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Climate change: transitions to sustainability
Climate change: transitions to sustainability

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3.2 Governance – filling the hole where government used to be

Sustainable development emerged as a prominent environmental policy discourse at a time of deep introspection in policy communities. In the 1970s and early 1980s it was widely felt that something was badly wrong with the political process. Commentators from both left and right argued that nation states were losing the authority to govern and the capacity to act effectively. Expressions such as ‘ungovernability’, ‘legitimation crisis’ and ‘crisis of the welfare state’ were coined to indicate the dramatic and hazardous state of affairs.

The global environmental-change issues of biodiversity loss, ozone depletion and, above all, climate change were among the issues that forced the pace further in the second half of the 1980s. As Chapter 6 shows, these issues were driven into public debates by new kinds of politics, and they presented governments with new problems. Novel approaches to decision making were promoted which viewed nation states as only one force among several. Non-state bodies, such as NGOs, began to play a tangible role in shaping international debates. Governance has emerged as the most prominent term in summarising these multilayered processes. The Commission on Global Governance (CGG) defines it as:

the sum of the many ways individuals and institutions, public and private, manage their common affairs. It is a continuing process, through which conflicting or diverse interests may be accommodated and co-operative action may be taken. It includes formal institutions and regimes empowered to enforce compliance, as well as informal arrangements that people and institutions either have agreed to or perceive to be in their interest.

(CGG Report, 1995, p. 2)

To talk about globalisation and governance requires a step back to define nation states and government before going on to explain the relationships between them (see Box 1).

Box 1 What is a nation state?

The following are a few essential features of most nation states.

  • They have territorially defined populations who recognise their government.

  • The state is served by a specialised civil service (backed on occasions by a military service).

  • The state is recognised by other states as independent in its power over its subjects. In other words, it has sovereignty. This power is expressed through, among other things, a body of legal regulation, but laws also act as guarantees of the rights of a state's citizens in relation to the state and each other.

  • Ideally, and often in practice, the population of the state forms a community of feeling or identity based on its own sense of national identity.

  • Members of a nation state are citizens; they are not purely subject to, but also participate in, processes of government. They also take part in sharing the responsibilities and benefits associated with membership of the nation state.

  • Important features of social interaction, particularly the economy and family life, are viewed as beyond the direct control of the state and its institutions.

(Source: adapted from Bromley, 2001)

Nation states have long been viewed as the basic building block of authoritative decision making. If politics is considered as decision making at the level of society as a whole – the activity that delivers collectively binding decisions for everyone – then it makes sense that the lenses of political scientists and theorists have been firmly fixed on nation states all this time. This politics is ‘the making, implementing and enforcing of rules for the collective, public aspects of social life, that is, politics at the level of government and the state’ (Bromley, 2001, p. 6). Nation states do this over fixed territories and their populations and, by so doing, define the scope and limits of the society. The first generation of environmental problems – such as air and water pollution – were dealt with through government, i.e. a process whereby a particular course of action is followed by the nation state in the pursuit of common interests.

Activity 2 Climate politics from the top of the tree to the roots

This activity will help you think about the changing roles of different players – notably the nation state – in shaping outcomes in environmental politics. Try to combine three aspects: what you know about climate change from studying this course; what you learned about globalisation in the last section; and the summary of what constitutes a nation state in Box 1. Go through the six questions below, each of which is based on the points in Box 1, and note down, in a short paragraph for each, your thoughts as you consider the unfolding politics of climate change.

  1. How well can national politicians represent issues of global climate change in their day-to-day work as democratic representatives?

  2. Which interests are national civil servants working on climate change seeking to serve?

  3. How does the concept of ‘sovereignty’ influence climate-change politics at an international level?

  4. In what ways might the ‘community of feeling’ in the USA shape negotiations?

  5. How can citizen participation in climate debates influence intergovernmental talks?

  6. What influence can the state's climate policies really have on the economy or households?


  1. With difficulty! Climate change demands action globally, but in most democratic states a government's actions will be debated and are subjected to its people's scrutiny through elections. Global interests, such as integrating the true costs of burning fossil fuels into fuel prices, are often undermined by politicians seeking to outbid each other in guessing the short-term interests of their electorates. The UN struggles to win commitments to collective action by its constituent nation states.

  2. Civil servants who negotiate climate change and plan actions within countries are trained to seek out and represent the best outcomes for their nation state; altruism (benefiting another state, perhaps to the cost of your own) is not just unlikely in this context, it might be seen as unprofessional. American and Australian climate-change negotiators have a responsibility to their state long before any responsibility to UN processes, whatever their personal view may be.

  3. The concept of sovereignty ensures that nation states cannot generally be coerced into a course of action by other states, particularly for climate-change issues. In climate-change negotiations this means that some states (most prominently the United States) can reject an agreement that has been arrived at by the great majority of other nation states by referring to its own sovereignty. But the concept of sovereignty is not static: the European Union (EU) has acted as a unified party in climate-change negotiations. Most commentators interpret this as nation states pooling some of their sovereignty to allow more efficient decision making and to give the EU as a whole a stronger collective voice in negotiations.

  4. The community of feeling or identity of the USA is strongly bound to a notion of individual freedoms. In the late 20th and early 21st centuries, these were expressed (some would say distorted) in a general pattern of energy-intensive lifestyles (large cars, frequent air travel, energy-hungry appliances, etc.). European societies have followed a similar route, although they have not reached the same intensity of resource use. Although they would rarely put it in these words, many NGOs and commentators are absorbed by the question of whether a high-consumption lifestyle can be divorced from a sense of quality of life and self-worth.

  5. Citizen pressure adds up to significant pressure on the state, in the form of NGO activity, individual petitioning and other lobbying processes, and individual actions to reduce the environmental impacts of households and communities. In the 1990s, the presence of strong citizen voices demanding action on climate-change complemented messages coming from the science community to pressurise governments into international talks on the issue. By contrast, there are also examples of citizens organising to campaign against environmental policies, for example against energy tax rises.

  6. One of the great challenges of climate-change politics is that a global problem that is the result of millions of local actions requires that international agreements can result, through the actions of individual nation states, in changes in the behaviours of local economies and households. Not only are such chains of cause and effect very difficult to predict and influence, they can also stir up strong resentment and opposition, such as the fuel price protests mentioned at the end of point 5.

The failure of the state to deal effectively with old problems, and its inability to respond to new challenges (above all globalisation and emergent global environmental change) has seen political scientists tear up their textbooks and start again.

They have had to acknowledge that their linear models of central decision-making by formalised institutions – whereby policies are generated and implemented in a top-down manner – don't represent the reality of contemporary politics. Similarly, political, business and NGO figures find that the word ‘government’ captures neither reality nor their ambitions for new ways of debating and resolving questions. It is in this context that the loose and open term ‘governance’ has become so quickly and widely popular.