Global environmental politics is a relatively new field of study within international relations that focuses on issues related to the interaction of humans and the natural world. As early as the mid-19th century, there were scholars writing about the role of natural resources in global security and political economy. However, much of the literature prior to the 1980s related specifically to resource extraction and development issues. It was only in the 1980s and into the 1990s that global environmental politics began to establish itself as a distinct field with its own dedicated journals and publishers, and the focus of study expanded to include global environmental problems such as ozone depletion, climate change, biodiversity loss, deforestation, and desertification. It has emerged as a center of interdisciplinary work that integrates research from a range of fields including geography, economics, history, law, biology, and numerous others. The interdisciplinary approach makes it difficult to define the boundaries in this rather immense field of study. The focus in this entry will be on global environmental politics research that falls primarily within the larger field of international relations. Global environmental problems present many unique challenges and have thus spawned a range of subfields of study. Global environmental problems frequently involve substantial scientific complexity and ambiguity. This has produced a wide-ranging scholarship on the relationships between science and policy. The very long timeframes of both the consequences of environmental problems as well as the efforts to address them create a number of governance challenges given the much shorter political timeframes of politicians and diplomats. In addition, because environmental problems typically do not respect borders, they pose challenges for international cooperation, which has thus produced a growing literature on global environmental governance. The widespread potential for massive economic, political, and ecological dislocation from the consequences of global environmental problems as well as from the potential policies to address those problems have led scholars to study global environmental politics from every paradigm within international relations as well as drawing on research in numerous other disciplines. Finally, efforts to address the consequences of environmental problems have produced controversial ethical and distributive-justice questions that have produced an important philosophical literature within global environmental politics. Global environmental politics has thus emerged as a very rich and diverse area of scholarship.
As the field of global environmental politics has matured, an increasing number of scholars have sought to map the contours of the field and offer histories of the evolution of scholarship. The Hurrell and Kingsbury 1992 and Choucri 1993 edited volumes provide good reviews of the state of the field in the early 1990s as global environmental politics first began to emerge as a distinct field of study. Zürn 1998 and Mitchell 2002 offer very good discussions of the evolution of global environmental politics with a primary focus on international institutions and regimes and the transnational forces that influence their creation and operation. Dauvergne 2012; Betsill, et al. 2014; and Harris 2014 provide some of the most comprehensive overviews of the evolution and current state of scholarship in global environmental politics and significantly expand the discussion beyond international regimes and institutions. Stevis 2010 provides the most thorough tracing of the rise of global environmental politics as a field of study and the most complete bibliography of works associated with the evolution of the field.
Betsill, Michelle M., Kathryn Hochstetler, and Dimitris Stevis, eds. Palgrave Advances in International Environmental Politics. 2d ed. New York: Palgrave, 2014.
Identifies the major research areas within the field of global environmental politics and offers accounts of the debates, methodological issues, and future trajectories of study; divides the literature into three parts: the larger context for studying global environmental politics, major research areas, and frameworks for evaluating global environmental politics; provides a good starting place for graduate students or scholars entering the field of global environmental politics.
Choucri, Nazli, ed. Global Accord: Environmental Challenges and International Responses. Global Environmental Accords series. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1993.
Relatively early review of the state of global environmental politics as a distinct subfield; provides a call for changes in how to study human/environment relations; offers a range of theoretical perspectives, discussions of actors, and international institutions affecting global environmental politics.
Dauvergne, Peter, ed. Handbook of Global Environmental Politics. 2d ed. Northampton, MA: Edward Elgar, 2012.
Brings together leading scholars of global environmental politics; divided into four sections to evaluate the scholarship on global environmental politics: states and cooperation, global governance, international political economy of the environment, and knowledge and ethics.
Harris, Paul G., ed. Routledge Handbook of Global Environmental Politics. New York: Routledge, 2014.
Provides a comprehensive introduction to the field of global environmental politics and divides the literature into four parts: introduction to the field, actors and institutions, competing ideas and themes, and case studies in global environmental politics.
Hurrell, Andrew B., and Benedict Kingsbury, ed. The International Politics of the Environment. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992.
Relatively early review of global environmental politics literature; focuses on the forces shaping the creation of international environmental regimes, law, and organizations; places particular emphasis on the role of power and conflicts of interests.
Mitchell, Ronald B. “International Environment.” In Handbook of International Relations. Edited by Walter Carlsnaes, Thomas Risse-Kappen, and Beth A. Simmons, 500–516. London: SAGE, 2002.
Reviews the evolution of global environmental politics as a subfield with an emphasis on the study of international regimes and institutions; presents a brief but strong historical review.
Stevis, Dimitris. “International Relations and the Study of Global Environmental Politics: Past and Present.” In International Studies Encyclopedia. Edited by Robert A. Denemark, Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell, 2010.
Provides a detailed review of the emergence and evolution of the field of global environmental politics and maps the contours of the existing scholarship; presents a comprehensive bibliography of important works in the development of the field. Available online for subscribers.
Zürn, M. “Rise of International Environmental Politics: A Review of Current Research.” World Politics 50.4 (1998): 617–649.
Provides an overview of the history and contemporary state of global environmental politics literature at the end of the 1990s; reflects the dominant focus on international institutions and international regimes from this period of the study of global environmental politics.
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