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Humankind's evolution can be segregated into two rough categories – distribution of geographical space, and functions in the society. In the present globalized era, domestic affairs expand to the international realm, and the social, economic, cultural and political spheres are interconnected by a complex web. Why, then, should the environmental sphere be disregarded?

It was just over half a century ago that environmental protection was realised as a socio-economic and political cause, and gained an international platform. The belief that the resolution of environmental issues should be the responsibility of the First World disintegrates with the advent of ‘Global Environmentalism’. A number of pro-environment initiatives have been taken since; the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty in 1963, the 1972 UN Conference on the Human Environment, and frequent National Dumping Surveys. Global environmentalism by its very own definition involves concerns and actions to solve global environmental problems. We have witnessed a shift in focus from nature (objects to be protected and can be contained in certain geographical territory) to the environment (the space of human activity, which has no geographical border).  It brings an individual, the principal unit in conservation of global environment, under international law.

Over the years, international law and regulations on environmental protection have been molded contextually. On the global level, there have been laws, accords, agreements, and conferences that sought to identify steps in the direction of an ecologically sustainable planet. That being established, these regulations have been scattered and often vague. Therefore, are such policies made to benefit only a particular section, or are they genuinely aimed towards global inter-state cooperation for the sake of the environment?

There is no doubt about the normative progress over international environmental governance, but the inefficiency in terms of execution is evident. The international law and policies on the environment can be divided into phases: the development of international institutions, recognition of the international obligation to environmental problems, setting up of mechanisms of arbitration, and most importantly, identifying environmental protection cross-cutting various dimensions of international law.

Though all these processes lay the foundation for global environmentalism, no mechanisms exist to ensure their implementation. In the anarchical international system, where each state strives for economic and political supremacy, the environment becomes just another commodity to the ‘have’ states. No matter how ardently environmental resources are promoted as global public goods, we are nowhere close to reaching an equitable distribution among states. This creates a global divide where the ‘have-nots’ are struggling to join the race, and the haves are trying to shift the burden. Eventually, the planet is left at the mercy of two groups: those who see a power play in this investment, and those who genuinely wish to contribute to the benefit of the environment.

The environment is an integral aspect of human life. Given that the International Humanitarian Law aims to protect civilians during armed conflicts and ensure their survival. This implies an inextricable link between International Humanitarian Law and the environment in which the humans survive. Even in the state of war, states can be held accountable for the destruction of the environment.

The bone of contention lies in the fact that perceptions and expectations of each state are asymmetrical when it comes to environmental problems and measures to fight against it, with a bias towards some states, while others lie at a disadvantage.

The Paris Climate Agreement

I will use the events of the recent Paris Climate Accords to accentuate my argument. It is a blatant example of how the environment is being treated by the international community. Due to the symbolic importance of this agreement in the history of global cooperation for the environment, the latest development of the USA backing out from the league has led to doubts from the global community. With all the perks of global environmentalism, what made the infamous “superpower” take this step when the US itself has been highlighting its alarm for environment internationally?

Briefly, Paris Climate Agreement or Accord is an agreement within the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). It deals with the emission of greenhouse gases, its mitigation, adaptation, and the funds required. It was adopted by consensus on 12 December, 2015 in Paris. As of now, 195 countries have signed this agreement, and 150 countries have ratified it. According to the agreement, each country is supposed to identify measures to reduce their carbon footprint. There is no fixed duration of time to fulfil the measures, rather, it is a voluntary step forward in the international struggle against poor environmental conditions.

Like any other settlement, Paris Agreement also has its prospectives and consequences. A lot of global business firms believe that the agreement would level the playing field, making all the countries work towards a common goal and opening the international market for environment-friendly goods. At the same time the agreement is not considered the breakthrough that many claim. It has been criticized for not being affirmative enough to set up ambition, and instead is just a gentle nudge in the right direction, when serious action is the real need of the hour.

The apprehensions about the agreement began when Donald Trump announced Washington’s withdrawal from the accord on June 1, 2017. Although the withdrawal cannot come into effect before November 4, 2020, the decision itself raises lots of questions. And looking at the immediate results of the withdrawal of the USA, we can see how global environmentalism as a concept is idealistic to some extent. The decision comes out from an intricate conflict of interests of US citizens. The primary objective of Trump's announcement lies in saving the fossil fuel industry.

Washington faced a lot of flak for this bold and unprecedented move, possibly because the international community has become habituated to looking to the USA for leadership. Since America has often been a crusader of climate change, this move was contrary to expectations. Within the USA, the numerous state governors are also against the decision and have founded a United States Climate Alliance to align with the objectives of the agreement. The non-American international firms are worried as they would be expected to comply with the norms of the agreement, affecting their production vis-à-vis competing against the American firms that would no longer have to adhere to those norms.

When the pioneer state USA sets an example like this, at a larger picture, we are again at the crossroads of doubting the clouds of international teamwork, especially in the arena of the environment. Like the US defends their withdrawal expressing disquiets for its domestic firms and affairs, so can other countries. Each country has had its share of historical struggles, each has adopted their own economic systems, and each has their political aspirations, and in this rat-race, the environment is hardly given serious consideration.

It is easier still for India to come up with Swachh Bharat Abhiyan, or for Sweden to aim to make itself the “greenest country in the world”, but when it comes to applying these initiatives at the global front, we have not been able to make substantial progress. The political power and economic interests become so overpowering that the environment fails to draw funds and actions.

In light of the Paris agreement, our focus tends to stick to the way states act for global environmentalism. We need to shift focus to non-state actors and organizations. Understanding has to be established in recognizing that the key to solving environmental problems is not a hard power contestation, and the use of soft power through citizens, media, business firms, and NGOs are very critical. The fact that the state is primarily responsible for security and prosperity doesn’t allow it to outwardly take radical measures to improve the environment.


Environmental problems become unimportant in countries, where people are much more concerned about their miseries because of poverty, illiteracy, unemployment, etc. On the other hand, the countries that have been able to counter the majority of these issues, do not want to compromise for the rest. This brings us to examine the relationship between the geopolitics and environmental change, making us question how real the global concern for environment is.

The international politics when it comes to the environment is glaringly obvious, especially with reference to USA’s take on the Paris Climate Agreement. We return to the Sophism of global environmentalism, with the developed countries exerting institutional (and often, moral) obligations on the developing countries, while they shirk these duties and reap economic benefits. Hence, global environmentalism has lost its purpose in the international community. Rather than a moral obligation of states to preserve the quality of environment, and consequently, the quality of life in the world, we have made it yet another tool for international exploitation.



Bakker, Francesco Francioni and Christine. 2013. "The Evolution of the Global Environmental System: Trends and Prospects." Transworld.

Guha, Ramchandra. 2000. "The paradox of Global Environmentalism." Current history.

Robert O keohane, David G Victor. 2016. "Cooperation and Discord in Global Climate Policy ." Forthcoming in Nature Climate Change.




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Written By Ranjula Singh

Ranjula, SKV'14, LSR'17

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