An Unfinished Foundation: The United Nations and Global Environmental Governance

An Unfinished Foundation: The United Nations and Global Environmental Governance

An Unfinished Foundation: The United Nations and Global Environmental Governance

An Unfinished Foundation: The United Nations and Global Environmental Governance

Synopsis

Why is the United Nations not more effective on global environmental challenges? The UN Charter mandates the global organization to seek four noble aspirations: international peace and security, rule of law among nations, human rights for all people, and social progress through development. On environmental issues, however, the UN has understood its charge much more narrowly: it works for "better law between nations" and "better development within them." This approach treats peace and human rights as unrelated to the world's environmental problems, despite a large body of evidence to the contrary. In this path-breaking book, a leading scholar of global environmental governance critiques the UN's failure to use its mandates on human rights and peace as tools in its environmental work. The book traces the institutionalization and performance of the UN's "law and development" framework and the parallel silence on rights and peace. Despite some important gains, the traditional approach is failing for some of world's most pressing and contentious environmental challenges, and has lost most of the political momentum it once enjoyed. The disastrous "Rio+20" Summit laid this fact bare, as assembled governments failed to find meaningful agreement on any of the most pressing issues. By not treating the environment as a human rights issue, the UN fails to mobilize powerful tools for accountability in the face of pollution and resource degradation. And by ignoring the conflict potential around natural resources and environmental protection efforts, the UN misses opportunities to transform the destructive cycle of violence and vulnerability around resource extraction. The book traces the history of the UN's traditional approach, maps its increasingly apparent limits, and suggests needed reforms. Detailed case histories for each of the four mandate domains flag several promising initiatives, while identifying barriers to transformation. Its core implication: the UN's environmental efforts require not just a managerial reorganization but a conceptual revolution-one that brings to bear the full force of the organization's mandate. Peacebuilding, conflict sensitivity, rights-based frameworks, and accountability mechanisms can be used to enhance the UN's environmental effectiveness and legitimacy.

Excerpt

Intellectually, I came of age during heady times for global environmental politics. I finished my doctoral degree in 1992, the year of the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro. It was an era brimming with bold new concepts—global change, sustainability, earth systems, global governance—and efforts to create better environmental law between nations and more sustainable economic development within them. Readers familiar with my past research and writing will know that I have long been skeptical about the formal institutions and codified arrangements among governments that constitute the mainstream quest for global sustainability. in 1993, my graduate-school colleague Ronnie Lipschutz and I published an edited collection of essays, The State and Social Power in Global Environmental Politics, which was an early articulation of the skeptics’ position on whether a path to sustainability could be charted mainly through new international law and improved development practice.

I then spent several years working on another book, Governing Water, which pleaded for a broader view of what it means to “institutionalize” global environmental governance. That work argued that transnational processes of contentious social politics, rooted in transnational movement activism and the responses to it, had come to be a more robust source of new social practices and governing approaches to water than the more formal “stuff” of international relations (specifically, international law and expert science). That book, and much else that I have written, was informed by a few key elements: strong skepticism about formal political processes, an effort to see and hear institutional politics beyond the state, and a belief that good (if sometimes messy) things happen when marginalized actors can push their way into political processes at all levels. Metaphors about letting a hundred flowers bloom, letting the grass grow up through the cracks in the concrete, and would-be eco-emperors in various states of disrobe find their way into my teaching and public speaking on a regular basis.

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