The environmental problems facing the world today are complex, involving political, economic, and social dimensions, and tackling these problems must involve viewpoints and interests from a variety of different actors. This has led to environmental issues becoming an increasingly fundamental element of international relations and the global political agenda. It’s clear to see how economic and social developments are effected by the level of protection placed on the environment. Furthermore, the international community have emphasised the significance of combating climate change, with the aim of protecting the environment, through documents such as the Kyoto Protocol, and more recently during the COP21 United Nations Climate Change Summit. However, international activists highlighted the damage against the environment due to human activity as early as the 1970s and 1980s.
Around the mid-19th century academics began researching the significance of natural resources in global security and political economy. It wasn’t until the 1980s or 1990s that global environmental politics began establishing a distinct field with its own dedicated journals and publishers, and the focus of study expanded to include global environmental problems such as ozone depletion, climate change, biodiversity loss, deforestation, and desertification. This form of politics was central to interdisciplinary work that combines research from a variety of areas such as geography, economics, history, law, biology, and numerous others.
International organisations such as the UN, the OECD, OSCE and other international financial institutions, global and regional fora, have been promoting and coordinating the goal of creating international co-operative groups to address global environmental challenges, on a multilateral level. The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) was established as one of the productive consequences of the 1972 Conference on the Human Environment (Stockholm Conference). The UNEP provides a basis for comprehensive consideration and coordinated action within the UN system on the problems of environment. Major international agreements and conventions involving a wide range of environmental issues have been elaborated under UNEP’s auspices.
Recent history has shown us how environmental issues can shape political ideology and practice, effecting conceptions and responsibility for future societies as well as economic systems. Environmental protection strategies are seen by certain groups as being counterproductive to the democratic priorities of prosperity, progress, and state sovereignty.
Global environmental challenges often include substantial scientific complexity and ambiguity. This has resulted in a problematic relationship between science and policy. The short political timeframes of politicians and diplomats often results in these individuals being unwilling to address the very long timeframes of both the effects of environmental problems along with implementing policies to tackle these problems.
International relations scholars often highlight the socio-political consequences of environmental degradation, such as those resulting from climate change. How is a state’s national interests affected when faced with drought or flood-induced migration of ecological refugees? Another aspect rarely highlighted is the influence power politics has on stimulating environmental degradation. A sign of power in international relations, whether “hard”, “soft” or “smart”, is usually demonstrated by the size of a country’s GDP. GDP still reflects an economy’s “ecological footprint”. The tendency of countries to seek different forms of power and prestige in geopolitics also increases the rate of environmental degradation around the world. Many developed countries have criticised environmentally progressive strategies fearing their economic competitiveness would be at risk, while big developing countries such as China excessively assert their “development space” as a reason to evade possibly growth-limiting environmental commitments. A realist viewpoint would quickly highlight this state of affairs. However, is this approach to realism realistic on a shared, vulnerable, and finite planet?
Various governments are starting to view environmental issues as directly linked to human security. In fact, “[t]he environmental security approach to international relations emphasizes that the ecological crisis we face is also a threat to national security. Environmental degradation is perceived to be as serious a threat to human societies as the traditional military threat” (Payne, 2013: 207). For example, “Throughout history, environmental factors have had serious implications for all aspects of human existence, including the rise and fall of great civilizations, the spread of infectious diseases, war and peace, economic prosperity and hunger, migration and resettlement, population growth, and global inequality” (Payne, 2013: 207).
A lack of any real cooperative strategies between nations within the next few years or decades will possibly expose the international system to general chaos and disorder. The state of the environment has a significant effect on human livelihood and relations amongst one another. These issues are obviously political in nature. An example of this would be the shortages of fresh water, a notable environmental issue, which experts claim could lead to future wars. Various countries around the world are fighting over rare resources, and as the level of fresh water diminishes, the potential for conflict is likely to increase. Preserving fresh water is not the only concern, pollution is an additional problem, which will continue to affect how communities live.
Overcoming the global environmental problems our planet faces involves both national efforts as well as international collaboration and meaningful effort from all members of the international community. For international systems to work it’s necessary to implement policies which will diversify energy supply by developing advanced, cleaner, more efficient, affordable and cost-effective energy technologies, including fossil fuel technologies and renewable energy technologies, hydro included, and their transfer to developing countries on concessional terms as mutually agreed and providing incentives for investment in cleaner production and eco-efficiency in all countries along with aiming for a dramatic reduction in the current rate of loss of biological diversity.
The future of humankind relies heavily on the ability to establish an effective web of international environmental governance with the aim of achieving shared targets in relation to energy consumption and environmental usage. Therefore, it would appear that the world will shift towards a new global order or disorder depending on the rate of environmental problems we are faced with and our ability or lack of to tackle them. Governments need to realise that problems, such as water and air pollution, generations of solid and hazardous waste, soil degradation, deforestation, climate change and loss of biodiversity do not recognize or respect political borders.