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date: 21 January 2018

International Organization and Environmental Governance

Summary and Keywords

While some attempts to deal with transborder environmental issues have a longer history, the formal international organizations that have buildings and staff were mostly created in the shadow of World War II. As global environmental governance has evolved, the lexicon in academia has changed from talking about transnationalism and interdependence to writing about regimes and, more recently, institutional design and effectiveness. The actors worthy of study have also changed. The discipline has moved, from writing about states and formal international organizations, to discussing a variety of non-state actors including nongovernmental organizations, businesses, and public-private partnerships. The field has come full circle to talk about internal bureaucratic processes and the politics of particular organizations.

This article aims to provide a thematic and somewhat chronological overview of the broader field of international organizational and environmental governance. This updated survey identifies some new topics that not have been captured by earlier efforts and reviews the following central themes:

1. International Institutions And Regime Theory

2. Ratification and Compliance

3. Regime Effectiveness and Design

4. Bureaucratic Politics and Organizational Pathologies

5. The Rise And Role Of Non-State Actors

6. From Government To Governance: Private And Hybrid Models

Keywords: environmental governance, nonstate actors, international institutions, regime theory, international organizations, transborder international issues

Efforts to deal with environmental challenges across state borders have numerous historical antecedents. European nations signed a convention to regulate fishing on the Rhine in the 1850s, and in the 1880s, European governments sought to deal with overfishing in the North Sea (Rayfuse, 2007). In the early 20th century, four sealing nations negotiated a treaty to deal with the rapidly declining fur seal population in the North Pacific (Barrett, 2007, pp. 19–48). In the 1940s, the United States and Canada began addressing cross-border pollution problems through the courts (Rowlands, 2007, p. 318). However, international environmental governance did not really become a subject of sustained policymaking and public consciousness until the decades after World War II, when rapid industrialization and a rising world population demonstrated an unprecedented capacity of the human species to alter the planet’s atmosphere, ecosystems, and resources.

Of the 225 multilateral international environmental agreements in force in 2000, only 4 had been adopted by 1945 (Barrett, 2003, p. 135). Mitchell, using a more expansive definition of international agreements (to include modifications to earlier agreements), documented the increased pace of environmental agreements in the wake of World War II. The number of agreements, protocols, and amendments that had been reached increased from 3 in 1950, to 75 in 1960, 185 in 1970, 331 in 1980, 522 in 1990, and 1,121 in 2010. By 2012, he identified 1,159 multilateral international environmental agreements (MEAs) and 1,375 bilateral environmental agreements (Mitchell, 2016).

The extension of rational scientific understanding and the growing organizational density of the international system created more impetus and platforms for transnational environmental regulation (Meyer, Frank, Hironaka, Schofer, & Tuma, 1997). While some attempts to deal with transborder environmental issues have a longer history, most of the formal international organizations that have buildings and staff were created in the shadow of World War II—the World Bank, the United Nations, the International Monetary Fund among them as well as a number of specialized environmental and conservation organs like the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) and the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO).

While these organizations were established after WWII, the real impetus for international environmental institution building did not come until later. A strong environmental consciousness began to shape the domestic political scene in industrialized countries in the 1960s, sparked by books like Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring (Carson, 1962). These national concerns coalesced for the first time to become internationally recognized by the early 1970s. Earth Day was celebrated for the first time in the United States in 1970. Delegates then met in Stockholm, in 1972, for the United Nations Conference on the Human Environment, out of which came the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), headquartered in Nairobi (Ivanova, 2007). Since Stockholm, such conferences have become the most recognizable face of global environmental policymaking.

In the 1980s, global and regional environmental problems such as the ozone hole, acid rain, rainforest destruction, and climate change have captured increasing attention. High-profile disasters such as the1984 Bhopal chemical plant explosion in India and the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill in Alaska also generated pressures for action. Out of this resurgent environmental concern came the 1992 United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED), known more popularly as the Earth Summit held in Rio, Brazil. The Earth Summit was another touchstone moment in the history of the field, as thousands of delegates, nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), and industry representatives sought to address a myriad of issues from climate change to forests to biodiversity.

As the scope of work in the environmental space took off in the 1970s, new organizations have periodically emerged to deal with specific problems, such as the secretariats in Bonn dealing with desertification and climate change. In addition, new institutional arrangements and partnerships have emerged in response to dissatisfaction with pure state-based and treaty-based approaches to environmental policy. Hybrid policy approaches involving states, firms, and advocates have been created in such diverse arenas as dams (the World Commission on Dams), corporate responsibility (the UN Global Compact), and deforestation (the Forest Stewardship Council) (for a summary of these developments, see Karns, Mingst, & Stiles, 2015, pp. 529–572).

Political science has been following and describing the ebbs and flows in the practice of international environmental policy. The lexicon in academia has changed from talking about transnationalism and interdependence to writing about regimes and more recently institutional design and effectiveness. The actors worthy of study have also changed. The discipline has moved from writing about states and formal international organizations to discussing a variety of non-state actors, including NGOs, businesses, and public-private partnerships. At the same time, even as new forms of private governance, non-state actors, and local governments have captured researchers’ attention, the field has come full circle to talk about internal bureaucratic processes and the politics of particular organizations.

Scholars writing on international environmental governance have always had a distinctively normative cast, and academics have written their work with an eye towards improved environmental protection. At times, the research in the field is hortatory rather than analytical, making it sometimes difficult to tease out explanation from prescription. At the same time, some scholars write mostly for policy audiences.

Influential research by political scientists that has been more descriptive and/or normative than consciously theoretical includes Elizabeth Economy’s vivid depiction of China’s environmental problems (Economy, 2004), Bjorn Lomborg’s iconoclastic challenge to the environmental establishment (Lomborg, 2001), and David Victor’s critique of the Kyoto Protocol (Victor, 2001). Moreover, important work in this area has been written by non-political scientists, including Ronald Coase’s research on externalities (Coase, 1960), Garrett Hardin’s observations on the tragedy of the commons (Hardin, 1968), Paul and Anne Ehrlich’s work on the population explosion (Ehrlich, 1968), the Brundtland Commission’s final report on sustainable development (World Commission on Environment and Development, 1987), former Vice President Al Gore’s environmental manifesto, Earth in the Balance (Gore, 1992), Elinor Ostrom’s work on collective action (Ostrom, 1990), and Scott Barrett’s book Environment and Statecraft (Barrett, 2003).

Given the vast literature, which is but a subset of the broader field of environmental politics, it is difficult to craft a comprehensive survey essay. Sage Publications has a four volume set on international environmental politics edited by Ronald Mitchell (Mitchell, 2008). With these caveats, this article aims to provide a thematic and somewhat chronological overview of the broader field of international organization and environmental governance.

Here international organizations implies formal actors like the World Bank, International Monetary Fund (IMF), and the United Nations, in which states comprise the organization’s membership and primary donor base. International organizations are sometimes referred to as institutions, but that word has come to have a broader meaning like the word regime referencing the rules and norms that regulate behavior (Simmons & Martin, 2002). International organizations are entities that have a physical address, an office, and staff. The term environmental governance implies a much broader universe of mechanisms for dealing with problems affecting the natural world, including pollution, threats to and degradation of biodiversity, and ecosystem services.

Governance implies collective problem solving without a central, or in this case world, government. Internationally, governance signifies the variety of coordinating mechanisms that different actors, including but not limited to states, engage in across borders to try to address problems of common concern. Biermann and Pattberg suggest that the concept of governance “stems from national debates, where it is often used for new forms of regulation that differ from traditional hierarchical state activity” (Biermann & Pattberg, 2008, p. 278).

Other important surveys have already been written on related topics, notably Ronald Mitchell’s piece in the 2002 Handbook of International Relations, Frank Biermann and Philip Pattberg’s piece on global environmental governance, which appeared in the 2008 Annual Review of Environment and Resources, and Pattberg and Oscar Widerberg’s 2015 piece in Millennium (Biermann & Pattberg, 2008; Mitchell, 2002b; Pattberg & Widerberg, 2015). While less of an international relations specific overview, James Gustave Speth and Peter Haas’s 2006 book Global Environmental Governance provides a compelling narrative of the history of the practice of international environmental policy (Speth & Haas, 2006; see also Chasek & Wagner, 2012; Hale, Held, & Young, 2013). Similarly, Elizabeth DeSombre’s Global Environmental Institutions, Ronald Mitchell’s International Politics and the Environment, and Andresen, Boasson, and Hønneland’s International Environmental Agreements serve as compact introductory overviews of major issues in the field (Andresen, Boasson, & Hønneland, 2012; DeSombre, 2006; Mitchell, 2010).

This survey identifies some new topics that may not have been captured by earlier efforts and reviews the following central themes:

  1. 1. International Institutions And Regime Theory

  2. 2. Ratification and Compliance

  3. 3. Regime Effectiveness and Design

  4. 4. Bureaucratic Politics and Organizational Pathologies

  5. 5. The Rise And Role Of Non-State Actors

  6. 6. From Government To Governance: Private And Hybrid Models

This article discusses each of those themes in turn, identifying important contributions to the literature and lacunae in each generation of scholarship. (These themes are similar to those covered by Mitchell (2002a, 2002b), which included: the causes of international environmental problems, agenda setting, policy formulation, policy implementation and effectiveness, and policy evolution and social learning).

The theoretical conversations that have taken place in this arena are largely between institutionalists and constructivists. The former are material rationalists and focus on the incentives of the major actors, mostly states, and their calculations of self-interest. The latter are more concerned with the roles played by non-state actors and the space for non-material sources of influence, morality, norms, and ideas.

Missing theoretically from most accounts of global environmental politics are realists. Realists, concerned about war between great powers, largely see environmental politics as unimportant. Mitchell makes several arguments about realists. First, concerns about relative gains ought to hinder environmental cooperation. However, because realists consider environmental issues to be low politics, states can afford to focus on absolute gains and cooperation in this realm (Mitchell, 2002b, p. 504). With the emergence of concern about the contribution of environmental change to conflict and other security outcomes, realists might revisit this issue space (Buhaug, Gleditsch, & Theisen, 2008; Busby, 2008b; Gleditsch, 2012; Homer-Dixon, 1999; Kahl, 2006; Salehyan, 2014).

International Institutions and Regime Theory

Early studies on emerging environmental phenomena, mostly from outside political science, sought to demonstrate the gravity of the problem. Garrett Hardin (1968) suggested how the absence of private property rights could lead to overconsumption of common pool resources. That same year, Paul Ehrlich warned the world of impending famines as a result of overpopulation outstripping the earth’s food supply. In 1972, the Club of Rome issued their Malthusian manifesto about the prospects for running out of natural resources and over-taxing the earth’s life-restoring functions (Meadows, Meadows, Randers, & Behrens, 1972).

As policy makers started paying attention to the global consequences of environmental phenomena, political science began to reflect that changing reality. At the same time, scholars sought to challenge the emerging dominance of neo-realism in international relations, which, given its focus on the security dilemma and international anarchy, seemed quite pessimistic about the possibilities for international cooperation. In the late 1970s, Joseph Nye and Robert Keohane wrote about the complexities of increased interdependence that created mutual vulnerabilities to transborder phenomena, including environmental harms (Keohane & Nye, 1977). While these vulnerabilities created manifest needs for international coordination, realism seemed to imply that survival-seeking states in a world with no overarching international government could not afford to cooperate with their peers.

Using the same assumptions of realism, neo-liberal institutionalists demonstrated that the prospects for cooperation, including for environmental protection, were more promising. They broadened the discussion beyond international organizations to focus on international regimes where patterned decision-making affects policy outcomes in certain issue areas. Interestingly, a realist, Stephen Krasner, is one of the most cited scholars on regimes, defining them as “principles, norms, rules, and decision-making procedures around which actor expectations converge in a given issue-area” (Krasner, 1983).

What Purposes Do Regimes Serve?

Among early works in this genre on international cooperation, Robert Axelrod used computer simulations to suggest that cooperation in repeated play interactions might be stable through reciprocal reward and punishment strategies (Axelrod, 1984). Robert Keohane elaborated the specific role that international institutions could play in eliciting cooperation by lowering the transactions costs of cooperation, gathering information, and monitoring behavior to detect and deter defection (Keohane, 1982). Using metaphors from elementary game theory, Kenneth Oye took these ideas further, suggesting that players who heavily discounted the future might be harder to cooperate with over the long-term. Moreover, echoing the earlier work of economist Mancur Olson, Kenneth Oye noted that large numbers of players could be an impediment to cooperation because coordinating the behavior of many actors was difficult given their diversity of preferences. Among the ways that actors can deal with such collective action problems are by lengthening the shadow of the future and limiting the number of players, with efforts to recruit a core group of committed actors with more uniform preferences (Oye, 1986; for a similar discussion, see Busby, 2006; Downs, Rocke, & Barsoom, 1996).

The literature on international regimes also reflected the rift between neo-liberal institutionalists/rationalists and constructivists (for a good reader on debates between rationalist and constructivists on regimes, see Kratochwil & Mansfield, 1994). Constructivists have focused on the ways that regimes potentially have a deeper constitutive effect on actor identities. As bestowers of authority, regimes function to delimit the appropriate rules and norms, conditioning actors to obey. At the same time, regimes may facilitate social learning, shaping actors understanding of the problem, potential solutions, and their preferences. In this view, the Long Range Transboundary Air Pollution (LRTAP) regime, for example, may well have facilitated a broader understanding of the relationships between air pollution and human health (Young & Levy, 1999).

Why Do Regimes Form?

In addition to basic questions about the functions regimes serve and whether regimes matter is the recognition that not all environmental problems get equal attention. Why do regimes for some issues form while others get ignored? Ronald Mitchell argues that “Highly visible, immediate, and dramatic environmental damage that actors in powerful states care about tend to receive international attention” (Mitchell, 2003, p. 45). Oran Young evaluated both power-based (realist) and utilitarian or interest-based (neo-liberal) reasons for why environmental regimes get started in the first place. To this list, he later added knowledge-based reasons for the rise of regimes (reflecting the emergence of the constructivist research paradigm as well as contextual factors, which gets at the role of individuals and more idiosyncratic developments like crises) (Young & Osherenko, 1993).

A strain of realist research in international relations focused on the importance of hegemonic leadership in regime formation. Young noted that, in the environmental space, many regimes have not needed a hegemonic leader to get started. No superpowers were present in the Mediterranean Basin pollution control regime. Other regimes were formed because of the role of non-state coordinating bodies, like the role of the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) in the emergence of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) and UNEP’s important role in the ozone depletion regime.

Young also critiqued simple utilitarian bargaining models that presume a seamless ability of states to recognize joint gains from cooperation. Even where states are able to reach agreement, unanimity rules, integrative bargaining, and uncertainty ultimately complicate the political process of negotiations. He noted the importance of focal points such as across the board emissions cuts of CFCs in facilitating agreement. In his view, other factors may also generate a demand for regimes. Crises and shock events, like Chernobyl or the discovery of the ozone hole, have also been helpful in moving regime formation processes along. He also notes that agency is important. These structural dynamics obscure the important role played by individual policy entrepreneurs. For example, UNEP’s Mustava Tolba is frequently credited for shepherding the ozone negotiations to a successful conclusion (Mitchell, 2003; Tolba & Rummel-Bulska, 1998; Young, 1989; on the specific role of leadership in regime formation, see Young, 1991).

Ratification and Compliance

Despite the success in creating different international mechanisms to deal with environmental problems, there has been wide variation in the degree of political acceptance of those commitments. In some cases, important states have simply failed to ratify international treaty commitments (such as the United States and the Kyoto Protocol). In other cases, countries part of the regime have sought to undermine it by changing the rules or supporting rival organizations, as Japan has attempted with the whaling regime (Blok, 2008). When do states join or support international regimes? Why then do states comply with the terms of international environmental agreements? Or, put differently, under what circumstances do states fail to comply with their international commitments? Because accession to international environmental agreements and compliance are linked, they are discussed together.

Many scholars begin with the assumption that states take on international commitments when it is in their interest. However, states often have mixed motives with respect to international cooperation. On the one hand, they may benefit from the provision of collective goods, but they also wish to avoid the costs of participation. If all countries cooperate, they may be better off, but states may still face individual incentives to defect. At the moment of treaty ratification, how states calculate their interest depends on what goes in to their utility functions. While the immediate costs of implementation may be the most salient, a state’s interest will also be affected by its own environmental vulnerability and its current economic fortunes. Costlier commitments will be harder to make, particularly in tight economic circumstances, but states vulnerable to the environmental harm will be more likely to champion action.

Sprinz and Vaahtoranta suggest that combination of costs and vulnerability yields four possible ideal types of state behavior: states with high vulnerability and low costs will be leaders or pushers; states facing high costs and low vulnerability will be laggards or draggers; those facing low costs and vulnerability will be bystanders; and those facing high costs and vulnerability will be intermediates (Sprinz & Vaahtoranta, 1994; for a similar formulation of leaders and laggards based on domestic pressure, existing high environmental standards, and vulnerability, see Haas, Keohane, & Levy, 1993, pp. 16–17).

While these two dimensions provide a parsimonious explanation of state decision making, other issues will likely inform a state’s choices, including whether any concerns other than the specific costs of implementation are considered (such as their reputation for being a good international partner); whether ideational or principled attachments have any weight in their decision; whether other states, international organizations, or even non-state actors subsequently have an independent compliance pull based on enforcement capacity; and, finally, the importance with which the future weighs on their decisions.

Leaving aside the issue of ratification for the moment, the broader literature on compliance from the discipline of international law begins with the observation that states for the most part observe their international legal commitments. Noncompliance in this view is a management problem rather than an enforcement problem. Noncompliance is often a product of involuntary defection; states are unable to comply because of ambiguity in the initial treaty language, incapacity, lack of funding, or other factors outside of their control (Chayes & Chayes, 1995; Weiss & Jacobson, 1998).

Rational choice scholars problematized this perspective. Downs, Rocke and Barsoom argue that most agreements merely ask states for small incremental changes that at best represent “modest departures from what they would have done in the absence of an agreement” (Downs et al., 1996; Goldsmith & Posner, 2005; von Stein, 2005, p. 612). Given that future international environmental agreements will demand deeper policy change, more robust enforcement mechanisms will likely be needed. Where deep cooperation has been tried, as in ocean pollution and overfishing of the Mediterranean, they cite the absence of punishment mechanisms for noncompliance as the main reason for failure. Regimes that had punishment mechanisms, such as the 1995 effort to address fishing rights in the North Atlantic, were far more successful because violators of the agreement were ultimately subject to stiff fines (Downs et al., 1996). The absence of adequate enforcement measures is ultimately Barrett’s main critique of the Kyoto Protocol (Barrett, 2003, chap. 15).

This argument taps into a broader discussion of whether treaties self-select and screen in states for which treaty compliance is likely, or whether treaties have any independent compliance pull of their own that changes state behavior. Here, the argument is largely within the rationalist fold, between scholars such as Jana von Stein on the screening side and Beth Simmons, who suggests international agreements have more significance than merely codifying what states were prepared to do anyway. In von Stein’s view, treaty negotiations and international institutions at best serve to coordinate collective expectations (Downs et al., 1996, p. 380; Goldsmith & Posner, 2003; Goldsmith & Posner, 2005; von Stein, 2005, p. 612, 2008). International institutions possess no ability to encourage countries to comply because of weak or non-existent enforcement mechanisms. States will ratify treaties that specify policies they intend to enact anyway. Indeed, von Stein suggests preliminary evidence supports the view that countries were more likely to ratify the Kyoto Protocol when they were already “de facto relatively compliant” (von Stein, 2008, p. 263). Barrett notes evidence to suggest that several environmental treaties (such as the Helsinki and Oslo Protocols on acid rain and the Sofia Protocol on nitrogen oxides) had little independent effect on emissions and codified state behavior (Barrett, 2003, pp. 10–13, 230). Scholars like von Stein might also note that deeper commitments in treaties constitute “cheap talk” that nations have no intention of abiding by and cannot be compelled to implement (Farrell & Rabin, 1996; Morrow, 1994).

This view probably understates the importance of international agreements. Treaty negotiation is a costly commitment device that states take seriously (Simmons & Hopkins, 2005). For states that go to the trouble of negotiating and ratifying a legally binding treaty, states risk reputational losses by being unreliable (Simmons, 1998, 2000; Simmons & Hopkins, 2005). For rationalists who believe in the compliance pull of international agreements, reputations have material roots. States can gain most from cooperative endeavors when they enter into long-run relationships under-girded by a sense of diffuse reciprocity, that cooperation now will be rewarded by cooperation in the long run. The costs of a bad reputation for a country should be a lost stream of benefits from missed opportunities or, at the very least, their partners will demand conditions before entering into agreements with unreliable collaborators (Guzman, 2005, 2002; Keohane, 1986; Tomz, 2007). Thus, the decision by some countries to ratify Kyoto despite facing significant implementation costs could be an attempt to avoid the reputational damage of breaking their commitment. Reputational costs could come from their international partners or from domestic audiences who punish politicians for not keeping promises (on audience costs, see Fearon, 1997; Tomz, 2007).

However, most scholars of reputation suggest that these costs are likely to be modest and perhaps not sufficient on their own to alter state behavior (Guzman, 2002, 2005). Moreover, since punishment is potentially costly to the punisher, there are collective action problems that make it a less potent mechanism to induce behavior change. Furthermore, states have a variety of kinds of reputation, a reputation for compliance only one of them and perhaps not the most important one (Downs & Jones, 2002).

Where neo-liberal scholars have debated the importance of reputation in eliciting state commitment and compliance to international agreements, constructivists emphasize prestige and other less clearly material motives for state accession to international agreements. Some scholars believe leaders have innate desires for prestige. In this view, the motivations are ultimately psychological, that humans are hard-wired to seek status (Larson & Shevchenko, 2010; Lebow, 2009; Markey, 2000). However, the prestige mechanism can also work through the domestic benefits leaders receive from good international press. Such positive media attention can enhance a leader’s stature and enable them to achieve more, internationally and domestically, even enhancing their re-election prospects or their legacy in history. Whatever its source, the prestige motive can help us understand what Marc Levy, in his discussion of European efforts to address acid rain, called “tote-board diplomacy,” where politicians engage in competitive promise-making (Levy, 1993). Harrison and Sundstrom, and Tiberghien and Schreurs, examine prestige and symbolic motives in the decisions of Canada and Japan to ratify the Kyoto Protocol (Harrison & Sundstrom, 2007; Tiberghien & Schreurs, 2007). Despite facing high costs of implementation, Japan ratified the Kyoto Protocol. Because the treaty had been negotiated on its home soil, the decision had added meaning (Busby, 2004, 2010b). In both cases, the limited implementation by Canada and Japan of their climate commitments raises legitimate questions about whether or not treaty accession is merely an instance of “cheap talk,” that leaders can reap temporary status gains by making a commitment but face little downside of not complying with them (Busby, 2008a). This is particularly salient since Canada ultimately withdrew from the Kyoto Protocol in 2011.

Self-interest narrowly conceived, the compliance pull of an international reputation, or the broader prestige and symbolic concerns all potentially factor in state decisions to ratify international agreements. In addition, the domestic institutional and political context can also loom large in whether or not a state ultimately supports an international agreement (Keohane & Milner, 1996). As Putnam’s work on two-level games argues, national governments in international negotiations simultaneously must bargain with other states about the terms of the agreement and convince domestic players that that agreement is worthwhile (Putnam, 1988). In some systems, those institutional barriers for domestic agreement are onerous. In examining ratification of the Kyoto Protocol, Harrison and Sundstrom focus on the importance of treaty ratification rules in different states (the high bar of two thirds support of the United States Senate is frequently cited as an impediment to U.S. accession). The relative enthusiasm for Kyoto by European governments is explained, in part, by the role played by small political parties (including the Greens) in parliamentary democracies (Harrison & Sundstrom, 2007).

Like Harrison and Sundstrom, Busby focuses on the mediating role of domestic institutions, focusing on policy gatekeepers who have the power to block or delay policy change (Busby, 2008a; Busby & Ochs, 2004; see also DeSombre, 2006, pp. 166–167; Jacobson, 2002). Raustiala, in explaining the biodiversity regime, focuses less on treaty accession and the ways in which the actual agreement may be shaped by powerful actors to fit with countries’ domestic regulatory orders (Raustiala, 1997). Other observers focus less on the institutional differences between states and more on the patterns of political influence by sub-national actors, including firms and environmental organizations. Thus, the robust response of the United States in the early 1980s against whaling is seen as a victory by domestic environmentalists in rallying powerful allies (Skodvin & Andresen, 2003), while the failure of the United States to ratify the Kyoto Protocol is frequently seen as a result of outsized political influence by carbon-intensive firms (Gelbspan, 1997). The ability for environmentalists to externalize domestic environmental pressure is also invoked as a potent mechanism (Haas, Keohane, & Levy, 1993).

Regime Effectiveness and Design

Compliance with regime commitments may or may not translate into improved environmental outcomes, the ultimate goal of policy. This section addresses the diverse meanings of regime effectiveness and principles of regime design.

Defining Effectiveness

As Bernaeuer notes, “we are ultimately concerned more about cleaner rivers, sustainable fisheries, or lower greenhouse gas emissions and less about political popularity functions or treaty ratifications” (Bernauer, 1995). Mitchell and others emphasize the need to move beyond merely tracking accession of states to international agreements to evaluating their behavior and finally determining whether or not regimes actually contribute to improved environmental outcomes. That task is not easy, in part because of conceptual confusion. Some analysts focus on process inputs or compliance, with little regard to the ultimate environmental impact.

Mitchell suggests that, to evaluate the effectiveness of a regime, we need a reference point of comparison; two standard reference points include relative improvement and goal achievement (Mitchell, 2003, p. 49). However, the ability for us to evaluate the comparative effectiveness of different regimes, Mitchell argues, is made difficult by the fact that different environmental initiatives are supposed to yield widely incommensurate outcomes, reduced pollution in some cases, enhanced species protection in others. The inability to speak in terms of a common metric of success across regimes makes comparison problematic (Mitchell, 2002a).

The problem goes further, as regimes may simply ratify what states were prepared to do independently and thus have little independent effect. Evaluating regime effectiveness thus requires exploration of the counterfactual: what would have happened in its absence? Even if states do not fully live up to their commitments, the aspirational quality of the commitments may inspire significantly changed behavior. That behavioral change—“good faith non-compliance,”—may or may not constitute a success, even if the action falls short of the announced target. For example, Hungary’s unlikely 10% reduction in sulfur emissions under the LRTAP was perhaps as or more important than the 30% mandated reduction other partners were able to deliver (Mitchell, 2002b, p. 508). Even if states fail to live up to their commitments, institutions may not be to blame. Pollution from a non-regulated tributary river, for example may neutralize the positive effects wrought by the institution (Bernauer, 1995). The problem goes deeper. States may live up to their commitment, but those actions may not contribute to improved environmental outcomes if the solution is a poor fit, given the scientific nature of the problem (Mitchell, 2002b, 2010; Young & Levy, 1999). Indeed, regimes may have unintended consequences, some of which may contribute indirectly to attainment of a regime’s goals and others may undermine them (Underdal, 2002).

Against this backdrop of regime effectiveness are other criteria like equity and efficiency. As Bernaeur notes, the field’s incoherence about what effectiveness criteria are most important to track and the sheer complexity of evaluating all of them have undermined research contributions (Bernauer, 1995). Comparative, quantitative analysis of regime effectiveness remains in its early stages.

This discussion of what constitutes regime effectiveness is a prelude to explaining why some regimes are more effective than others. Different authors have sought to explain the determinants of effectiveness. Underdal, for example, focuses on two dimensions: problem structure and regime capacity (Underdal, 2002). Mitchell, drawing from Weiss and Jacobson, focuses on four structural aspects: issue area, the international setting, the targeted actor, and the regime (Mitchell, 2002b). Haas, Keohane, and Levy focus on the three C’s: the degree of environmental concern, a hospitable contractual environment (i.e., the ability for states to make and keep agreements with minimal fear of cheating), and the political and administrative capacity of states to implement the rules (Haas et al., 1993, pp. 19–20). There is some overlap in these approaches. The focus here is on the nature of the problem and regime structure.

Nature of the Problem

Analysts have given this dimension different names, such as the nature of the problem, the issue area, and problem/situation structure. Underdal (2002) distinguishes between benign and malign problems, suggesting that some problems are simply more difficult to resolve (malign), thus making regime effectiveness inherently problematic. What determines the degree of malignancy of a problem, in Underdal’s view, is the degree of incongruity between actors’ interests, the explanation of which is ultimately complex and opaque.

Perhaps more useful are efforts to describe why some problems are harder to address, given the situation structure. Here, analysts often draw from game theory to suggest different game forms as metaphors for international politics. Where actors’ interests appear misaligned, scholars have invoked the game of Deadlock to show how cooperation is difficult to impossible. Where actors are drawn to cheating on each other, when both could be better off cooperating, scholars have used the metaphor of the Prisoner’s Dilemma and Stag Hunt. Cooperation can be encouraged by changing payoffs, reducing the number of actors, lengthening the shadow of the future, and linking other issues (Oye, 1986).

In the environmental realm, Mitchell and Keilbach (2001) focus on situation structure, noting the difference between symmetric and asymmetric situations. In symmetric situations, such as the tragedy of the commons or Prisoner’s Dilemma-type situations, both sides potentially contribute to the problem, are victims, and have a preference for avoiding the negative outcome. In asymmetric situations, such as upstream users of a river resource, the upstream user benefits, while the downstream user receives the negative externality. As a consequence, while the downstream user wants to limit the externality, the upstream user does not. In these situations, the ability for one side to force the other to restrain pollution may be important. Weak, downstream users, lacking coercive power over powerful upstream users, may find it necessary to compensate the upstream parties by linking side issues, as the Dutch did with respect to the French in the 1970s, in regard to Rhine River chloride contamination (Mitchell, 2010; Mitchell & Keilbach, 2001).

In addition to asymmetric incentives, asymmetric power can influence the ultimate impact of regimes. Surprisingly, the role of power and bargaining leverage in regime design has received limited attention. Powerful states can sometimes exert their will on the nature of international regimes. In the 1970s and 1980s, the United States used the threat of trade sanctions to induce some recalcitrant states to force through a ban on commercial whaling (Mitchell, 1998; Peterson, 1992; Skodvin & Andresen, 2003). DeSombre identifies a variety of international environmental sanctions efforts by the United States, many of them related to fisheries, where environmentalists and protectionists made common cause in promoting transnational environmental goals through trade sanctions (DeSombre, 1995; for a US diplomat’s perspective, see Smith, 2012). In other areas, the influence came about in the process of international negotiations. For example, the flexibility mechanisms that were incorporated into the Kyoto Protocol, like emissions trading, were all incorporated at the insistence of the United States, despite European objections (ironically, the EU would become a robust defender of emissions trading, while the United States remained outside of Kyoto) (Grubb, Vrolijk, & Brack, 1999; Oberthür & Ott, 1999).

Raustiala and Victor suggest that, in the biodiversity and plant genetic resources regime, the United States has been prepared to go forum shopping, to look for the most favorable venues to secure its interests. In the face of efforts through the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) to provide developing countries with sovereign property rights over plant resources from their territories, the United States sought to shift the debate to the World Trade Organization (WTO), which was thought more hospitable to protecting innovation through bio-prospecting (Raustiala & Victor, 2004). Forum shopping, however, has not always worked out as intended for the United States, as demonstrated by the limited, technical ruling by the WTO on the EU’s ban on genetically modified organisms (the United States had sought redress through the WTO rather than the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety, which was seen by the United States as an unfavorable venue for its interests) (Lieberman & Gray, 2008). (In 2010, in a move to support developing countries’ interests, 193 countries adopted the Nagoya Protocol to the CBD to enshrine equitable sharing of benefits from genetic resources. The United States, since it has not ratified the CBD, is also not a party to the Nagoya Protocol).

Power, as defined by the size of a country’s military or economy does not always determine influence. States that are needed to be part of the solution are able to extract bargaining leverage in international negotiations. Thus, if rainforest protection is the problem, heavily forested states like Brazil are able to exercise influence and secure better bargains because the problem cannot be resolved without them. Similarly, big emerging emitters like China and India have influence in the climate change arena by virtue of the absolute size of their greenhouse gas emissions (Busby, 2006; Mitchell, 2010).

While situation structure and the relative distribution of interests and influence are important in understanding regime design, scholars of public goods in economics like Todd Sandler have offered a more comprehensive analysis of why some problems are harder than others. He notes the traditional distinction between pure public goods (goods that are non-rival and non-excludable), for which the risks of under-provision and free-riding behavior are salient, and a variety of impure public goods, for which there are partial private incentives for provision. For pure public goods like clean air, the good, once provided, is freely available to all. Each person’s enjoyment of the good is non-rival: my enjoyment of clean air does not detract from your ability to enjoy the same good. At the same time, it is very difficult in practice to exclude people from receiving the good once provided. As a consequence, the prospect of free receipt of a good incentivizes free-riding behavior. Each actor waits for the other to provide the good, leading to collective under-provision of pure public goods. Issues like climate change and the ozone hole constitute pure public goods, but, for reasons discussed below, are subject to different collective action problems. Not all goods are pure public goods. Some goods are non-rival but excludable. Tolls and pricing can succeed in creating more private incentives for provision of these goods.

Other goods, like common pool resources, are rival but non-excludable (Sandler, 1992, 2001, 2004). Because common pool resources are characterized by scarcity, they lend themselves to severe distributional battles, giving actors that place less value either on the environment or the future more bargaining power. Barkin and Shambaugh note how developing countries had to be compensated to induce their participation in the ozone regime, as they otherwise would not have prioritized phasing out of CFCs. In addition to such compensation mechanisms, they suggest that those with market power, such as the United States or its consumers, might be able to discipline users of common pool resources, such as requiring all tankers entering its ports to have double hulls, or by refusing to buy fish caught in driftnets (Barkin & Shambaugh, 1996).

Sandler and others have identified additional characteristics that can affect problem resolution. The technology of aggregation is a third important feature and reflects the way in which individual contributions of the public good aggregate. Many issues are subject to so-called summation aggregation. Each person’s actions, say to reduce a ton of greenhouse gases from the atmosphere, are functionally equivalent. However, for some problems, the actor that develops the public good ends up providing it for the entire system once the breakthrough is made. These are best or better shot efforts. Examples include vaccine development or perhaps the next innovation in clean energy technology. Best/better shot technologies require some coordination about who will lead the effort. While some duplication of activity may be useful to spur competition, extra effort merely wastes resources. Another example is so-called weakest link goods. Here, the level of activity by the weakest member, as in airport security or pandemic outbreaks, determines the amount of public good. Other goods are only provided if a certain threshold of activity is met. For example, an environmental bureaucracy may need a certain number of staff to be able to provide a minimum of monitoring capability—too few and the government simply does not have enough capacity to offer a minimal amount of expertise. Thus, policy makers have to recognize, in designing their regimes, what kind of technology of aggregation best categorizes the nature of the problem they are facing (Sandler, 1992, 2001, 2004).

Even here, goods that have very similar attributes in terms of being non-rival, non-excludable, and with similar technologies of aggregation may differ because of other problem attributes. Sandler notes that ozone depletion and climate change are both pure public goods problems with similar summation technologies of aggregation. However, the ozone hole ultimately was much easier to resolve given much more clarity about the net cost-benefit ratio of dealing with ozone compared to climate change. Ozone-depleting technologies were, unlike hydrocarbons, much less central to the economy and controlled largely by a few producers that were already developing substitutes (Barrett, 2007, chap. 3; Sandler, 2004, chap. 10). For his part, the lead negotiator for the U.S. delegation on ozone, Richard Benedick, suggested the degree of certainty in the ozone space has been overstated (Benedick, 2001).

Regime Structure

While the nature of the problem has an important role in shaping the prospects for cooperation, the structure of the regime, including its rules for membership, monitoring, and enforcement has significant influence on effectiveness. For scholars who have a spare, utilitarian notion of state interests, the emphasis is on getting the rules and the structure of the regime to be incentive compatible. Incentive compatibility implies that a mutually beneficial cooperative outcome of pollution abatement would be self-enforcing. Given the costs and benefits facing the various players, none could do better by deviating from the cooperative outcome.

Barrett applies these insights to evaluate various international environmental initiatives. He recounts how the early 20th century agreement to control Arctic seal hunting successfully aligned the incentives of states to participate by providing recalcitrant countries like Japan with side payments. In areas with larger numbers of players, Barrett notes that success is possible (as demonstrated by the ozone regime) but more challenging. In such instances, there is often a trade-off between breadth and depth, making it harder to sustain deeper cooperation the more players involved. Thus, the Framework Convention on climate change is almost universal in its membership but has no binding commitments (Barrett, 2003, pp. 302–303).

Similarly, Oye and Maxwell note that this process of incentive compatibility is not just about aligning the incentives of states with broader collective purposes but also about those of important private actors. If politically powerful, private actors will bear most of the costs of environmental protection, there may be a need to provide them with selective benefits to buy off their opposition. A new regime has the potential to lock in benefits for existing firms by limiting competition and creating a cartel-like situation. Thus, in the ozone regime, the regulations phasing out CFCs provided companies like Dupont, which had already developed substitutes, a ready market for their new products (Oye & Maxwell, 1994). Similarly, we can see the decision under the emerging greenhouse gas emissions trading schemes to grandfather rather than auction permits to existing firms as another way to overcome private opposition for collective benefit.

A 2001 special issue of International Organization brought the principles of rational design into relief, focusing on how regimes resolve problems differently. The aim was more descriptive than policy-oriented or diagnostic. Among the dimensions focused on are distribution problems, enforcement, the number of actors and asymmetries between them, and a variety of kinds of uncertainty (about the world, about behavior, and about other actors) (Koremenos, Lipson, & Snidal, 2001, p. 773).

Others have focused on these kinds of attributes in a more diagnostic sort of way, examining the problem-solving capacity of environmental regimes. In Underal’s view, this capacity is a function of the institutional setting (the rules of the game), the distribution of power, and some metric of political skill. Like Barrett’s focus on voting rules and Koremenos et al.’s special issue emphasis on membership, Underdal underscores, in particular, the problems wrought by consensus-based negotiations in being able to resolve collective action problems (Underdal, 2002). The difficulty of getting a meaningful international climate treaty with 190 participant nations using consensus-based rules is a case in point.

Other scholars have focused on different dimensions, such as the monitoring and enforcement capacity of different regimes. Ronald Mitchell’s study on oil tanker pollution explored the differential effectiveness of two approaches to reducing discharges of oil from ships. He found that the ease of monitoring whether ships had adopted certain technological standards (namely, double hulls and segregated ballast tanks) was more effective than discharge limits within the vicinity of shore. Because the latter was almost impossible or too expensive to monitor, such rules, while potentially cheaper, were much less effective in changing ship behavior. Because states could determine from the ship’s manifest whether or not they had the appropriate equipment, states could deny port entry for ships that lacked the required technology. The more general point was that international environmental regimes have to be closely tailored to fit the nature of the problem, both in terms of robust monitoring and enforcement (Mitchell, 1994). Determining the fit between the structure of the regime and the nature of the problem is a theme also explored by Young and co-authors (Young, 2008; Young, King, & Schroeder, 2008).

Treaty-based legal regimes have come in for their share of criticism as being potentially ineffective mechanisms. Victor and Coben critique the environmental and advocacy community for their preference for quantity-based targets as the appropriate solution for addressing air pollution problems. They suggest that the “herd mentality” underpinning support for this instrument leads to inadequate experimentation and inappropriate solutions for particular problems (Victor & Coben, 2005). The support for quantity targets combines with environmental activists’ preference for treaty-based approaches. Raustiala makes the case that nonbinding pledges may permit states to make deeper, more ambitious agreements and potentially achieve more than shallow legal commitments (Raustiala, 2005, pp. 610–612).

The appropriate kind of legal commitment may be a function of its scale. While the presumption among advocates is that global solutions demand hard legal regimes, the political difficulty of inducing large numbers of players to take on deep, legally binding commitments is so onerous that experimentation may be necessary. What may be appropriate at the national level may not function internationally. Young has noted that the absence of a governing authority internationally has parallels to traditional societies where practice, custom, and stakeholder involvement rather than formal rules allowed for effective problem solving. At the same time, he cautions that the applicability of insights from communal decision making to the international arena can be stretched too far (Young, King, & Schroeder, 2008). For example, contra Ostrom’s observations, it is unclear what applicability the self-regulating capability of local communities (like the Chisasibi Cree and fishing rights in James Bay, Canada) has for the international arena in addressing problems of resource exploitation (Ostrom, 1990, 2000).

Beyond the fit and scale of regime structure, scholars have noted that regimes are increasingly embedded, nested, or clustered, or they overlap, forming broader regime complexes, where problems are dealt with by a variety of institutions in interaction (Gehring & Oberthür, 2008). The interplay between different institutions can have a great influence on the outcome of policy. Raustiala and Victor’s research on plant genetic resources suggests that the regime and rules to which the issue is ultimately subject become sources of contestation (Raustiala & Victor, 2004).

The concept of regime complexes has been extended to other areas, including but not limited to the environment (see special issues of International Organization and Global Governance, with Alter & Meunier, 2009; Orsini, Morin, & Young, 2013). Keohane and Victor argue that, unlike the ozone regime, the climate regime lacks a central hierarchical institution. The loosely coupled patchwork of organizations that works on climate is a reflection of political divisions between states over what to do about this problem. They and others counsel that advocates of more robust climate action should embrace this diversity as necessary rather than fight a losing effort to impose a top-down legal regime (Busby, 2010a; Keohane & Victor, 2011; Michonski & Levi, 2010). A number of scholars have evaluated proposals for minilateral cooperation in so-called climate clubs that provide selective benefits to their members (Eckersley, 2012; Falkner, 2016; Nordhaus, 2015). Matthew Hoffman, for his part, explores the experimentation that has emerged as the climate regime has fragmented, distinguishing between planning, networking, direct action, and oversight (Hoffmann, 2011; see also De Búrca, Keohane, & Sabel, 2014).

The climate regime will be a fertile ground for continued applications and study, particularly in light of the 2015 Paris Agreement (Busby, 2016). Paris gave rise to a new bottom-up regime of country-based climate commitments, so-called National Determined Contributions (NDCs). Alongside, there have been attempts in different forums to address pieces of the problem. The G20 has encouraged states to phase out fossil fuel subsidies. The UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon hosted a major climate summit in fall 2014, out of which a variety of actors pledged to reduce deforestation in the supply chain of production, with palm oil of particular importance. Hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs), chemicals that contribute to climate change but only stay up in the atmosphere for a short time, have been taken up in the ozone regime. This is a promising area for future research, with the interactive effects of regimes and actors in its early days.

Bureaucratic Politics and Organizational Pathologies

Recognizing that the internal dynamics of international organizations can help or hinder regime effectiveness, scholars have begun looking inside the black box of organizations, deriving insights from theories of bureaucratic politics, organizational culture, and principal-agent approaches, to examine why some particular organizations may be more effective than others. This section reviews the general findings of that literature as well as studies of the environmental performance of particular international organizations.

Organizational and Bureaucratic Politics

Even as scholars have sought to determine whether regimes and organizations are successful in delivering improved environmental outcomes, another literature has emerged to suggest why internal organizational practices, beyond regime design, may impede effectiveness. This literature has largely focused on bureaucratic pathologies and ways in which organizations depart from either their missions or the directives of their political masters (Barnett & Finnemore, 1999, 2004; Hawkins et al., 2006). Barnett and Finnemore, for example, argue that bureaucracies tend to develop rules and standard operating procedures to regulate how problems are dealt with and to ensure more efficiency and impartiality of their responses. However, these rules can become straitjackets and lead to a number of problems. Such rules, for example, can become ends rather than means, leading organizations to fetishize rules or processes, whether or not they lead to good outcomes (the ossified climate negotiations of the 2000s are indicative of this kind of problem) (Depledge, 2006). In other cases, organizations apply rules and regulations uniformly to diverse settings, whether or not they are appropriate (such has been the critique of the World Bank and IMF structural adjustment programs). Bureaucracies, they argue, in part because of their technical expertise and corporate cultures, become insulated from outside influences (again, the international financial institutions, largely populated by economists, have been seen as embodying this vice). These are but some of the pathologies to which bureaucracies are susceptible (Barnett & Finnemore, 2004).

The next stage of research in this space is more comparative analysis of why some organizations are subject to these poor performance dynamics. As Biermann and Siebenhüner (2009, p. 5) argue, studies that apply theories of bureaucratic politics, particularly principal-agent theory, tend to “assume variation in the type, number, or interest of the principals to an international bureaucracy.” Thus, the assumption is that where you have divided principals, this gives agents some slack to play principals off against each other, giving organizations slack to pursue idiosyncratic agendas potentially at odds with public purposes. Biermann and Siebenhüner suggest that many environmental bureaucracies still vary in their influence despite having comparable resources and facing similar dynamics with their principals.

Moreover, they argue that we need to distinguish between international organizations and international bureaucracies. An international organization is more than its bureaucracy and staff. The World Bank, for example, has appointed executive directors from member states who are part of the Bank in terms of its overall organization but are not employees of the Bank bureaucracy. From this bureaucratic perspective, the degree of autonomy of different international environmental bureaucracies has been evaluated, with lower profile bureaucracies like the desertification secretariat exercising more independence to pursue a quasi-advocacy position while others, like the climate change secretariat, are much more constrained by states given the high stakes and political salience of the issue (Biermann & Siebenhüner, 2009).

Tana Johnson (2014) and Sikina Jinnah (2014) have pursued additional efforts to understand the role of international organizations. Johnson writes that international organizations often have a hand in the formation of new “progeny,” shaping the processes of accountability and monitoring to insulate these new entities from state control. She writes how the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change was an outgrowth of UNEP and the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) and how their efforts helped usher in a body with a degree of independence from states (Johnson, 2014). That said, states have, given the salience of climate change, been reluctant to cede sovereignty over policy.

For her part, Jinnah explores how actors resolve conflicts when international organizations have overlapping mandates. She sees secretariats of international organizations as seeking to manage these overlaps. For example, she writes about how the CITES secretariat sought to manage its relationship and defend its prerogatives with respect to the FAO, where both had authority and expertise on fisheries (Jinnah, 2014). This work likely has implications for how to think about regime complexes as structures and international secretariats as actors with agency.

While somewhat atheoretical, assessments of the effectiveness of individual international organizations like UNEP have emerged. Others have focused on international organizations like the IMF, the World Bank, and the WTO, organizations whose primary mission is not environmental protection. This next sub-section reviews the findings of a few prominent examples.

UNEP/World Environment Organization

From a normative perspective, UNEP has received ample attention and critique. Given impatience over UNEP’s apparent weakness in the face of continued environmental degradation, numerous scholars have evaluated proposals to replace UNEP with a World Environment Organization (WEO). While mostly atheoretical, such debates address the aspirations of the scholarly community to explain and be useful (Biermann & Bauer, 2005).

Scholars have assessed UNEP’s financial weakness as well as its relative isolation from donor power and interest by virtue of its location in Nairobi. Proponents see a proposed WEO, to be located in Geneva, New York, Washington, DC, or Paris, as providing a firmer financial base for environmental protection; more sustained interest from powerful states; more centralized information collection, authority, and clout over environmental issues internationally; and, perhaps, more efficient administration (Esty, 2007; Esty & Ivanova, 2002; Ivanova, 2007). Given that many of the most serious environmental problems are occurring in developing countries, critics fault proposals for the WEO as unlikely to be as effective as advocates hope. Najam argues that UNEP has not been as ineffective as critics charge. Given its location, UNEP has been able to engender more trust among developing countries, allowing environmental concerns to gain a foothold. If anything, the problem is not UNEP ineffectiveness but lack of capacity in developing countries and different priorities of developing countries for economic progress over environmental goals (Najam, 2003).

As Young concludes, “the virtues of expanding the role of UNEP—much less creating a UNEO or a WEO—as a means of improving coherence and efficiency—are hardly self-evident” (Young, 2008, p. 17). A similar critique is offered by Oberthür and Gehring, who write that “a WEO providing an umbrella for existing regimes without modifying existing decision making would be largely irrelevant” (Oberthür & Gehring, 2005, p. 208). While a WEO may be unlikely, some convergence towards more capabilities for UNEP may ultimately gain consensus among both supporters and critics of the WEO concept. As UNEP is currently only a program in the UN system, contingent upon UN general dues and voluntary contributions from members, it lacks the functions of even “specialized agencies,” which, as autonomous bodies, have more scope to raise funds independent of the UN Secretariat in New York (Biermann, 2007, 2012; DeSombre, 2006, pp. 9–21, 167–170).

The World Bank

Dating back to the 1980s, the long-standing critique of the IMF and the World Bank has been that their structural adjustment programs have imposed on countries an orientation to export-led growth, which has come at a cost to health, education, and environmental protection. With respect to the environment in particular, the critique from Bruce Rich and others was that the Bank financed large infrastructure projects like dams (such as Sardar Sarovar, in India), mines (such as those in Carajas, Brazil), resettlement (Polonoroeste, Brazil), and coal-burning power stations that had a large environmental footprint (Rich, 1994). The Bank and other international organizations have sought to address such critics by ramping up their environmental portfolios (and diminishing their ecological footprint), with mixed success (Fox & Brown, 1998). The Global Environment Facility, which originated as a pilot project of the Bank in 1991, before becoming independent, has struggled to gain legitimacy from developing countries and has become a locus of North-South disagreements over spending priorities, the level of resources destined for poor countries, and control of those funds (Fairman, 1996). In evaluating the extent to which the Bank has incorporated environmental priorities as part of its broader spending, Hicks, Parks, Roberts, & Tierney (2008) note that aid for environmental projects by the Bank nearly doubled between the 1980s and 1990s, and that the ratio of “dirty” aid to environmental aid dropped significantly during the time period, as the Bank sought to diminish the environmental footprint of its projects. Nielson and Tierney explain the Bank’s turn to environmental protection, albeit incomplete, as a consequence of a convergence of political imperatives by the Bank’s principals (Nielson & Tierney, 2003).

Others, like Tamar Gutner, take issue with this interpretation and suggest that the changes have been more uneven, particularly when one looks at implementation rather than loan volumes (Gutner, 2005b; for their reply, see Nielson & Tierney, 2005). Gutner argues that tension between poverty reduction and environmental protection goals has made it harder for the Bank to implement more robust strategies to green its portfolio (Gutner, 2005a). Thus, despite implementing an Extractive Industries Review in the early 2000s, the Bank has not supported environmentalists’ aim (or even the final recommendations of the report) of curtailing all support for oil, gas, and mining sectors. The Bank, worried about the loss of influence in middle-income countries, initially retained a lending portfolio supporting coal-burning power plants, for example. In 2013, however, the Bank changed its policies to limit lending for coal to “rare circumstances.” Still, the Bank under President Jim Kim has struggled to find a new role in addressing transnational threats and global public goods problems such as climate change (Birdsall & MacDonald, 2013). While the Bank has supported readiness schemes to support the agenda for forest conservation through Reduced Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation (so called REDD+), the Green Climate Fund, a new climate finance instrument, established in 2010, was created as an independent entity.

World Trade Organization

Other organizations, like the WTO, have also been subject to critique by activists and analysis by scholars. The critique of the WTO (and its predecessor regime the General Agreements on Tariffs and Trade [GATT]) was vividly embodied by the 1999 Seattle protests. Activists, a number of them dressed as turtles, decried that the vigorous extension of orthodox free trade rules was being perpetuated at a cost to the environment. More specifically, critics cited several key cases as evidence: (a) the 1991 ruling under the GATT that the U.S. ban of tuna exports from Mexico, because of inadequate protection of dolphins, was illegal; (b) a 1996 WTO ruling that the application of the Clean Air Act by the United States unfairly protected U.S. markets against fuel imports from Brazil and Venezuela’s refineries; and (c) the 1998 WTO ruling which overturned the U.S. ban on shrimp imports from countries that did not use turtle excluder devices (Williams, 2001).

In response, scholars have evaluated whether the WTO has in fact unambiguously pushed rules that undermined environmental protection. As DeSombre and Barkin note, WTO rulings have actually provided more scope for environmental protection than critics give them credit for. For example, in the shrimp/turtle case, the appellate body to the WTO arbitration panel ruled in 2001 that the United States could impose trade rules protecting turtles so long as the standards imposed were equitable to both U.S. and Mexican producers (DeSombre & Barkin, 2002). (The WTO ruling suggested that the so-called regulations governing process and production methods [PPMs] do not violate WTO rules if the country had made a good-faith effort to reach a multilateral agreement, had not imposed the restrictions in an unfair, arbitrary, or discriminatory manner. In the shrimp-turtle case, the United States had not met those requirements [Neumayer, 2004, p. 2].) Despite this recognition that the WTO is not unequivocally opposed to environmental protection, scholars view the WTO as biased toward keeping its focus narrow, to avoid dealing with environmental issues where possible, despite the inevitable crossover between trade and environmental concerns (Neumayer, 2004; Thomas, 2004).

The Rise and Role of Non-State Actors

Globalization and growing interdependence have challenged the state-centric approach to global environmental protection. The mutual vulnerability of states to environmental degradation diminishes the capacity of states to resolve environmental problems on their own. While this has given rise to a variety of efforts to institutionalize environmental regimes to deal with these problems, non-state actors have increasingly sought to exercise influence by injecting their concerns into the policy agenda (Biermann & Dingwerth, 2004).

The end of the Cold War led to some tantalizing portents of transformative change in the international system, a move from concerns about interstate war and nuclear annihilation to other issues, including environmental protection. The 1992 Earth Summit embodied these aspirations. At the same time, observers began to tout the rise of new actors, namely advocacy groups like Greenpeace, the World Wide Fund for Nature, and others that seemingly had the power to shift and shape the priorities of governments. Policy writings expressed such optimistic hopes, notably Jessica Mathews 1997 piece, “Power Shift.” In her piece, Mathews wrote that information technologies were disrupting hierarchies, “lowering the costs of communication, consultation, and coordination,” such that decentralized networks were favored, giving non-state actors and NGO groups the ability to exercise more influence, even if their power would not eclipse those of states (Mathews, 1997).

In the academic community, Mathews’ piece was echoed by Paul Wapner. Like Mathews, Wapner foresaw a transformative role for environmental groups in expanding the political sphere beyond the state: “activist organizations are not simply transnational pressure groups, but rather are political actors in their own right” (Wapner, 1996, p. 312). By disseminating an “ecological sensibility,” environmental groups “sway people” and act as a sort of governance by defining the “boundaries of good conduct” that in turn affects the behavior of individuals, voluntary associations, businesses, and governments (Wapner, 1995, 1996, p. 336).

Margaret Keck and Kathryn Sikkink’s 1998 book Activists Beyond Borders picked up these themes. Though the Internet was only nascent, transnational groups were already taking advantage of the lower costs of transport and communications to foster transnational networks of uncommon influence in a variety of policy arenas. Keck and Sikkink focused mostly on human rights and the environment, which included a comparative analysis of campaigns against tropical deforestation in Brazil and Malaysia. Keck and Sikkink’s work focused primarily on advocacy movements in developing countries and how, when faced with local state intransigence to their demands for protection of human rights or environmental enforcement, these campaigns might enlist the support of global partners to pressure their home governments. These outside-in processes were aptly titled the boomerang model and the spiral model (Keck & Sikkink, 1998; Risse, Ropp, & Sikkink, 1999). Seizing on a variety of mechanisms (information, symbols, leverage, and accountability), NGOs sought to exert influence on state behavior (Keck & Sikkink, 1998). This subsection examines several mechanisms of influence of NGOs and other non-state actors, focusing on information and framing with a final discussion assessing coercion and the relative influence of non-state actors and advocacy campaigns in particular.


The informational focus has been illuminated by a number of authors. Peter Haas, in his 1989 work on environmental protection in the Mediterranean, emphasized the role of so-called epistemic communities, technical experts whose specific subject knowledge gives them influence in shaping the agenda (Haas, 1989, 1992). Edward Parson’s research on the ozone hole plays with this formulation. In this case, it was not the increase in scientific knowledge that allowed scientists to influence policy. Rather, he argues that scientific evidence provided a focal point only when it was presented in an authoritative manner in landmark studies. This, in turn, narrowed the bargaining space of acceptable outcomes and facilitated the education of participants as to the possibilities for alternatives to then-current technologies (Parson, 1993, 2003). Karen Litfin, among others, expanded this line of research by focusing more on the symbolic politics and the dynamics of discourse and argumentation that allowed scientific information on the threat of the ozone hole to be translated by policy makers, activists, and scientists into political power. She argued that scientific knowledge is not cleanly transformed into political power but entails contested discursive claims over meaning. The success of the ozone regime was as much, if not more, a product of the victory of a particular discourse over others, namely that of a precautionary approach to environmental harm (Litfin, 1994, 1995). (The precautionary principle is the idea that the world should take action before environmental consequences become too severe).

As Litfin noted, the effort to frame ozone depletion in precautionary terms was meant to have broader applicability to other problems, namely climate change. Despite winning the Nobel Peace Prize, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has not been able to exercise a comparable degree of success in the political arena, at least in the United States. This observation raises broader questions about the scope and generalizability of epistemic arguments, both those by Haas and Parson and more sweeping arguments like Litfin’s. Under what conditions can scientists exercise influence on environmental problems? Why did the precautionary approach to climate change fail to resonate in countries like the United States? Is the differential success of scientists in the ozone arena compared to climate change a function of differences in the degree of scientific certainty or the nature of the problem themselves? Mitchell, Clark, and Cash emphasize the relations between the scientific information and the audience and suggest that scientific influence is contingent upon the information being salient, credible, and legitimate (Mitchell, Clark, & Cash, 2006). However, this discussion begs the question of how scientific findings can be regarded as credible or authoritative by some audiences and not others (the IPCC reports enjoy broad global legitimacy, but are vigorously contested by some audiences, namely Republicans in the United States) (for a discussion of similar issues, see Lidskog & Sundqvist, 2014).


Academic interest in the rhetorical and discursive dimensions of advocacy or framing has expanded dramatically. Much of this work has been written about human rights issues, but some has focused on environmental issues. For example, Michelle Betsill tracked the rhetorical changes in argumentation by campaigners in the climate arena, suggesting that climate campaigners shifted tactics over time to stress solutions-oriented efficiency arguments as their initial climate crisis frame seemed to run out of steam (Betsill, 2000). (Another account of non-state actor influence on the climate arena is provided by Newell, 2000.) Joshua Busby examined similar terrain suggesting that the climate crisis frame has retained more dominance among environmental campaigners and was tied to solutions that were politically unpalatable to influential interest groups that were able to exercise effective veto power in countries like the United States (Busby, 2004, 2008a; Busby & Ochs, 2004).

Jennifer Hadden provides updated analysis of NGO advocacy in the climate arena in the 2000s and 2010s, focusing on network structure. As the climate movement has matured, the landscape of NGO organizations has become more complex, with the entry of new actors from other spheres such as international development, and many with a more radical critique of climate policy based on concerns about global justice. As a consequence, the movement in the lead up to the 2009 Copenhagen climate negotiations became more divided with few brokers between rival networks, one moderate and technocratic, and the other more radical, focused on climate justice (Hadden, 2015).

Coercion and Influence

Authors have explored the limits and nature of NGO influence. Keck and Sikkink suggested that NGO influence is greatest at the beginning of the policy process, at the agenda-setting stage, with their influence the weakest when it comes to implementation and enforcement (Keck & Sikkink, 1998). Nevertheless, as Betsill and Corell wrote, the field has failed to specify carefully what constitutes NGO influence and what kinds of evidence would demonstrate that NGOs affected outcomes. As they note, there are ample signs of NGO activity, but documenting and demonstrating that their actions changed what would have happened in the absence of their activity is a taller order. Focused narrowly on international environmental negotiations, Betsill and Corell, like the epistemic community discussion, focus on information transmission as the primary area of influence of NGOs (Corell & Betsill, 2001). While this work has advanced a methodology for tracing NGO influence, it begs the larger question that has bedeviled the literature on epistemic communities and advocacy movements: Under what conditions is advocacy successful? As Richard Price notes, the next generation of this kind of research needs to answer: “why do some campaigns succeed in some places but fail in others?” (Price, 2003, p. 586).

Some work has explored this question by looking at other mechanisms of influence beyond information and framing, namely shaming, direct enforcement, and efforts to transform markets. Shaming involves attempts accountable for failing to live up to their commitments. Murdie and Urpelainen suggest that environmental NGOs in their shaming attempts target countries that lack robust possibilities for domestic advocacy or national enforcement (Murdie & Urpelainen, 2014). While there is a literature on shaming effectiveness in the human rights arena, whether shaming works to address bad environmental behavior is understudied, though there have been attempts to examine whether social movement actions affect stock price returns (King & Soule, 2007).

Eilstrup-Sangiovanni and Bondaroff discuss a different strategy of protest, where non-state actors like the Sea Shepherd Society have begun to take enforcement into their own hands by disrupting the whaling and fishing practices of environmental malefactors. They suggest this strategic market-based civil disobedience is more likely to be successful when activists target clear law-breaking behavior rather than environmental action that is merely normatively undesirable.

Finally, some scholars have explored the conditions under which social movements are able to transform markets, through a mix of strategies including protest and direct involvement in organizing the market. Kapstein and Busby make a structural argument for when such attempts are likely to be successful. Comparing the AIDS and climate arenas, they argue that climate activists face higher barriers namely because the fragmented markets pose more barriers to collective action (Kapstein & Busby, 2016). This emphasis on markets has been picked up in other studies that focus on so-called private governance.

From Government to Governance: Private and Hybrid Models

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, environmentalists periodically demonstrated their capability to use consumer boycotts to damage corporate reputations and shame them in to changing their behavior. Exxon was affected by a loss of sales in the wake of the Exxon Valdez spill in 1989. In the 1990s, Home Depot found itself the target of forest conservation campaigns. In 1995, Shell was twice the intended target of such campaigns, first when it sought to dispose of an offshore oil rig in the North Sea by dismantling it in situ, and a second time when it was implicated in Nigeria’s efforts to repress dissident environmental activists in the Niger Delta. These and other consumer efforts led Wapner to suggest that emergent environmental sensibilities among civil society had the capacity to inspire transformational change (Wapner, 1996, p. 312).

Since those early efforts by advocates to use market pressure to shame corporations (and subsequent scholarly efforts to describe such tactics), these processes have evolved from a pure adversarial boycott model of civil society-corporate interaction. Non-governmental actors, in concert with corporations, governments, and international organizations have established new standard-setting bodies to guide and regulate behavior. Scholars have begun to document the rise of these new forms of private governance and hybridized public-private governance as a means of promoting environmental protection (These mechanisms have parallels with Ostrom’s examples of common pool resource management regimes, where private actors contract with a third party enforcer to monitor and enforce agreements [Ostrom, 1990].) Examples include ISO regulations, the World Commission on Dams, the Forest Stewardship Council, and the Chicago Climate Exchange.

Transnational environmental governance extends beyond NGO-private sector collaboration and public-private efforts. Provinces and sub-national units of government have begun to coordinate across borders on global environmental problems. For example, a number of eastern states of the United States have collaborated on a regional initiative to address climate change. In other cases, cities in different countries have begun working together on energy efficiency, climate change, and other problems of common concern (Betsill & Bulkeley, 2004, 2006). Furthermore, sub-national units of government (like the state of California) have engaged national actors of other governments (like the United Kingdom). Andonova, Betsill, and Bulkeley created a typology of these diverse approaches, differentiating them by function (information-sharing, capacity-building and implementation, and rule setting) and by type of actor (public, hybrid, and private) (Andonova, Betsill, & Bulkeley, 2009; for a similar typology based on sources of authority [public, hybrid, private] and mode of authority [hierarchical, market, networks], see Pattberg & Stipple, 2008).

While much academic work on this topic is taxonomic and descriptive, increasingly scholars are seeking to explain what makes such regulatory models both attractive and potentially influential. This subsection discusses three issues: the emergence and function of these approaches, their legitimacy, and their effects.

Emergence and Function

Bartley analyzes the emergence of the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC), a forest certification scheme designed to ensure that corporations source wood products from sustainably managed timber sources. While partly a functional adaptation to market conditions, he describes it as a “political construction of market institutions.” This emergent organizational form, he suggests, is also a consequence of political contestation between advocates and corporations, a negotiated or compromised settlement to otherwise bruising political battles (Bartley, 2007a, p. 299). Such certification schemes may also be popular as a means of overcoming ineffective intergovernmental processes of treaty negotiation, like the 1992 Earth Summit, where a forest compact was inconclusive. Similarly, we can view the attempts by cities and regions to collaborate transnationally on climate change as a consequence of failed inter-state negotiations (Betsill & Bulkeley, 2004, 2006).

Dingwerth and Pattberg suggest that the emerging organizational form of transnational rule making appears to have specific norms, like stakeholder participation, that have led to a certain isomorphism among institutions. Actors have modeled new efforts on the way other issues have been dealt with. For example, the Marine Stewardship Council, modeled on the FSC, seeks to enlist private firms like Unilever and Walmart in enhancing the sustainability of their purchase of frozen fish (Dingwerth & Pattberg, 2009).

Elsewhere, Bartley writes of the important role played by foundations in helping create the organizational field of forest certification (Bartley, 2007b). This particular regime has been the source of much scholarship, as research has sought to understand the limits of private governance both in terms of effectively addressing environmental problems and effectively representing the views of diverse stakeholders. Pattberg suggests that the FSC has served three primary functions: (a) help facilitate a solution to a complex problem, (b) broker knowledge and norms across a variety of stakeholders, and (c) provide a continuous learning network both within the organization as well as among other stakeholders (Pattberg, 2005).

Jessica Green writes about the conditions under which private governance emerges. She distinguishes between delegated and entrepreneurial models of private governance. In areas of delegated private governance, governmental actors deliberately entrust responsibilities to a private actor, such as the wildlife regime where the International Union for the Conservation of Nature and the wildlife trade monitoring network TRAFFIC work hand in hand with the CITES secretariat. In areas where states have failed to set policy, private actors may fill a gap, as they have in forest certification with the FSC (Green, 2013).


Whether or not these new regimes are legitimate is another area of emphasis. While many of the emergent institutions have adopted a discourse of participation and structures to facilitate representation of diverse stakeholders, in practice a number of inequalities may undermine the long-run perception of these institutions. For example, Dingwerth focuses on the underrepresentation of certain continents in FSC decision making despite efforts to include more developing countries (Dingwerth, 2008). The World Commission on Dams (WCD) is also an interesting case. The WCD, initiated in 1998, sought to overcome the polarized debates between activists and dam-builders by bringing them together with governments to talk about the informal rules for future dam construction. As Dingwerth notes, the rules for stakeholder participation only partially brought in the concerns of affected populations, with some groups, like women, consistently under-represented (Dingwerth, 2005).

Cashore, for his part, writes about how “non-state market-driven” governance systems like the FSC potentially gain legitimacy in different ways. He suggests that the FSC potentially delivers pragmatic legitimacy by helping firms achieve their self-interest, moral legitimacy to the extent that environmental audiences believe the FSC and programs like it are doing the right thing, and a culturally informed cognitive legitimacy that these organizations accrue as they become taken for granted (Cashore, 2002).

The applicability of private environmental rule making in the developing world has been another critique of such new models of private governance. Clapp, in reviewing ISO 14000 standards, suggests that they may do little to draw in firms from developing countries to enact more rigorous environmental standards. (ISO 14000 standards, which emerged out of the 1992 Earth Summit, are environmental management standards that firms adopt to improve the ecological impact of their operations. As a voluntary code of conduct of corporate responsibility, such standards may ward off stiffer and less flexible governmental regulation, and firms seeking certification under ISO standards may obtain reputational benefits of being perceived as green.) In Clapp’s view, the specific worry for developing countries is that the standards were largely a product of advanced, industrialized countries and firms. Moreover, if clean technology is the main barrier in developing country implementation of enhanced environmental standards, it is unclear whether ISO 14000 will facilitate technology transfer (Clapp, 1998).


Until inter-governmental initiatives become easier to enact, or models of private governance prove wanting, such hybrid models are likely to proliferate. Because so many of these private initiatives are new, it is too soon to evaluate their ultimate environmental impact. Cashore, Auld, and Newsom explore early variation in support for FSC certification in different national contexts based on the structural characteristics of countries in the global economy, its forestry sector, and the history of forest policy in the country (Cashore, Auld, & Newsom, 2004). Potoski and Prakash, in their assessment of ISO standards implemented by U.S. firms, conclude that the reputational benefits have induced firms to make costly commitments to clean up their operations (Potoski & Prakash, 2005).

Dingwerth and Pattberg provide a typology of the kinds of effects that different voluntary private regimes aim to have, including discursive, normative, regulatory, and material effects. They suggest that these effects generally fall into two classes—incentive-based and norms-based. For example, the FSC has sought primarily to alter the material incentives of wood-products firms, while the WCD impetus was primarily to develop acceptable standards for the dam arena and is thus sustained more by a logic of appropriateness. A third effort, the Global Reporting Initiative, designed to enhance the sustainability of corporations, sought to shape both what corporations should do and what they feel compelled to do to compete in the global economy.

Their preliminary analysis suggests that the material consequences of these various regimes have been modest, but that the discursive and normative effects on how actors talk about the problems and what is considered appropriate behavior have changed (Dingwerth & Pattberg, 2007). For example, Sasser and colleagus emphasize the limited impact of the FSC on American wood-products firms, which have sought to create a rival organization, due to their distrust and hostility towards environmental organizations (Sasser, Prakash, Cashore, & Auld, 2006). With respect to the WCD, with large-scale dam building largely out of favor anyway, it was initially hard to judge the independent impact of the WCD. Dam projects have subsequently come back into vogue in a number of developing countries, suggesting a limited lasting effect. Similarly, Betsill and Bulkeley find that the effort to facilitate transnational municipal cooperation on climate change has had uneven and limited effects on cities, taking root more in cities that already had high interest in the problem (Betsill & Bulkeley, 2004, 2006).

Viewed skeptically, one could see all these efforts as likely ineffectual (or insufficiently scalable) in the absence of more rigorous enforcement of standards by governments. That said, if robust international inter-governmental regimes are themselves unlikely, it is perhaps unfair to compare regimes of private and hybrid models of transnational environmental governance that exist with an imaginary world that is unlikely to come into being.

Going forward, both the research and policy agenda for critical environmental issues is likely to revolve around whether key states responsible for problems are willing and able to address their actions. The comparative turn in global environmental policy, particularly in climate policy, has begun to receive some attention. That necessarily leads to an examination of state capacity, bureaucratic politics, domestic interest groups, and the ideational traditions in different countries (Harrison & Sundstrom, 2007; see the special issue of Global Environmental Politics, with contributions by Purdon, 2015, among others).


The literature on global environmental governance is vast. A variety of taxonomies describe the emergent field of regimes, institutions, secretariats, public-private partnerships, certification bodies, funds, non-state actors, and the like. Whether these disparate efforts have improved environmental outcomes remains a subject of serious contestation.

Environmental standards on air quality and forest cover have improved in the past half-century in much of the advanced industrialized world. On the global level, the ozone regime has managed to phase down the production of damaging chemicals with such speed that recovery of the ozone layer is possible by 2050. However, other efforts have thus far failed. Scientific reports of fisheries continue to forecast dire scenarios for sharks, tuna, and many other marine species. A deadly fungus, linked to climate change, appears to be killing off frog populations around the planet. Coral reefs and polar bears appear headed for extinction.

At the same time, rising living standards, particularly in rapidly growing countries in Asia, have dramatically increased demand for fuel, wood products, wildlife products, meat, and water, putting a tremendous demand on local resources and ecosystems as well as contributing to global public bads, including but not limited to greenhouse gases. At the same time, persistent poverty and governance problems in tropical countries, particularly in Africa, have put at risk some of the most biodiverse places on the planet. While communism proved deeply damaging to the environment in the 20th century, the patterns of consumption fostered by modern capitalism in the 21st may ultimately prove antithetical to environmental protection in a world with 9 billion people. Scholars recognize that richer countries are ultimately better able and willing to protect their environments, but many of the world’s natural areas will be irrevocably altered unless economic growth can be further delinked from resource consumption in the coming decades.

Attention and concern about environmental issues has always has been episodic (Downs, 1972). Whether many of these problems are successfully dealt with (or their worst effects minimized) likely depends on mass mobilization of concerned citizens. The imprint of human activity on the planet is such that some scientists believe that we have entered a new geologic age, the Anthropocene, an age, with its plastics, that will be observable in the archeological records years from now. The Anthropocene, as Paul Wapner has written, raises fundamental questions about the separation between humanity and nature, and whether classic notions of leaving nature to be wild and untouched are realistic or tenable (Wapner, 2014). The awareness of the global reach of human influence on the natural world has led to a renewed impetus for more ambitious global environmental governance for the Anthropocene (Biermann, 2014a, 2014b).

Scholars of environmental governance have always had a strong normative bent. In a world with potentially even more intense environmental pressures, the next generation of scholarship will be challenged not only to describe the emergent responses but also to develop more complete explanations that account for why some efforts succeed and some fail. If we are lucky, some scholars may even contribute to better policy design, so that the life-sustaining functions of the planet are maintained.

International Organizations

Further Reading

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