January 21, 2019

Environmentalism in IR Theory

By Angelica Faotto

Environmental conflict is already happening and will increasingly shape international politics in ways that traditional theories of IR cannot explain. 


Whereas in the past the environment had been treated as an abstract entity characterizing the development of state-centric notions of security, as illustrated by the above quote, and environmental insecurity was still not part of the IR discourse, today its conceptualization can be reflected in Montesquieu’s remark that “the empire of climate is the first and most powerful of empires” (Price-Smith, 2009, p. 13). The mainstream ontological background of IR, whereby the human/socio-political systems are detached from and in control of the ‘non-human’ natural/biophysical systems, has been subject to a paradigm shift which has emphasized the need to understand what is happening, why it is happening and how one can react (Kavalski 2011, p.2). There are several questions at the centre of the political science inquiry into global environment, and international relations theory, with its anarchic nature and focus on the conflictual history of the international sphere, has given answers to many of these (O’Neill 2017, p.20). In fact, realism has highlighted the ways in which power is exercised in international politics, whereas constructivism has brought to light the role of norms, ideas and knowledge and how they work in the international system, other than focusing on how actors’ interests, roles and identities help in understanding the practices of global environmental governance. However, this is not enough, as a full appreciation of environmental politics calls for theoretical insights into other fields that go beyond the repertoire of inter-state cooperation and diplomacy. Moreover, by concentrating on non-traditional actors and other modes of governance, a more democratic and multifaceted scenario emerges, challenging the dominant model of environmental democracy, and nation-states as the main agents of governance (O’Neill 2017, p.11). This paper will delve into how environmental conflict is happening and it is and will indeed shape international politics in ways that traditional theories of IR cannot explain, by assessing several modes and sites of global environmental governance. This first section, will cast light on the dynamics of international relations theory and an analysis of environmental security and conflict, followed by the exploration of the role of state, non-state actors and science; concluding that the environment is urging IR to consider dynamics which give new critical insights into the opportunities and barriers posed by the “nature question” which has raised issues of protection, agency and security in unique ways, therefore broadening our field of vision to encompass international environmental politics.

“It is exciting to have a real crisis on your hands when you have spent half your political life dealing with humdrum issues like the environment” (Harris, 2009, p. 202).

International relations theory focuses on the dynamics of international conflict and cooperation. Works on international politics and environmental issues began to appear in the 1970s with the Stockholm conference coordinated by the United Nations Environment Programme and the 1980s, with treaties being signed and ratified by states (O’Neill 2017, p.8). Many theorists started focusing on international cooperation among rival states and questioning the idea that it was reflective only of state interests, other than asking themselves whether a highly conflictual political system, made up of more than 170 sovereign states, could achieve the levels of cooperation required to manage environmental issues on a global scale (Hurrell and Kingsbury 1992, p. 1). Three traditions that characterize the mainstream field gave insights into environmental cooperation. Firstly, realists and neorealists argued that states do not have incentives to work together, as they are driven by competition and the pursuit of relative power, and are therefore conditioned by a history of conflict rather than cooperation, even though the latter can be possible if maintained by a single, powerful state or hegemony such as the US in the post-World War years, which was at the centre of the global free trade regime. Henceforth, in this scenario, other types of international actors are “purely peripheral”. Secondly, liberal theorists, envision a world where cooperation is possible when states collaborate in order to realize joint gains, and institutions are established to monitor compliance, increase transparency and prevent cheating, as there is the possibility for states to free ride on international agreements still benefiting without paying any costs. Lastly, the third approach is depicted by normative and ideational elements and focuses on how states respond and how cooperation is influenced by new ideas, information, norms and shared conceptions of behaviour.  Even though many argue that the dismissal of these theories underestimates the importance of power politics in international environmental cooperation, and different perceptions of power can lead to a better understanding of the issues in question, others are more sceptical; highlighting that their focus on high politics, and their lack of attention towards cooperation, can impede the understanding of the politics of the global environment (O’Neill 2017, p.10-11).

Environmentalism in Neo-Realism

Other than cooperation, the notions of environmental security and conflict play a major role in global environmental politics. In fact, the concept that environmental degradation will lead to conflict remains central to environmental security. By emphasizing such outcomes, environmental analysts, together with IR scholars, conceptualize international political life in violent terms. As Arthur Westing argued: “global deficiencies and degradation of natural resources, both renewable and non-renewable, coupled with the uneven distribution of these raw materials, can lead to unlikely-and thus unstable-alliances, to national rivalries, and, of course, to war” (Westing 1998, p.1). Furthermore, international relations and the environment-conflict thesis have focused their attention on ‘resource wars’. Gleick has noted that “there is a long history suggesting that access to resources is a proximate cause of war” (Gleick in Arnett 1990, p.507). However, the confusion between resources and the environment is clear in his work, whereby he identifies five connections between the two, and four of them, namely resources as strategic goals, targets, tools and sources of conflict, are themes of resource-conflict research. Therefore, Gleick’s argument emphasizes the archetypal Realism that resurfaces in environmental studies and shows how it is essential to abandon the inappropriate colonization of environmental issues by the resource/strategy agenda (Barnett 2000, p.272-3). Another example is the concern of the field on the likelihood of conflict over water. According to Joyce Starr, ‘water security will soon rank with military security in the war rooms of defence ministries’. One of the greatest difficulties associated with this argument is the impossibility of identifying the many factors that contribute to warfare. However, even this argument, which presents war in Darwinian and Malthusian terms and undervalues the evidence that “water is as likely to ‘cement peace’ as it is to induce violence” (Cooley 1984, p.3), can be considered a product of strategic rationality, appealing to our militaristic culture (Barnett 2000, p.275-6). Moreover, the environment conflict literature is based on the ethnocentric assumption that there is a possibility of conflict especially given the North-South inequities, highlighting the ontological priority that is still given to conflict over cooperation, even if the fact that the oppressed and exploited in the South have not resorted to force thus far as a means to free themselves from the conditions imposed by the North, questions the assumption that they will in the future on the basis of additional environmental difficulties (Barnett 2000, p.274). Lastly, climate change represents the latest in a series of  ‘environmental drivers’ of human conflict that have been raised in the last decade. The UNEP has warned of a succession of new wars across Africa unless more action is taken to overcome the damage, and at an African Union summit in early 2007 Yoweri Museveni, the President of Uganda, labelled climate change an ‘act of aggression’ by the developed world against the developing world. Ironically, the region that is less responsible for global GHG emissions is likely to be the most touched by the “excess consumption and carefree attitude of the rich” (Brown et al 2007, p.1142-3). Again, the way in which the debate is being tackled has its opportunities and risks. The latter are related to the predictions of these wars, which imply that climate change requires military solution to secure resources by force, and a lack of attention, by focusing solely on the high politics of security, towards more immediate threats to societies such as extreme poverty, access to education, HIV/AIDS etc. Overall, all the above call for a “redefinition of security” to avoid prioritizing issues that could exacerbate vulnerabilities and northern-driven agendas which impede southern affairs (Brown et al 2007, p.1154).  

Environmentalism in Neo-Liberalism

The environmental problems touched upon in the previous section, are managed by state-led global environmental governance, which since 1972, represents the negotiation and implementation by nation states of international environmental agreements to solve environmental problems on an issue-by-issue basis, often led by the United Nations Environment Programme. State-led environmental governance is centred upon the development of new rules, norms, organizations and decision-making procedures (O’Neill 2017, p.71-2). The ensemble of these is termed “international regime”, which can also be defined as “rules of the game agreed upon by actors in the international arena (usually nation-states) and delimiting, for these actors, the range of legitimate or admissible behaviour in a specified context of activity” (Rittberger 1995, p. 7). These regimes have different functions. From an institutionalist perspective, the rules and practices reduce the transaction costs associated with international cooperation, by implementing a forum whereby states can reach consensus and agreements on common ground, whereas, from a constructivist perspective, regime creation develops shared norms of behaviour among states, other than knowledge and consensus regarding specific problems and solutions. Lastly, they represent forums to exercise and shift the balance of power, as shown by the Convention on Biological Diversity, where the definition of biological diversity as sovereign property gave southern countries the power to maintain control over their resources (O’Neill 2017, p.76-7). However, there are several factors that complicate the whole process. In fact, states have different interests and they may not always trust their partners to follow through on an agreement or may be unwilling to cooperate if rival states might do better than they do (O’Neill 2017, p.81). Furthermore, environmental problems are marked by greater uncertainty over causes and impacts, posing further limits on negotiations and agreements. As a matter of fact, according to Susskind, “in the final analysis, only agreements that are politically acceptable to national leaders will be approved” (Susskind 1994, p. 12). He also criticizes the dominant approach for its lack of imagination and innovative forms, arguing that leaders often apply the same solutions to every issue. Another weakness is the fact that negotiation processes take too long, and environmental conditions are likely to have worsened once the protocols have entered into force (O’Neill 2017, p.85). Lastly, many argue that the Third World has often been marginalized, even if there are strong counter-arguments, which focus on how the North-South dialogue has transformed governance in significant ways, especially by introducing principles of distributional equity and sustainable development. For example, the south has been successful in employing several targets and obligations, as well as aid and technology for developing countries, including the creation of the Global Environment Facility, or GEF (O’Neill 2017, p.87-8). Therefore, IR theories of negotiation and bargaining over anarchy have given significant insights on regime formation, and international environmental cooperation has highlighted the less visible dimensions of these processes.

Environmentalism in International Political Economy

Another significant strand of work is concerned with the role and impact of non-state actors in IPE, challenging the notion that nation-states are the only actors in the political sphere. Indeed, despite the voting and implementation power of states in the political scene, non-state actors now have an active voice and influence in global environmental governance regimes and are starting to build regimes of their own, with greater transparency and perceived legitimacy. Moreover, it is important to note that NGOs and other activist groups are not content with the direction of international cooperation and lack of interest in high-profile issue areas (O’Neill 2017, p.172). On the one hand, the strengths of this type of private governance are significant. In fact, these actors create a win-win situation when implementing environmental governance schemes, as firms continue to benefit economically while working to make production more sustainable (O’Neill 2017, p.182). Many NGOs now work with major corporations to improve environmental performance: the World Wildlife Fund has worked with the Coca-Cola company to assess its water use practices worldwide and another US-based NGO, has used McDonalds to pressure chicken suppliers to cut antibiotic use in poultry (O’Neill 2017, p.172). In addition, they cover significant gaps in regulatory coverage, often found between negotiation and implementation and areas like forestry, where international regimes have failed to comply with legally binding international rules. These regimes also play an important role when the capacities of the state and international regulatory authorities are low or when they are not willing to intervene in industry practices. On the other hand, participation by firms can be uneven. Firms may choose not to join these regimes, and these may well be the ones that pollute the most, and that is less vulnerable to outside pressure, such as logging companies. Moreover, participation varies by country and GDP, and firms in poorer countries may be excluded. Data on participation in ISO14001 has shown that northern firms dominate this regime. The cost of certification is one of the barriers to entry, excluding non-certified firms from entry. (O’Neill 2017, p.183-4).  In fact, “the share of certified forestland in developing countries in the world’s total certified area is only about 10 per cent” (Gulbrandsen 2004, p. 90). Furthermore, information is another area of concern, with many questions regarding “how purchasers and consumers acquire, assess, and act upon information available to them”. Perhaps one of the most serious criticisms that they have to overcome is the absence of external accountability, having no system to ensure it. A lack of transparency and reporting regarding the effectiveness of private governance regimes and how standards are decided and enforced has led to doubts on key players and whether they are advantaged, providing a disincentive to improve standards and confusion regarding the schemes, which might negatively affect the consumer pressure required for eco-labelling schemes to work (O’Neill 2017, p.184-5).

Environmentalism in IR Discourse

It is also crucial to reflect on the scientific understandings of the cause and effect relationship of global environmental issues. In fact, “it is through science that the scale of the problems, the ground for conflicts and the scope of solutions are defined” (Lidskog and Sundqvist 2002, p. 78), and that we are even more conscious of major global problems, such as climate change, the hole in the ozone layer, or the cumulative loss of biological diversity worldwide. Hence, science plays a significant role in defining issues and setting the agenda, and is characterised by advisory roles in NGOs, corporations, international organizations and national governments. As a point of fact, many MEAs have implemented scientific advisory panels which have become part of the institutions of the regime, such as the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) (O’Neill 2017, p.95-6). Therefore, it is no longer feasible for international relations theory to ignore the role of knowledge in the policy process and how the links between expert and policy communities have an impact on the regime’s legitimacy and effectiveness. However, the role of science remains disputed. On the one hand, some argue that scientific knowledge influences regimes and can override political and normative discussions and create legitimate solutions to environmental problems (Gupta 2004, p. 130). The epistemic community model, a set of “transnational networks of knowledge-based communities that are both politically empowered through their claims to exercise authoritative knowledge and motivated by shared causal and political beliefs” (Haas 1990, p. 349), corresponds to this perspective. In this case, scientists involved in significant policy positions influence their governments to accept solutions to particular transboundary problems, even though the model has been criticized for being made of an unelected group of bureaucrats and scientists that have the power to make essential global decisions, masking the normative conflicts and uncertainties of the science of environmental change. On the other hand others argue that the role of science in negotiations is minimal compared to inter-state bargaining processes.  They argue that science represents just one of the many inputs received and can be subject to political manipulation and interests (O’Neill 2017, p.98-9). One last set of perspectives, evolving from the field of Science and Technology Studies (STS), maintains that science can be seen neither as independent of politics, nor as wholly subsumed by them for three reasons: firstly, science does not move freely, rather, it is shaped by its social and political context, secondly, its value “is not given by the content of science, but is negotiated by scientists in social processes where other actors are also involved” (Lidskog and Sundqvist 2002, p. 84). Thirdly, scientific knowledge and the political order are “co-produced”: “policy influences the production and stabilization of knowledge, while the knowledge supports and justifies that policy; both gain – or lose – legitimacy or strength through this process” (Lidskog and Sundqvist 2002, p. 85). Therefore, the power of science and technology is not to be underestimated, as the legitimacy of environmental studies can be seriously challenged if it excludes crucial sources of knowledge.


Overall, the above arguments have cast light on how the development of the environment as an area of study has challenged many of the traditional assumptions of IR, bringing in new actors, rules, norms and decision-making processes, which have the capacity to transform the ways in which global governance is carried out. Now more than ever it is far more common for scholars to emphasize “global governance” rather than “international cooperation,” and to examine structures of global governance at a broader level to include different regime linkages and networks (Dingwerth and Pattberg 2006, p.187). In fact, the sole focus on state-led environmental governance obscures the full picture of the phenomena that is currently happening in the world, and for this very reason, new sites and modes of governance have emerged. In fact, non-state global environmental governance initiatives and regimes and scientific actors, as covered in the last two sections of the paper, enable this field of study to ask questions about issues of “deeper structural change and adaptation” in the international system (O’Neill 2017, p.202), providing a normative, legal and organizational framework which has the potential to unify all the different players. Even though, one of the greatest challenges for scholars and practitioners will be that of integrating all the environmental governance mechanisms in a common supportive framework in the midst of the conflicts and crises which remain and are likely to mount over the decades to come, international relations theory is still important in exposing how and how well the efforts to address environmental degradation are working. However, it must get ahead of the game with a more multi-sited approach to theoretical development if it is not to be overtaken by environmental change (O’Neill 2017, p.22).


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