6.7.5        Environmental Challenges from a Political Viewpoint

 (This is a current extract from the Patterns of Power Repository.  An archived copy of this page is held at http://www.patternsofpower.org/edition02/675.htm)

There are a number of global environmental challenges – resource shortages, climate change, pollution and the spread of disease – which require some collective action to be taken.  The economic aspects of these challenges have already been mentioned (3.5.7), but political agreement is needed to put the necessary arrangements in place. 

Resource shortages should be solved by trade, but the economic power associated with the possession of resources can be manipulated for political advantage.  Russia, for example, has been able to put pressure on the government of Belarus by raising energy prices.[1]

The biggest environmental challenge may be climate change.  Politicians need to negotiate to agree how to approach the issue, and to release the necessary funding, but they face several problems:

·      Environmental science is too complex for simple statements to be made about cause and effect; and there is disagreement about some of the financial projections.  The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) was set up to try to agree the scientific information.[2]  The Stern Report contains a financial analysis which was commissioned to be the basis of political decision-making.[3]  Both documents have been questioned, but there hasn’t been an agreed process for updating them and the Climate Research Unit of the IPCC has been accused of a “lack of openness”.[4]  Climate Change negotiations are less meaningful without transparency and an agreed process for the updating of both documents.

·      There has been some hysteria.   Al Gore’s film An Inconvenient Truth received huge publicity, not least as a result of the Nobel Peace Prize that he received for it in 2007, yet it made exaggerated claims that are not supported by scientific data.[5]  Climate change has been presented as an existential threat to the world, and many people understandably want to influence politicians to do whatever is possible to avoid catastrophe – but balanced discussions require a dispassionate approach rather than heightened emotion.

·      There is inadequate representation in the negotiations.  The causes of environmental problems often lie in different places from the most severe effects.  Only the wealthy countries, which could almost certainly lessen the scale of the problems by reducing their carbon emissions, are represented at the G20 (3.4.4), whereas the some of the highest costs of adaptation will be felt in countries which have insufficient wealth to adapt to the changes and which are not represented in the decision-making process.

·      National politicians are not the best people to conduct negotiations because they have to prioritise national interest (  Their need for domestic popularity can either cause them to ignore the interests of the world as a whole or they can indulge in posturing as saviours.  Panels of experts, selected for their knowledge of science, economics, and different parts of the world, could perhaps be set up to make objective and credible recommendations – which would then require a period of consultation before political approval.

The negotiations on climate change need to be more meaningful in the terminology of this book, i.e. balanced, transparent and inclusive (2.4).

Discussions on climate change have been peaceful, in the sense that no military conflict has yet ensued.  The same is true to date of other international environmental challenges:

·      The World Bank has monitored a project to manage pollution on the River Danube.[6]

·      The 1979 Convention on Long-Range Transboundary Air Pollution led to coordinated scientific work and subsequent corrective action on the problem of countries exporting 'acid rain'.[7]

·      The World Health Organisation has been able to coordinate responses to potential pandemics such as avian flu.[8]

Political processes have been able to address all these problems.  International legal arbitration services are available, if necessary (

© PatternsofPower.org, 2014                                                 

[1] The Economist reported on the energy price dispute between Belarus and Russia, in an article entitled Desperate in Belarus on 8 February 2007; this was available in May 2014 at http://www.economist.com/node/8675335.

[2] The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) publishes its reports on its web-site, which was at http://www.ipcc.ch/ in May 2014.

[3] The Stern Report and information about it were available in May 2014 on a UK government web-site at http://webarchive.nationalarchives.gov.uk/+/http:/www.hm-treasury.gov.uk/sternreview_index.htm.

[4] On 8 July 2010 the Economist published a report entitled Science behind closed doors, which criticised a “lack of openness” at the Climatic Research Unit (CRU), a part of the University of East Anglia (UEA) in Britain.  This report was available in May 2014 at http://www.economist.com/node/16537628.

[5] The Boston Globe published an article by Bjorn Lomborg on 13 October 2007, entitled An inconvenient Peace Prize, in which he pointed out that Al Gore’s portrayal of 20-foot sea-level rises this century was out of line with the IPCC estimates of 2-foot rises, yet “the IPCC's estimates and conclusions are grounded in careful study”.  This article was available in May 2014 at http://www.boston.com/news/globe/editorial_opinion/oped/articles/2007/10/13/an_inconvenient_peace_prize/

[6] The World Bank published a project report in May 2011 on progress in combating pollution in the Danube, under the title Serbia - Danube River Enterprise Pollution Reduction GEF Project (Serbia) : P084604 - Implementation Status Results Report : Sequence 15 (English).  This was available in May 2014 at http://web.worldbank.org/external/projects/main?pagePK=51351038&piPK=51351152&theSitePK=40941&projid=P084604

[7] The web-site for the Convention on Long-range Transboundary Air Pollution was available in May 2014 at http://www.unece.org/env/lrtap.  A 10-page report on its history was also available then at http://www.fni.no/ybiced/95_05_levy.pdf.

[8] The WHO web-site for avian flu was available in May 2014 at http://www.who.int/influenza/human_animal_interface/en/.