When Dean Acheson, President Truman’s Secretary of State, completed his memoirs, he titled them “Present at the Creation.” Despite his grandiosity, Acheson was referring not to the original Genesis of the universe, but rather to era in which the great post-1945 multilateral institutions were created, including the World Bank and the United Nations (UN). We should hope that the statesmen of our own era will soon be able to record achievements of similar magnitude, for the present system of global governance is woefully inadequate to meet the global challenges of this century. Nowhere is this more evident than with respect to environmental issues, including climate change and energy. These environmental challenges are so complex, so grave, and so pressing that a single form or layer of governance cannot be expected to meet them with any adequacy. What is needed is a multidimensional approach to global environmental governance at all levels.
The present system of global environmental governance is a haphazard patchwork of multilateral institutions and agreements that awkwardly and incompletely overlap with regional, bilateral, and national efforts. Major actors include several UN specialized agencies, such as the UN Environment Program (UNEP) and the World Meteorological Organization, multilateral environmental agreements, and a range of nongovernmental organizations. As governance scholars James Broughton and Colin Bradford have written, this “multiplicity of actors” results in a wide divergence of objectives and interests. Despite calls for reform, this chaotic picture is likely to persist through 2020. The developed and developing world will probably manage to forge a new agreement to reduce global greenhouse gas emissions, replacing the Kyoto Protocol. Such an agreement is likely to prompt new national and regional frameworks to reduce emissions, and also new UN institutions to aid in climate change adaptation and technology transfer. But there is no sign on the horizon of fundamental, international agreement on how to reconcile economic development with environmental sustainability. As a result, whatever new institutions a post-Kyoto climate agreement may produce, it is unlikely to meet the full range of global environmental challenges, which apart from climate change also include oceanic ecosystem collapse and catastrophic loss of biodiversity. On present evidence, the world in 2020 will simply have an enhanced complement of inadequate environmental governance institutions and frameworks.
Against this dismal prospect stands the promise of multidimensional environmental governance. This framework assigns to global, national, and sub-national institutions a variety of responsibilities to ensure that the full range of global environmental challenges is addressed. At the global level, critical ecosystems, including rainforests, biologically productive ocean regions, and the climate itself, should be designated as being vital to humanity as a whole. With UN leadership, international resources including aid and technical cooperation should be devoted to ensuring that these ecosystems are protected, while economic development is pursued by means other than damaging these precious resources. At the same time, a reinvigoration of existing multilateral institutions can help to coordinate national sustainable development efforts. A UN Environmental Organization (UNEO) should be formed as the successor to UNEP. Based on recommendations recently made by the UN General Assembly, UNEO would help to coordinate enforcement and monitoring of the myriad number of multilateral environmental agreements, while also building capacity within national environmental governance institutions. The International Energy Agency should similarly establish, as Colin Bradford suggests, a Global Energy Council to coordinate national efforts to de-carbonize energy sources. Finally, sub-national partnerships should be encouraged to develop innovative and locally relevant environmental policy solutions. One example is the US-China EcoPartnerships initiative, which includes an agreement between the cities of Shanghai and New Orleans to preserve coastal ecosystems. Such local partnerships present an excellent opportunity for policy entrepreneurship; prosperous cities in the developing world, such as Hong Kong and Tel Aviv, may be willing to commit to greater emissions reduction efforts, for example, than national governments. Combined with national and global efforts, sub-national partnerships can create a robust and coherent framework to address multiple, global environmental issues.
Multidimensional environmental governance thus envisions a coordinated, unified response to environmental challenges. Yet it presumes a substantial degree of mutual confidence and cooperation. In a world at war and in financial crisis, this condition is far from guaranteed. Multidimensional environmental governance should be seen as one segment of reform to the whole system of global governance, reform which recognizes developing nations as true, equal stakeholders in world affairs. Nations such as China, India, Brazil, and South Africa must be given more say in security and economic affairs, a prospect which should be realized through UN Security Council reform and recognition of the G-20 grouping as the primary forum for global economic cooperation. In addition, efforts to reform the global trade regime through the Doha Development Round must be reinvigorated. Such steps are necessary to create the climate of trust and cooperation that will enable multidimensional environmental governance.
If this sounds like a tall order, that’s because it is. But there is also no question that humanity’s efforts in the next century must be equal to the challenges we face. This is no time for cynicism or half-measures. Nor, as America prepares to inaugurate its first black president, Europe implements the world’s first continental cap-and-trade system, and nations like India and Brazil emerge from poverty-stricken pasts, have we any shortage of hope that the world can change for the better. A multidimensional approach to global environmental governance is our opportunity to put this hope into practice, and to preserve our common, planetary home.