CIESIN Thematic Guides

Overview of Political Institutions and Global Environmental Change

Political institutions govern how societies decide a variety of issues, including those dealing with aspects of global environmental change. Every day, many decisions are made in countries around the world that directly and indirectly affect the local, regional, and global environment. For example, in Kenya a village council might be considering options for providing relief from a drought; in France government officials could be deciding whether to sign a new international environmental agreement; in China policymakers may be reviewing options for meeting the nation's future energy demands. These decisions all have profound environmental implications.

Understanding the role of political institutions as a driving force of global environmental change--and as a mechanism for response--is a challenging task. No one source provides a comprehensive view of all the issues involved. The references mentioned here, however, offer useful insight into the ways political institutions affect the global environment. A good starting point is Global Environmental Change: Understanding the Human Dimensions, a report compiled by a U.S. National Academy of Sciences committee (Stern, Young, and Druckman 1992). Although the book covers more than political institutions' role, it illustrates the importance of these institutions in all aspects of global environmental change. Only a small section of the book is reproduced here. Another good overview is "Politics and the Air Around Us" by Glantz (1988). Glantz specifically examines global warming but also discusses the many political factors that influence how decisions are made on any complex environmental problem.

Political institutions can act as the impetus for addressing global environmental change directly. A prime example of this is the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED) held in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, in June 1992. Many key documents that will significantly impact the global environment were formulated at UNCED. Parson, Haas, and Levy (1992) briefly review these documents in "A Summary of Major Documents Signed at the Earth Summit and the Global Forum." In "Institutions for the Earth," Levy, Haas, and Keohane (1992) provide a more analytic look at how multilateral agreements such as these can be instruments for dealing with global environmental problems.

Decisions made by political institutions also indirectly affect the global environment. For example, international trade agreements often have environmental ramifications. In "Free International Trade and Protection of the Environment," Schoenbaum (1992) evaluates the environmental implications of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT), which outlines rules for permissible restrictions of international trade. Policymakers have also faced intergenerational issues: the present generation's responsibility for insuring the health of the global environment for future generations. Weiss (1989) discusses this topic in "The Theory of Intergenerational Equity," a chapter in the book In Fairness to Future Generations.

These references are intended to provide an introduction to a few important issues that illustrate how political institutions affect the global environment. The CIESIN Thematic Guide on Political Institutions and Global Environmental Change and other CIESIN thematic guides contain more detailed discussions of these topics.