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About this book

This book provides systematic coverage of the key concepts in the study of environmental politics; the evolution of environmental thinking; the national and international actors involved in environmental policy; and a selection of specific environmental problems including their causes, the challenges and results of addressing them to date.

Table of Contents

1. Understanding Key Concepts

Abstract
The environment consists of the physical surroundings in which humans, animals, plants, insects, bacteria, and other organisms exist. As a policy and political issue, the environment is hard to compartmentalize; it overlaps with almost all other policy issues. Politics and policy are different but related terms; one is a process of decision-making, the other is a course of action (or inaction). Environmental politics are distinguished from most other arenas of politics by varieties of scale, which range from the local community to the entire earth. The environment may be the only political issue that has truly global dimensions. Environmentalism seeks political and economic change, but there are competing views about how this can be achieved, ranging from change within the existing capitalist system to an entire rejection of that system. Environmentalism emerged in different places and for different reasons, was influenced at first by events and thinking in the West in the 1960s, and later included the concerns of poorer parts of the world. While concerns about the deteriorating relationship between humans and their environment date back at least to the Industrial Revolution, the political response was late arriving. The earliest efforts to change policy date back to the late 1800s, but the environment has been a regular feature of the public policy agenda only since the 1960s, and while we now understand much more about the sources and effects of environmental needs and problems, the record on addressing them has been mixed at best. They vary by time and place, there is disagreement on their implications, government and industry often disagree on the best and most practical responses, the economic implications are not always clear, and the science behind many environmental problems is still debatable.
John McCormick

2. Perspectives on the Environment

Abstract
Environmental politics and policy are multidimensional in nature. Science plays a key role in shaping environmental policy, but its value is compromised by scientific uncertainties and by differences in the logic of science and policy. Efforts to develop environmental policies that are economically efficient are compromised by the difficulties of accurately calculating the costs and benefits of action and inaction. The choices made by businesses and consumers help shape environmental policy, but their interests are often at odds with those of the environment. The human relationship with nature raises many troubling ethical, moral, and religious questions, few of which have been answered. Environment problems become a security concern when there is a mismatch between the supply of natural resources and the human demand for those resources. Barry Commoner’s idea that everything is connected is reflected in the multidimensional nature of environmental politics and policy. Since the environment consists of our entire physical surroundings, it should come as no surprise to find that environmental matters can be related to almost all other facets of human action, and that they can be approached from multiple perspectives (see Cohen, 2014: 3–4, 12).
John McCormick

3. The Dynamics of Environmental Policy

Abstract
There have been four phases in the evolution of environmental policy, the fourth – since the 1980s – being more strategic, integrative, creative, preventative, and international in nature. Studies of the often disorderly and unpredictable character of public policy are made more manageable by thinking of policy-making and implementation in terms of a cycle. States are the key players in making policy, and yet their work on the environmental front is often overlooked. In the absence of a system of global government, the international response to environmental problems relies for its substance on international treaties. There are several instruments available upon which to base environmental policy, most of which take the form of either a stick, a carrot, or a sermon. Often overlooked in discussions about the environmental politics and policy is the role of the marketplace in leading to changes in approach. As we saw in Chapter 1, public policy can be defined as the actions that those in positions of authority take – or deliberately avoid taking – in order to achieve public goals or address public problems. It encapsulates objectives, the means applied to achieving them, the informational basis of policy, the underlying principles that drive policy, decisions and sets of decisions, and overall styles of governing. Public policy is shaped by a combination of laws, regulations, constitutional obligations, political ideology, available budgets, carefully targeted objectives, opportunism, crises and emergencies, and a combination of good fortune and misfortune.
John McCormick

4. Actors at the State Level

Abstract
Environmental politics and policy at the state level are shaped by a combination of democratic, economic, and ideological differences. There are few consistencies in the way national governments approach the definition of responsibilities for environmental management. Non-state actors have been influential in making environmental policy, interest groups much more so than political parties. Green politics has converted a focused set of policy interests into a party movement in multiple countries. National environmental policy is not formed in a vacuum, and states influence each other through policy diffusion and convergence. In the South, the links with economic and social development are critical to understanding how environmental politics and policy have evolved. We saw in Chapter 3 that states have only in the past few decades begun to take an approach to environmental policy that has been strategic, integrative, creative, and preventative (rather than curative) in terms of the policy tools used. But many environmental problems remain: the record in democracies has been mixed at best, while in poorer and/or authoritarian states it has been weak. Partly as a result, there is a widely held assumption that many environmental problems are better addressed at the international level, which has been the subject of much of the research on environmental politics and policy. While there have been numerous studies of environmental policy in individual states – particularly the United States, Germany, and China – there has been remarkably little comparative study, where states are compared with a view to drawing general conclusions about the domestic pressures that drive environmental politics and policy.
John McCormick

5. Actors at the International Level

Abstract
There is no global government, but there is a system of global governance, although opinion is divided at least four ways on how best to understand it. Opinion is also divided on the place of states in the international system. Realists focus on the self-interest of states, liberals believe in the possibilities of international cooperation, some feel that states are becoming stronger, and others believe they are becoming weaker. The environment is on the agenda of a large network of intergovernmental organizations, but there are mixed opinions regarding their efficacy. A particular kind of intergovernmental organization is the treaty secretariat, whose numbers have grown in the wake of the signature of more environmental treaties. As with their national counterparts, international non-governmental organizations have filled in some of the gaps left by political initiatives on the environment. Debates about sustainability have raised troubling questions about patterns of international business in the face of globalization, and of demographic, economic, and social change. The previous chapter used the perspectives of comparative politics to assess the manner in which environmental politics evolve – and environmental policy is shaped and implemented – at the state level. This chapter uses the perspectives of international relations to assess the actors, influences, and politics involved in the shaping and implementation of environmental policy at the international level. While such actors are relatively easy to identify – they include states, intergovernmental organizations, treaty secretariats, non-governmental organizations, and multinational corporations – they all function within an international system whose dynamics are both complex and constantly changing, and are subject to competing theoretical analyses.
John McCormick

6. Air Pollution: Few Sources, Many Effects

Abstract
While the air contains gases and particles produced by natural processes, the pollution of air has grown since the Industrial Revolution, owing mainly to the burning of fossil fuels. The problem has been eased in older industrial states thanks to tightened regulation, but continues to worsen in newly industrializing countries. There are eight major pollutants, which have been the target of most air pollution law and policy. The threats posed by indoor pollution are often overlooked, in spite of the more immediate problems they pose to most peoples. Successful efforts to cut pollution from lead and to remove threats to the ozone layer stand as examples of what can be achieved with the right confluence of political, industrial, scientific, and public support. Acid pollution has been successfully addressed in Europe and North America, but continues to be a growing problem in several newly industrializing countries. Air is one of the most fundamental commodities necessary for life on earth. A combination mainly of nitrogen, oxygen, argon, and carbon dioxide, it serves one core purpose: allowing respiration, or the conversion by living organisms of oxygen into energy. While the supply of air presents no challenges (unlike the supply of water – see next chapter), the diminished quality of air has long been one of the core environmental problems: air has been increasingly polluted since the Industrial Revolution by emissions of noxious gases and particles. Because we use it every moment of our lives, it is the most immediate and intimate of the environmental problems created by human activity.
John McCormick

7. Water: Quantity vs. Quality

Abstract
Unlike air, water is multidimensional in terms of the forms in which it is found, the uses to which it is put, the distribution of supplies, and the threats it faces. There have been improvements in access to improved water supplies and sanitation facilities, but the variable quality of water means that human health still suffers in many parts of the world. Water policy is still approached mainly from a local perspective, and water is still mainly seen as a private rather than a public good. Efforts to approach water quantity and quality from a global perspective are limited, and there is almost nothing in the way of an international water regime. Whether in terms of quantity or quality, water is approached mainly from the perspective of its value to humans, and less so with its ecological value in mind. The plight of wetlands illustrates the way in which the significance of freshwater habitats has long been overlooked. Along with air, water is one of the most essential, most fundamental, and most widely used of all natural resources. Without it, life as we know it would not be possible, and it is no surprise that almost all the world’s great cities and population centres have been built on or near a ready source of surface water. Unlike air, however, which has only one use and comes in only one form, water presents a multifaceted management challenge. It comes in several different forms, it serves multiple purposes, water policy must address matters both of quantity and of quality, and while pollution is the only man-made threat to air quality, water is threatened both by pollution and by overexploitation.
John McCormick

8. Natural Resources: Forests, Oceans, and Fisheries

Abstract
Approaches to natural resources vary according to whether they are renewable or non-renewable, finite or infinite, global or local, and private, public, or common pool goods. Developing policy on natural resources pits economic considerations against environmental considerations. Forests are seen as a domestic resource, and efforts to build a global forestry regime – or even to encourage states to take common approaches – have failed. The regional approach to managing forests, oceans, and fisheries has so far resulted in more progress than the global approach. Oceans face threats on four fronts – overfishing, pollution, climate change, and habitat destruction – and we know remarkably little about their condition. The political response to managing fisheries has lagged far behind the demand for fish and improvements in the efficiency of fishing. Environmental policy is not just concerned with qualitative matters such as clean air and water, but also with quantitative matters, prime among them being the management of natural resources. These are materials or commodities found naturally on earth that have value to humans, and include land, water, plants, animals, soil, minerals, fossil fuels, forests, fisheries, and the open ocean. They can be consumed directly, as in the case of food and drinking water, or indirectly, as in the case of forests that provide timber and fuelwood.
John McCormick

9. Waste: A Failure of Consumer Society

Abstract
The problem of waste exemplifies much that is wrong with modern consumer society, and with our collective approach to the management of resources. Nothing is wasted in nature, begging the question of how best to define waste, which comes in multiple forms and can be addressed in multiple ways. We are producing more waste as the human population grows and as wasteful habits spread from the North to the South. There are many options to dealing with waste – including prevention, recovery, and disposal – but the political and economic pressures shaping these options vary significantly by country. Increased production of toxic, hazardous, and radioactive waste has added troubling new dimensions to the question of how best to deal with waste. An international dimension has been added to the debate over waste by efforts either to ship it elsewhere or to dump it into the ocean. The problem of waste exemplifies much that is wrong with modern consumer society, and with our collective approach to the management of resources. Waste was all but unknown until the beginning of the twentieth century, the low levels of consumption combining with the scarcity of goods and money to encourage producers and consumers to reuse almost everything. But as consumers became wealthier, as they demanded and were given more choice, and as they increasingly saw belongings as temporary and disposable, so they created more waste: the consumer society became the disposable society.
John McCormick

10. Biodiversity: Species, Genes, and Ecology

Abstract
The threats posed by human activity to biological diversity go to the heart of our environmental dilemma, and yet we know little about the true breadth or depth of the problem. The extinction of species is part of the evolutionary cycle of life, but the current cycle of extinctions is mainly human-made. Threats to biodiversity come mainly from habitat destruction, invasive species, pollution, population growth, and overexploitation. Habitat destruction poses particular threats to tropical forests, migratory species, and coral reefs. Climate change has become the latest and most troubling threat to biodiversity, posing systemic problems that can be resolved only through coordinated international action. There are numerous international conventions and programmes with biodiversity as their focus, but whether this amounts to an identifiable biodiversity regime is debatable. This chapter focuses on what human actions have meant for other living things, a notion encapsulated in the term biodiversity. Related to the more general term wildlife, and coined in 1986 for a conference on the topic (Harper and Hawksworth, 1994), it is both a synonym for and a contraction of the term biological diversity, and is concerned with the variety and the population of species, and their place in the natural system. Hall (2010a) defines biodiversity as ‘the total sum of biotic variation, ranging from the genetic level, through the species level and on to the ecosystem level’, while biological diversity is defined in the 1992 Convention on Biological Diversity as ‘the variability among living organisms from all sources including … terrestrial, marine and other aquatic ecosystems and the ecological complexes of which they are part; this includes diversity within species, between species and of ecosystems.’
John McCormick

11. Energy: The Slow Road to Renewables

Abstract
The world still relies heavily on fossil fuels, sources of energy that are still mainly cheap and plentiful, but that are also finite in supply, and highly pollutive. The contribution of coal and natural gas to energy supply has grown in recent decades, while that of oil has fallen, and nuclear power goes through ups and downs. The contribution of renewable sources has grown little in recent decades, thanks mainly to the hold of fossil fuels on economies and governments, and the need for upfront investments in the development of renewables. Debates over energy policy have long been driven by concerns over the security of supplies, but are increasingly driven by concerns about air pollution and climate change. Few states have an energy policy that goes much beyond a concern with security of supplies, although acid pollution – and, more recently, climate change – has pushed the environment further up the agenda in Europe and North America. New scientific understanding, public opinion, technological change, and international peer pressure promise to continue changing the directions taken with energy policy. The source of many of our environmental problems can be found in our reliance on fossil fuels: coal, oil, and natural gas that were created over millions of years by the decomposition and compression of organic matter. The seeds of that reliance were sown during the Industrial Revolution when new inventions in Britain brought structural change in production methods: the steam engine, the flying shuttle, the spinning jenny, the water frame, and new methods for smelting iron all transformed their respective enterprises.
John McCormick

12. Climate Change: The Ultimate Global Test

Abstract
Other than the threat of nuclear holocaust, no other human-made phenomenon has ever threatened the well-being of life on earth in such a wholesale manner as climate change. Global average temperatures are clearly rising, and the effects of those rises are clear and well established. In spite of a near-consensus on the science of climate change, many continue to doubt its seriousness or its roots in human activity. States are divided on their levels of responsibility and their commitments to change, much of the focus being on the major industrial powers that generate the most greenhouse gas emissions. The most support for policy change has tended to come from states that are dependent on imported energy while the most opposition has tended to come from those states most well endowed in energy. The European Union has been a leader in addressing climate change, while the two major producers of greenhouse gases – China and the United States – have equivocated. Without question, the most serious environmental problem we face is human-induced climate change (otherwise known as global warming). At source, it is an air pollution problem because it stems from an enhanced greenhouse effect created by a growth in atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide and methane. But the effects – which include changing weather patterns, more extreme weather events, melting ice caps and glaciers, rising sea levels, changing crop-growing patterns, and threats to biodiversity – mean that climate change is not just a pollution problem or even an environmental problem, but has become a broader political, economic, and social problem.
John McCormick
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