Academic journal article Global Governance

The Case against a New International Environmental Organization

Academic journal article Global Governance

The Case against a New International Environmental Organization

Article excerpt

[World Organizations] are credited with an importance they do not possess; they are blamed for not doing what they are not given the means to do; faults that are often imaginary are ascribed to them, while their real faults go unnoticed; mythical explanations are invented to explain their ineffectiveness; and finally, there is very little recognition of the few significant results that they do achieve. (1)

--Maurice Bertrand

The premise of this article is that the current debate about global environmental governance with its still dominant focus on establishing a superorganization for the environment represents a serious misdiagnosis of the issues, is unfair to the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), and is likely to distract attention from other more important challenges of global environmental governance.

This is not to suggest that there is no crisis of global environmental governance. The crisis, however, is one of governance, of which organizational structure is but one element and, in this case, a relatively small element at that. (2) By coopting the larger discussions on global environmental governance, the discourse on organizational tinkering-under whatever grandiose name such proposals are advertised--are distracting from the more important and immediate challenges of global environmental governance that we face as the Rio compact on environment and development crumbles around us. The thought that any of the competing plans for a World, or Global, Environmental Organization (WEO or GEO) that are being peddled might actually be taken seriously by the world's governments--as it sometimes seems possible--is even more disturbing. (3) Not only do they show very little promise of actually doing much good to the cause of improved global environmental governance, but some could actually do harm by distracting international attention from more pressing issues.

It is not the purpose of this article to reexamine, or critique, the details of different schemes for organizational restructuring. Critiques are available elsewhere in the larger literature. (4) Moreover, to do so would be to cede to the premise on which such proposals are based, and it is that very premise that needs to be questioned. It should be noted, however, that there is a certain variety in the proposals--ranging from Daniel C. Esty's GEO, which would focus only on global issues; (5) to Frank Biermann's WEO, which would also incorporate more local concerns; (6) to John Whalley and Ben Zissimos's desire to create a global bargaining-based entity; (7) to David L. Downie and Marc A. Levy's notion of a super-UNEP. (8) However, all such schemes share a strong supposition that the problem of global environmental governance can largely be reduced to, and resolved by, playing around with the design of global environmental organizations. It is the fundamental flaws of this premise, and the dangers of taking it too seriously, that I focus on in this article.

The Dangers of Confusing Institutions and Organizations

Although the WEO/GEO literature routinely refers to its enterprise in terms of institutions, it tends to use the term as if it were the plural of organization. (9) The distinction, of course, is not merely semantic; it is well established in the literature and is absolutely critical to this context. (10) Institutions, as Konrad von Moltke reminds us, are "social conventions or 'rules of the game,' in the sense that marriage is an institution, or property, markets, research, transparency or participation." (11) Therefore, institutions need not necessarily have a physical existence. Organizations, on the other hand, are much more circumscribed; according to Oran Young, they are "material entities, possessing physical locations (or seats), offices, personnel, equipment, and budgets." (12) The WEO/GEO discourse is clearly preoccupied with organizations and often ignores fundamental questions about why environmental degradation happens, or why global cooperation founders, or even why global environmental governance is a good idea. …

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