Kaiser and Meyer approach their edited book with an idea rooted in liberal institutionalism: “IOs mattered for environmental protection in the global twentieth century” (p 7). They primarily use archival research. Different contributions in the book discuss how IOs in modern history have played the crucial role of policy entrepreneurs by developing the international environmental agenda, bringing various stakeholders together, and providing science-based policy solutions. The book traces the origins of international environmental institutions and initiatives such as the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and sustainable development goals against the backdrop of the United Nation’s Conference on the Human Environment (Stockholm Conference) in 1972. The book also focuses on how other international organizations like the European Union and the OECD institutionally and normatively transformed themselves to address environmental concerns during that era.
Several chapters in the book reference each other to give this collection a sense of cohesion. It is also refreshing to note that the book eschews focusing on the formal structure of the environmental IOs, instead focusing on different aspects of global environmental governance such as individual treaties, environmental organizations, and economic intergovernmental organizations.
In all of these arenas, a few common themes of discussion emerge: the role of scientific information and elite networks, the shaping of international environmental discourse, the role played by key individuals, and a constant tussle between IOs and national political agenda.
The chapters by Meyer, Enora Javaudin, and Michael Manulak analyze the temporal changes in concepts of “environment” and “objective scientist” during the second half of the twentieth century. Until the 1950s, the predominant understanding of “environment” was limited to nature conservation. The scope of “environment” expanded with the release of seminal works such as Silent Spring (Carson 1962), Population Bomb (Ehrlich 1968), and Limits to Growth (Meadows et al. 1972) that highlighted unprecedented levels of human impact on the “natural” environment. This new generation of scientists such as Rachel Carson and Paul Ehrlich transformed the role of scientific experts from apolitical “technocratic internationalists” (p. 319) to significant political actors in international environmentalism, and the IOs offered them extensive fora for political engagement. The Declaration on the Human Environment released after the Stockholm Conference solidified the role of scientific knowledge in identifying and addressing environmental problems and created a space for the “environment expert” (p. 91).
In their chapters, Manulak, Iris Borowy, and Stephen Macekura explore the role of IOs like the OECD and UNEP in bridging the ideas of environment and economic growth. Around the time of the Stockholm Conference, interventionist economists like Gamani Corea and Mahbub ul Haq argued against any constraints on the economic development of the Global South. Their claim that poor countries’ environmental problems were developmental problems informed the position of the Global South and led to a serious rift between North and South at the Conference. In order to reconcile the idea of environmental protection and economic growth, the OECD’s environmental committee in 1979 and later the Brudtland Commision (1987) laid out the notion of “sustainable development” wherein environmental protection and economic development could complement each other. These early discussions over differentiated treatment for the Global North and the Global South, and co-benefits from environmental protection and economic growth, are embedded in the current international environmental discourse and have actively influenced negotiations on international environmental agreements.
Several chapters in the book underline the role of individuals within IOs in globalizing environmental concerns. Maurice Strong, who led the Stockholm Conference and later became the first executive director of UNEP, played a critical role in encouraging scientific and political communities’ interface with IOs. Similarly, Barbara Ward, an economist by training, was instrumental in shaping the discourse around sustainable development and, as Luigi Piccioni’s chapter outlines, was responsible for bringing the Catholic Church to the table at the UN to discuss environmental and developmental issues.
In their introductory chapter, Kaiser and Meyer explain that the findings of the book in general “demonstrate the limited usefulness of notions of international politics as a ‘two-level game’ of interaction”(p. 9) between domestic politics and international negotiations. Instead, they claim that global environmental politics in different issue areas have been driven by normative contestations within the epistemic community. While this may have been true in the 1960s and ‘70s, it is a tough case to make in present times, when domestic populist movements in many countries like the United States, the United Kingdom, Brazil, and Poland have gained support by destabilizing international institutions. The book’s chapters on the Antarctic Treaty and the IPCC outline the eventual supremacy of narrow political concerns in IOs.
The book weaves a positive narrative on the role of IOs in promoting the international environmental agenda exclusively from a western perspective. The editors recognize this bias and blame it on practical impediments such as “segmented nature of research” and limited access to archival materials (p. 326). However, given the available research on the Non-Aligned Movement (a significant bloc in the ‘70s) and the western ideological hegemony of the IOs, the absence of any substantial discussion of IOs’ role in advancing international environmental politics with respect to the Global South is glaring.
Overall, the book makes an important contribution to the literature on transnational environmental history and global history. Moreover, it offers a detailed account of informal processes and networks within international organizations, which should be valuable for other scholars and students in the field IR.