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Looking Beyond the Nation-State to Confront Global Environmental Problems

By Dr. Melissa Schnyder
Adjunct Professor, International Relations at American Public University

International relations scholars and policy analysts have become increasingly concerned with global environmental problems over the last few decades. A growing focus has emerged on the potential for intra-state conflict as a result of overuse of shared natural resources, as well as conflict due to growing resource scarcity. The focus tends to be on the actions of nation-states – either alone or via international organizations – in trying to understand how institutions and regimes can present solutions to shared environmental concerns, reducing the likelihood of resource overuse and conflict. However, a growing body of research is recognizing that citizens play an important role in the governance of communal resources to address shared environmental problems.

The Kyoto Protocol, an international governance regime among states to reduce emissions, has been the central focus of analysts concerned with global climate change. The 2012 United Nations Climate Change Conference, at which the party states agreed to extend the Kyoto Protocol until 2020, has recently renewed this focus. Similarly, the Montreal Protocol, an international governance regime created to mitigate the impact of states on stratospheric ozone, is widely considered a success story by analysts. These examples highlight the important roles of states in creating and participating in global governance institutions to address shared environmental problems and emphasize how institutions can serve as the basis of cooperation among states.

At the same time, global environmental problems such as water pollution, air pollution, and the melting of Arctic sea ice have become worse over the last few decades. In spite of global institutions and regimes created by states and international organizations such as the United Nations, the international community has largely failed to stop overfishing, massive deforestation, and excessive carbon dioxide emissions. One might conclude from these counterexamples that international institutions and cooperation among states have been largely ineffective when it comes to governing the global environmental commons.

Why have international governance regimes not been more successful in addressing our shared environmental challenges? For one, scholars who study the environment have learned that ecosystems are complex and often exist in environments characterized by high levels of uncertainty. As a result, one-size-fits-all solutions that involve a single level of governance tend to fail when applied across the board. International relations scholars largely focus on top-down institutional arrangements between states, often overlooking how ordinary citizens who use a particular resource can create their own effective governance regimes from the bottom up.

For example, scholars have identified irrigation communities in the Philippines and Spain and villagers in Switzerland and Japan who rely on high mountain meadows and forests as examples of ordinary citizens who have created governance institutions to preserve – rather than overuse and destroy – a communal resource. These are successful in part because they account for the relationships among the users of the resource.

International governance regimes at the global level are important for setting common standards and creating a common legal framework to structure the actions of states, but they are not the whole story. While no single solution is likely to be effective in all cases of a particular environmental problem, regimes that take into account multiple levels of governance and actors, including the resource users themselves, do offer insight into understanding some of the factors that are likely to lead to successful environmental outcomes.

The ability to craft effective institutions and governance regimes is especially important in light of growing international concern over such problems as global climate change, air pollution, the pollution of marine habitats, unsustainable agriculture, and water quality and quantity. A globalizing world requires innovative ways to govern ecological interdependence. While some governance regimes involving nation-states have been effective, others require the involvement of the range of non-state actors to play important roles in local and transnational environmental politics.

About the Author:

Dr. Melissa Schnyder is an Adjunct Professor of International Relations at American Public University, where she teaches courses on international organizations, European politics, and international relations theory. She earned her Ph.D. in Political Science from Indiana University-Bloomington. Dr. Schnyder researches the role of non-state actors in influencing international political processes and outcomes. She has published articles on NGO cooperation and network formation, and is currently working on a research project that analyzes how

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