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date: 17 October 2017

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.

Keywords: foreign policy, environment, global, transformation, critical theory

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