Climate Change and Global Environmental Governance

By Esty, Daniel C. | Global Governance, January-March 2008 | Go to article overview

Climate Change and Global Environmental Governance


Esty, Daniel C., Global Governance


Elizabeth R. DeSombre, Global Environmental Institutions (New York: Routledge, 2006).

James Gustave Speth and Peter M. Haas, Global Environmental Governance (Washington, DC: Island Press, 2006).

Pamela S. Chasek, David L. Downie, and Janet Welsh Brown, Global Environmental Politics, 4th ed. (Boulder: Westview Press, 2006).

Richard E. Saunier and Richard A. Meganck, Dictionary and Introduction to Global Environmental Governance (London: Earthscan, 2007).

Global environmental governance has emerged as a hot topic in scholarly circles. The manifest inadequacy of international policy cooperation in response to transboundary pollution problems and the need for better management of shared natural resources has led to a flurry of academic writing. Scholars in environmental studies, political science, international relations, and law are now critically analyzing the structure and effectiveness of the international environmental regime and efforts to address climate change, declining fisheries, deforestation, loss of biodiversity, the spread of toxic chemicals, and other issues. These problems have also captured attention in the public arena. Al Gore won the Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts to focus the public on the "climate crisis." His book An Inconvenient Truth and related movie have won numerous awards. Adding to this arc of interest, a number of scholarly books that seek to illuminate the institutions, legal structures, and politics that shape global-scale environmental policymaking have been released over the past several years.

The logic of collective action in the international environmental arena is clear. Absent cooperation, the spillover of pollution from one country onto its neighbors or into the shared space of the global commons, as well as the over-exploitation of shared natural resources, promise not just environmental degradation but also economic inefficiency, political instability, and diminished social welfare. Ecological interdependence, expanded economic inter-linkages, and tensions at the trade-environment interface have also made environmental cooperation an important element in the process of establishing the terms of engagement for international commerce. (1)

The world community's failure to stem the buildup of greenhouse gas emissions in the atmosphere and resulting fears that the world is suffering the effects of climate change--global warming, sea level rise, increased intensity of windstorms, changed rainfall patterns, and other problems--add urgency to the quest for a better-functioning international environmental regime. All of the books surveyed in the following paragraphs find negative trend lines with regard to environmental cooperation, with the exception of efforts to phase out chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) and other chemicals that destroy the ozone layer.

Understanding which international environmental efforts are effective--and why--thus takes on a degree of urgency among issues of global policymaking. Unfortunately, these recent books, while beginning to explore the contours of this important question, do too little to help us understand how to move forward and build a more effective international environmental regime. Nevertheless, the works reviewed provide an important starting point for this critical inquiry.

Elizabeth DeSombre's Global Environmental Institutions offers a thorough tour of the existing structure of environment-related international organizations. As part of the Global Institutions Series, edited by Thomas Weiss and Rorden Wilkinson, the book provides a useful history of the UN Environment Programme (UNEP), although some of the details of her analysis have been disputed. (2) DeSombre illuminates the governance, financing, and scientific efforts of UNEP and also reviews the Earth Summits, (3) which have helped structure the international community's thinking about environmental challenges over the past forty years. …

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