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International Relations TheoriesDiscipline and Diversity

International Relations Theories: Discipline and Diversity (4th edn)

Tim Dunne, Milja Kurki, and Steve Smith
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p. 25914. Green Theorylocked

p. 25914. Green Theorylocked

  • Robyn Eckersley


This chapter examines how environmental concerns have influenced International Relations theory. It first provides a brief overview of the ecological crisis and the emergence of green theorizing in the social sciences and humanities in general, along with the status and impact of environmental issues and green thinking in IR theory. It then investigates green theory's transnational turn and how it has become more global, while critical IR theory has become increasingly green. It also considers the different ways in which environmental issues have influenced the evolution of traditional IR theory. It concludes with a case study of climate change to illustrate the diversity of theoretical approaches, including the distinctiveness of green theories. The chapter shows that a preoccupation with environmental justice is what unites the international political economy and normative wings of green IR theory.

Reader’s Guide

This chapter explores the ways in which environmental concerns have influenced International Relations (IR) theory. It provides a brief introduction to the ecological crisis and the emergence of green theorizing in the social sciences and humanities in general, noting its increasing international orientation, and then tracks the status and impact of environmental issues and green thinking in IR theory. It shows how orthodox IR theories, such as neorealism and neoliberalism,1 have constructed environmental problems merely as a ‘new issue area’ that can be approached through pre-existing theoretical frameworks. These approaches are contrasted with green IR theory, which challenges the state-centric framework, rationalist analysis, and ecological blindness of orthodox IR theories and offers a range of new environmental interpretations of international justice, democracy, development, modernization, and security. In the case study, climate change is explored to highlight the diversity of theoretical approaches, including the distinctiveness of green approaches, in understanding global environmental change.


Environmental problems have never been a central preoccupation in the discipline of International Relations (IR), which has traditionally focused on questions of ‘high politics’ such as security and interstate conflict. However, the escalation in transboundary ecological problems from the 1970s onwards saw the emergence of a dedicated subfield of IR concerned with international environmental cooperation, which focused primarily on the management of common pool resources such as major river systems, the oceans, and the atmosphere. This scholarship has since grown apace with increasing global economic and ecological interdependence and the emergence of uniquely global ecological problems, such as climate change, the thinning of the ozone layer, and the erosion of the Earth’s biodiversity. The bulk of research has focused on the study of environmental regimes, primarily from the evolving theoretical framework of neoliberalism, which has approached the environment merely as a new ‘issue area’ or new political problem, rather than a new theoretical challenge.

p. 260By the closing decades of the twentieth century, however, a growing body of green IR theory had emerged that called into question some of the basic assumptions, units of study, frameworks of analysis, and implicit values of the discipline of IR. Just as feminist discourses emerging from outside IR have exposed the gender blindness of much IR theory (discussed in Chapter 10), green IR theory, drawing on more radical green discourses from outside the discipline of IR, has helped to expose what might be called the ecological blindness of IR theory. Emerging primarily out of a critique of mainstream rationalist approaches (primarily neo- or structural realism as set out in Chapter 3 and neoliberalism discussed in Chapter 5), green IR theory has simultaneously drawn upon, and critically revised and extended, neo-Marxist inspired International political economy (IPE) and normative international relations theories of a cosmopolitan orientation. This new wave of green scholarship has reinterpreted some of the central concepts and discourses in IR and global politics, and challenged traditional understandings of security, development, democracy, and international justice with new discourses of ecological security, sustainable development (and reflexive modernization), ecological democracy, and environmental justice.

The complex problem of global warming provides an especially illuminating illustration of the diverse ways in which ‘real-world’ environmental problems are refracted through different theoretical lenses in the discipline of IR. As we shall see, realists typically dismiss environmental problems as peripheral to the main game of international politics unless the consequences of climate change can be shown to impinge directly on national security. Neoliberals, in contrast, are more likely to offer advice on how to adjust incentive structures in the climate change regime to induce interstate cooperation. Critical theorists, however, tend to reject such piecemeal, ‘problem-solving’ approaches that fail to address social and economic structures of domination (as noted in Chapters 7 and 8). The green voices in the global climate change debate have extended this line of critical inquiry to include neglected areas of environmental domination and marginalization, such as the domination of nonhuman nature, the neglect of the needs of future generations, and the skewed distribution of ecological risks among different social classes, states, and regions. As we shall see, it is this overriding preoccupation with environmental justice that unites the IPE and normative wings of green IR theory.

After tracking the emergence of green theory in the social sciences and humanities in general, this chapter explores how green theory has itself become more transnational and global, while critical IR theory has become increasingly green. Green IR theory is shown to rest at the intersection of these two developments. The chapter will also point to the different ways in which environmental issues have influenced the evolution of traditional IR theory. The diversity of theoretical approaches, including the distinctiveness of green theories, will be further highlighted through the case study of global warming.

The emergence of green theory

Environmental degradation caused by human activity has a long and complex history. However, until the period of European global expansion and the industrial revolution, environmental degradation generally remained uneven and relatively localized. The ‘modern ecological crisis’—marked by an exponential increase in the range, scale, and seriousness of p. 261environmental problems around the world—is generally understood to have emerged alongside only in the latter half of the twentieth century, beginning with the ‘great acceleration’ in human population and economic activity in the 1950s (International Geosphere-Biosphere Program, 2015). Likewise, the 1960s is typically taken to mark the birth of the ‘modern’ environment movement as a widespread and persistent social movement that has publicized and criticized the environmental ‘side effects’ of the long economic boom following the Second World War. Rapid economic growth, the proliferation of new technologies, and the rising population in this period generated increasing energy and resource consumption, new sources (and rising levels) of pollution and waste production, and the rapid erosion of the Earth’s biodiversity. While some environmental indicators had improved in some countries by the closing decades of the twentieth century, the overall global environmental assessment for the twenty-first century remains bleak. Indeed, since the turn of the century, earth system scientists have warned that human civilization is drifting out of the Holocene into a new epoch of the Anthropocene in which humans are the dominant ‘geological force’ shaping the Earth’s systems. Whereas over the last 11,500 years the Holocene provided a relatively stable climate conducive to the development of human civilization, the Anthropocene may be characterized by unpredictable and possibly abrupt and cataclysmic environmental changes. Earth scientists warn that human-wrought changes may be creating a climate and a biosphere that will become increasingly inhospitable to human civilization unless drastic socioeconomic changes are made to ensure that human activities operate within the ‘safe operating space’ of our ‘planetary boundaries’ (e.g. Rockström et al. 2009; Stockholm Resilience Centre 2015).

The ‘ecological crisis’ is clearly an apt characterization of these developments, although the phrase ‘ecological predicament’ probably best captures the peculiar conundrum facing policy-makers at all levels of governance, namely that environmental problems are persistent, ubiquitous, and increasingly dire, even though nobody intended to create them. Unlike military threats, which are deliberate, discrete, specific, and require an immediate response, environmental problems are typically unintended, diffuse, transboundary, operate over long time scales, implicate a wide range of actors, and require painstaking negotiation and cooperation among a wide range of stakeholders. Indeed, environmental problems are sometimes described by policy analysts as ‘wicked problems’ because of their complexity, variability, irreducibility, intractability, and incidental character. Most environmental risks have crept up, as it were, on a rapidly modernizing world as the unforeseen side effects of otherwise acceptable practices. Such risks are ‘the stowaways’ of normal investment, production, and consumption (Beck 1992: 40).

However, it did not take long for radical voices within the environment movement, and critical voices in the social sciences and humanities, to question not just the side effects of economic growth, but also the phenomenon of economic growth itself and the broader processes of modernization. This debate became highly politicized with the ‘limits-to-growth’ debate of the early 1970s. Influential publications such as the Club of Rome’s The Limits to Growth report (Meadows et al. 1972) and The Ecologist magazine’s ‘Blueprint for Survival’ (Ecologist 1972), offered dire predictions of impending ecological catastrophe unless exponential economic growth was replaced with ‘steady-state’ economic development. These debates coincided with the first United Nations Stockholm Conference on the Human Environment (1972), which formalized the emergence of the environment as a ‘global issue’.2 The sustainable development discourse that emerged in the 1980s served to neutralize the p. 262limits-to-growth debate by suggesting that economic growth and sustainability were compatible. However, the idea of limits has resurfaced in the new millennium with debates about global carbon budgets, planetary boundaries, and new scientific and political discourses on the Anthropocene.

From environmental issues to green theories

Environmental concerns, like feminist concerns, have left their mark on most branches of the social sciences and humanities. However, it was not until the late 1980s that a distinctly ‘green’ social and political theory emerged to give voice to the interrelated concerns of the new social movements (environment, peace, antinuclear, women’s) that have shaped green politics. These movements also spearheaded the formation of a wave of new green parties in the 1980s at the local, national, and regional level (most prominently in Europe), based on the ‘four pillars’ of green politics: ecological responsibility, social justice, nonviolence, and grass-roots democracy. These pillars have provided a common platform for new green party formations around the world, including in Africa, Latin America, and Asia. Indeed, green politics is the only new global political discourse and practice to emerge in opposition to neoliberal globalization.

While the term ‘green’ is often used to refer simply to environmental concerns, by the early 1990s green political theory had gained recognition as a new political tradition of inquiry that has emerged as an ambitious challenger to the two political traditions that have had the most decisive influence on twentieth-century politics—liberalism and socialism.3 Like liberalism and socialism, green political theory has a normative branch (concerned with questions of justice, rights, democracy, citizenship, the state, and the environment), and a political economy branch (concerned with understanding the relationship between the state, the economy, and the environment). As we shall see, the normative and political economy dimensions of this new green tradition are now discernible in IR but they are less sharply etched than their domestic counterpart, largely because they are still in a formative phase of development.

In broad outline, the first wave of green political theory mounted a critique of both Western capitalism and Soviet-style communism, both of which were regarded as essentially two different versions of the same overarching ideology of industrialism, despite their differences concerning the respective roles of the market and the state. The green critique of industrialism formed part of a broader re-examination of taken-for-granted ideas about the idea of progress and the virtues of modernization inherited from the Enlightenment. Both liberalism and orthodox Marxism were shown to have developed on the basis of the same cornucopian premises, which assumed that the Earth’s natural resource base could support unbridled economic growth, and that increasing growth and technological advancement were both highly desirable and inevitable. Both political traditions were shown to share the same optimism about the benefits of science and technology, and either explicitly or implicitly accepted the idea that the human manipulation and domination of nature through the further refinement of instrumental reason were necessary for human advancement. Green political theorists have taken issue with these Enlightenment legacies and highlighted the ecological, social, and psychological costs of the modernization process. They have criticized humanity’s increasingly instrumental relationship with nonhuman nature, along with the subjugation of indigenous peoples and many traditional forms of agriculture. Drawing on the kindred disciplines p. 263of environmental ethics and environmental philosophy, which emerged in the late 1970s and early 1980s, green political theorists have called into question anthropocentrism or human chauvinism—the idea that humans are the apex of evolution, the centre of value and meaning in the world, and the only beings that possess moral worth. Rejecting such a posture as arrogant, self-serving, and increasingly foolhardy, many green theorists have embraced a new ecology-centred or ‘ecocentric’ philosophy that seeks to respect all life forms in terms of their own distinctive modes of being, for their own sake, and not merely for their instrumental value to humans. From this perspective, environmental governance should be about protecting not only the health and well-being of existing human communities and future generations, but also the larger web of life, made up of nested ecological communities at multiple levels of aggregation (e.g. gene pools, populations, species, ecosystems, and Earth system processes such as the hydrological, nitrogen, phosphorus, and carbon cycles). This perspective embraces complexity theory and draws attention to the limits of humanity’s knowledge of the natural world, and the complex, nonlinear dynamical character of Earth systems, arguing that nature is not only more complex than we know, but possibly more complex than we shall ever know or be able to predict. Green theorists therefore generally counsel in favour of a more cautious and critical approach to the assessment of new development proposals, new technologies, and practices of risk assessment in general.

Some of these green themes—particularly the critique of the ascendancy of instrumental reason—were central to the first generation of Frankfurt school critical theorists (discussed in Chapter 8), who were the first Western Marxists to problematize the domination of nature and explore its relationship to the domination of humans. Whereas the mature Marx had adopted a Promethean posture towards nature and welcomed scientific and technological progress, the exploration by Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer of the ‘dialectic of Enlightenment’ pointed to the multiple costs to human and nonhuman nature that accompanied the increasing penetration of instrumental reason into human society and nature (Adorno and Horkheimer 1972). This general theme has been further developed (albeit in less pessimistic terms) by the second generation of Frankfurt school critical theorists, led by Jürgen Habermas. One of Habermas’s enduring concerns has been to protect the ‘lifeworld’ from the march of instrumental rationality by ensuring that such rationality remains subservient to the practice of critical deliberation. Habermas’s ideal of communicative rationality has served as a major source of inspiration in the development of green democratic theory and critical green explorations of the relationship between risk, science, technology, and society. Whereas orthodox Marxist theory had confined its critical attention to the relations of production, green theory has expanded this critique to include the ‘forces of production’ (technology and management systems) and what Ulrich Beck has called ‘the relations of definition’ that define, assess, distribute, and manage the risks of modernization.

There remains disagreement among green political theorists as to whether green politics should be understood as antimodern, postmodern, or simply seeking more ‘reflexive modernization’, although the latter appears to have emerged as the most favoured approach. Indeed, the second wave of green political theory of the mid-1990s and beyond has been less preoccupied with critical philosophical reflection on humanity’s posture towards the nonhuman world and more concerned with exploring the conditions that might improve the ‘reflexive learning capacity’ of citizens, societies, and states in a world of mounting yet unevenly distributed ecological risks. The green critique of industrialism and modernization has not p. 264eclipsed the politics of ‘left versus right’, but it has certainly placed the traditional distributive struggles between labour and capital, and between rich world and poor world, in a broader and more challenging context. Indeed, improving distributive justice while simultaneously curbing ecologically destructive economic growth has emerged as the central political and economic challenge of green theory and practice, both domestically and internationally.

The transnational turn in green theory

In exploring the relationship between environmental justice and environmental democracy, the second wave of green political theory has become more transnational and cosmopolitan in its orientation. The first wave had sought to highlight the ecological irrationality of core social institutions such as the market and the state and many green political theorists had extolled the virtues of grass-roots democracy and ecologically sustainable communities as alternatives. The second wave of green political theory has been more preoccupied with critically rethinking and, in some cases, ‘transnationalizing’ the scope of many core political concepts and institutions with environmental problems in mind. This scholarship has produced new, local, transnational, deterritorialized, or global conceptualizations of environmental justice (e.g. Low and Gleeson 1998; Schlosberg 2007), environmental rights (e.g. Hayward 2005), environmental democracy (Doherty and de Geus 1996; Eckersley 2000; Mason 2007; Stevenson and Dryzek 2014), environmental activism (Wapner 1998), environmental citizenship (Barry 1999; Dobson 2003), and green states (e.g. Eckersley 2004; Barry and Eckersley 2005). There has also been an increasing engagement by green political theorists with some of the core debates within normative IR theory, particularly those concerned with human rights, cosmopolitan democracy, transnational civil society, and transnational public spheres (e.g. Stevenson and Dryzek 2014). This scholarship has also fed into, and helped to shape, a distinctly green branch of normative IR theory concerned with global environmental justice. According to green theory, environmental injustices arise when unaccountable social agents ‘externalize’ the environmental costs of their decisions and practices to innocent third parties—particularly vulnerable communities in the Global South—in circumstances where the affected parties (or their representatives) have no knowledge of, or input in, the ecological risk-generating decisions and practices. Rob Nixon has described this process as ‘slow violence’ because it so often slips under the radar of political attention—unlike sensational environmental disasters that produce immediate harm (Nixon 2011). The fundamental critical and normative task of green theory is to highlight this problem and work towards reducing the production of ecological risks while also preventing their unfair externalization and displacement through space and time (e.g. Christoff and Eckersley 2013).

Ultimately, environment justice demands (i) recognition of the expanded moral community that is affected by ecological risks (i.e. not just all citizens, but all peoples, future generations, and nonhuman species); (ii) participation and critical deliberation by citizens and representatives of the larger community-at-risk in all environmental decision-making (including policy-making, legislating and treaty-making, administration, monitoring, enforcement, and adjudication); (iii) a precautionary approach to ensure the minimization of risks in relation to the larger community; (iv) a fair distribution of those risks that are reflectively acceptable via democratic processes that includes the standpoint of all affected parties and p. 265public interest advocacy groups; and (v) redress and compensation for those parties who suffer the effects of ecological problems.

Green scholarship on questions of political economy has likewise become more globally focused (e.g. Newell 2012; Christoff and Eckersley 2013), although discourses of economy–environment integration have always had a global dimension—even before the emergence of a distinctly green theory that identified with the concerns of the new social movement and green parties. The early ‘limits-to-growth’ debate had generated calls for radical policy changes to bring about a curbing or even cessation of economic growth (and, in some cases, population growth) to put a break on rising global environmental degradation. However, these calls proved to be both controversial and politically unpalatable. By the late 1980s, the limits-to-growth debate was eclipsed by the more appealing discourse of sustainable development, which had been widely embraced following the publication of Our Common Future (the Brundtland Report) by the World Commission on Environment and Development (1987). The Brundtland Report challenged the idea that environmental protection and economic development stand in a simple zero-sum relationship and it pointed to the opportunities for ‘decoupling’ economic growth and environmental deterioration by pursuing an environmentally friendly or sustainable development path. Sustainable development, according to the Brundtland Committee’s pithy and oft-quoted formulation, is understood as development that meets the needs of present generations without sacrificing the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. A broad strategy of sustainable development was officially endorsed at the United Nation’s Conference on Environment and Development (‘the Earth Summit’) in Rio de Janiero in 1992 and it continues to serve as the dominant meta-discourse of national and international environmental law and policy, despite the fact that it remains deeply contested and only weakly implemented.

While the Brundtland Report’s intra- and intergenerational approach to equity is welcome, from a green perspective it still rests on an instrumental orientation towards the nonhuman world and ignores the case for biodiversity preservation for its own sake. Even more problematically, the report optimistically assumed that sustainable development could be achieved by increasing economic growth rates. In defending an alternative conception of ecologically sustainable development, green political economists have rejected the dominant framework of neoclassical economics in favour of the new theoretical framework of ecological economics. For ecological economists, market mechanisms may provide an efficient allocation of resources but they can neither ensure a fair distribution of wealth and income relative to present and future human needs, nor ensure that the scale of the economy operates within the ecological carrying capacity of ecosystems. These matters are beyond the capacity of markets and must be addressed politically, through environmental education, societal debate, and the negotiation of ecological limits through state regulation and international cooperation.

Nonetheless, the general argument that there are synergies between more efficient capitalist development and environmental protection has been reinforced by the more recent, and mostly European-led, discourse of ecological modernization (Hajer 1995). Proponents of ecological modernization argue that stricter environmental regulation, economic competition, and constant technological innovation produce economic growth that uses less energy and resources and produces less waste per unit of gross domestic product. Far from acting as a break on growth, proponents of ecological modernization maintain that stronger domestic environmental regulation can act as a spur to further environmental/technical innovation, p. 266which enhances national economic competitiveness and forces an upward ratcheting of environmental standards. This ‘win–win’ approach has been warmly embraced, if not systematically implemented, by many members of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), particularly in Western Europe, and it coincides with a shift towards the increasing use of market-based instruments in environmental policy.

While limits-to-growth advocates underestimated the synergies between capitalist development and environmental protection, ecological economists maintain that the discourse of sustainable development, and especially the more technologically oriented discourse of ecological modernization, have overestimated them. Improving the environmental efficiency of production through technological innovation is to be welcomed but it does not reduce aggregate levels of resource consumption and waste production. Indeed, gains in environmental efficiency typically enable improvements in economic productivity, rising incomes and demand, and further consumption and production, which is known as ‘the rebound effect’. Moreover, not all environmental protection measures—such as biodiversity protection—are necessarily conducive to economic growth. In some cases, difficult political trade-offs are necessary. Finally, green critics argue that a simple strategy of technologically driven ecological modernization provides no means of addressing the deeply skewed distribution of ecological risks among different social classes and nations.

For example, ecological economists have drawn attention to oversized ‘ecological footprints’ of privileged classes and nations to suggest that they have appropriated more than their ‘fair share’ of the environment (Wackernagel and Rees 1996). However, this ‘snapshot’ approach of environmental consumption had been criticized as too static by critical ecological economists, who have focused instead on tracking and measuring flows of energy, materials, and wastes in the global economic system and linking these flows to the shifting dynamics of global trade and investment. Drawing on world system theory, this new theory of ‘unequal ecological exchange’ maintains that the global trading system has produced an international division of labour that has enabled overconsumption and improved domestic environments in the Global North alongside underconsumption, environmental load displacement, and degradation of domestic environments in the Global South (e.g. Hornborg 1998; Parks and Roberts 2010). However, the rapidly growing middle classes in major economies such as China and India suggests that the simple North–South axis underpinning this thesis needs to be modified.

The Brundtland Report was also concerned to promote intra- and intergenerational equity. However, it relied on the ‘trickle-down’ effect brought about by increasing growth (with faster growth recommended for the South to enable it to ‘catch up’ to the North). From a green perspective, these recommendations encapsulate the sustainable development paradox: that environmental protection is best achieved by pursuing more (albeit environmentally efficient) growth, which generates more aggregate environmental problems (albeit at a slower rate).

In grappling with this paradox (which also sheds light on why environmental problems are such ‘wicked’ problems), green political theorists and green political economists have drawn on the new field of environmental sociology, particularly the sub-branch dealing with modernization and the risk society, which provides a direct challenge to neoclassical economics and neoliberal political ideology. For sociologists of the risk society, such as Ulrich Beck (1992), ecological problems persist because they are generated by the very economic, scientific, and p. 267political institutions that are called upon to solve them. The paradox of sustainable development, therefore, cannot be solved simply by the pursuit of more environmentally efficient means to achieve given ends. Rather, it is necessary to pursue ‘reflexive modernization’, which entails reflecting critically and continuously on the means and the ends of modernization. Following Christoff (1996), many green theorists now draw a distinction between ‘weak’ and ‘strong’ versions of ecological modernization. The former represents the greater efficiency ‘technical fix’ interpretation favoured by many OECD governments, and the latter represents the more critical, green approach of reflexive modernization. It is here that green IPE and green normative theory join forces in advocating a more ‘ecologically informed’ democracy that provides extensive opportunities for citizens to represent long-range, generalizable interests and to challenge the settled practices of risk definition, generation, distribution, and management.

Nonetheless, there remain internal divisions within green circles over whether capitalist economies, states, or the state system are indeed capable of becoming ecologically reflexive to the degree required to avert significant and ongoing environmental degradation. Despite these differences, green theorists are in general agreement that the intensification of economic globalization and the ascendancy of neoliberal discourses at the national and international levels have made the general green case harder to pursue (e.g. Okereke 2008). Nor is the anarchic structure of the state system well suited to resolving transnational and global ecological problems, especially global warming, which is one of the most complex and challenging collective-action problems facing the international community. Of course, IR scholars working in the broad traditions of realism, liberalism, and Marxism have well-developed (and diverging) views about the prospects of international environmental cooperation. As we shall see, green IR theory has largely defined itself in opposition to mainstream rationalist approaches to IR (principally neorealism and neoliberalism), while selectively drawing on critical theories, including Marxist political economy.

The greening of IR theory

Green IR theory shares many of the characteristics of the new IR theories emerging out of the so-called ‘third debate’ (also sometimes referred to as the ‘fourth debate’; see Chapter 1): they are generally critical, problem-oriented, interdisciplinary, and above all unapologetic about their explicit normative orientation. In their quest to promote global environmental justice, green IR scholars seek to articulate the concerns of many voices traditionally at the margins of international relations, ranging from environmental nongovernment organizations, green consumers, ‘citizen scientists’, ecological economists, green political parties, indigenous peoples, and, broadly, all those seeking to transform patterns of global trade, aid, finance, and debt to promote ecologically sustainable development in the North and South.

Green IR theory may be usefully subdivided into an IPE wing, which offers an alternative analysis of global ecological problems to that of regime theory, and a normative or ‘green cosmopolitan’ wing that articulates new norms of environmental justice and green democracy at all levels of governance. Both of these subfields remain indebted to critical theory, particularly the neo-Gramscian-inspired critical political economy of Robert Cox, and the cosmopolitan discourse ethics of Jürgen Habermas, and therefore can be located clearly on p. 268the critical/constructivist side of the rationalism versus constructivism debate in IR theory (this debate is discussed in Chapters 1 and 9).

Rationalist accounts and green alternatives

The two dominant rationalist approaches in IR theory—neorealism and neoliberalism—have tended to approach environmental problems as a ‘new issue area’ to be absorbed within their pre-existing theoretical frameworks rather than as something that presents a new analytical or normative challenge. Whereas neo- or structural realists have been mostly dismissive of the ‘low politics’ of the environment, neoliberals have conducted extensive empirical work on regimes dealing with transboundary and global environmental problems. In the last decade, this scholarship has expanded to include the interplay between environmental and other regimes, and broader regime complexes covering particular environmental issue areas, such as the regime complex on climate change (e.g. Keohane and Victor 2011). This scholarship has produced a range of useful insights that help to predict whether or not states are likely to cooperate in, or defect from, environmental regimes, or engage in ‘forum shopping’, along with a range of reforms for improving the effectiveness of such regimes. In general, dominant rationalist approaches have not explicitly engaged in normative theorizing, although neoliberals have openly acknowledged their problem-solving and reformist, rather than critical, orientation (Haas et al. 1993: 7). Their primary research purpose has been to observe, explain, and predict the international behaviour of states, and to suggest practical reforms that would improve the effectiveness of environmental regimes.

Both the political economy and normative wings of green IR theory have challenged these dominant rationalist approaches on four levels. First, green critics have directed critical attention to the normative purposes that are served by rationalist approaches by exposing the problematic environmental assumptions and ethical values that are implicit in neorealist and neoliberal analyses. In this respect, green IR theorists take seriously Robert Cox’s observation that ‘theory is always for someone and for some purpose’ (Cox 1981). Neorealism, in particular, is criticized for ‘normalizing’ rather than challenging the environmentally exploitative practices sponsored by states. From their Hobbesian universe, neorealists maintain that rivalrous state behaviour is inevitable owing to the anarchic structure of the state system, and that it would be foolhardy for states to pursue environmental cooperation that did not confer relative gains. Of course, neorealist theorists do not personally endorse environmental exploitation but they remain unreflective about the political purposes served by their theories and are therefore seen to provide an apology for environmental exploitation and international non-cooperation. As we shall see, green IR theorists have also challenged the restrictive understanding of national security that has dominated realist theories of all persuasions and argued instead for a more comprehensive framework for understanding security that takes human well-being and ecosystem integrity, rather than states, as the fundamental moral and analytical reference point.

In contrast, neoliberals, from their Lockean universe, seek to create international regimes that optimize the ‘rational exploitation’ of nature, both as a ‘tap’ (in providing energy and natural resources) and as a ‘sink’ (via the waste assimilation services of the Earth, oceans, and atmosphere) in ways that expand the menu of state development options. However, their rational choice framework implicitly sanctions an instrumental orientation towards the p. 269nonhuman world and leaves little room for understanding or promoting alternative ‘green identities’ of particular states or nonstate actors. Whereas neoliberals implicitly accept capitalist markets and sovereign states as background ‘givens’ to international regime negotiations, green IR theorists are concerned with exposing the ways in which these social structures are a major part of the problem. They show how states have negotiated international environmental agreements, and managed the interplay between environmental and economic regimes, in ways that have institutionalized the paradox of sustainable development (e.g. Stevenson 2013). Green IR theory has also sought to give voice to new forms of counter-hegemonic resistance to neoliberal economic globalization. Like all critical theorists, green IR theorists emphasize the role of agents in transforming social structures—in this case, to promote environmental justice and sustainability.

Second, green IR theorists have added their weight to the critique of rationalist approaches pioneered by critical theorists and constructivists, who have exposed the limitations in the analytical frameworks and explanatory power of positivist IR theories. For example, neorealists predict that interstate environmental cooperation is highly unlikely unless it can be induced or coerced by a hegemonic state, and that such cooperation will always remain vulnerable to shifts in the distribution of power (understood as the distribution of material capability). For neorealists such as Kenneth Waltz the ‘tragedy of the commons’ is generated by the anarchic structure of the state system, which is essentially unchanging. The only changing variable in this system is the distribution of material capabilities among states. Nonstate actors and normative discourses are considered peripheral. Green theorists point out that neorealism provides a crude and incomplete account of international environmental politics. Indeed, one of the biggest growth areas in international treaty-making is in the environmental field, yet realists are at a loss to explain why or how this has occurred.

Although neoliberals offer a more plausible account of the evolution of international environmental cooperation, their framework of analysis is unable to provide a satisfactory account of the normative dimension of environmental regimes. Instead, neoliberals typically reduce environmental regimes to the outcome of a set of interest-based bargaining positions held by states, usually unpacked in terms of relative environmental vulnerability (which includes relative capacity to adjust to environmental change), and the relative costs of adjustments.

By contrast, green theorists point out that environmental regimes embody moral norms that cannot be reduced to state interests or capacities. Understanding why regimes have emerged to protect endangered species (such as whales or elephants), the atmosphere, the oceans, or wilderness areas (such as Antarctica) requires an examination of not only state interests, but also national cultures and values, the role of scientists and transnational environmental advocacy networks, and the persuasive practices of regime negotiators and other ‘norm entrepreneurs’. The deficiencies in rationalist regime theory have prompted some green IR theorists to develop alternative constructivist theoretical foundations for the study of environmental regimes (e.g. Vogler 2003). Likewise, understanding why regimes fail cannot be reduced to concerns over relative gains or calculations of interests. Rather, deep disagreements over the allocation of responsibilities can arise from deep inequalities between states, which produce starkly different understandings of fairness and responsibility and undermine trust and cooperation (Parks and Roberts 2010).

More generally, however, green political economy scholarship has defined itself in opposition to rationalist regime theory. Indeed, the state-centric focus of rationalist regime theory is p. 270seen to deflect attention away from what is seen to be the primary driver of global ecological degradation and environmental injustices, namely the competitive dynamics of globalizing capitalism rather than the rivalry of states per se (e.g. Paterson 2000; Newell 2012). A single-minded focus on states or ‘countries’ is also seen to be misguided, because it disaggregates global production and consumption in arbitrary ways and, therefore, misidentifies where social power, social responsibility, and the capacity to adjust lie. Capitalism operates at a global level in ways that leave highly uneven impacts on different human communities and ecosystems, with some social classes and communities benefiting much more than others, and at the expense of others, in terms of international flows of goods, energy, resources and pollution, wastes, and emissions (Roberts and Parks 2007). Merely punishing those countries that are, say, heavy aggregate polluters ignores the fact that many consumers and financial interests located elsewhere benefit from the pollution without taking any responsibility for the costs. In this respect at least, states are not always the most meaningful units of consumption, and aggregate figures of wealth or pollution in particular states say nothing about the vast disparities of wealth, income, and risks within those states. Instead of allocating blame and responsibility to particular states, green IPE theorists suggest that we should be monitoring and allocating responsibility along transnational commodity chains, from investment, resource extraction, production through to marketing, advertising, retailing, consumption, and disposal (Conca 2000: 149). Indeed, one of the innovations of green IPE is that it focuses as much on global consumption as global investment and production (e.g. Princen et al. 2002). For example, Mathew Paterson (2000) has provided an innovative green neo-Gramscian study that tracks the power of, and ecological shadow cast by, the global automobile industry, which includes a critique of ‘car culture’.

Third, green IR theorists have directed their critical attention to the social agents and social structures that have systematically blocked the negotiation of more ecologically enlightened regimes. These critical analyses have been applied not only to ineffective regimes (chief among which is the Tropical Timber Agreement that is dominated by the timber industry and those states involved in the import and export of timber) but also to the ways in which states have managed the interplay between environmental and economic regimes. One prominent concern of green IR theorists is that international economic regimes, such as the global trading regime, tend to overshadow and undermine many international environmental regimes (e.g. Eckersley 2015). This has sparked an ongoing green debate about the desirability and/or possibility of greening the World Trade Organization (WTO) versus setting up counter-institutions, such as a World Environment Organization, to balance the disciplinary power of the WTO.

Finally, green IR theorists have explored the role of nonstate forms of ‘deterritorialized’ governance, ranging from the transnational initiatives of environmental nongovernmental organizations, such as the Forest Stewardship Council, which has produced an influential certification scheme for forest products produced from sustainably managed forests (Tollefson et al. 2009), to the private governance practices of industrial and financial corporations (Pattberg 2007). This new scholarship has produced a more complex and layered picture of global environmental governance that includes an examination of new, hybrid, and/or network patterns of authority that straddle state jurisdictional boundaries or, in some cases, bypass the traditional hierarchical forms of governance typical of nation-states. More generally, the idea of planetary boundaries has spawned new empirical and normative research on earth systems governance (e.g. Dellas et al. 2011; Bierman 2014). This newp. 271

Featured book

Understanding Global Environmental Politics provides an exemplary illustration of the central theoretical preoccupations of green IR theory. The book provides a fundamental challenge to the basic questions and units of analysis adopted by mainstream (neoliberal institutionalist) regime theorists in the study of global environmental politics. The core question of mainstream inquiry is: ‘What affects the possibility of states collaborating successfully to resolve particular transnational environmental problems?’ (p. 1). Matthew Paterson argues that this narrow framing of the problem depoliticizes global environmental politics, breaks it down into discrete environmental issues and trends, restricts attention to international environmental negotiations, and closes off any investigation into the social institutions that systematically produce ecological problems. The origin of global environmental change is seen to lie in an interstate tragedy of the commons and the absence of global political authority, or simply a set of discrete trends that are treated as exogenous to the conceptual inquiry. The anarchic state system is taken for granted and the analysis is confined to the relative versus absolute gains debate, the role of institutions, the behaviour of states, and the influence of nonstate actors on interstate negotiations.

Paterson argues that green IR theory should start with three more fundamental questions: (i) Why have ecological problems arisen or how are they produced?; (ii) What are the impacts of ecological problems on different social groups?; and (iii) What should be the response? In reply to the first of these questions, he offers an interlocking structural explanation. That is, the production of ecological problems is understood as internal to the logic of four main power structures of global politics: the state system, capitalism, scientific knowledge/managerialism, and patriarchy. Building on a neo-Gramscian understanding of power structures as producing social identities and practices, Paterson teases out the different ways in which these four power structures work together to produce ecological problems on a routine basis. In response to the second question, he also highlights the skewed distribution of ecological risks and the distance in space and time between those who benefit from the social practices that produce them, and those who ultimately suffer. In response to the third question, he argues that the appropriate response is to resist these interlocking power structures and build smaller communities and steady-state economies based on egalitarian social principles.

Paterson has also helped to pioneer the study of everyday practices of consumption and production and the social identities that are produced. He illustrates his structural theory through a detailed examination of three case studies that are ‘local everywhere’: the construction of sea defences, driving cars, and eating McDonald’s hamburgers. He shows how each of these local practices simultaneously produces global environmental problems in a systematic fashion and helps to reproduce state, economic, scientific–technological, and patriarchal power structures.

Matthew Paterson (2000), Understanding Global Environmental Politics: Domination, Accumulation, Resistance (London: Palgrave).

research endeavour seeks to grapple with the fragmented and polycentric character of global environmental governance from an interdisciplinary perspective, and to build normative concerns into a more holistic study of environmental governance and institutional interaction at different levels (e.g. Pattberg and Wilderberg 2014).

In sum, green IR theory has self-consciously sought to transcend the state-centric framework of traditional IR theory and offer new critical, analytical, and normative insights into global environmental change. The case study on climate change provides a useful means of illustrating this contribution, from the critique of mainstream IR approaches through to the recommendation of alternative policy prescriptions.p. 272

Case study:

The challenge of climate change

The problem of human-induced climate change represents one of the most challenging environmental problems confronting humankind. Atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases resulting from human activity have increased substantially from around 1750 and exponentially since the end of the Second World War. The Fifth Assessment Report of the IPCC has declared that ‘warming of the climate system is unequivocal, and since the 1950s, many of the observed changes are unprecedented over decades to millennia’ and that it is ‘extremely likely’ that most of this warming is caused by anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions (IPCC 2014, 2 and 4). Research by NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has found that, with the exception of 1998, the first ten years of the new millennium represent the warmest years in the instrumental record (NASA/NOAA 2015). Scientists predict that if greenhouse gas emissions continue unchecked, the world will face mass extinctions; water, energy, and food scarcity; the loss of coral reefs through coral bleaching; rising sea levels, along with coastal, and infrastructural damage; populations displacement; and human death and suffering from a growing incidence of ‘extreme weather’. While the incidence of climate risks is expected to vary geographically, lower-income populations in developing countries are expected to suffer the most. Climate change will also exacerbate existing inequalities in access to basic necessities such as healthcare, adequate food, and clean water. The inhabitants of small islands and low-lying coastal areas are particularly at risk from sea-level rise and storm surges, and many low-lying island communities will be forced to leave their territories permanently.

In response to the alarming predictions of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC) First Assessment Report in 1990, states negotiated the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), which was signed at the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro in 1992. The basic objective of the agreement is to achieve a ‘stabilization of greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere at a level that would prevent dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system’ (Article 2). The Framework Convention also established basic principles of equitable burden-sharing in Article 3, the most significant of which are that the parties should protect the climate system ‘on the basis of equity and in accordance with their common but differentiated responsibilities and respective capabilities’ (hereafter CBDR); that developed countries should take the lead in combating climate change; and that full consideration should be given to the specific needs and special circumstances of developing countries, especially those that are particularly vulnerable to the effects of climate change.

In 1997, the parties negotiated the Kyoto Protocol, which required industrialized countries to commit to legally binding targets and timetables but exempted developing countries from emissions reduction obligations. While the Clinton administration signed the Kyoto Protocol in 1997 and agreed to reduce the USA’s emissions by seven per cent after negotiating a range of ‘flexibility instruments’ such as carbon trading that would lower the cost of compliance, owing to strong domestic opposition it never presented the treaty for ratification to the USA Senate. In 2001, the Bush administration expressly repudiated the Kyoto Protocol on the grounds that the US’s Kyoto target would harm the American economy, and that the Protocol was flawed because it did not require major developing countries, such as China, to undertake emission reductions in the same commitment period.

In an effort to draw the USA back into the climate regime and to increase the engagement of the major emitters in the developing world, such as China and India, in 2007 the parties launched a new negotiation track for a Treaty on Long-term Cooperative Action (the LCA treaty) alongside negotiations for a second commitment period to the Kyoto Protocol. However, no treaty was concluded at Copenhagen owing to major differences between developed and developing countries (especially between the USA and China and India) over burden-sharing and the interpretation of CBDR. The USA insisted that the LCA treaty would be ineffective without significant commitments from all the major emitters, and focused on the need to curb future growth in emissions, particularly in major developing p. 273countries. In contrast, China (supported by the G77) insisted that developing countries were under no obligation to accept internationally binding commitments given their significant development needs and the failure of developed countries to fulfil their leadership obligations under the Convention given their greater historical responsibility, capacity, and per capita carbon footprint. Nonetheless, in the final chaotic days of the Copenhagen negotiations, the USA and the newly formed BASIC group (Brazil, South Africa, India, and China) managed to broker a nonbinding political accord, known as the Copenhagen Accord, which invited parties to make voluntary pledges to reduce, or slow the growth of, their emissions by 2020. This political accord was officially endorsed at the next annual negotiations in Cancún.

However, the negotiations for a LCA treaty were superseded at the Durban meeting in 2011 where the parties agreed to embark on a fresh round of negotiation for a new ‘protocol, another legal instrument or an agreed outcome with legal force under the Convention applicable to all Parties’ (UNFCCC 2011). This new agreement was to be signed in 2015 in Paris and come into force in 2020. The Durban meeting continued the trajectory set up at Copenhagen to move away from the rigid binary between developed and developing countries embodied in the Kyoto Protocol. Yet the Protocol played a crucial role in the agreement insofar as China and India would not have committed to negotiate a new agreement ‘applicable to all’ had it not been for the European Union’s (EU) agreement to commit to a second commitment period under the Kyoto Protocol for 2013–20. However, in view of the nonparticipation by the US in Kyoto Protocol, and the withdrawal by Canada, Japan, and Russia, it is highly unlikely that the Kyoto Protocol will continue beyond 2020.

In the negotiations for a new Paris agreement, developing countries have insisted on retaining the principles of CBDR, while the USA and many other developed countries have tried, at various times, to remove these principles from draft decisions and the draft agreement. In the lead up to Paris, the USA, China, and India have found a way of managing their differences over CBDR by avoiding a principled agreement on burden-sharing and opting instead for ‘self-differentiation’ by supporting a so-called ‘bottom-up’ pledge and review approach on the Copenhagen model. At the Lima meeting in 2014, it was agreed that each party would develop their ‘intended nationally determined contributions’ for the post-2020 period according to what they consider to be fair and ambitious, according to their national circumstances and their preferred metrics and baselines (UNFCCC 2014, paragraph 14). While this is likely to draw in wide participation it is unlikely to induce ambitious commitments, and will complicate the process of measuring and judging national performance. No efforts have been made by the major emitters to increase their pre-2020 mitigation ambition since the voluntary Copenhagen pledges were posted in January 2010, and the crucial question of how the parties’ post-2020 contributions might be reviewed, and strengthened over time, remains unclear. Despite encouraging signs of diplomatic cooperation between the US and China, signalled by a joint announcement of their post-2020 targets in 2014, most observers agree that the Paris Agreement will mostly take the form of ‘soft law’ obligations and modest ambition. With the significant exception of the EU, the desire of most major emitters not to be legally bound by international mitigation commitments appears to outweigh any desire on their part to bind others in order to address the collective problem (Bodansky 2013, 2). The Paris agreement is unlikely to be ambitious enough to prevent dangerous climate change, unless there is also an agreement that mitigation ambition will be significantly ratcheted up over time in an ongoing, dynamic cycle of pledge and review. So far, twenty-three years of negotiations have failed to produce a robust climate agreement and many observers have singled out these negotiations (alongside the Doha round of trade negotiations) as evidence of a crisis in ‘large-n’ multilateralism in an increasingly multipolar world.

Nonetheless, the international climate negotiations have been accompanied by significant developments in climate policy at the regional, national, and subnational levels alongside the growth of international carbon markets. These developments have been patchy and many national governments have faced significant domestic opposition—particularly from energy-intensive industries—in their p. 274efforts to enact emissions trading schemes, impose a carbon tax to achieve national emission reduction targets, or promote renewable energy.

Given the enormity of the climate change challenge, and the complexity of the issues involved, it is hardly surprising that it has elicited a diversity of theoretical analyses and responses from the discipline of IR. However, the contribution of green IR theory is distinctive in two respects. First, it has offered an alternative analysis and explanation of the political problem and of the international negotiating process to that of mainstream rationalist approaches. Second, green IR theories have promoted new normative discourses that have generated alternative policy proposals to those that have dominated the international negotiations thus far.

Alternative green explanations

While the theoretical parsimony of realism served it reasonably well in accounting for the security and economic relations between the superpowers during the Cold War, it has struggled to make sense of international environmental regimes, including the climate change negotiations. The problem for neorealists, in particular, is that they allow no or little room for the consideration of the diversity of domestic and diplomatic responses to climate change, since they regard all states, to borrow Kenneth Waltz’s phrase, as ‘like-units’ and are therefore expected to respond in the same way to systemic pressures. However, this understanding cannot explain the significant differences in negotiating positions and national policy developments in different states. Neorealists cannot explain why all industrialized countries, except the USA, ratified the Kyoto Protocol in the first commitment period, despite the absence of any binding emissions reduction commitments from developing countries. While neorealists can explain laggards (such as the USA), they cannot explain leaders such as the EU, including why it agreed to a second commitment period under the Kyoto Protocol in the absence of support from major emitters such as the USA, Japan, Russia, and Canada.

Neoliberals are able to offer a more plausible account of the outcomes of the climate negotiations based on their analyses of state interests and capacities. However, in focusing their attention on interest-based bargaining among states over the distribution of benefits and burdens of adjustment, neoliberals assume all states have the same national interests and side-line the larger ideational, normative and communicative context that shapes the social construction of interests. This includes the scientific findings of the IPCC, the regime’s burden-sharing principles that have framed the negotiations and served as a major point of normative contestation between the USA and China/G77, and significant differences in risk cultures in different states. For example, both the USA and Germany are home to significant research programmes in climate science, yet climate denialism is high in the USA (including in Congress), and virtually absent in Germany (including in the Bundestag). More generally, neoliberal institutionalism cannot explain why climate denialism is mostly concentrated in the Anglosphere, and relatively rare elsewhere (except for certain OPEC (Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries) countries like Saudi Arabia). Nor can it explain why many states do not behave as rational, utilitarian actors by balancing the costs of taking action on climate change against their relative vulnerability to climate change. Some laggard states pay little heed to their vulnerability and focus primarily on the short-term costs of action (e.g. Australia), while others focus on the costs of not taking action and are prepared to absorb the costs of climate leadership in the name of climate justice (e.g. Germany). To understand these differences it is necessary to examine how national interests and international role conceptions are constructed at both the national and international levels.

Alternative green arguments

While green IR theorists give prominence to the role of justice norms in their analysis, along with the importance of critical discourse in transforming the modernization process (and the self-understanding of p. 275social actors), they are by no means starry eyed about progress to date on the climate change negotiations. Like all critical theorists, they are particularly attentive to the relationship between knowledge and power and concerned to expose exclusionary discourses and practices (Okereke 2008). This includes improving the communicative context of domestic and international climate policy-making to ensure that the science of climate change is clearly aired, and the most vulnerable parties and communities are given a fairer hearing relative to the fossil fuel interests and industry groupings that oppose action on climate change. To this end, green IR theorists welcome the proliferation of transnational public spheres as key mechanisms for calling not only states but also corporations to account (e.g. Newell 2008). More generally, they welcome the growing array of nonstate actors who attend, criticize, and/or influence the climate negotiations by providing new forms of democratic accountability that transcend the limitations of ‘executive multilateralism’ (e.g. Stevenson and Dryzek 2014).

In addition to exposing distortions in the communicative context of the climate change negotiations and domestic policy-making, green IR theorists have also offered alternative ways of framing the challenge of climate change, along with alternative policy prescriptions that they consider will provide a fairer and more lasting solution to the problem of human-induced climate change. For green theorists, the skewed distribution of the impacts of climate change graphically illustrates the problem of environmental injustice in general. Poor communities (particularly in the South) produce relatively low per capita carbon emissions relative to the affluent, consuming classes in the North and newly emerging economies yet it is predicted that they will suffer the most from global warming and will be less able to adapt to, or insure against, climate-related damage. This ideal of environmental justice is a cosmopolitan ideal that argues that all individuals, irrespective of nationality or social class, should have an equal right to the energy resources and waste absorption services provided by the natural environment, provided the total use of resources and services remains safely within the ecological carrying capacity of the biosphere. This ideal cannot be realized by market mechanisms alone and it certainly cannot be realized by the strategy of weak ecological modernization that relies purely on technological innovation since it fails to cap aggregate levels of carbon emissions and ignores the maldistribution of risks associated with climate change.

Yet some green theorists are also critical of cap-and-trade systems and carbon offsetting schemes, arguing that they enable those states and industries that can afford to purchase credits or offsets to continue their carbon pollution and avoid or defer the necessary green investment that would reduce their emissions at source. This serves to hollow out the responsibility of rich countries and undermine the UNFCCC norm that developed countries should lead the way in combating climate change by pioneering new, low-carbon technologies and practices. Moreover, many emissions trading schemes have failed to live up to their promise (most notably, the European carbon market), owing to, among other reasons, over-allocation of permits at the national level and gaming on the part of firms and states. This has prompted many green IR theorists to explore alternative options beyond the state, particularly in civil society. While most states continue to protect their ‘permanent sovereignty’ over their energy resources, one of the most noteworthy global developments since the failure of the Copenhagen conference in 2009 has been the rapid growth of the movement for fossil fuel divestment, spearheaded by the global climate movement called (see, e.g., McKibben 2012 and

Case study questions


In what ways does the green analysis of the climate change negotiations differ from mainstream approaches?


Why is green IR theory ambivalent about the potential of states and capitalist markets to address climate change?

p. 276Conclusion

Green IPE initially formed the backbone of green IR theory. However, it has been increasingly complemented by green normative inquiry, particularly in the wake of the increasing transnationalization of green political theory, which has injected a distinctly green voice into the more general debates about international justice, cosmopolitan democracy, and the future of the state. At the same time, many well-known cosmopolitan theorists, such as David Held, Andrew Linklater, Henry Shue, and Thomas Pogge, have turned their attention to the ethical and institutional implications of transboundary environmental harm.

While green political economists and normative theorists remain united by their condemnation of environmental injustices, green IR theory is not without its internal tensions. First, green political economists are prone to adopt a stronger antistatist position than many green normative theorists, who tend to be more preoccupied with exploring how states and the state system might become more responsive to ecological problems. Whereas green political economists single out the competitive dynamics of global capitalism as the key driver of environmental destruction, green normative theorists argue that states represent the pre-eminent institution with the requisite steering capacity and legitimacy to impose ecological constraints on capitalism (Barry and Eckersley 2005). Democratizing states and the state system is thus a necessary step towards reflexive modernization, which is expected to yield a more ecologically constrained global capitalism.

Second, although most green IR theorists share the cosmopolitan norm that all those affected by decisions or risks should have some sort of say in making them (irrespective of nationality or locality), there remains a significant body of green communitarian theory (which includes bioregionalism, ecoanarchism, and ecofeminism) that emphasizes the virtues of place-based identity and ecologically sustainable local communities. For these theorists, extending an individual’s sense of belonging to particular social and ecological communities, and cultivating a place-based identity (including an attachment to local food cultures, and local flora, fauna, and landscapes), provides a stronger motivation to protect biodiversity and victims of environmental injustice than does the more abstract ideal of global citizenship or cosmopolitan democracy.

A further area of disagreement concerns the wisdom of conceptualizing ecological problems as security problems. Advocates of ecological security maintain that environmental problems—pre-eminent among which is global warming—should be considered a growing source of insecurity. Some environmental security scholars (who do not necessarily identify as green IR scholars) also argue that growing natural resource scarcity (particularly water), environmental degradation, and increasing numbers of ‘ecological refugees’ are likely to generate increasing conflict and violence both with and between states, and that states should include an ecological dimension in their national security strategies.

However, more sceptical green IR theorists have argued that framing ecological problems as a security issue in order to raise their status to a matter of ‘high politics’ could backfire. Instead of leading to a broader and more enlightened security agenda that will also ‘green’ the military, they suggest that the new discourse of ecological security may end up merely playing on traditional security concerns and possibly facilitating militarized solutions to the sustainability challenge. According to the sceptics, led by Daniel Deudney (1990), p. 277environmental threats and military threats are of a different order, and they should therefore be addressed differently. Conceptualizing ecological problems as security problems also betrays the core green values of nonviolence and antimilitarism and deflects attention away from the important task of promoting ecologically sustainable development. Sceptics have also pointed to the dangers of linking environmental deterioration and scarcity with conflict, arguing that it represents a crude form of environmental determinism (e.g. Barnett 2001). Other green IR theorists have emphasized the potential for shared ecological problems to present peace-making opportunities by providing a basis for conducting collaborative research, stimulating dialogue, building trust, and transcending differences by working towards common environmental goals and strategies (Conca and Dabelko 2003).

However, Deudney’s critique is directed against those who argue for the development of national environmental security strategies. It does not address green arguments for a more comprehensive conceptualization of ecological security that seeks to widen the moral referent or unit of analysis of security, as well as extend traditional understandings of the sources of insecurity, responses to insecurity, and the conditions for long-term security. Proponents of this more expansive understanding argue that it has the potential to undermine traditional ideas of state territorial defence (along with the logic of the zero-sum game presumed by realists) and promote international cooperation towards long-term sustainability. This broader conceptualization also directs attention to value-complexity in security policy-making, enables a more critical scrutiny of the role of the military as a source of insecurity, and seeks a diversion of military spending to sustainability spending.

The internal debate over environmental security is indicative of green IR theory’s strong antimilitarist posture. This may partly explain why green IR theory has yet to develop a considered or clear ethical position on a range of security-related debates, such as the appropriate relationship between order and justice in world politics or the appropriate use of force for humanitarian intervention or environmental protection (cf. Eckersley 2007).

Nonetheless, green IR theory has undergone significant development in the last decade to the point where it is recognized as a significant new stream of IR theory. The new green discourses of environmental justice, ecological democracy, sustainable development, reflexive modernization, and ecological security have not only influenced national and international policy debates; taken together, they have also recast the roles of states, economic actors, and citizens as environmental stewards rather than territorial overlords, with asymmetrical international obligations based on differing capacities and levels of environmental responsibility. This recasting has important implications for the evolution of state sovereignty. If it is accepted that sovereignty is a derivative concept, the practical meaning of which changes over time in response to changes in the constitutive discourses of sovereignty, then to the extent that some of these discourses (on development, democracy, justice, and security) take on a greener hue, it is possible to point to ‘the greening of sovereignty’. Moreover, to the extent that states—and citizens within states—become increasingly accountable to communities and environments beyond their own borders, then they may be characterized as transnational states and citizens rather than merely nation-states or national citizens. Of course, the society of states is a long way short of this ideal. However, green IR theorists have brought this ideal into view and made it thinkable.

p. 278Questions


What are the key differences between the first and second waves of green political theory?


What normative and analytical criticisms have green IR theorists levelled against mainstream rationalist approaches (neorealism and neoliberalism)?


What does green IR theory have in common with critical theory and constructivism? How does it differ?


How would you describe the different preoccupations of green normative IR theory and green IPE? What unites these two strands of green IR theory?


Why are green IR theorists internally divided over the wisdom of conceptualizing ecological problems in the language of security?


What consequences do green theory and ecological concerns have for the concept of sovereignty and the role of the state?

Further reading

Christoff, P. and Eckersley, R. (2013), Globalization and the Environment (Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield).Find it in your libraryGoogle PreviewWorldCat

Provides a long history and critical analysis of the relationship between modernization, globalization, and environmental change from the early modern period to the contemporary neoliberal era, and examines the challenges of environmental governance.

Clapp, J. and Dauvergne, P. (2011), Paths to a Green World: The Political Economy of the Global Environment (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press).Find it in your libraryGoogle PreviewWorldCat

Provides an excellent theoretical and practical introduction to the relationship between economic globalization and environmental degradation.

Dauvergne, P. (2008), The Shadows of Consumption: Consequences for the Global Environment (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press).Find it in your libraryGoogle PreviewWorldCat

Maps the hidden social and ecological costs of globalization and growing consumption.

Eckersley, R. (2004), The Green State: Rethinking Democracy and Sovereignty (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press).Find it in your libraryGoogle PreviewWorldCat

Develops a theory of the green state (and state system) from a critical constructivist perspective.

Gale, F. P. and M’Gonigle, R. M. (eds) (2000), Nature, Production, Power: Towards an Ecological Political Economy (Cheltenham: Edward Elgar).Find it in your libraryGoogle PreviewWorldCat

An edited collection providing a good illustration of innovative research in green political economy.

LaFerrière, E. and Stoett, P. J. (1999), International Relations Theory and Ecological Thought: Towards a Synthesis (London: Routledge).Find it in your libraryGoogle PreviewWorldCat

The first book to explore the intersection of IR theory and green political thought.

LaFerrière, E. and Stoett, P. J. (2006), International Ecopolitical Theory: Critical Approaches (Vancouver: UBC Press).Find it in your libraryGoogle PreviewWorldCat

Provides a collection of essays that showcase critical theoretical approaches to global environmental politics that challenge managerial and economistic approaches to sustainable development.

McDonald, M. (2011), Security, the Environment and Emancipation: Contestation over Environmental Change (London: Routledge).Find it in your libraryGoogle PreviewWorldCat

Provides an examination of the role of emancipation in the study and practice of security, focusing on global environmental change; includes a critical examination of the multiple dimensions of environmental security.

p. 279Newell, P. (2012), Globalization and the Environment: Capitalism, Ecology and Power (Cambridge: Polity Press).Find it in your libraryGoogle PreviewWorldCat

Provides a critical examination of the relationship between economic globalization (focusing on trade, production, and finance) and environmental change, with a particular emphasis on how relations of power shape whether and how globalization is managed in sustainable ways.

Nixon, R. (2011), Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor (Cambridge, MA. Harvard University Press).Find it in your libraryGoogle PreviewWorldCat

Highlights the lack of political attention given to the ‘attritional lethality’ or ‘slow violence’ inflicted on vulnerable communities and ecosystems in the Global South through the failure to curb environmental problems such as deforestation, climate change, oil spills, and toxic drift.

Okereke, C. (2008) Global Justice and Neoliberal Environmental Governance (London: Routledge).Find it in your libraryGoogle PreviewWorldCat

Argues that, although moral norms shape environmental negotiations more than regime theorists have acknowledged, neoliberal understandings of justice (based on mutual advantage, or upholding property rights) have dominated international environmental agreements more than environmental alternatives.

O’Neil, K. (2009), The Environment and International Relations (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press).Find it in your libraryGoogle PreviewWorldCat

Highlights the strengths and limitations of traditional IR in understanding global environmental governance.

Paehlke, R. C. (2003), Democracy’s Dilemma: Environment, Social Equity and the Global Economy (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press).Find it in your libraryGoogle PreviewWorldCat

Examines the democratic challenge of achieving sustainability while improving social equity.

Paterson, M. (2000), Understanding Global Environmental Politics: Domination, Accumulation, Resistance (London: Palgrave).Find it in your libraryGoogle PreviewWorldCat

Provides a pioneering illustration of a green neo-Gramscian approach to understanding global environmental change.

Princen, T.,Maniates, M., and Conca, K. (eds) (2002), Confronting Consumption (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press).Find it in your libraryGoogle PreviewWorldCat

Provides a path-breaking examination of the problem of overconsumption.

Schlosberg, D. (2007), Defining Environmental Justice: Theories, Movements, and Nature (Oxford: Oxford University Press).Find it in your libraryGoogle PreviewWorldCat

Provides a comprehensive analysis of the theory and practice of environmental justice that includes distributive justice, recognition, participation, and capabilities.

Timmons Roberts, J. and Parks, B. C. (2007), A Climate of Injustice: Global Inequality, North–South Politics, and Climate Policy (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press).Find it in your libraryGoogle PreviewWorldCat

Highlights how inequality gives rise to disagreements between rich and poor countries over how to distribute the burden of climate mitigation, which hampers international cooperation; they also provide new measures of climate inequality.

Important websites

Institute for Environmental Security. An international nonprofit nongovernmental organization established in 2002 in The Hague to increase political attention to environmental security as a means to help safeguard essential conditions for peace and sustainable development.

p. 280Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Provides access to the latest Assessment Reports, including synthesis reports and summary reports for policy-makers; the reports are based on a synthesis of peer-reviewed research on climate change.

Stockholm Resilience Centre. Provides the latest updates on research on planetary boundaries.

Sustainable Development Knowledge Platform. The Green Economy.

Third World Network. An independent nonprofit international network of organizations and individuals involved in issues relating to development, the Third World, and North–South issues, with a comprehensive environment link.

Wuppertal Institute. An independent research institute that conducts research on the social and ecological effects of globalization and develops strategies for sustainable globalization.

Visit the Online Resource Centre that accompanies this book for lots of interesting additional material.


  • 1. In common with other chapters in the book, I am using neoliberalism as a shorthand for neoliberal institutionalism, and using neorealism as being synonymous with what John Mearsheimer (in Chapter 3) calls structural realism.

  • 2. This period also saw the formation of the world’s first proto-green parties in Australasia and Europe in direct response to the publication of A Blueprint for Survival (1972).

  • 3. While the description ‘green political theory’ is widely used in Europe and Australasia, in North America it is more typically referred to as ‘environmental political theory’.