The Global Environment: Institutions, Law and Policy. Regina S. Axelrod, David Leonard Downie and Norman J. Vig, (eds.). Washington D. C.: CQ Press, 2005. Second Edition (first edition 1999), 283 pages.

problems covered | overview | Norman Vig | European Union | Dutch aide | China

For anyone wanting a greater familiarity and some depth in international environmental policy debates, Axelrod, Downie and Vig have a succinct and extensive, yet accessible, volume written by themselves and fourteen other contributors. As an introduction to the interdisciplinary study of foreign policy as it is influenced by ecologically intractable, global problems, the authors hope this current second edition of their 1999 work will be of “greater use to college and university courses.”

From the ubiquity of hazardous chemicals and dramatic decline of marine fisheries, to matters ranging from energy policy, NAFTA, the World Bank, and global warming, the editors of this book have attempted to collect and assay an emerging body of knowledge. This cogent interdisciplinary corpus widely rests on bringing international relations research together with case studies and findings about environmental protection. The editors do this so that we may better understand the worldwide dimensions of an impending peril we face and the related but different set of problems confronting developing nations with transitional economies.

To their credit, the editors divide the book into three sections to provide an overview and framework for the ensuing detailed chapters on governance before presenting case studies. These cases include an analysis of competing hypotheses about why the United States is so isolated in foreign affairs. With respect to trade, environment, and new financial institutions, the European Union’s growing acumen for understanding and acting effectively with both legal and political means upon scientific findings about pollution is another focus. Another study looks at views from “the South” or the inaccurate geographical moniker given to the poor and developing nations of the world. Cases also include a detailed look at China’s Three Gorges Dam and The Czech Republic’s need for fission reactors to generate electricity to reliably replace their existing high sulfur coal based energy sector.

problems covered | overview | Norman Vig | European Union | Dutch aide | China

Vig suggests the importance of this volume arguing, “At the dawn of the twenty-first century, the Earth’s physical and biological systems are under unprecedented strain.” Partly, he argues but not solely to the facts that “The human population reached 6.3 billion in 2033 and is projected to increase to about 9 billion in the next half century.” (p.1.) Several problems converge that have made international cooperation an increasingly vital priority. Besides the widening scope of consumption that drives air and water pollution, the shortages of essential resources in some places are compounded by “one-third of the world’s people live in countries with moderate to high shortages of fresh water and that this percentage could double by 2050.” In addition to poverty the ecological context of once, local problems have spilled across national boundaries and grown into chronic international matters of some concern to the European Union, and the United States.
Fourteen articles trace the transition of institutional, legal and financial policy responses to these and other challenges driving corporations and countries into an increasingly complex series of multilateral treaties and protocols.

These agreements cover endangered species, (CITES), the Law of the Sea, ozone depletion, hazardous materials and climate change. “As a result of these and other diplomatic achievements, a system for global environmental governance now exists,” Vig asserts that this complex multilateral system of law, policy and precedents has emerged as an important source of power with respect to environmental regulations and natural resource allocations. An introductory section distills these and other agreements providing an overview for the three parts of the book.

problems covered | overview | Norman Vig | European Union | Dutch aide | China

Because the stakes are so high, many of the book’s findings are disturbing. “The contributors to this book convey a very mixed and sobering message. Although great progress was made between the Stockholm and Rio conferences in establishing international environmental institutions, laws, and policies to address problems such as marine pollution and depletion of the ozone layer, it appears that the advancement of the global environmental agenda has faltered badly since 1992.” (Vig, p.17.) Added to the sense of political drift amidst a worsening international situation is the dissolution of a common vision among the allies of the United States. The authors examine the recent history and current conditions that they describe as “Political differences among the United States, Europe and the developing world have widened rather than narrowed in recent years.” While some hope rests in numerous multilateral agreements and an increasingly auxiliary role of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) in promoting reasonable solutions to intractable trans-boundary pollution problems, the cases analyzed in this collection point to the European Union as a promising model for managing international environmental problems.

problems covered | overview | Norman Vig | European Union | Dutch aide | China

Not only do the Netherlands pursue a strategy for sustainable development, but agreements among the member nations of the European Union have pioneered shared responsibilities and payoffs from cooperation with respect to persistent organic pollutants, greenhouse gas emissions trading and nuclear safety. The EU promulgated “The Sixth Environmental Action Programme” that ties economic development and environmental protection together. Rooted in “the polluter pays principle, the precautionary principle and preventive action, and the principle of rectification of pollution at source,” (p. 207) these directives guide policies although they are not legally binding on member nations.

The starkly drawn contrast of Europe with China focuses on the Yangtze River’s Three Gorges Dam project that the Chinese government views and promotes as “a model of sustainable development.” (p. 254) Burdened by an enormous population, limited area of arable land and a rapidly expanding economy the case study on China makes clear that “two diametrically opposed paths to” development hang still in the balance. Both large scale projects or less expensive small scale projects promoted by the dam’s critics await the outcome of the largest engineering project ever undertaken by modern China to generate over 17,000 megawatts of electrical energy.

An impressive range of expertise among the seventeen contributors matches the book’s geographical coverage. For students beginning the study of international law and relations the slim volume is an important place to understand “this brave new world.”

977 words
Joseph Siry
Environmental Studies Department
Rollins College
November 19, 2005

Nomenclature and Terms used

problems covered | overview | Norman Vig | European Union | Dutch aide | China