Climate change is the dominating issue

Climate & Natural resources01 Dec 2009Kathrin Dombrowski

‘Earth System Governance – People, Places, and the Planet’ is the theme of the 2009 Amsterdam Conference on the Human Dimension of Global Environmental Change, taking place this week (2-4 December). I was lucky to be accepted to participate in the PhD Winter School on ‘The Challenge of Adaptive Governance’, which preceded the conference and brought together about 32 PhD students from around the world for a series of engaging lectures and discussions on Earth System Governance and adaptation.

Although the actual conference is still two days away, we (the Winter School participants) are already based in the conference venue – not actually in Amsterdam itself, but in a hotel near Volendam, about 20 minutes by bus from Amsterdam Central Station. As soon as you leave the hotel, you come across grazing sheep, a cheese-making factory, and the ‘Beemster’, described in the conference programme as ‘a unique, pioneering, land reclamation project of the early 17th century that is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site’. It is fair to say that there is little in the immediate vicinity of the hotel to distract attention from the discussions that will be taking place here over the coming days. This is a good thing, as the 2009 Amsterdam Conference is poised to address many of the most important challenges facing citizens, policy makers and scholars in the field of environmental governance today.

There is no doubt that the issue of climate change is going to dominate the discussions – and not only because many of the people attending the conference this week will make their way to Copenhagen shortly after. The challenge of climate change drastically highlights the inadequacy of our current institutions and governance mechanisms and the pressing need for new, effective and legitimate forms of earth system governance. In order to get a better understanding of the concept of earth system governance, it is worth reading Frank Biermann’s 2007 paper ‘’Earth system governance’ as a crosscutting theme of global change research’ (Global Environmental Change 17, pp.326-337). In this, he outlines the very catching ‘five A’s’, which also serve as organizing clusters for the conference presentations: Architecture, Agency, Adaptiveness, Accountability and Allocation.

Coming from an International Relations background, my own understanding of earth system governance is conditioned by the academic literature on ‘global governance’ more broadly, and many of the questions that I find most interesting arise from this particular perspective on world politics. I am especially interested in the role of non-state actors and issues of accountability in global environmental governance, both of which are issues likely to feature prominently in the conference. I will be watching out for new empirical work on rule-making by non-state actors, on how the activities of non-state actors impact on and are conditioned by public rule-making, and for new developments in the accountability and legitimacy debate. I am also wondering whether there is work on non-state actors that do not fit into the NGO vs business categories (such as social movements and peoples’ organizations) and on the linkages between environmental and global economic governance (in the areas of trade, investment and intellectual property).