Climate Change – Averting Catastrophic Environmental Degradation Through Global Governance and Decentralisation

The Supra-Statist and Sub-Statist Approach


Climate change issues have gained increasing interest in recent decades, as many scholarly debates have tried to reach a way to integrate this ‘new issue area’ into the existing framework of analysis that mainstream IR theories offer. However, we cannot afford to further regard the transboundary nature of environmental matters as something that can be systematically regulated within the existing structure, as formal institutions are not adequate in size and scope to tackle environmental challenges. Instead, what I propose in this essay is that in order to avert man-made catastrophic environmental degradation we must pursue a re-orientation towards a supra-statist and sub-statist approach. Supra-statism regards the creation of world governance, while sub-statism proposes the decentralisation of power within the state. What those approaches emphasise is that the nation-state is at the same time too big and too small to efficiently resolve the problems that lie at the heart of world environmental politics. To make my argument, I will proceed as follows: firstly, I present the manner in which IR scholars regard the capacity of the nation-state to manage the topical issue of climate change. Secondly, I illustrate the characteristics, potential and adequacy of the supra-statist and sub-statist paradigms respectively. Thirdly, I will deal with possible criticisms and explore the limitations of my argument.

Academic perspectives on climate change and the nation-state

The academic literature regarding the implications of climate change on the nation-state and its capacity for action has significantly increased since the 1972 UN Climate Conference on the Human Environment. Without minimising the international achievements so far, many scholars have suggested that the nation state is simply unwilling or incapable of dealing with large-scale environmental degradation. Lynton Caldwell (1992) suggests that this is caused by a general disinterest within both the government and the population of the state, as it does not further their main interests. On a similar note, Biermann and Dingwerth (2004) argue that climate change matters require adaptive internal action from all countries, which further illustrates the need for states to integrate and prioritise environmental policies in their domestic agendas. This can be faced with indignation from states, whose main internal aim is to protect and promote the welfare of its people.

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The unwillingness of states to recognise the need for the prioritisation of environmental degradation also has an extensive impact on the efficiency of global efforts (French, 1992). Asubel and Victor (1992) illustrate that while many negotiations were carried out and many treaties and agreements signed, state compliance with their provisions is subpar. Caldwell (1992) explains that this is caused by the very nature of international agreements, as they can only affect change through the consent and conformity of the state and are non-binding and unenforceable. In addition, Figueres and Ivanovna (2002) proves that one-sided environmental efforts are not sufficient. In order to affect chance, it is required that both industrialised countries and developing countries work towards achieving their proportional targets. Their line of argument also illustrates the incapacity and indisposition of smaller, less economically powerful countries to allocate resources towards climate change policy fulfilment.

A seemingly more radical perception of the nation state’s capability of dealing with climate change issues has been pursued by Vogler (2000, cited in Paterson, et. al., 2003, p.5). He draws on the writing of Searle to argue that the environmental action must be sought in disregard of formal assumptions of state-centrism. That is, that the main unit of analysis in IR theory is without primal weight and must be considered as part of the inter-state effort (Karkkainen, 2002). However, this position does not need to be controversial. Most inter-state advocates agree that while the state is no longer of utmost importance, it still represents the main assumption of IR as sovereignty remains an untouchable constant (Karkkainen, 2002). However, the possibilities of action must be influenced by inter-state dependency through norms and rules. It is important to mention Janicke’s (2002) point that this approach has provoked in some the fear that state-sovereignty is being affected by the declining capability of the state within the climate change arena to decide the standard and quality of action. Nonetheless, he illustrates that such fears have not been justified by any empirical evidence so far, which is what can also be seen in the study carried out by Dalton and Rohrschneider (1999).

Supra-Statist Approach: Creating World Governance

The supra-statist approach to climate change has its foundation in the critique that the level of environmental degradation is not met with sufficient capacity for action from the state-centric system. The imbalance caused by the severity of the problem and the inadequacy of current political mechanisms is grounded in the fragmentation of state efforts. While the issue of climate change presents itself as unitary across the globe, there is no adequate force to manage state endeavours that have global consequences. The anarchic nature of international relations results in the lack of an all-encompassing legal authority that can command over sovereign-states. In this scenario, nation-states are most likely to pursue their self-interests and to prioritise matters of national security and welfare. This line of argument is clearly illustrated in Tucker’s (1981, cited in Wapner, 1995) affirmation that when the state “is most successful at solving problems to the benefit of its own people, it works against the requirements of global life” (p.50).

I find it necessary to clarify here what I understand by world governance. The need for greater global governance stems from a growing sense of the pressures of climate change and from increased global interdependence. The concept of “governance without government” emerged from Rosenau and Czempiel’s (1992, cited in Biersteker, 2015, p.151) work. Rosenau (1992, cited in Biersteker, 2015, p.152) describes this concept as “an order that lacks a centralised authority with the capacity to enforce decision on a global scale” (p.7). Weiss (2009, cited in Biersteker, 2015, p.152) further elaborates on the meaning of global governance, arguing that it

“embraces the totality of institutions, policies, rules, practices, norms, procedures, and initiatives by which states and their citizens (indeed humanity as a whole) try to bring more predictability, stability, and order to their responses to transnational challenges which go beyond the capacity of a single state to solve”.

Hence, my usage of the concept ‘global governance’ regards a new form of all-encompassing regulation that goes beyond the traditional anarchical, state-centric, hierarchical system. It illustrates a political program that deals with transnational issues that nation-states are inadequate to tackle or that are in the interest of humanity as whole but not in the immediate self-interest or profitable for the state.

Going back to my main argument: the supra-statist response to climate change appears to be quite forward: eliminate the fragmentation of states with the purpose of creating a unified response for the unified dangers presented by environmental degradation. In other words, we need to create a form of global governance that is able to go beyond the territory-limited interests of states and advance international concerns. The expansion of the nation state unit to a global one would be the only solution that would efficiently focus the global political mechanisms towards the scope of combating the worldwide eminent danger of climate change. In this way, global responses could match the transboundary nature of the dangers posed by environmental degradation on humanity as a whole. There is an immediate need for world governance that is able to implement environmental policies global in scope that would restrict the usage of resources and sanction nation-states that are non-compliant. Still, what do supra-statist advocates believe is the root cause of the incapacity and/or unwillingness of states under an anarchic, state-centric system? Their main reason stems from the belief that the current system forces units to pursue their national agenda, which in many cases actually encourages states to be ignorant to environmental challenges, as it is not profitable to allocate resources to this policy area. The competitive structure of the anarchic system provides no reason within national interest to limit growth (Dobson, 1990; Lee, 1993), to curb further development (Booth, 1998), or to reduce further exploitation of natural resources (Hardin, 1977).

Of course, I cannot overlook the existent efforts to implement restrictions and sanctions, such as the treaties that emerged from the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. The Kyoto Protocol, which became effective in 2005 and the Paris Agreement, effective in 2016 are significant international efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and to reverse the effects of global warming. Still, those efforts, though admirable, are far from global and are full of imperfections. Most notably, the United States withdrawal from the Paris Agreement in 2017 under the Trump administration considerably limits the effectiveness of the global scope of the treaty. Irrespective of that, the Paris Agreement remains still too limited in scope, considering the dangerous rise of global temperature. In this sense, the study carried out by Browne and Goldtooth (2016) shows that the Agreement “contains no binding mandatory emissions reductions – only voluntary pledges from each country, called ‘Intended Nationally-Determined Contributions’” (p.93), which cannot meet the targets suggested by scientists. Another aspect of the Agreement that is controversial is the capacity of states to purchase ‘offsets’, which “advances pollution trading mechanisms that (…) continue extremely dangerous levels of emissions” (p.93). Many IR scholars and environmentalists condemn the flaws of the Kyoto Protocol and Paris Agreement, arguing that they are superficially innovative (Schelling et al, 2001; Schulze et al, 2003). Nonetheless, under a state-centric system, could we truly expect better, more fruitful international climate change action? I, for one, believe that the UNFCCC treaties are our most successful efforts towards the reversal of environmental degradation within the given anarchic, state-centric system. But the creation of world governance would be the only possibility to pursue actually all-encompassing, efficient, target-meeting action.

Sub-Statist Approach: Decentralising Power Within the State

While for proponents of world governance the main unit of analysis in IR, the state, is too small to tackle climate change matters, my contention is similar to that of O’Riordan (1981). He argues that the state is at the same time to small and too big to adequately regulate environmental policies and strategies. Hence, global action must be met with local incentives and the altogether approach must be a local-to-global one. Sub-statists ground their approach in the belief of the need for the decentralisation of power, because large-scale forms of organisation are desensitised to the local environmental and human needs. One argument of this paradigm is that the state agenda is a top-down problem-solving approach that is out of touch with actual, regional environmental reality and immediate needs. Moreover, centralised power over a large territory renders the individual in power ignorant to small-scale social and economic processes. As Mol (2001) argues, “structures and institutions that alienate people from their natural environment as well as form their fellow citizens can only be overcome by downscaling the interdependent relationships to sub-national levels” (p.87). Another argument put forward by Wapner (1995) is that centralisation of power “is responsible, in great measure, for current ecological problems because such concentrations of capabilities necessitate the use of advanced technologies which frequently precipitate massive disruptions of ecological processes” (p.58).

Wapner (1995) argues that “the most comprehensive and directly ecological version of sub-statism is put forward by those associated with the concept of bioregionalism” (p.60). At the heart of bioregionalism is the belief that individuals can only flourish through a strong connection to their environment. The purpose of this social movement is, as Pezzoli (2016) puts it, the “need to establish new, just, ethical, and ecologically resilient ways to reconnect with one another and with the land” (p.25). In this way, the sincere attachment of the individual to its surroundings and his respect for it will naturally lead to a considerable local effort to reverse environmental degradation. At this point I find it necessary to clarify that by no means am I arguing in favour of complete regional segregation. Instead, what I want to put forward through my analysis of bioregionalism and decentralisation in general is rather a local-to-global initiative between regions that find themselves in similar environmental conditions. I do not suggest the curbing of globalisation with everything it encompasses and in every form it presents itself, nor do I find that in any way desirable. Instead, the advancements in technology and information-sharing made possible by globalisation must be employed for the purpose of creating “global transbioregional and knowledge networks to support sustainable place making around the world” (Pezzoli, 2016, p.25).

As Diffenderfer and Birch (1997) argue, “bioregionalism seeks to alter systems of production toward a sustainable future” (p.5), adding that “a fundamental change in systems of production must coincide with a concomitant change in those beliefs, attitudes, and values that affect humans’ interaction with the natural environment” (p.5). It may seem that such convictions of an almost ‘return to one’s roots’ is outdated in the concept of globalisation. But ‘bioregionalism’ is a neologism and a movement widely considered in recent academic writing, by scholars such as Pezzoli (2016), Parsons (2013), Kim (2016), Lang (2002), Dolezal (2008) and many others. It proposes a stronger capacity of agency for the individual, a greater sense of duty to one’s surroundings, but also a better understanding of the need for action in regions at risk. Moreover, bioregionalists aim at “reintegrating nature and human settlements in ways that holistically instill eco-efficiency, equity, and green cultural values into systems of production, consumption, and daily life” (Pezzoli, 2016, p.25). Ethical production and consumptions are now, more than ever, much needed responses to the challenges that capitalism and globalisation pose to environmental degradation.

Acknowledging Criticism and Identifying Limitations

Firstly, the concept of world governance all-together remains quite vague and problematic to some. While several scholars might see it as diminishing state sovereignty, others conclude that is can only present itself as a codified form of the nation-state and its interests. Moreover, while world governance is a liberal aspiration, scholars remain critical of the possibility of implementing it, as no nation-state would happily renounce the existing international power structures that are profitable to them. Additionally, the concept of global governance goes beyond environmental issues. It is hard to imagine the configuration of beliefs within a global authority that prevails over so many cultural, religious, political and economic backgrounds. The same issue of the likelihood of nation-states giving up control over their territory can be brought up in regard to decentralisation approach. Similarly, if states are believed to be pursuing their own interests irrespective of their negative environmental consequences, why should we think higher of individuals? Anthropocentrism, the idea that nature should be subordinated to and in the service of humans, as they are the pinnacle of evolution (Eckersley, 2013, p.269), appears to be empirically more popular than ecocentrism or any other form of human-nature hierarchy. 

One important clarification that I wish to make is that the world governance paradigm and decentralisation are not refuting the state-centric system, as they are necessarily by-products of it. It would not be possible to think of such responses to environmental degradation outside the context of the nation-state, as “the state system is either the answer to environmental challenges or the root cause of them” (Wapner, 1995, p.63).


In this essay I argued that combating transnational, man-made catastrophic environmental degradation can only be done through the combination of a supra-statist and sub-statist approach. The unit of the state is at the same time too big and too small to efficiently take on the requirements of the global environmental agenda. Therefore, a most promising resolution is a local-to-global method, where close, personal attention is being paid to the immediate environmental surrounding of the individual and resolutions are found at the level of the global community.


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