Time for change?

Climate & Natural resources02 Dec 2009Kathrin Dombrowski

In his opening statement, Frank Biermann mentioned that the word ‘governance’ comes up 961 times in the conference programme. The Earth System Governance Project is particularly interested in ‘new’ forms of governance, that is to say private forms of governance beyond the nation-state. Academic research on instances of rulemaking by private actors has really taken off in recent years and there is some fascinating work out there on why these initiatives emerge, how they function, under what conditions they are more or less effective, and on the sources of their accountability and legitimacy. I find these questions extremely interesting but do sometimes wonder whether, in their enthusiasm for researching ‘transnational’ governance, scholars sometimes lose sight of the central role that the nation-state continues to play in world politics.

These questions were partly addressed in Mark Elder’s presentation during the semi-plenary on ‘Architecture of Earth System Governance’ this morning. He argued that we mustn’t neglect the role of governments, and that regulatory approaches at the domestic level are crucial for effective environmental outcomes internationally. The main obstacle for more effective environmental action within states lies in the perception of environmental action as an economic cost. The focus on cost means that governments consider environmental action as something that is not in their national interest. However, using the example of trade liberalization, he showed that domestic policy changes were made possible through the political mobilization of exporters who benefit from lower protection, to counter protectionist supporters. A similar process is possible in the case of environmental action if those business actors whose interests coincide with higher environmental standards can be mobilized politically at the national (and international) level. This means that strategies to achieve environmental action need to focus on changing ideas, changing perceptions of interests (among business actors and voters more broadly) and mobilizing ‘environmentally friendly’ stakeholders.

These suggestions are linked to another issue that has caught my attention. The other contributors to this blog, as well as many of the conference participants, seem to share a real desire for the research on earth system governance to be practically relevant and to make a positive difference in addressing the most pressing global problems. There is much talk of ‘change’ – the need to react to ecological and social change that is happening all around us, and the need to change existing governance structures to make them more effective and legitimate. At the same time, this is clearly an academic conference, with most of the participants coming from universities and research institutions rather than from policy or civil society organizations. I do wonder, therefore, how the research presented at this conference will be communicated to decision makers in these critical times – is there an active outreach plan for the policy community?