Environmental Policy and Foreign Policy
Summary and Keywords
International agreements on environmental issues are the result of the coordination of states’ foreign policies. To understand the international politics of the environment requires attention to the institutional, social, economic, and cognitive factors that determine foreign policies. Although nearly every foreign policy bears on environmental concerns, the focus is on the policies that states adopt centered on humanity’s relationship to the natural world and ecology. Scholarship on environmental policy and foreign policy has not developed distinctive schools of thought. However, organizing scholarship according to a theoretically grounded typology reveals affinities among various scholarly works: systemic, societal, and state-centric approaches can be grouped according to whether they emphasize power, interests, or cognitive factors. Most studies of environmental foreign policy are oriented toward problem solving—identifying discrete problems in existing institutional arrangements and pointing toward solutions to these problems that do not question the institutions fundamentally. This orientation may not be adequate if crossing planetary boundaries leads to environmental challenges so severe that current institutions cannot cope. Climate change poses just such a challenge, and the rising concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere means a future crisis is predictable. Thus, scholars might be best advised to orient toward critical theory, which seeks feasible alternatives to existing arrangements. The study of foreign policy toward the environment would be most useful in helping scholars and policy makers to identify and surmount barriers to transformational changes that would enable humanity to cope with future environmental crisis.
Environment on the Policy Agenda
The 1972 United Nations Conference on the Human Environment held in Stockholm, Sweden signaled the arrival of environmental problems on the global agenda. Since then, hundreds of treaties and agreements, countless conferences, and untold national policies to address these international developments have been promulgated (Speth & Haas, 2006). As evidence mounts of human impact on the natural world, the environment has become one of the major areas of international concern. Diplomat Richard E. Benedick (1986, p. 172) observed “In the State Department, we have come to recognize that United States national interests in promoting human freedom and economic growth can be undermined by instability in other countries related to environmental degradation, population pressures, and resource scarcity.” Global climate change has become one of the most prominent issues before global institutions and foreign policy makers. The Paris Climate Change Conference of 2015 was among the most important recent events relating to the global environment, drawing representatives from 196 countries.
Although not as much studied as the international politics of the environment per se (Harris, 2008, pp. 914–915), foreign policy toward the environment has been discussed in a considerable literature, taking a wide variety of approaches. Yet, there is no coherent body of scholarship on the topic. No “Journal of Environmental Foreign Policy” exists, and the study of foreign policy and environmental policy is far from displaying contending schools of thought. Indeed, it would go too far to say that developed ideas exist on how major paradigms would address environmental foreign policy: no group of scholars has articulated Realist, Liberal, or Marxist theory on the specific question of environmental foreign policy. Instead of reviewing a field of study, as one could in regard to foreign policy toward the international economy, for instance, compassing environmental policy and foreign policy means finding a relative handful of articles in mainstream political science and international relations journals, others in specialized journals on global environmental politics and policy, studies in a policy-oriented and advocacy mode, and discerning the clear foreign policy implications of numerous studies that are not explicitly about environmental foreign policy. Relative inattention to foreign policy on the environment likely stems from several tendencies: specialists in environmental politics focus on international organization and global governance; specialists in foreign policy are mostly interested in “high politics”; and analysts believe the separation between the domestic and foreign makes little sense when investigating ecological politics.
Moreover, foreign policy scholarship has not kept pace with the observed changes to the global ecology and the serious consequences for human society, nor with the evolving understanding of the relationship between society and the environment. Environmental science is warning of profound changes as humanity crosses significant planetary thresholds. But foreign policy research has yet to explore the role foreign policy must play in bringing about transformational change if the ecological crisis is not to become a social catastrophe.
What is environmental foreign policy? Harris provides an apt definition:
Environmental foreign policy can be conceived of as the interplay between domestic and international political forces, institutions, and actors dealing with the human–environment relationship. From a policy perspective, environmental foreign policy is about the externally related environmental objectives that officials of national governments seek to attain; the values and principles—including, but not only, environmental ones—underlying those objectives; the methods by which the environmental objectives are sought; the processes by which these objectives, values, and methods are developed and implemented; and the domestic and international actors and forces—including, but not exclusively, environmental ones—shaping environmental policies and actions both at home and abroad.
(Harris, 2008, p. 922, emphasis in original)
Importantly, environmental foreign policy, like foreign policy in general, partakes of both domestic and international influences. It is, as Harris’s title notes, the “in-between” of international relations. This tends to preclude parsimonious theory, due to the many factors that must be taken into account, but it also means that studies of environmental foreign policy can be empirically richer and closer to reality than spare accounts, such as neorealist theory, provide (Harris, 2008, p. 921).
In general, scholarship adopts a view of foreign policy according to which the environment is another issue area alongside security and economics, calling for a response from national governments to protect certain values, such as the national interest in abating pollution, combating global warming, and protecting endangered species. A typical analysis might posit certain determinants of foreign policy, some at the “systemic level,” some at the “domestic level,” and others at the “individual level.” Of the domestic factors, some are found in society (classes, interest groups, elites, public opinion, and the like), while some pertain to the state itself (bureaucracy, constitutional design, political leadership, for instance). Research is then aimed at identifying which groups, widely held beliefs, constitutional arrangements, bureaucratic processes, and other such factors influence the process and outcome of making foreign policy on environmental issues. Another typical approach is to posit that environmental issues are, in the main, collective action problems amenable to rational actor or public choice analysis. The analyst’s task is to develop a model of the incentives underlying a game, such as prisoners’ dilemma, so as to determine the “rational” (utility-maximizing) course of action and how this affects the likelihood of successful cooperation to prevent a suboptimal outcome.
Studies of the kind just described contribute to what Cox (1981, pp. 128–129) calls problem-solving theory, which aims primarily at identifying and suggesting ways to correct imperfections in existing institutions. As Harris (2008, p. 916) puts it, “by consciously looking at [foreign policy] actors and processes, we are more likely to find ways to foster effective policy responses to adverse environmental challenges.” Certainly, such research is valuable and useful, providing insight into the politics of environmental policy and policy recommendations that would help address environmental problems. Yet, problem-solving approaches do face certain limitations. Importantly, as Stewart writes, “By separating facts and values and consigning the latter (as sense-less) to the arbitrary and subjective realm of politics, positive science becomes incapable of challenging (as science) the existing system” (Stewart, 1978, p. 17, emphasis in original), “and thereby becomes conservative.” Stewart argues that such social science, consciously or not, is confined to assessing whether certain means are adequate to achieve given ends, but it cannot evaluate the ends. Overcoming such a limitation requires a different perspective and purpose for theory and research.
Those who believe the ecological crisis is severe enough to threaten civilization, even the survival of the human species, insist that scholars must go beyond studying the observable world to exploring an alternative, sustainable world order. Although not well represented in foreign policy studies, many policy analyses, advocacy works, and polemics on the global environment adopt a “critical theory” orientation (Cox, 1981, pp. 129–130; Stewart, 1978). Critical theory, encompassing but not limited to the Frankfurt School (Bronner, 2011, pp. 9–18), rather than gearing itself toward smoothing out the workings of existing institutions, explores the potential for transforming social and world orders. It opens up “the possibility of choosing a different valid perspective from which the problematic becomes one of creating an alternative world” (Cox, 1981, p. 128, emphasis added). Contrasting problem-solving to critical theory, Cox comments that critical theory “does not take institutions and social and power relations for granted but calls them into question by concerning itself with their origins and how and whether they might be in the process of changing” (Cox, 1981, p. 129). Critical theory, by contrast to problem-solving theory, accepts that adopting a perspective on theorizing is itself a value-laden act, and critical theory takes “a normative choice in favor of a social and political order different from the prevailing order, but it limits the range of choice to alternative orders which are feasible transformations of the existing world” (Cox, 1981, p. 130). Although researchers contributing to problem-solving theory might claim their work is scientifically objective, Cox and Stewart respond that, by adopting the problem-solving perspective, analysts make a normative choice in favor of the existing world order. Still, problem-solving theory is essential to identifying the barriers to feasible transformations of the existing order, including the realities of the content and process of foreign policy. Without explicit attention to the structures and processes in place, critical theory is merely utopian.
In the literature on the global ecological challenge, many authors take up the task of envisioning a different world, a new order that is sustainable and in harmony with the natural world (e.g., Williams, 2010). But few, if any, such writers take account of the need to change the foreign policies of the world’s governments as a necessary practical step to bring about an ecological transformation. Consequently, an important element of critical theory, that it rejects improbable alternatives just as much as it rejects the permanence of existing arrangements, is lost. For the process and determinants of foreign policy making are a major part of delimiting the feasible transformations of the current world order. At the same time, scholarly research in an empirical mode does not much attend to critical theory’s call for bringing about a new order, even though much of the scientific literature suggests that the prevailing order is not likely to manage a coming ecological crisis well. Addressing the lack of dialogue between empirical research on observed foreign policy toward the environment and transformational visions for a sustainable world order would be a valuable line of inquiry for future studies of foreign environmental foreign policy.
Yet, fully embracing critical theory’s call for a holistic, historical perspective could entail a theory of everything, whereas the concern here is with one aspect of a larger social reality, namely, foreign policy toward the environment. What, then, distinguishes the study of foreign policy on the environment from a comprehensive inquiry into the international politics of the environment? As postulated in Harris’s definition, the answer is that the focus is on the entities that make foreign policy, namely, states—more particularly the governments of states. Although corporations, international organizations, and non-governmental organizations are indeed international actors and do make policies on environmental matters, the study of environmental foreign policy centers on the policy making of governments, viewing other entities as influences on governments’ foreign policies, not as foreign policy makers in their own right. The exception is the European Union, which has taken on the attributes of a foreign policy maker in environmental affairs (Vogler & Bretherton, 2006). Still, the focus on governments making policies regarding the environment should be understood in the context of a wider view of the broad social, economic, and political trends within which such policy is made.
Crossing Planetary Boundaries in the Anthropocene
Environmental policy—international norms and rules, national foreign policies, and domestic law and policy—addresses a wide range of specific problems. Water pollution, air pollution, solid waste, endangered species, marine pollution, natural resources, migratory birds, acid precipitation, climate change, and many more problems have been on the local, national, and global agenda. Of the many environmental challenges, scientists have determined that nine planetary boundaries are important for the future ecological health of Earth (Rockstrom et al., 2009; Steffen et al., 2015). The boundaries include several for which the risk of leaving the “safe operating zone” is high or increasing: genetic diversity, climate change, land-system change, and biogeochemical flows (Steffen et al., 2015, Fig. 3). In addition, loss of biodiversity as the “Sixth Extinction” takes hold (Kolbert, 2009) indicates that another important boundary is at risk. Crossing these planetary boundaries is especially significant because doing so raises the risk of non-linear changes that would move significant ecological variables outside “the relatively stable environment of the Holocene, the current interglacial period that began about 10,000 years ago, allowed agriculture and complex societies, including the present, to develop and flourish” (Rockstrom et al., 2009, p. 32). The concept of planetary boundaries draws on earlier, landmark work on the limits to growth (Meadows et al., 1972), similar work on humanity’s ecological footprint (Wackernagel & Rees, 1996), and the thesis of the acceleration of history (Brown, 1996). The general idea is that humans are changing the world’s environment rapidly and in ways that threaten the conditions for human civilization, and transformational change in values and beliefs may be required to meet the challenge (McAlpine et al., 2015).
Assertions that human civilization, and perhaps the survival of the human species, is at risk are frequently voiced in ecologically oriented policy advocacy. The same claims are not lacking in statements from renowned scholars, respected research entities, and even in peer-reviewed literature. Global warming is most often cited as the cause for alarm. For instance, James Hansen (2009), well-known climate scientist and activist, once posited that a runaway greenhouse effect could result in Venus-like conditions on Earth, which would mean the end of all life on the planet. His less dire statements in peer-reviewed work still point to a world in which civilization as now known is threatened (Hansen et al., 2013). James Lovelock (2009), famed for authoring the Gaia thesis, suggests that just staying on the trends already observed, toward a 4ºC hotter world by 2100, would mean that only a fraction of the global human population would remain, clinging to existence in the few areas where extreme heat did not make settled life impossible. Political philosopher Dale Jamieson (2014, p. 1) asserts that “climate change that is underway is remaking the world in such a way that familiar comforts, places, and ways of life will disappear on a timescale of years or decades.” Author Mark Lynas’s (2007) review of thousands of scientific studies of climate change led him to conclude that extreme global warming would result in a large drop in population and the end of current ways of life. Climate scientist Lonnie G. Thompson observed that virtually all climatologists “are now convinced that global warming poses a clear and present danger to civilization” (Thompson, 2010, p. 153). Of course, if other planetary boundaries are crossed, and even worse, if the various factors interact in mutually reinforcing ways, then fears expressed regarding climate change alone are only magnified.
While adequate for a world in which environmental challenges remain manageable, the increasingly profound changes to the global ecology now underway and the likely consequences call for an alternative approach: “Once the economic system begins to approach not just its regional boundaries but planetary boundaries, the mounting ecological debt will become even more precarious, threatening an ecological crash” (Foster, Clark, & York, 2010, p. 45). Many observers have said that this is an unprecedented era in world history: “Earth has entered a new epoch, one that is likely to continue changing in unpredictable and dangerous ways” (Angus, 2016, p. 29) because human activities have become so large and pervasive as to become a kind of natural force. Indeed, “the Earth System as a whole [is] being qualitatively transformed by human action” (Angus, 2016, p. 33, emphasis in original). Thus, for decades, ecologically minded analysts have asserted the existence of limits to growth (Higgs, 2014), including limited stores of natural resources (including arable land) and steadily growing human population (Brown, 1996). The level of human impact on the ecosystem has now become so great that civilization has entered a new world era, the Anthropocene.
Studies of environmental foreign policy have not, in general, addressed the implications of living in the Anthropocene, risking an environmental crisis that threatens civilization, species survival, or even all life on earth. Indeed, little of the research even goes so far as to contemplate the transformation of the global system and what foreign policy would be like under such circumstances. That is, most research, because of the empirical orientation of the social sciences, is unconsciously conservative, unable to interrogate the ends, although it can examine the fitness of the means to achieving given ends, often using highly sophisticated research tools. But if the problem before humanity is to envision an alternative social order that can avert ecological catastrophe, then scholars investigating foreign policy and the environment will have to consider transformational changes of the existing global system (IPCC, 2014, p. 1122).
To be sure, not everyone accepts the proposition that ecological crisis will be so severe as to result in social collapse. Reductions in agricultural productivity, bleaching of coral reefs, modest decline in the rate of economic growth, and various incremental adaptations are delineated as likely results of rising global average temperature. More widely, policy responses to environmental problems generally assume a linear process of change, with no thresholds or abrupt changes in the state of the system. Problem-solving theory implicitly accepts the non-catastrophic view of the ecological challenge embodied in conceptual frameworks compatible with the prevailing social order. If no ecological catastrophe looms, then this approach, in addition to being grounded in the observable and (one hopes) the quantifiable, can provide sensible policy advice for adjustments and incremental changes to ensure the smooth working of global and national institutions. But the question is far from settled: whether ecological challenges are manageable within existing institutions, policies, and practices defines much of the debate on environmental politics, including studies done by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (Barkdull & Harris, 2015; IPCC, 2014). Scholars of foreign policy toward the environment cannot sidestep the matter. Foreign policy is an important element of the process by which rules are proposed and adopted in international politics and thus cannot be neglected in assessing whether incremental management or transformation should be the course the world takes.
Approaches to Foreign Environmental Policy
Consider first perspectives on foreign policy and the environment that assume existing institutions can manage the ecological problem. The standard, problem-solving approach to environmental policy generally begins with identifying the policies of a government on bilateral and multilateral efforts to address an environmental challenge. For example, Canada and the United States have reached agreements to deal with shared transboundary waters, including the Great Lakes and the Columbia River. Research and analysis of Canadian policy might begin with identifying Canada’s national interest, or it might note the interests of fishing operations, industrialists, municipalities, and others using the waters to explain why Canada has chosen the positions it has in bilateral negotiations on shared waters. Policies regarding multilateral negotiations and agreements would take a similar tack. For instance, Canada’s changing positions on global warming would be explained in terms of its national interest, or partisan alignments, corporate interests, and other domestic factors (MacDonald & Smith, 1999; Smith, 2010).
Along these lines, Barkdull and Harris (2002) sort theories of foreign policy according to two major dimensions: the level of analysis and basic causal variables. The levels of analysis are systemic, societal, and state-centric. Basic causal variables are power, interests, and ideas (Harrison & Sundstrom, 2010). Some systemic theories treat states as “like units” (Waltz, 1979) and train attention on such variables as the distribution of power. Others posit that the structure of ideas, also a systemic variable, is more fundamental than power distributions (Wendt, 1999). Although not theories of foreign policy per se, the implications for which policies a state will pursue are discernible. Great powers will strive to balance power against power to ensure their security; the less automatic the balance of power is, the greater the role for foreign policy makers (Schweller, 2016). Regarding the international economy, hegemonic powers tend to favor open economic arrangements that allow them to take advantage of their predominant position. On the environment, a hegemon may have to adopt environmental goals and lead the world in the creation of international environmental regimes. Hegemonic ideas (in the Gramscian sense) can result in state actors defining their identities and interests in security, nationalistic, or even ecological terms.
Societal theories assume that states differ due to variations in internal factors, such as the relative bargaining power of prominent interest groups, or the influence of an elite class on foreign policy. Foreign policies on the environment would be explained in terms of the influence of, say, the fossil fuels industry on a country’s commitments to greenhouse gas reductions (Kolk & Pinske, 2007). A pluralist argument notes several reasons the fossil fuel lobby would have an advantage over both industrial interests harmed by global warming and the environmental lobby. Fossil fuel companies may have the advantage in political resources, good organization, existing international presence, a coherent and focused view of the matter, and political influence, such that blocking action is easier than making change (Newell & Paterson, 1998, p. 690). In addition to the lobbying power of industrial interests, local interests can affect the votes of members of legislatures. For instance, members of the U.S. House of Representatives might tend to vote against measures to limit greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions if their districts are home to industries related to fossil fuels; in turn, this might mean that ratification of a strong climate treaty is unlikely (Regan, 2015). Case studies of both developed and developing countries suggest that variations in public attentiveness to the environment influence the likelihood of ratification and implementation of greenhouse gas mitigation agreements (Harrison & Sundstrom, 2010, pp. 8–16). Battig and Bernauer (2009) conclude that democratic countries are good at enacting climate change policies, but not as successful at implementation. In general, societal theory suggests that the real action takes place in bargaining, compromise, and struggle outside governmental institutions. Policy and law reflect the results of these societal processes.
State-centric theories assert that the state is more than an arena of group bargaining or expression of elite dominance. Rather, the state has its own interests and its own manner of arriving at a conception of the national interest. Its internal structure and political conflicts affect the policies that emerge from the foreign policy process (Harrison & Sundstrom, 2010, pp. 16–18). In addition, in some situations, the “foreign policy executive” can act on a coherent definition of the national interest due to its position at the intersection of foreign and domestic politics (Lake, 1988). Theories of state autonomy can emphasize any of the basic causal variables, but the point is that the state can advance foreign policy toward the environment for its own reasons, apart from societal pressures. For instance, Barkdull (2001) found that policy entrepreneurs in the Nixon administration took the lead on ocean dumping, acting before environmental interest groups had developed clear positions on the issue. Similarly, when policy makers are persuaded of the need for environmental protection, they will sometimes act on that belief, overriding material concerns (Harrison & Sundstrom, 2010, pp. 14–16). The state can also act on behalf of the interests of “capital-in-general” to maintain the conditions for capital accumulation when environmental and resource issues are at stake (Newell & Paterson, 1998, p. 691). Bernauer and Bohmelt (2013, pp. 11998–11999) test whether states with “kinder, gentler” social policy are also more favorable to environmental protection, finding no support for the proposition in the global warming issue area.
With these outlines to some approaches to foreign policy, how do scholars characterize the environment as an issue area? Perhaps the most widely employed analytical tool is the Tragedy of the Commons and similar public goods models (Harris, 2007; Harrison & Sundstrom, 2010, p. 1; Hovi, Sprinz, & Underdal, 2009; Regan, 2015). The Tragedy of the Commons contends that rational actors making use of a commonly held resource (such as a pasture or a fishery) will exploit the resource to the point that it collapses. Farmers bringing their livestock to graze act rationally when they maximize their use of the commons, but the result of all farmers doing so is that the pasture is destroyed by over-grazing. Thus, individual rationality results in collective failure, harming the individual’s interests as well. In international politics, a system made up of nearly 200 sovereign states means that “the global collective action problem is … a political problem between and within states” (Bernauer, 2013, p. 424). Law and regulation can overcome the tragedy, ensuring that the pasture is sustainable. But that requires an effective government, able to impose the appropriate rules. In international relations, anarchy prevails and effective governance is difficult to construct. Thus, global environmental issues are prone to the Tragedy of the Commons, a dynamic that can be observed in ocean fisheries, global warming, and other problems.
Foreign policy under such circumstances is generally assumed to be made by a unitary state pursuing its national interest (Below, 2008). The national interest is stipulated in the analysis: utility maximization in exploitation of the commonly held resource. Every state wants its own fishing fleets to maximize catch, its own factories and power plants to maximize their use of the global atmosphere as a sink, and so on. They hope that others will restrain their use of the common resource so they can free-ride on their cooperative behavior. Consequently, because all or most states, focused on immediate gains, adopt the non-cooperative foreign policy, individual rationality is expected to result in collective failure, illustrated by the United States balking at effective measures to address climate change (Harris, 2007, pp. 217–218). However, analysts also recognize that states can be aware of and act on the probable outcome of self-seeking maximization. They can seek ways to avoid the tragedy and ensure the sustainability of the resource. They can see that their long-run self-interest is better served if a binding agreement to limit each actor’s use of the resource can be devised.
The capacity of states to act on long-run rationality has given rise to studies of international cooperation on environmental affairs, with much of the discussion focused on the creation, maintenance, and change of international environmental regimes (Breitmeier, Underdal, & Young, 2011; Brunner, 2001; Dimitrov, 2003; Johnson & Urpelainen, 2012; Keohane & Victor, 2011; Mittal, 2003; Rothe, 2011; Sadat, 2007; Thompson, 2010; Vormedal, 2010). The literature on international regimes generally finds that states can overcome collective action problems of various kinds by implementing remedies for such barriers as incomplete information, lack of transparency, uncertainty, and the absence of norms of behavior. Such measures change the expectations governments hold regarding an issue, thus altering, in turn, their foreign policy choices. States that would choose to go it alone or to exploit others will instead cooperate to achieve mutual gains. However, most states have a ratification process that gives rise to “two-level games” (Putnam, 1988; Regan, 2015), in which a government’s negotiators must consider what their domestic constituencies will accept. Thus, the rational foreign policy might not be the same as what would be optimal absent a ratification process. Nevertheless, the same orientation toward rational action under constraints applies.
Of course, the real world rarely allows for all actors in a complex, multilateral bargaining context to have complete information, a comprehensive list of all possible remedies for the problem, or sufficient reasoning powers to choose correctly every time. Regarding climate change in particular, the barriers to cost-benefit analysis are high: actors are ignorant of how various parts of the global climate system interact, assigning probabilities to different outcomes is impossible, the threat of human extinction renders cost-benefit irrelevant, and more (Torras, 2016). When states diverge from rationality (defined as conforming to the analyst’s determination of utility-maximization), it may be explained in terms of the barriers to rational decision making, or the influence of powerful interest groups, public opinion, bureaucratic politics, and other “unit-level” variables. As Boston (2008, p. 102) notes, “the nature of politics in democratic countries is such that short-term electoral imperatives and powerful sectional interests frequently prevail over diffuse interests and long-term considerations, including the interests of future generations and the well-being of the planet.” Similarly, Wurster (2013, p. 89) finds that, while democracies adopt somewhat more effective environmental policies than autocracies in technical, readily solved areas, democracies do not perform so well on major environmental problems.
A related approach to foreign policy analysis is to identify the national interest a country or countries might have in an issue area and to interpret observed state behavior in those terms. Such studies either identify interests pertinent to all or to most states engaged in an issue, or they discern policy makers’ own definition of the national interest in a given case. In the first instance, Sprinz and Vaahtoranta (1994) offer an interest-based model of foreign policy, illustrated by negotiations on ozone depletion and acid rain, in which they identify two dimensions of interest, level of vulnerability and cost of abatement. Barkdull, employing this model (1998), finds that the Nixon administration’s progressive marine oil pollution policy reflected the country’s high interest in reducing pollution from tankers and low costs of abatement, as the costs would fall largely on foreign fleets. Whether state actors prioritize the environment is critical to how they define their national interest; inevitably, trade-offs among competing concerns are present. Harrison and Sundstrom (2010, p. 3) observe, “It is hardly surprising that anticipated material benefits would lead some countries, and economic actors within them, to embrace the [global warming] treaty, while material costs would tend to make others reluctant to undertake ratification and mitigation.” For example, Chen (2008) examined China’s position on climate change, relating it to China’s central concern with economic growth. Barkdull (2001) found, from an examination of primary documents, that the Department of Defense played a large role in ensuring that the U.S.-led effort to negotiate an ocean dumping treaty did not encroach on the Navy’s freedom of movement; thus, the national interest in clean oceans was pursued only to the extent it did not conflict with American security imperatives. Bührs (2008) critically assesses New Zealand’s climate policy, arguing that, despite its pledge to become the world’s first truly sustainable country, its actual policy places economic imperatives over the goal of sustainability. Similarly, Death (2011) doubts that South Africa’s quest for environmental leadership will prevail over the country’s interest in economic development. In short, the national interest can help or hinder international negotiations on environmental issues. In the same vein, Levi (2009), writing in advance of the event, predicted why the 2009 Copenhagen climate conference would achieve little, due to the national interests involved. Lewis (2009) contended that China’s rising interest in climate policy would increase its international role, but geopolitical factors, trade policy, and internal politics would temper environmental concern. Korppoo (2008) argued that Russia’s reluctance to join a robust climate regime stems from lack of compelling interest in doing so; indeed, Russia believes it might gain from a warmer world. Anker (2016) argues that Gro Harlem Brundtland led Norway toward a technocratic orientation to climate change that reconciled Norway’s reliance on North Sea oil revenues with the country’s desire to be a leader in global environmental affairs.
All such studies posit some definition of the national interest toward environmental issues, either stipulated by the analyst or discerned from state pronouncements and behaviors, and predict that foreign policy will reflect that national interest. In general, however, by narrowly focusing on such matters as the national interest in preventing marine oil pollution from ships (Barkdull, 1998), these studies do not contemplate an interest in global system transformation, nor the viability of the very idea of the national interest in a world undergoing such a transformation. More potential for such theorizing lies in interpretive views of how states arrive at an understanding of their national interest. Rather than stipulating the interests at stake, the analysis can draw on social constructivism to explore how norms and practices that emerge from both global and domestic social processes result in commonly held views regarding environmental interests (Busch & Jorgens, 2005). Indeed, it is argued that the diffusion of norms and ideas can lead governments to emulate one another in establishing agencies of government devoted to environmental affairs, and for existing agencies to take on environmental tasks (Aklin & Urpelainen, 2014). Further, participation in international environmental politics can be part of a country’s ongoing formation of its own identity (Andonova & VanDeveer, 2012; Death, 2011, p. 460). Presumably, if social identities and the interests that pertain to identities are socially constructed, then human beings have some capacity to redefine identities and interests toward sustainability. But this potential for changing social identity to incorporate broad environmental values remains largely unexplored in the foreign policy literature, and the national interest is generally cast in relatively narrow terms, relating to the issues immediately before policy makers.
Certainly, efforts to negotiate a redefinition of society’s interests are underway around the world. There is no lack of work that is explicitly about pointing toward desirable policies. In the scholarly and rigorous policy literature, the analyst examines the issue carefully with the goal of suggesting to policy makers what a rational, effective, or ethical policy would be. For instance, Lee outlines the policy challenges relating to climate change, resources, and international cooperation to reduce risks from environmental disruption, concluding “In the context of climate change and resource depletion, international cooperation—together with solid national action—offers the only option that can best serve even narrowly defined national interests” (Lee, 2009, p. 1115). Ott (2001) offers policy advice on how the European Union could ensure the renewal of the Kyoto Protocol. Purdy and Smythe (2010) explain Canada’s relative neglect of the security implications of global climate change while also recommending both policy and process measures to correct this problem. Repetto and Rush (1997) outline several elements of a solution to the possible failure of climate negotiations: setting a long-term goal, fair allocation of responsibility, and effective implementation. Saunders and Turekian (2006) urged President George W. Bush to advocate a path to lower emissions in international negotiations. Smith critiques the Canadian government’s political discourses relating to environmental affairs, specifically “a government discourse that is built on antiquated and indeed dangerous understandings of the world in which we live” (Smith, 2010, p. 932). Victor, Kennel, and Ramanathan (2012) assert that significant gains could be made to reduce global warming if U.S. policy makers were to focus their efforts on short-lived but high-impact greenhouse gases other than CO2. Bardsley and Hugo (2010) suggest ways that migration can be managed as an effective strategy for adaptation to climate change, with implications for national immigration policy. Touching on the state’s autonomous capacity to pursue environmental policy, Daschle (2008) blurs the line between domestic and foreign policy; an effective foreign policy on the environment, he asserts, requires progressive policies at home. Daschle asserts that Congress must take the lead, preferably working with strong presidential leadership (Daschle, 2008, pp. 98–99), although how the political will to adopt and press ambitious environmental policies is to be marshaled is not clear. Beyond peer-reviewed literature and publications in prominent foreign policy journals, the amount of advocacy is immense, widely available online and in environmentally oriented publications. Nearly all this writing recommends desired outcomes, but little considers the practical barriers in foreign policy making to implementing ambitious proposals to protect the environment.
A large body of literature examines the security implications of environmental stress, including empirical studies of conflicts that might have been triggered by resource scarcities and environmental degradation (Homer-Dixon, 1994). In addition to scholarly work, the Department of Defense has conducted studies of the question, finding that ecological factors can exacerbate existing conflicts (DoD, 2015). To note a few examples of the scholarly literature on environment and security, Dalby (2007) asserts that reducing human impact on the planet, while also developing resilience and capacity for international cooperation, is essential for maintaining international security. Brown, Hammill, and McLeman (2007) argue that global environmental degradation could represent a security threat that will affect Africa’s security the most. Wilner (7) discerns three major hypotheses on environment and conflict put forth by the “Toronto School”:
The hypotheses are: 1) decreasing supplies of environmental resources will provoke "simple-scarcity" conflicts or resource wars such as conflict between territorial groups over the control of remaining resources; 2) large population movements (ecological migration) caused by environmental degradation will create "group-identity" conflicts such as ethnic clashes between groups not unusually in contact; 3) severe environmental scarcity will simultaneously increase "economic deprivation" and disrupt "key social institutions" that in turn will cause "deprivation" conflict such as civil strife between have and have-not groups.
(Wilner, 2007, p. 180)
As Wilner notes, debates over definitions of key concepts, methodological issues, and empirical findings have characterized environmental security research. At most, studies have found that environmental stress affects the level of conflict in indirect, complex ways. That said, this research has obvious implications for studies of foreign policy, as the Department of Defense clearly appreciates.
Numerous studies focus on domestic factors to explain foreign policies on environmental issues, although they differ on which domestic variables matter. For example, Bechtel and Tosun (2009) argue domestic demands for environmental protection influence the degree of policy convergence in the European Union. Holzinger, Knill, and Sommerer (2008; see also Busch & Jorgens, 2005) explain policy convergence on environmental policy across 40 countries in terms of pressures toward international harmonization and transnational communication. McLean and Stone (2012) find that European governments in the EU privileged international cooperation over domestic politics on the Kyoto Protocol.
Sussman analyzes the role of the president, Congress, and domestic interest groups in explaining when the United States plays a leading role in international environmental negotiations, finding “Partisanship among American presidents and members of the Congress and the influence of organized interests are central to explaining the mixed record of US leadership vis-a-vis the global environment” (Sussman, 2004, p. 358). Similarly, Burnett (2009) observes that the climate change issue had thrown Australian party politics into disarray, in part due to the alliance of coal companies and coal miners unions. Contrary to Lake’s (1988, pp. 36–38) “foreign policy executive” thesis as applied to trade, Below (2008) finds that presidents were mainly affected by domestic political considerations in regard to the Montreal Protocol and the Kyoto Protocol. Harris identifies broad patterns in U.S. environmental foreign policy, but the attitude of the U.S. president has significant impact as well; President George W. Bush ended the gradual trend toward increasing American involvement in multilateral environmental diplomacy (Harris, 2009, p. 968). These studies provide valuable insight into the determinants of environmental foreign policy, although the question of system transformation to avert ecological crisis is not usually addressed.
Rather than focus on groups or classes, Purdy and Smythe (2010) identify several American narratives regarding the natural world that affect how the country sees and addresses climate policy. Similarly, Vieira (2013) examines ideas regarding development in key ministries, domestic economic interests, and non-state actors that have influenced Brazil’s foreign policy on climate change. Levy and Egan (1998), in a Gramscian study of the structural power of capital in domestic and international climate politics, note that, due to capacity to shape the discourse surrounding climate change, industry has enjoyed considerable influence in U.S. policy making, and industry shares a congruence of interests with other countries; this affected the policies these states adopted toward climate change. Rothbart (2009) observes that former Soviet states vary in how well they implement multilateral environmental agreements, in proportion to how much they are concerned about achieving international legitimacy. Studies of environmental foreign policy that emphasize cognitive factors tend to be more open to discussion of transformative alternatives, although it is arguable that deeply held ideas, beliefs, and values are more difficult to change than material factors (Wendt, 1999).
In general, the research on the domestic sources of foreign policy toward the environment provides little reason to expect strong environmental leadership from any of the world’s major countries. Industry interests, along with demands for jobs and low-cost goods, frequently win out over long-term ecological considerations. Thus, the success stories in global environmental negotiations are about fairly narrow matters (pollution from ships, the ozone layer) rather than such profound questions as whether the current global socio-economic system can survive. When exercised, the environmental leadership of this or that country is often short-lived and dependent on transient domestic political alignments (Harris, 2009). Thus, while empirical, problem-solving research may lack the resources to envision feasible alternative world orders, it certainly provides the evidence that the current system is not working well. Indeed, it may be working so badly that there is no choice but to consider alternatives if social catastrophe is to be averted.
Problem-Solving Foreign Policy in an Age of Limits
The adequacy of the problem-solving approach to environmental questions depends on whether the challenge is manageable within existing institutional arrangements. The “standard view” (Harvey, 1996, pp. 373–376) posits that interventions to protect the environment should be about cleaning up the side effects of economic activity, so that nothing stands in the way of progress (understood as economic growth and technological change). This view, Harvey claims, is deeply embedded in policy analysis and technical responses to environmental challenges; the reformist discourses of engineering, law, economics, and other disciplines “are perfectly acceptable to the dominant forms of political-economic power precisely because there is no challenge implied within them to the hegemony of capital accumulation” (Harvey, 1996, p. 376). For its part, “ecological modernization” (Foster, 2012) asserts that the answer to the environmental crisis is for humans to reduce their effect on nature, which will be accomplished through guided technological advances that shrink humanity’s “impacts on the environment to make more room for nature” (Asafu-Adjaye, 2015, p. 6). Indeed, ecological modernization asserts that environmental policy can be a win-win for business and the environment, if market forces are properly harnessed to ecological purposes. “Ecological modernization,” write Foster et al. (2010, pp. 42–43) “is thus all about the development and management of green technologies (techniques) displacing the old, environmentally harmful operations,” so that “social relations (of power and property) can remain the same—whereas it is merely values, consciousness, and knowledge that change, and that direct technological innovation.”
In line with ecological modernization theory, incremental approaches tend to rely on technological solutions, including faith in future technological breakthroughs that will manage environmental side-effects of production and consumption practices. Technology, it is hoped, will provide solutions for environmental problems, without need for fundamental institutional change. This means, by the same token, that foreign policies on the environment and other issues need not change greatly. For instance, the Paris agreement on climate change implicitly assumes that carbon capture technology will become effective by the middle of the 21st century, so that, without drastic reductions in fossil fuels use, global net emissions can be limited enough to remain below the 2 ºC threshold for dangerous climate change. The voluntary commitments countries have made in accord with the agreement will not alone do the job, so a future technological fix must be assumed for Paris to work (Anderson, 2016). Without that breakthrough, the effects of climate change might become so severe that incremental adaptation will not suffice. The world could face the necessity of transforming the global economic, social, and political systems with little to no time to do so. If the hope that future technological breakthroughs can avert crisis is disappointed, it will be too late to mitigate climate change, and all that will remain is adaptation to a much hotter world. Whether society can avoid catastrophic impacts is doubtful (World Bank, 2012). The inadequacy of the Paris agreement is no secret. It is the product of foreign policy choices made by governments around the world, and that the collective result of those decisions will not hold global average temperature increase below the internationally accepted 2 ºC threshold is well known. Proposals to remedy this situation will have to examine the foreign policy processes that produced disappointing decisions.
Students of foreign policy can point to features of the foreign policy process and the commitments embedded in current foreign policies that indicate the world is not ready to address the transgression of planetary boundaries characteristic of the Anthropocene. Foreign policy in general, certainly that of the current global hegemon, favors the global market system, organized on capitalist lines. Indeed, a large share of the scholarship on international economic policy relates to how states have striven to maintain an “open” economy that facilitates the free flow of goods and capital according to price signals (Keohane, 1984). Relying on the theory of comparative advantage and its more modern variants, scholars generally indicate approval of these arrangements, and their aim is to show how the world can avoid a dangerous recurrence of economic isolationism. Usually, little to no attention is given to the ecological implications of this open global economy. Meanwhile, the world’s most important economic powers continue to promote expanded trade, foreign investment, and growth. While the ecological dimension suggests that endless economic growth is unsustainable and is by far the larger threat to the world than cheating or free-riding on international trade regimes, incrementalism, bureaucratic bargaining, interest group pressures, and broadly accepted ideologies of market-led growth are likely to prevent new foreign policies appropriate to the Anthropocene.
A critical ecological view asserts that current environmental foreign policy, while it attempts to ameliorate the impacts of the global economic system, is in no way intended remove the source of the problem, which is the global capitalist system itself. The central concern, then, is whether an ameliorative approach to global environmental problems can do enough to forestall system collapse due to ecological degradation. From the standpoint of system stability, a central question is whether economic growth as defined in capitalist terms can continue indefinitely in the face of increasing ecological and environmental stress.
When assessing barriers to global transformational change, it is essential to include the central role foreign policy would play in bringing about the transition. Consider the following as an illustration of the difficulties foreign policy adds to the task. One proposal to address climate change, a carbon fee-and-dividend tax incentive to reduce GHG emissions (Citizens Climate Lobby, 2016; Hansen, 2012), has received considerable attention, albeit no implementation in law. The barriers facing even this rather modest plan include the difficulty of enacting compatible foreign policies. Fee-and-dividend imposes a tax on carbon fuels at the point of production and distributes the proceeds directly to individuals and families. One estimate shows that a U.S. carbon fee of $115 per ton of CO2 potential emissions would yield $670 billion in dividends, providing each adult in the United States a share of $3,000 per year, while significantly reducing fossil fuel use (presumably, assuming all supportive arrangements are in place). Individuals and families using a large amount of fossil fuels would pay more than the dividend, while low energy users would come out ahead, despite higher fuel prices. Given that energy infrastructure can change rather slowly (Sovacool, 2016), supporters argue that a fee-and-dividend system, along with a global transition in land use practices, reductions of non-CO2 GHGs, and increased reliance on nuclear power, might be one of the few options for bringing about real reductions in GHG emissions.
However, in addition to misgivings about relying on nuclear power, Foster notes that for this to work, the fee-and-dividend system must be “universalized in the global economy” (2013, p. 11), or else reduced demand in one location will only result in higher consumption elsewhere. Say the United States were to adopt the system; it must at the same time adopt foreign policy aimed at a global effort to persuade or coerce every other country to do so. Hansen hopes that China will lead the way. If China did take on this role, it would have to advance a global movement to increase the price of fossil fuels to reduce consumption, in addition to ensuring that governments around the world, each with varying degrees of administrative competence and internal corruption, distribute the fees as dividends to poorer families. Thus, fee-and-dividend would become a question of Chinese foreign policy, and, as such, it would also have to take account of the myriad forces and factors that enter into the making of Chinese foreign policy as a major power, including commercial and security concerns, in addition to the foreign policy priorities of many other countries. Yet, contrary to this, China’s foreign policy has instead taken on the attributes of other rising powers, in line with the thesis of unequal environmental exchange; China draws on resources from other continents, creating environmental problems at home and abroad (Mol, 2011). It is unlikely that a country that will increasingly draw on the world’s resources to enable its rapid economic expansion will lead the world toward a fee on fossil fuels. Until it came to terms with the Obama administration, China rejected responsibility for controlling GHG emissions (Harris, Chow, & Karlsson, 2013), and its willingness to participate in GHG reduction may wane if the Trump administration withdraws the United States from the Paris agreement.
Further, global convergence on such a plan would require countries to cooperate in setting the norms, rules, principles, and procedures governing such things as the imposition of the fee-and-dividend system, technological and infrastructure change toward clean energy, and, probably most controversial of all, wider use of nuclear power, presumably to countries that do not now have nuclear power plants. Obviously, security concerns that are so prominent in states’ foreign policies would bear on whether China, the United States, Russia, and others would countenance nuclear power plants in non-nuclear developing countries, “rogue states” and all.
At the same time, fee-and-dividend does not in itself entail fundamental change in the global economic order, which, for critics such as Foster, means that such proposals do not “go far enough in addressing the social-systemic contradictions generated by the power structure of today’s monopoly-finance capital” (2013, p. 13), for “only a global response can meet the planetary emergency” (Foster, 2013, p. 17). Of course, Foster’s comment only magnifies the problem far beyond what Hansen’s proposal would entail. If China or any other country unexpectedly chose to launch a global crusade to save the planet from an ecological emergency, it would face a momentous task in trying to persuade the world to upend global capitalism in favor of ecosocialism. To suggest that an effort led by a developing country to enact fee-and-dividend represents a viable solution to the problem of excessive CO2 emissions would require a careful examination of the process and content of the country’s foreign policy, so that barriers to its adoption of the policy could be identified and recommendations for removing those barriers offered.
The Anthropocene and Foreign Policy
The fee-and-dividend proposal, of course, is only one aspect of a much larger problematic, serving to illustrate the foreign policy barriers that stand in the way of many other efforts to address environmental challenges. David Harvey could well be correct when he writes the following:
[I]t is vital, when encountering a serious problem, not merely to try to solve the problem itself but to confront and transform the process that gave rise to the problem in the first place. Then, as now, the fundamental problem is that of unrelenting capital accumulation and the extraordinary asymmetrics of money and political power that are embedded in that process.
(Harvey, 1996, p. 401)
Yet, the 20 years that have passed since these words were published offer no reason for optimism that such a challenge to unrelenting capital accumulation will occur.
Foster (2015, pp. 11–12) pins his hopes on an environmental proletariat emerging in China, South Asia, Africa, and Latin America. The target of a mass movement of this kind would have to be national governments, presumably so that the political processes and foreign and domestic policies of these countries would be transformed. An appropriately transformed coalition of countries would have to adopt foreign policies aimed at radically changing global and national institutions toward ecological sustainability. Thus, an environmental proletarian movement rooted in developing countries would have to bring to bear sufficient influence on their own governments so those governments would attempt to induce the advanced industrialized countries, along with the remainder of the world’s countries at all levels of development, to give up capitalism in favor of eco-socialism. That is, the environmental proletariat of Nigeria, Papua-New Guinea, Paraguay, and so on would have to seize power in their own countries, adopt ecological sustainability over economic growth as the main objective, promulgate a foreign policy compatible with that goal, and use whatever power available to persuade or coerce the leading capitalist countries of the world to do likewise. Simply to state the problem suggests the improbability of this sequence of events.
Moreover, as Foster observes, the ensuing years have only diminished the time available:
Not only do the solutions have to be large enough to deal with the problem, but also all of this must take place on a world scale in a generation or so. The speed and scale of change necessary means that what is required is an ecological revolution that would also need to be a social revolution.
(Foster, 2010, p. 4)
Very little in the research on foreign policy generally or on the environment in particular would point to rapid, fundamental change in the foreign policies of states with sufficient global influence to transform global capitalism. Power politics dictates maximizing economic output to support military capability. Influential domestic interest groups, dominant classes, and the elite benefit from and deeply believe in capitalism; they are unlikely to meet the demands of an environmental proletariat (if one ever actually forms) based primarily in poor developing countries. State institutions prone to inertia, incremental change, and wedded to societal interests that determine who occupies influential positions in government are only slightly more likely to provide the foundation for radically eco-socialist foreign policies than the societal interests to which governments respond.
Advocates for sweeping transformation of global capitalism to avert global ecological catastrophe, such as Foster, rarely consider the practical barriers inherent in foreign policy processes. Thus, if Foster is correct about what is needed, then the emergency will not be adequately addressed and will become a crisis followed by collapse. Indeed, Foster and co-author Clark recognize the impossibility of the situation: “barring a very rapid overthrow of capitalism of a kind that can scarcely be imagined today, the system will inevitably lead us into global catastrophe” (Foster & Clark, 2012, p. 22). The larger point, beyond the specific question of a fee-and-dividend system or any other specific proposal, is that the practical problems attending an effective global response to a growing ecological crisis include barriers inherent in national foreign policy making processes that are seldom discussed in calls for social transformation toward ecological sustainability. If the world is indeed in the Anthropocene, so that human beings are collectively akin to a natural force with deleterious effects on human well-being, then researchers must go beyond taking “institutions and social and power relations for granted but [call] them into question by concerning [themselves] with their origins and whether and how they might be in the process of changing” (Cox, 1981, p. 129). But raising the foreign policy making aspect of the process implies that the difficulties run deep. Is the upshot that the situation is nearly hopeless and the realities of foreign policy only make matters worse?
Foreign Policy for the Anthropocene
The profound problem regarding human impact on the global ecosystem, like many long-term challenges, is that human awareness of danger requires visible evidence, while effective responses to global environmental change should be adopted and implemented before the impacts have been felt. For example, the International Energy Agency (2014, p. 15) observed, in regard to the national pledges to limit GHG emissions embodied in the Paris agreement, that “While obligations are to start from 2020, emissions from the energy sector need to peak by 2020 if there is to be a reasonable chance of limiting temperature rise to below 2 ºC.” The temperature rise would not surpass 2 ºC for some years after 2020, but preventing that requires global action to reduce fossil fuel use now. Likewise, Michael Mann (2014) calculated that “If the world keeps burning fossil fuels at the current rate, it will cross a threshold into environmental ruin by 2036.” Mann argues that a realistic figure for the concentration of GHG compatible with 2 ºC or less temperature rise is 405 ppm. The concentration was already at or near 400 ppm when he wrote, and about 2 ppm are added annually at current rates. Thus, “To avoid breaching the 405-ppm threshold, fossil-fuel burning would essentially have to cease immediately” (Mann, 2014). By May 2017, the concentration had passed 408 ppm (NOAA, 2017). If immediate reductions do not bring the level back down, then the global average temperature will gradually rise beyond the 2 ºC threshold by 2036 and continue to rise thereafter. To address this one planetary boundary, then, demands that the world’s energy infrastructure and consumption patterns be revolutionized almost overnight, well before the worst effects of current GHG emissions are felt. Such anticipatory global collective action to avert a problem around which considerable uncertainty about the distribution of costs remains would be unprecedented, to say the least. Nonetheless, even though the worst effects of ecological degradation are in the future, relevant social analysis to avert and prepare for the growing problems must begin now.
As humans move inexorably toward transgressing more planetary boundaries, the likelihood that ecological change will result in social crisis increases. Scientists are calling for sustainability transitions that might require radical changes in values and beliefs, behavior, governance structures, to “evolve a fundamentally new way of living when existing ecological, economic, and social conditions make the current system untenable” (Westley et al., 2011, p. 763). Radical shifts in beliefs, behaviors, and institutions will necessarily include major changes in the way societies view the purposes of foreign policy, how foreign policy is made, and the relationship of the state to structures of global governance.
Students of foreign policy might emphasize a serious shortcoming in much international environmental policy, both incremental and transformational. A major limitation on the ability of foreign environmental policy to head off global ecological catastrophe is that proposals to address climate change and other planetary boundaries rely on a degree of long-term international stability that has rarely been observed. Even implementing the voluntary pledges affirmed at Paris in 2015, not to speak of transformational change of the global economy and energy systems, is a long-term project. Yet, laudable international efforts to address environmental challenges would probably be swept away by an extended global economic crisis—one that lasted several years or more—as countries seek ways to restore economic prosperity, necessarily in the terms set down by global capitalism.
What is more, major war, whether the result of shifting power distributions, imperialist competition, misperception, ideological conflict, or whatever other cause, contains even greater potential for thrusting aside any limits on the exploitation of nature. If addressing global problems such as climate change depends on international cooperation, the complete breakdown of international cooperation (apart from contending military alliances) represented in major war would surely spell the end of global environmental policy. Plans for mitigation and adaptation to climate change that adopt century-long time frames, such as the Paris agreement, rely on international economic and political stability lasting for many years longer than has ever occurred in modern world history. The same level of stability would be required in domestic politics, although swings in policies on the environment and natural resources are observable in nearly all major countries. For example, the Trump administration has turned against even the inadequate Paris accord on climate change, negotiated during the Obama presidency (Washington Post, May 3, 2017), while a dozen state governments have sought judicial relief to do away with Obama’s Clean Power Plan, a case the Supreme Court is expected to decide after the presidential election (E & E Publishing, 2016). Obama’s plan is the main element of U.S. participation in efforts to reduce GHG emissions; if it is discarded, little would remain of the American commitment (Adler, 2016). To succeed, the Paris agreement anticipates future negotiations that will strengthen commitments to reducing GHG emissions beyond those agreed in 2015, but U.S. withdrawal would thwart that.
Between international instability and the volatility of domestic policy, the prospects for a long-term, multilateral commitment to environmental policy appear low, and foreign policies will undoubtedly react to international disruptions and events such as a change of majority party in democratic countries. The assumption behind much environmental policy is that the stability required to make agreements effective will prevail, but that is a thin reed on which to rest hopes for saving the planet. Students of foreign policy can inform environmental research by pointing out both the continuities and the rapid disruptions in foreign policy that would overturn long-range environmental policy.
If critical theory (broadly understood) should be about identifying feasible alternative future world orders, then it must encompass realistic assessments of the world as it is now. Thus, rather than contenders, problem-solving and critical theory complement one another. As Cox (1981, p. 130) himself notes, critical theories contain problem-solving theories, albeit recognizing that the assumption of fixity and the “all other things being equal” caveat of problem-solving theory create the risk of it becoming ideological, if these assumptions are not constantly held up to scrutiny. If the looming ecological crisis does mandate transformational change in the beliefs, ways of life, and institutions of global society, then scholars of foreign policy can rightly point to major barriers to such transformation: the commitments of the most powerful states to the doctrine of national security, the consequent immense influence of the military-industrial complex, the intertwining of state and corporate power, an electorate that prioritizes economic growth well ahead of environment, constitutional designs that make it easier to block even incremental action than to launch global transformations, and more. In short, the challenge of how to get there from here is obviously large enough, but it is even more immense when deeply embedded structures and patterns of foreign policy behavior are acknowledged.
Of course, this difficulty is nothing new. Socialists have been debating how to transcend capitalism and replace it with socialism for two centuries. Marxists at one time had a clear notion of what would happen: a motivated proletariat would launch a social revolution that would overthrow the bourgeoisie and create a classless society. But historical evidence showed that there was no such broad highway to socialism, an experience which was, in part, responsible for the birth of Frankfurt School critical theory in Western Marxism. Despite wars, depressions, colonialism, imperialism, structural violence, and ecological destruction, the path from here to there is still obscure. Now, the lack of significant political forces to bring about eco-socialism, certainly not in time to prevent catastrophic global warming, leads Foster to hope for a developing-world environmental proletariat, and leads noted author Naomi Klein to place her hopes on indigenous peoples and transient leftist governments in Latin America (Klein, 2014). That such marginalized forces are highly unlikely to alter the environmental foreign policies of powerful states in the scant 20 years or less said to be available to prevent catastrophic climate change should be obvious. Scholars focusing on environmental foreign policy might be able to offer more constructive and plausible options, although no broad highway to eco-socialism exists either.
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