After a stimulating special issue on the Global Environmental Politics of Food, edited by Jennifer Clapp and Caitlin Scott, volume 18-3 has seven research articles on offer that we see as addressing four crucial themes in our field.
The first article, “Solar Geoengineering and Democracy,” explores an ongoing controversy around geoengineering via solar radiation management—deflecting some solar radiation before it reaches the earth in order to counter the effects of global warming. Numerous questions and ethical dilemmas have arisen around this idea, not least among them its compatibility with democratic principles and procedures. Adding a nuanced voice to this debate, Joshua Horton and coauthors contend that solar radiation management is not an inherently undemocratic technological approach to dealing with climate change, provocatively taking on critics who suggest it can promote authoritarianism and technocracy and “stretch democratic institutions to the breaking point.” However, they conclude that, should the turn to this kind of geoengineering be necessary, democratic principles are not guaranteed to govern it; thus they call for spending more time and resources now considering how solar radiation management can and should be governed.
The next two articles take on questions that are rightly ever more prominent in our field—the complex and nuanced experiences and agency of actors in the Global South participating in global environmental politics. In these articles, focused in turn on Indian cities pursuing adaptation to climate change and a climate change research center in South Africa, we learn about the complex nature of agency by examining constraints and opportunities these actors face in transnational relationships, as well as their evolving autonomy.
In the first of these articles, “Transnational Support for Urban Climate Adaptation: Emerging Forms of Agency and Dependency,” Eric Chu presents fascinating and immersive material on three Indian cities and their links to transnational resources for climate adaptation. He finds that these cities are able to actively shape their adaptation trajectories, effectively asserting their agency in this area in multiple ways. Yet, his multilevel governance analysis uncovers that the transnational linkages and external resources intended to support these cities’ adaptation actions ultimately end up constraining the agency and autonomy of these cities. This dependency can produce particular adaptation trajectories more amenable to the priorities of international climate finance and has major implications for how and in what manner these cities are ultimately able to adapt to climate change.
Then, in “Southern Agency: Navigating Local and Global Imperatives in Climate Research,” Ralph Borland, Robert Morrell, and Vanessa Watson take on the question of knowledge production in the Global South and how it is valued in larger knowledge economies. They develop their analysis by examining the activities and output of a climate change research center in South Africa. As with Chu’s article, the results show a nuanced relationship between the Global North and Global South. The story here is one of a mix of internal and external incentives for and constraints on the production of knowledge and its reach. This research center is responding to different domestic incentives and making choices to pursue policy-oriented and applied research, which is often discounted in measures of impact embedded in Northern bibliographic metrics. They contend that current impact metrics lead us to undervalue what is by many measures significant knowledge production in the Global South that can have diverse and major impacts on the global response to climate change.
Two articles in this volume focus on certification schemes and standards from different vantage points. In “How Do States Benefit from Nonstate Governance? Evidence from Forest Sustainability Certification,” Jesse Abrams and coauthors analyze the complex and hybrid relationships emerging between private sector, civil society, and government actors for implementing certification initiatives in two distinct regions of the world. Drawing upon the cases of forestry certification in Wisconsin (US) and Entre Ríos (Argentina), the authors shed light on how the process of neoliberalization has both opened up opportunities for such forms of hybrid governance and affected states’ capacity for implementing certification programs. As much of the work on forestry certification, to date, has focused on forestry regimes in the Global North, this analysis of two different federalist systems helps to expand our understanding of forestry certification schemes through a global North-South comparison. The authors illuminate the different ways in which certification may not only strengthen state capacity, but also align with state interests in supporting market access and enhancing production efficiency.
Sandra Schwindenhammer has also undertaken a comparative analysis to examine the growth in regional organic agricultural standards. In “The New Regionalism in Global Organic Agricultural Governance through Standards: A Cross-Regional Comparison,” she develops an integrative framework that connects literatures from global norm diffusion to comparative regionalism to policy mobilities. Results from the application of a structured comparison across six regional organic agriculture standards in Europe, East Africa, the Pacific, Central America, and Asia were mixed; in some cases the regional organic agricultural standards emerged from sponsored norm localization, while in others transnational entrepreneurs have played a pronounced role as brokers. Overall, this article underscores the importance of furthering research in the area of regional environmental governance, especially to understand the role that external actors can play in facilitating cross-border governance, norm diffusion, and interactions between public-private actors.
Anchoring this issue are two articles on trust and transparency. In different ways, they drill down beyond general findings in the literature to focus on the positive relationships between democracy, accountability and environmental protection.
In the first article, “Perceptions of Corruption, Political Distrust, and the Weakening of Climate Policy,” Ryan Rafaty addresses how the erosion of trust in democracies affects climate policies. He introduces the notion of “institutional corruption,” which he hypothesizes undermines a political institution’s performance whatever its purpose. In the case of climate change, he tests his theory across twenty industrialized democracies and finds that perceived corruption does, indeed, have a pernicious effect on climate policy making, producing weaker policies while strengthening energy-intensive industries’ influence in opposing regulation and inflaming public distrust. Interestingly, these effects seem particularly strong in the case of limiting non-market climate policies (such as regulations, standards, or government spending). While one might be tempted to read the results as good news for market-based policies (which seem less vulnerable to public perceptions of corruption), Rafaty’s findings suggest that an even subtler—and harder to combat—form of “institutional corruption,” beyond public perception, might be at work. Namely, the best predictor of weak or absent market-based policies is presence of energy-intensive industries and openness to trade, with publics apparently taking it for granted that competitiveness of a country’s fossil fuel industry should be protected even if it means shifting the costs of climate policies to other industries and consumers.
Meanwhile, in “The Transformative Capability of Transparency in Global Environmental Governance,” David Ciplet and colleagues look to norms of transparency at the global level and whether they can cascade to transform relationships of inequality. A key link in the cascade, they argue, is which particular norms of transparency get translated into accountability mechanisms. If those mechanisms are weak, the rhetoric of transparency may mean little in terms of access to easily understandable information. The result, they argue, is that powerful actors can avoid responsibility, while weaker actors have little leverage to hold powerful actors to account. The authors use the example of climate finance to show how the Paris agreement, for all its talk of transparency, allows weak translation into accountability mechanisms. Consequently, vulnerable groups have little information or leverage to hold wealthy states to account for not fulfilling their financial obligations, making it difficult, if not impossible, to disrupt systems of inequality. Both of these articles demonstrate that focusing on simple relationships of democracy or transparency to environmental performance or equity may obscure as much as they reveal about the mechanisms and chains of causation that actually lead to a better environment or more just governance.