics has emerged to better measure the costs of unsustainable economic growth, and to provide better estimates of the value of the environment so that prices may be set in a more realistic manner (Costanza et al. 1997; 1998). Sustainable development has evolved into a new procedural planning process that emphasizes participation of multiple stakeholders, discussed below, in a more discursively grounded approach to environmental and development policy making.

Trade and the Environment

As trade liberalization has surmounted the international trade agenda with the strengthening of the World Trade Organization (WTO) since 1994, new debates have emerged about the primacy of trade liberalization or environmental protection. The classic formulations of the positions were published in an interchange between Herman Daly and Jagdish Bhagwati in Scientific American in 1993 (Bhagwati 1993; Daly 1993). The argument for free trade is that trade liberalization stimulates economic development, which in turn provides resources for protecting the environment. In fact, as poor people become more affluent their tastes change and they come to prefer a cleaner environment, and are also able to make consumer choices that reflect those new aspirations (Grossman and Kreuger 1995). Consequently, the WTO should be charged with overseeing multilateral environmental agreements (MEAs) and ensuring through dispute resolution panels that no barriers to trade are erected as a consequence of environmental law. On the other hand, environmentalists argue that without environmental regulations trade liberalization will merely generate economic growth and spawn more environmental degradation. Consequently, international trade should be replaced by local production, which reduces transportation costs and reliance on fossil fuels and empowers local groups in the environmental choices made in production. A more sophisticated corollary to these arguments is that democratization is also necessary if richer consumers are to be able to viably express their new green political tastes.

During the 1990s the WTO addressed a number of trade and the environment cases, including US practices of regulating procedures by which species are caught in order to minimize by-catch, and also for sulfur content in gasoline sold in the US. While the WTO decisions on these cases remain highly contested amongst international lawyers who seek to interpret the meaning of panel findings (Charnovitz 2002), environmentalists continue to express outrage that environmental rules are being challenged through a discourse that seeks to promote globalization. More generally, analysts have raised the question of how to reconcile the different principled approaches of the WTO and the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), and whether such fundamental differences in valuation of trade liberalization and environmental protection can be resolved through WTO reform, through the creation of an entirely new international environmental organization, or through more fundamental ideational transformation which would lead all formal and informal international institutions to be more prone to pursue sustainable development goals over free trade or environmental protection (Von Moltke 1997).

Broader studies of the effect of trade on environmental quality have also grown popular (Clapp and Dauverergne 2005; de Soysa and Neumayer 2005). Liberalized economic policies, including trade liberalization, are presumed to generate increased financial resources which can be applied to environmental protection. Conversely, relaxing protectionist measures removes the protection enjoyed by older, dirtier producers who must now compete according to higher international standards. But trade liberalization may be only a crude link to environmental protection.

Causally, the effect of trade liberalization on environmental quality rests on several institutional intervening variables. Intervening social variables are a responsive government, effective markets to redistribute investments, access to capital, and so on. Democratic institutions make available public information, political organization, and more effective capital markets (Li and Reuveny 2006). Without these social conditions, new resources generated by foreign investment and trade will be distributed to traditional elites and older sectors, rather than toward greener technologies. Some supporting evidence of the positive influence of economic integration on environmental protection comes from some eastern European countries and Mexico. Contrary evidence comes from China (Zeng and Eastin 2007) and some other eastern European countries.

Multi-Stakeholder Partnerships

Since the 2002 Johannesburg World Summit on Sustainable Development (WSSD) there has been increasing attention to partnerships between NGOs and MNCs and “nonstate market-driven governance” (Cashore et al. 2004) more generally (Andonova and Levy 2003; Backstrand 2006). At WSSD, 330 multi-stakeholder public–private partnerships were announced. It is hoped that such multi-stakeholder partnerships will enhance governance through the use of constructive adversarial relationships. The partnerships provide the following governance functions: advocacy, rule and standard making, rule implementation, and direct project administration. Companies’ reputations will be enhanced by working with NGOs. NGOs will provide some degree of accountability and oversight to the MNCs, as well as serving as an information conduit between local communities and the MNCs, from which the MNCs may learn. The most widely studied examples of such partnerships come from the area of forest certification. The Forest Stewardship Council is an example of a partnership between NGOs and timber companies that has contributed to sustainable forestry in tropical zones (Cashore et al. 2004). Analysts have been quite clear that there are vital design aspects to effective certification schemes. The rules must be clear, there must be strong involvement by parties all along global production lines, there must be independent third-party verification of compliance, labels must be distinctive, and consumers and intermediate producers must be educated about the meaning of the labels (Gale 2002; Cashore et al. 2004; 2007).

Environmental Security

Since the 1980s, security analysts have become increasingly concerned about the national security dimensions of environmental degradation. Writers in the 1980s urged a broadening of the notion of national security to include environmental degradation (Brown 1977; Ullman 1983; Mathews 1989). They argued that environmental degradation could serve as a catalyst to armed conflict within and between countries as well as exacerbating poverty and undermining economic development.

Thomas Homer-Dixon offered a nuanced argument that environmental degradation is a contingent trigger to domestic and international violence, mediated by population dislocation and migration (Homer-Dixon 1991). The environmental issues cited in the environmental security literature include climate change, stratospheric ozone depletion, acid deposition, deforestation, degradation of agricultural land, overuse and pollution of fresh water supplies, fishery decline, biodiversity loss, atmospheric pollution, and access to strategic minerals.

The claims that environmental degradation constitutes security threats have been challenged on a number of grounds. Daniel Deudney summarizes the major theoretical challenges to Homer-Dixon’s framing of environmental scarcity as a security issue (Deudney 1990; 1997). First, Deudney argues that the empirical record of wars fought over resources is quite meager. There are few direct or indirect cases of violence, in Homer-Dixon’s work or others’. In fact, virtually no one has been killed in direct international conflicts over water or any other resource.

Second, Deudney says that the environmental security concept reflects a materialistic, narrow notion of security associated with realism, and has the effect of appropriating the political agenda at the expense of other, more comprehensive notions of ecological security. Third, Deudney cites a rhetorical error in using the term security. The “security” commonly referenced by members of the foreign policy community concerns national security and the protection of borders and citizens from foreign threat. Yet few environmental issues share these properties of security as defined by the mainstream foreign policy community. While human survival may be at risk from environmental degradation, the risk doesn’t stem from armed conflict. It is from starvation, cancer, and the long-run degradation of the global ecosystems. And it is from cumulative individual actions, at an unknown point in the future. Deudney argues that the environmental security discourse is counterproductive because military responses are obviously inappropriate.

Effectiveness Studies

The 1990s saw a growth in concern with understanding compliance, implementation, and the effectiveness of international environmental agreements. In part, analysts were trying to ascertain the actual impact of the multitude of treaties signed in the prior 20 years, and in part the renewed interest was due to a shift in the intellectual climate of IR to return to legal dimensions of international relations and to seek to recognize any concrete consequences of the governance dynamics and architecture which had been the subject of policy and research for over a decade. Basically, effectiveness means change in behavior by key actors, generally the state, in the direction intended by the regime (Underdal 1992; Mitchell 1993). Detlef Sprintz and others developed an effectiveness score to conceptually locate the achievements of a particular regime relative to inaction or the best possible outcomes politically imaginable (Helm and Sprinz 2000).

Regimes successfully induced member states to change their behaviors toward more environmentally beneficial practices when states were confronted with an interactive and widespread array of verification measures, threatened sanctions, financial resources for paying for environmental cleanups, and political efforts that elevated the profile and influence of domestic environmental supporters within countries (Haas et al. 1993; Underdal 1998; Victor et al. 1998; Weiss and Jacobson 1998; Mitchell and Keilbach 2001; Miles et al. 2002). Well-crafted regimes that institutionalize knowledge are capable of transforming state interests, so that states come to choose to comply voluntarily with regimes out of a new sense of self-interest rather than as a rational calculation of the marginal benefits made available from the regime itself. Thus, when new consensual knowledge becomes institutionalized within member states’ administrations, regimes are likely to be more robust, and to see higher levels of compliance over time than regimes organized around more conventional institutional designs (Underdal 1998; Haas 1999; Miles et al. 2002).

Progress in Understanding the Political Economy of the Global Environment

The 30 years of literature reviewed here points to some underlying changes in factors influencing choice about behaviors with environmental effects. Research from within a variety of approaches yielded increased understanding of the impact of individual factors on dealing with environmental problems. Over the past decade or so, increasing work across approaches has tried to synthesize these findings into a more dynamic appreciation of global environmental governance.

There has been a collective paradigm shift from seeing environmental threats as discrete problems to seeing them as part of an interactive whole. After extensive careful empirical research on multilateral environmental governance conducted through a number of interdisciplinary international teams of scholars, some lessons are starting to emerge for the study of international environmental politics (Rayner and Malone 1998; Weiss and Jacobson 1998; Victor and Skolnikoff 1999; Andresen et al. 2000; Clark et al. 2001; Miller and Edwards 2001; Miles et al. 2002). The provisional consensus from their work is that an understanding of governance requires theorizing that is capable of understanding and explaining the interaction between political forces, in particular institutional and knowledge based forces, which operate at both the international and domestic levels. Based on a comparative study of 14 environmental and resource regimes, Edward Miles concludes that “we may, for all practical purposes consider a base of consensual knowledge about the basic characteristics of the problem to be a necessary, though by no means sufficient, condition for achieving effective solutions to truly malign problems” (Miles et al. 2002:470). Similarly, Arild Underdal writes that “all cases where the predictions derived from (assumptions)…based on rational anticipations of political difficulty…proved too pessimistic are instances of institutional growth or improvement in the knowledge base” (Miles et al. 2002:440).

Moreover, research has identified international institutional properties and knowledge properties as singularly important driving forces behind states’ willingness to impose more costs on their societies on behalf of the environment. Unitary state based models of collective action have been abandoned for less parsimonious but more empirically accurate ones, and dynamically robust approaches that look at the interactive role of a variety of non-state actors in shaping the incentives for state action. Better understandings of collective social processes of social learning, as well as more static cooperation, have resulted.

Overlapping findings from isolated research are also important. Capacity building is an important factor for addressing environmental problems, albeit for different reasons according to different theoretical approaches. The private sector can play an important role in developing environmental solutions, so long as it is subject to inducements, in most cases from coordinated state choices, and operating in partnership with civil society to monitor their compliance.

Future research agendas will have to strive to integrate these disparate forces into an understanding and explanation of the causes of and responses to multilateral environmental governance. In terms of policy, how can they be constructively engaged to lead states and societies toward more sustainable practices? In terms of policy, decision makers will be unable to avoid trying to reconcile trade and the environment, as well as attempting to improve existing multilateral efforts for environmental protection.

There remains a powerful need for interactive theories that can look at institutional and knowledge based influences at different levels of political analysis. Analytically, how can the strands be integrated to better understand the individual and symbiotic influence of each factor? Can meaningful and generalizable propositions be generated about the interplay between actors and social forces that are likely to promote more sustainable and resilient environmental practices?


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