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date: 17 April 2024

Challenges to Traditional International Relations Theory Posed by Environmental Changefree

Challenges to Traditional International Relations Theory Posed by Environmental Changefree

  • Hugh DyerHugh DyerSchool of Politics and International Studies, University of Leeds


Changes in the environment can impact international relations theory, despite enjoying only a limited amount of attention from scholars of the discipline. The sorts of influence that may be identified include ontology, epistemology, concepts, and methods, all of these being related to varying perspectives on international relations. It is likely that the most profound implications arise at the ontological level, since this establishes assumptions about, for example, whether the world we wish to understand is both political and ecological. However, more recently the recognition of the practical challenge presented by the environment has become widespread, though it has not yet translated into a significant impact on the discipline of international relations, even when theoretical implications are noted. It is now almost obligatory to include the environment in any list of modern international relations concerns, as over time it has become necessary to include peace, underdevelopment, gender, or race, as they quite rightly became recognized as significant aspects of the field. Moreover, the environment, as a relatively novel subject matter, has naturally brought some critique and innovation to the field. However, studies of the environment are also subject to such descriptors as “mainstream” and “radical” in debates about how best to tackle the subject. As is often the case, the debates are sharpest among those with the greatest interest in the subject.


  • Environment
  • International Relations Theory


International relations theory has given limited attention to the environment, a topic with broad implications for the study and practice of international relations. The influence of environmental concern on IR theory may be understood at several levels, from philosophical underpinnings to practical demands for explanation. The sorts of influence that may be identified include ontology (accounts of what exists), epistemology (claims to knowledge), concepts (organizing categories), and methods (conduct of research), all of these being related to varying perspectives on international relations. It is likely that the most profound implications arise at the ontological level, since this establishes assumptions about, for example, whether the world we wish to understand is both political and ecological. Of course, such assumptions also prescribe disciplinary boundaries in terms of which questions are of interest, and this has always been a particular issue for the study of international relations given a blurred distinction between the local and global, which is further emphasized by environmental issues. It follows that epistemological claims to know something about the world, in terms of justified or reliable true beliefs about propositions, entail plausible accounts of (either political or ecological) entities and the events, relationships, and processes in which they are involved. A relevant illustration is Haas's (1992) notion of “epistemic communities” as it applies to international climate change debates, since this illustrates a manner of settling on an agreed account of knowledge (an epistemic norm) with implications for both political and ecological understanding. The appropriate key concepts used to describe and order the world, and the methods used to acquire knowledge of it, follow from such an account, whether or not it is overtly acknowledged. Of course, all of this requires addressing thorny issues about rationality (Stripple and Bulkeley 2014), cognition, and evidence which will not be treated directly in this entry but are precisely what make such an inquiry into theory necessary. While it would be unwise to fixate on consistency or correspondence to a given foundational truth, there is a reasonable expectation of coherence in accounting for the world (such that it is possible to say anything at all about it). Right away, it is apparent that the term “international relations” is itself problematic, and not least from an ecological perspective. Consequently, IR theory struggles to account for diverse actors and relationships involved in global environmental governance and local environmental activism (Wapner 1996; Dyer 2011b; 2014).

This entry will use the convention of distinguishing between international relations (lower case) as a practical activity, topic, or area of study, and International Relations (or just IR, upper case) as a discipline, or subdiscipline of political science, with the philosophical, theoretical, and methodological parameters that systematic study entails. There can be little doubt in the twenty-first century that the environment has become a central feature of politics (Doyle and McEachern 2007), and hence of international relations or world politics. What is less clear is the extent to which the environment has become a central feature of IR, in terms of influencing thought in this field. This apparent disjuncture between practice and theory can be explained in part by making a distinction between addition and transformation. The addition of the environment to the list of practical concerns in the field allows it to be addressed by the existing toolkit of theories. This has already happened, of course, without subtracting from any of the preexisting activity, and so enriching the field in that sense. However, the transformation of the field by environmental issues would require addressing the theoretical implications of environmental or ecological thought. This has also happened to some extent – again without subtracting much from preexisting activity – but in this case that is an issue because transformation would require displacing some fundamental assumptions and rethinking some basic concepts. There is considerable potential for environmental or ecological perspectives to do just this: to displace or disrupt traditional approaches. This would enrich the field in a rather different and more controversial way. This entry will consider the prospects for such a transformation by reviewing the emergence and development of environmental perspectives on international relations, giving particular attention to the contestation of key theoretical assumptions and concepts of traditional IR.

Tradition and Transformation

It is now almost obligatory to include the environment in any list of modern IR concerns, as over time it has become necessary to include peace, underdevelopment, gender, or race, as they quite rightly became recognized as significant aspects of the field. What is significant in all such additions is not just the novelty of the subject matter but the fact that it was somehow missed out of the previous list. Ignorance is one possible explanation, if not a very good excuse, but a more interesting theoretical explanation would point to the underlying categories of thought that delimit what is included, and excluded, from the field of study. This may be influenced in part by the organizational structures of social science, such as academic departments, editorial decisions, and research funding. Commitments to particular modes of thought and the sanctioning of particular modes of research and scholarship are, of course, commonplace, and perhaps thought necessary to the orderly progress of knowledge in any field. Nevertheless, such commitments are often subject to trenchant critique, and invite innovation. How much innovation is desirable at any juncture in the development of structured knowledge is itself a matter of some controversy, and so it is that such political concepts as “conservative” and “moderate,” “radical” and “revolutionary,” are also deployed to describe intellectual trends in the field. The environment, as a relatively novel subject matter, has naturally brought some critique and innovation to the field. However, studies of the environment are also subject to such descriptors as “mainstream” and “radical” in debates about how best to tackle the subject. As is often the case, the debates are sharpest among those with the greatest interest in the subject. This has perhaps allowed the wider implications of this particular topic for IR to be left aside as specific environmental issues are addressed in detail. Similarly, the broad field of IR has been able to proceed on a course charted by reference to the more familiar landmarks of a pluralist consensus (Smith 1993). While such mutual ignorance is not unusual, it should be addressed, and this entry will indicate some ways in which it has been or could be.

Traditions in IR and the Environment

The introduction of environmental issues into the study of international relations has clearly had an impact, but we can ask the same question about theoretical significance that we ask about practical policy implications: that is, whether such issues can be managed by traditional means, or whether they are irreconcilable with current practice. If the former, then environmental issues are simply additional; if the latter, these issues are potentially transformational. The significance for IR follows from such practical concerns because theory and practice are linked, and as the environment challenges existing practice it also raises new questions that IR theory must respond to (Connelly 2002). The widespread recognition of the practical challenge presented by the environment has not yet translated into a significant impact on the discipline of IR, even when theoretical implications are noted. Thomas (1992) observed that fundamental changes in politics and economics demanded by environmental issues had not yet received an appropriate practical response, an observation that still largely holds true as climate change moves towards the top of the global agenda, and it seems that theoretical development has also been somewhat limited. However, a wide-ranging literature has emerged to tackle a variety of environmental issues from different approaches, which suggests a comprehensive foundation for reconsidering the theoretical basis of IR.

Given the state-centric history of IR, it is not surprising that this has been a central feature of environmental critiques. The environment raises some concerns about this traditional preoccupation with the state as a constitutive actor in an international system of such actors (Liefferink 1996). More specifically, the concept of sovereignty has arguably been a central concept of IR, since it purports to be the key attribute of state actors. Litfin (1998) examines the relationship between sovereignty and ecology, showing how sovereignty can be reconsidered, and familiar political divisions and concepts problematized. Such an approach could present a considerable challenge to IR, on its own terms. Young (1998) is suggestive of moves from the state to the global level, with shared concerns across international environmental and governance issues, and this reflects a regime-oriented (institutional) perspective on global governance that draws on experience with environmental issues, as does Vogler (1995). Elliott (1998:3) presses the challenge a little further, beginning with a couple of home truths: “global environmental problems [...] require global solutions” and “there are no simple solutions.” This leads to some consideration of “how we should understand the ‘global’ as an organizing principle” (1998:3), which surely raises questions about the state as an organizing principle. Elliott (1998) posits critical first-order questions about governance and world order, and about structures and frameworks, which have become characteristic of environmental concerns (Durant, Fiorino, and O'Leary 2004), and thus suggests the manner of IR's potential transformation.

Within a more or less traditional IR framework, there are several areas of engagement with the environment that are suggestive of the range of issues raised and the depth of their significance for the field. Barkdull and Harris (2002) distinguish between systemic, societal, and state-centric theories, each contributing to understanding the environment as an issue. Yet each also suggests possible sources of theoretical transformation.

Environmental agreements and conventions provide a rich resource of case materials for IR scholars, while international institutions have always been central to the field and are at the heart of “institutionalism” as a significant IR theoretical perspective. An increasing number of institutions have emerged to address the environment, making this a significant aspect of increasing cooperation around shared values and interests. This suggests an element of tradition, but at the same time the possibility of something more. The most significant of these have subtle but deep implications for international law and political practice (for example, the Aarhus Convention on Access to Information, Public Participation in Decision-making and Access to Justice in Environmental Matters, 1998, supports civil society involvement), and related traditional categories such as sovereignty (Birnie 1992). However, Kütting (2000) notes IR's failure to recognize the complex connection between environmental degradation and its social origins and an “externalization” of the environment due to concentrating on institutional developments. Subsequently she notes a failure to adequately address environmental policy networking (Kütting 2014). So, while the environment has brought increased international cooperation, IR theory has not yet fully internalized an environmental perspective.

Thus, the preoccupations of IR tend to limit concern to a rational perspective on the institutions, rather than the environment; the corollary being that a focus on the environment would disrupt such preoccupations. As institutional developments go, the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development was of landmark significance for setting a new agendum for IR. While this did not directly challenge (so much as add to) the more traditional agenda of developed states, the addition brings some theoretically awkward issues along with it. For example, in focusing on developing countries, Desai (1998) reinforces concern with such factors as population, culture, religion, and ethics, which are tackled by Maguire and Rasmussen (1998) and Gardiner (2011). The importance of such factors is heightened rather than diminished by the distributional issues raised in negotiations around climate change, and their institutional manifestation in the Kyoto process and its potential successor regime, and hence the prospects for successful multilateral negotiations (Eckersley 2012) as opposed to unilateral national commitments and local action (Dyer 2014).

These are issues that can be addressed by social sciences (Boardman 2001; Wight 2002) but, in a less familiar sort of addition to its concerns, the institutionalization of natural science at the international level has come to bear on IR (Litfin 1994). As this has been driven in part by the desire to reduce uncertainty, for political reasons among others, the idea of “risk” has entered the debates through Beck's work on “risk society” (notably, and perhaps typically, from outside the IR discipline) and, in particular, his later work on ecological politics (Beck 1995). A good example of the implications for IR is Doran (1998) on security and globalization, and McGinnis (1999) on bioregionalism, which raises intriguing issues of knowledge/science, history/culture, and space/place in an ecological context.

The latter point about spatial factors underwrites concern with globalization, now commonplace in IR, and its links with the environment. The complexities are well illustrated by such works as Schaeffer (1997), and the theoretical implications by such works as Jameson and Miyoshi (1998), including awkward new issues such as “climate justice” (Parks and Roberts 2010; Guerrero 2011). Awkwardness begins to appear emblematic of the environment's impact on IR, and no less so for one of IR's established analytic concepts: “security.”

There has been significant critical engagement with security, which is illustrative because of its centrality to traditional state-centric IR with disciplinary origins in the problems of war and peace. Environmental security has been part of this engagement (Ronnfeldt 1997), though sometimes reluctantly so given the associations with state-centric concerns of politico-military security. An example involving potential conflicts is provided by Homer-Dixon (1991; 1999), while the case against linking environmental problems to national security is made by Deudney (1990; 1991). Naturally, if specific environmental issues, such as water shortages (Gleick 1993), can lead to violence and, in particular, organized violence, it can then join the traditional international security agenda. At the same time, it is potentially challenging to tradition by virtue of redefining or diluting settled notions of security, even if an alternative notion of environmental security has universal appeal (Dyer 1996). For some, the environment is a contributing factor (Renner 1997), while for others it is both fundamental and transformational (Dalby 1992).

Indeed, it is in such discourses of IR that the prospects of transformation are to be found amidst the relationships of theory to practice. If practical interests have dominated traditional IR theory, the addition of the environment demands theoretical guidance. The environment has implications both through its impact on interests and through its theoretical contributions – hence a broad front on which to potentially subvert the tradition. Since disciplines are defined by their theoretical debates, as much as by their subject matter (the latter being defined by the former), it is here that transformations are most likely to be observed. For IR, the tentative nature of its founding theory (often only tangential to the international) has led to borrowing from the “parent” field – that is to say, political theory. This, in turn, creates another opening for the environment in IR, by leveraging relevant innovations in political thought (Hay 2002). Useful examples are Eckersley (1992) and Hayward (1998), both of which note the distinction between anthropocentric (human-centered) and ecocentric (ecologically centered) perspectives on human-nature relationships. An ecocentric context for human relations unsettles political interests and recasts (or casts doubt on) international relations. Such a context introducing the environment to IR is one thing; putting the environment at the center of IR is quite another, and such a move would clearly represent a transformation. So far, IR may have shown some concern with the transformation of political community (Linklater 1998), but transformation of the human-environment relationship would be all-encompassing. So it is that the traditional concerns of IR with war and peace, conflict and cooperation, and other difficulties framed by the structure of interstate relations could be made redundant by the theoretical challenge of environmental issues. Such a transformation would emerge through theoretical developments forced by the realities of environmental change, and our efforts to think about them clearly and perhaps therefore ecologically.

In order to focus on issues for traditional IR theory raised by the environment, the two most indicative of the points addressed above will be developed further. The following sections will first address the state, and then security, as illustrations of the theoretical challenge.

The State

The state is at the heart of traditions in IR theory, and yet it is not a stable or even singular point of reference, either in theory or practice. As the focus of governance and administration of a people, the state is linked to the nation in the typical formulation “nation-state.” Yet there can be few cases where the match between state and nation is very close (countries being multicultural in some respect), except in the minimal sense of citizens being somehow contained by territorial boundaries. It is this feature of territoriality that most clearly highlights the mismatch between the political map of the world and the ecological map of the planet. Though state boundaries may reflect convenient natural features such as mountains, they can also be quite arbitrary historical artifacts that bear no relation to ecological – including human – circumstances. Most obviously, the distribution of potable water, clean air, arable land, fisheries, mineral resources, and so on – the human environment – varies across the global population, and this is compounded by uneven and unsustainable development and an increasingly borderless political economy.

There is seldom a clear alignment of ecological and political space, so of course most environmental problems have a transboundary or global character which strains the capacity of existing institutions. Thus, traditional conceptions of state, nation, citizen, and sovereignty are troubled by the ecological context. The classics of political philosophy address the state, as do the “classics” of IR, and the issue of the state can in this sense be viewed from within or without (Walker 1993). The addition of the environment to this mix of concerns, or rather reconsidering these issues in the ecological context, is well addressed by such works as Eckersley (2004). As soon as sovereignty is raised, it is easier to see how both the inside and the outside of the state are brought into question. Barry and Eckersley (2005) set the state in this context, where Conca (2005) raises a pertinent question (“Old States in New Bottles?”), while Dobson and Eckersley (2006) pick up the sweep of issues, with a chapter by Hurrell (2006) focusing on the state. A range of textbooks as well as familiar journals in the field are oriented towards global environmental politics (GEP) rather than IR per se (Elliott 2004; DeSombre 2007; Mitchell 2010; Chasek, Downie and Brown 2013; Axelrod and VanDeveer 2014; Betsill, Hochstetler and Stevis 2014; Biermann 2014; Nicholson and Wapner 2014; Global Environmental Politics) – though some retain the “international relations” point of reference (DeSombre 2007; O'Neill 2009) – such that “GEP” may be displacing IR as the heading under which the international environmental relations of states are addressed. A consequence of this is a diverse range of theoretical perspectives on the politics of the environment which are familiar to the study of international relations, but also diverge from the traditional canon of IR theory (Paterson 2006; Stevis 2014).

That the state should attract so much attention is an indication of its theoretical significance as a locus of human collective action. That it should be the focus of ecologically oriented analysis reinforces this sense of its centrality as a concept, but also points to the practical consequences of the state. This is because the state is taken to be the chief instrument for achieving a wide range of human goals, such as wealth, health, and happiness, and (as we shall see in more detail below) security. All of these goals will be understood, and achieved, rather differently in an environmental context (where, for example, sustainability is high on the list of collective goals). What is more, the appropriate means for achieving those goals will also be different, so the implications are for practice as well as for theory. In turn, this may alter the nature of the state as a container for particular societies. Much of what is familiar in our current social habits may change with our attempts to achieve sustainability, and with this our sense of place and identity – indeed, traditions – may alter significantly. To the extent that environmental values are a feature of modern political discourse (Litfin 1994; Redclift 1995; Dyer 1996), this will pose a challenge to the disciplinary traditions of IR, and in particular to the concept of the state. Liefferink (1996) argues that ecological interdependence has challenged states’ ability to manage their territorial “eco-capacity” (“ecological sustenance base”) as opposed to merely their borders. At the same time, as Lipschutz and Conca (1993:19) note, “most of the strategies put forward for responding to global environmental problems assume that states are willing and able to assume this managerial role.” Increasingly, the ecologically relevant point of reference is the local or the global, rather than the state. This is not to say that states vanish from the scene, but that they are not the beginning or end of the matter, or even the best venue. Hence pertinent issues are not necessarily raised or addressed at the level of the state, nor directly mediated by state institutions. As we become less concerned with the state in its previous guise, and less with interstate relations per se, we may witness a gradual transformation both in the practice of international relations and in IR theory as it struggles to account for these changes. An indicator of transformation in this regard is the increasing interest in sociological perspectives (Lawson 2006).

Hobson and Hobden (2002) suggest rethinking the origins of the state and international relations, in order to denaturalize them, and shifting attention to processes of reconstitution. Bigo and Walker (2007) suggest that a sociological approach emphasizes practices rather than abstractions like the state. Environmental issues are amenable to such an approach (Yearley 1992), and the ecological context they evoke may cause difficulties for states. Nevertheless, continuing expectations of state-led action on environmental issues, including international institutions to address the environment transnationally and globally, may yet prove to be a counterweight to disciplinary transformations if it merely reiterates state-centric assumptions in IR rather than capturing the opportunities for revision (Dyer 2007).


Security has been a focal concept for IR, reflecting the origins of disciplinary IR in the early part of the twentieth century and the practical concerns and political expectations that have been abiding features of international relations before and since. However, from the latter part of the twentieth century and into the twenty-first century, the issue of what exactly security entails, and for whom, has become problematic – both in theory and practice. The environment has played an important part in this problematization of security, arising from the tension between traditional categories of politico-military security and the alternative notions of security that pertain to ecological systems. This has given rise to theoretical debate and critique (Deudney 1991; Dalby 1992; Barnett 2001), and to shifting practical concerns as circumstances changed (Smoke 1996). The distinction has been noted between those environmental concerns that require nonmilitary responses and those increasingly limited number that might be addressed by a military response (Woodrow Wilson Center 1998), and indeed the prospect of building peace around the environment (Conca and Dabelko 2002). The debate reflects two distinct sets of concerns about security. On one hand is a concern that environmental change might lead to conflict, the traditional security issue for IR; on the other hand is a concern that environmental change will diminish human security through different but still significant social, economic, and, indeed, ecological changes. This second set of concerns underwrites the theoretical implications of the environment for IR, as traditional practices of state-centric institutions struggle with the different values implied by the notion of “environmental security.”

The concept of environmental security illustrates the centrality of the environmental challenge. Taking on such a defining feature of IR puts its patterns of discourse and inquiry to the test. Of course, environmental security is not likely to define IR if the main structures and agents of international relations simply adjust to reflect environmental issues (Conca 1993). However, the contrast between security of the environment and security of states adds weight to a broader critique of the interstate perspective on global politics (Walker 1993). The difficulty for establishing a long-term global perspective on security is identifying convincing practical and theoretical reasons in the present circumstances to justify such a view, and this is compounded by a sense that the concept of security has already been overstretched or outgrown and may simply not be up to the task (Sørenson 1990). Certainly the concept is being ever more widely applied (“human security,” “food security”), including in areas which directly relate to the broader concerns of environmental security, such as energy and climate – which may be viewed as two sides of the same coin (Dyer 2012; Dyer and Trombetta 2013).

In contrast to traditional concerns with immediate threats to specific territories, environmental security refers to broader spatial and temporal dimensions of environmental change. The preservationist connotation of security (securing a given condition) is modified when it has to address a process of change that does not support preserving particular existing conditions, and may on the contrary demand innovation. For example, territorial security for particular social groups may not be conducive to wider human security (including those groups), even if there remains a role for states. Yet states may still be called upon to give effect to a modified concept of security, and this, of course, may prove controversial if it simply reifies a state-centric power-oriented politics of the environment (Conca 1998). These tensions indicate a significant disciplinary issue for IR in respect of such basic notions as territoriality and sovereignty, which have defined the state and interstate relations (Kuehls 1996). While the environment may be addressed in different locations, the sovereign prerogatives of states may be reasserted when the issue of security is raised (Clark, Friedman, and Hochstetler 1998). It is a traditional prerogative of nation-states to exercise a monopoly on the use of violence, both as a means of maintaining domestic order, and as a tool of foreign policy. In contrast, the emerging logic of environmental politics includes a role for global, regional, and local actors which escapes traditional interstate relations (Betsill and Corell 2008). These global-local politics follow on from transnational relations which redefine the relevance of nation-states, such that “the image of the state as a referent object for security fades [...]” (Buzan 1991:103).

As environmental issues provided an opportunity to reexamine the meaning of security, a broad literature emerged to do just that (L. Brown 1977; 1986; Ullman 1983; N. Brown 1989; Mathews 1989; Myers 1989; Renner 1989a; 1989b; 2005; Sørenson 1990; Homer-Dixon 1991; Pirages 1991; Rowlands 1991; Dalby 1992). The complexities of environmental security, tied to local perceptions and a global dimension, generate a range of perspectives and discourses that problematize traditional assumptions about security in IR, including those about the state. It is the effort by states to preserve their sovereignty and territorial integrity that creates the famous “security dilemma,” which continues to haunt conceptions of security in IR, even if there is some prospect of mitigating or transcending the dilemma (Herz 1951; 1959; Booth and Wheeler 2007). So, as with other kinds of security, it seems threats to the global environment cannot be addressed simply by the use of state power.

Transformations in IR and the Environment

In order to deal with potential transformations of IR theory brought about by the environment, it will be helpful to move away from concepts so obviously tied to the tradition, so the following sections will consider issues of culture and identity, and then global (rather than international) politics.

Culture and Identity

Looking beyond concerns with the role of the state, and a focus on security, it becomes apparent that world politics is increasingly determined by issues of identity (Connolly 1989; Wendt 1994; Lapid and Kratochwil 1996; Entrikin 1999), in which the environment is a factor (Clayton and Opotow 2003; Jacques 2008). Here, the cultural dimensions of global environmental change illustrate novel perspectives on familiar political problems (Robertson 1992). IR literature has addressed culture, of course, though more rarely and lately as a central concept (Vincent 1980; Dore 1984; Featherstone 1990; Rengger 1992; Katzenstein 1996; Valbjørn 2008). In order to cope with such developments, the particular undertaking of IR theory has rediscovered its origins and associations with the more inclusive and expansive questions of political theory (Beitz 1979; Williams 1992; Walker 1993) and extended its links with other cognate disciplines. This offers an improved prospect for showing how issues of culture and environmental change are reflected in global politics, and the idea of a global ecopolitics is brought to bear on IR via the reconsideration of political theory in the ecological context (Eckersley 1992; Hayward 1998; Dobson and Eckersley 2006). As the traditional concerns of IR scholars with how different peoples cohabit the planet become informed by the issue of environmental change, it becomes increasingly apparent that the cultural dimension of planetary ecology, and environmentalism in world politics, constitute aspects of emerging global culture that implicate IR categories. This presents a considerable challenge both to IR theory and to the practice of international relations, as identity assumes an ecological dimension. It may already be necessary to change the terminology, by referring only to global politics, rather than implying the continued centrality of relations between states.

A substantial literature emerged to address environmental change from the standpoint of IR scholarship (Carroll 1988; Young 1989; Benedick 1991; Rowlands and Greene 1991; Hurrel and Kingsbury 1992; Thomas 1992; Brenton 1994; Chasek 2001; Betsill and Corell 2008), often in its traditional terms of international diplomatic cooperation or discord, and not always with a sense of irony, perhaps thus limiting its critical impact (Smith 1993). There is also literature that refers specifically to the global rather than the international (of which more below), and some that overtly connects the two (Pirages 1978), though since this distinction does not always determine the authors’ commitments and orientation, the literature may be considered as a whole. It will be useful to consider the location of this literature within disciplinary debates to ascertain if ecopolitics constitutes a novel paradigm for the study of global politics. Even for established approaches to IR, the environment has become an intervening and significant variable. This is true of everything from sovereignty (Litfin 1998) to international trade (Anderson and Blackhurst 1992). The traditional paradigms of IR have been variously described in tripartite or binary schemes of debating theoretical perspectives, which in mapping IR theory also define and delimit it (Walker 1989), and alternative paradigms from such cognate fields as sociology – which bear on how the environment is treated – could also do with being integrated (Sunderlin 2003). The prescription of IR theory is unsettled by the (re)introduction of identity issues, since this goes to the ontological roots of the discipline, and this in turn points to reconstructions of agency and structure (Kowert 1998; Biermann, Pattberg, and Zelli 2010; Schroeder 2010; Benecke 2011). Indeed, for understanding the world, perhaps especially so from an ecological perspective, we might even do better by setting aside IR theory altogether (Bleiker 1997), thinking instead in terms of global political theory and the environment.

Global Politics

To underscore the point about a transition to a global perspective, there is a literature that refers specifically to the global rather than the international (Porter and Brown 1991; Lipschutz and Conca 1993; Young 1998; Vogler 2000; Elliott 2004; Dauvergne 2005; DeSombre 2007), including key journals such as Global Environmental Politics. Aside from the global context of the environment, points of reference for a global perspective might be found in the speed of technological change, in the globalization of financial markets, information, and communication, and in other transnational activities and structures that permit unsustainable consumption (Cerny 1995; Princen, Conca, and Maniates 2002; Sonnenfeld and Mol 2002; Oosthoek and Gills 2007; Doherty and Doyle 2008).

Of the various approaches to international relations, some are more amenable to the global perspective, and, indeed, to the environment as an issue. It is reasonable to ask how environmental change is distinguished from other issues that previously confronted international relations, and if it is distinctive enough to warrant a paradigmatic shift. However, we might do better to consider which theoretical perspectives are best suited to address environmental change and its social consequences. In part, this depends on how the environment is characterized, whether as a problem to be solved or as a touchstone for political thought. If the environment invokes a new set of values, as well as realigning interests, then it is likely to have a more transformative influence. A useful context for such transformations is the cosmopolitanism of Beitz (1979) and Linklater (1982; 1998), and related normative perspectives which reappeared in IR theory debates (Frost 1986; Brown 1992; Smith 1992; Dyer 1997; Cochrane 1999). Awareness of the changing historical circumstances of the state brought about by globalization, environmental change, and the end of the Cold War (Dalby 1992; Dyer 2000) is likely to engender political momentum for transformations in the means and ends of human development and the conditions of human freedom (Linklater 1998). Cosmopolitanism depends on there being different cultures in a global context – as Hannerz (1990) notes, there are no cosmopolitans without locals – and so supports a local-global ecological perspective on international relations (Lipschutz 1992; Rengger 1992).

Theoretical debates in IR have thus centered on the relative importance of states as actors in the international system, with some views, such as the international society approach or the English School (Little 2002), and constructivist views (Onuf 1989; Wendt 1999) holding that a social perspective offers an accurate description of the world of states, which nevertheless implies national communities that are less inclusive (Vincent 1980). The English School perspective gets a mention in some texts on environmental politics (Betsill et al. 2014), and while Paterson (2005:176) does think that's a good starting point, Falkner (2012) sees potential in its normative sensitivities, and others pick up on the related issue of social rules (Dyer 2011a; Steinberg 2015). Yet even a relatively liberal perspective on the states system may simply add a new patch of environmental material to the old fabric. As Stripple (2006) observes, many scholars reviewing the literature have observed that analysis is dominated by a liberal institutional approach which leaves political authority with the state (Hurrell 1995; Paterson 1995; Elliott 1998; Jakobsen 1999). By contrast, Conca (2005) and Green (2013) indicate the hybridization and diffusion of authority in global environmental governance. Liberalism in general has a difficult relationship with environmentalism (Berstein 2001), and broadly state-centric theoretical orientations of liberal internationalism and institutionalism does as well, given the significant challenges to world order that environmental challenges imply (Klein 2014). Equally, underlying theoretical assumptions about hierarchy and anarchy in the international system have been tested by the emergence of new environmental actors and practices (Belsey 1994; Biermann et al. 2009; 2010; Benecke 2011; Dyer 2011b; 2014). Other transnational perspectives identify cross-cutting social forces that ignore state boundaries, and the transformational role of nonstate actors (Lipschutz and Conca 1993; Princen and Finger 1994; Lipschutz and Mayer 1996; Wapner 1996; Willetts 1996; Warkentin 2001; Dryzek 2003; Doyle 2005; Longhofer and Shofer 2010; Burgiel and Wood 2012; Bulkeley et al. 2014; Dyer 2014). There has also traditionally been an element of principled support for the idea of a world society or even world government (notwithstanding some fundamental difficulties with such a project), and latterly for a world environment organization (Biermann 2001), which might seem well placed to deal with global environment issues if it could at the same time be responsive to local needs. Such challenges for governance are raised directly by environmental issues (Durant et al. 2004; Kanie and Haas 2004), including the issue of legitimacy under conditions of power inequality (Lipschutz 2004; Eckersley 2012; Hurrell and Sengupta 2012; Karlsson-Vinkhuyzen and McGee 2013) and the role of the citizen rather than the nation-state as the source of legitimacy in international environmental law (Baber and Bartlett 2015). Policy makers and natural scientists have assessed appropriate policy responses to the estimated cause and extent of environmental change. Global research projects seek to unravel and model the complexities of interconnected ecosystems, while policy makers attempt to limit environmental degradation in the face of uncertainty. The economic costs of environmental degradation or its mitigation have been made clear (Stern 2006), influencing new market behavior and regulatory intervention, sometimes in pursuit of the “win-win” scenario of competitive advantage in environmental technology, energy efficiency and security (Dyer and Trombetta 2013), and economic flexibility (versions of ecological modernization; see Mol 2001). The longstanding concern with limits to growth has resurfaced within the specific context of seeking low-carbon economies to cope with climate change (Meadows and Meadows 1972; Desai 1998; Klein 2014). International trade is influenced by environmental considerations as products, processes, and transport are assessed for environmental impacts, and risks associated with nonsustainable activity leads to selective or conditional international finance and investment. Every type of movement, from environmental activists to political parties and business lobbies, has taken up the green cause in some measure. Citizens are made aware of the ecological consequences of their lifestyles, industry of the need for a new industrial culture, bureaucrats of an environmental imperative (Princen 2005; 2010). Globalization theories offer a hybrid perspective in this context, viewing states, societies, and structures as caught up in the logic of a shrinking world (Shaw 1992).

It is some form of theory reflecting this global context that seems best suited to explaining and understanding environmental issues. In part, this is because in practice the greatest environmental problems are tangibly global in dimension and character, even if viewed from more traditional non-ecological or state-centric perspectives. In part, it is because the political response to such problems, and hence IR theory, must follow the same logic. However, it is the ontological and conceptual disruption of traditions by global ecological perspectives, and the transformations thus signaled, that make the environment particularly significant for IR theory.

The Ends of IR Theory and the Environment

As has been well argued by Laferrière and Stoett (1999), the various traditions of IR theory have also been variously amenable to ecopolitical perspectives, and with various degrees of reluctance. This leads to the conclusion that the most promising links between IR theory and the environment, not surprisingly, arise in critical approaches (Paterson 1995; 2006; Laferrière and Stoett 2006; Wapner 2008). That is to say, given the underpinnings of such approaches, there is a significant contribution from critical political theory and philosophy (Tully 2002; Vincent 2004), of which ecopolitical thought partakes (Eckersley 1992). It is consistent with the history of IR theory that such innovation is largely due to imports from outside the discipline, including the wider realm of social theory (Dunlap et al. 2002). As such innovation impacts on the project of IR theory, it also raises questions about the ends, or purposes, of such theorizing in the ecological age.

The many interrelated issues captured by an environmental perspective on IR might now be seen as collectively determining public discourse (Litfin 1994; Hajer 1995; Redclift 1995; Dryzek 1997; Benton and Short 2000; Elin 2003; Ruggie 2004), and as a focus of attention for a wide range of intergovernmental and nongovernmental actors and organizations. Environmental change may have taken the prominent place in collective consciousness formerly occupied by nuclear weapons, with similarly grave and disturbing (if ostensibly less immediate) implications. Jakobsen (1999:205) reveals “major contradictions between the theoretical assumptions of International Relations scholars and the empirical observations of green writers” such that if “the former tend to place the nation-state at the centre of analysis, the latter group emphasizes the importance of a wide range of non-state actors who increasingly define local and transnational politics on the environment.” If there are specifically global environmental issues such as climate change, there are also local issues such as deforestation. The prospects for understanding politics in this area are only partially supported by IR theory (Auer 2000). These global and local issues are, of course, linked both by human sociopoliticaleconomic interdependence and by planetary ecological interdependence, and we may consider that these are coextensive.

This broad, and somewhat fragmented, approach to the central issue of IR theory from environmental or ecological perspectives suggests two possible conclusions. The first is the obvious significance of the environment for IR as a field of study, and either directly or by implication for the body of thought that goes under the heading of “international relations theory.” Thus, either by sheer weight of endeavor around environmental issues and their consequences, or by the penetrating significance of related ontological, epistemological, and conceptual innovations, the environment has had an irreversible influence on IR. The second conclusion is that the fragmentation of this influence, originating in a wide variety of disciplinary sources, has further diluted the integrity or uniqueness of IR as a disciplinary undertaking in itself. Thus, either by bringing to its central questions the experience of other fields of study, even to the extent of carrying off some of these questions to be treated within alternative disciplinary frameworks, or by undermining its ontological and epistemological assumptions and challenging its key concepts and methods, the environment may transform IR into what might be thought a more relevant undertaking. The environment, as subject matter, may also be carried along with disciplinary debates and divisions in IR between rationalist/positivist and constructivist/postpositivist views, but the demand for consistency within such categories may not be met with any coherence (Wight 2002:41). This could mean that IR no longer stands up as a discipline, even if interesting questions remain.

The discussion could thus return to Wight's (1966) question “why is there no international theory?” but now with the answer that none is needed since the state-centric orientation has run its course. Focus can thus be shifted from the international system to the ecosystem (Luke 2003). A related or parallel question is posed by Young (2005): “Why is there no unified theory of environmental governance?” This question may have a similar answer if governance simply invokes the state. Even as environmental concern had begun to influence IR, if still at the margin, Banks (1989) characterized IR as a mental cage built around interstate relations from the start, and lamented the absence of foresight to develop “ecological frameworks for our subject” (1989:372). It may be that the environment was the straw that broke this particular camel's back. What is needed now is global political theory, of which ecopolitical thought is a significant component (Gorz 1983; Naess 1989; Dobson 1990; Eckersley 1992; Evernden 1992; Goodin 1992; Meyer 2001; Dobson and Bell 2006; Dobson and Eckersley 2006; Humphrey 2006), or perhaps theory of world environmental politics which is sensitive to the subject matter (Princen 2008) and its ethic (Peterson 2001). Such approaches would dislodge conventional IR understandings of structure and agency altogether, as social, political, and economic systems and actors are recast in the light of ecological significance.

Systemic perspectives would have to consider ecosystems alongside political systems, discomfiting conventional views of the latter (in particular, state-centric views). More social or society-centric views would also have to reconsider social relations in light of ecological relations, since “footprints” are socioeconomic as well as ecological. Theoretical traditions will not serve to meet the ecological challenge well: realist concern with power will not account well for the force of nature; liberal pluralist views may be more amenable to change, but mere institutionalism will not meet the demands of a new array of ecological actors; constructivism, if itself able to escape state-centrism, may at least be able to recognize a reconstruction of world politics along more ecological lines; critical approaches are most likely to identify the difficulty of coping with ecological change, even if they are not much better at predicting the future of world politics. In order to encompass environmental concerns, IR theory would have to reinvent itself to take greater account of agency than structure (Sylvester 2013), but in doing so the distinctiveness of IR fades.

If IR theory treats ecological change as an additional agendum in its traditional anthropocentric list of concerns, it might well carry on in relative (if not blissful) ignorance. However, if ecological significance is the determining factor, it may be that theorizing international relations has had its day.


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Links to Digital Materials

Center for International Environmental Law. At, accessed March 2015.

EnviroLink. At, accessed March 2015. The Online Environmental Community (“one of the world's largest environmental information clearinghouses”).

Environmental Change and Security Project (ECSP). At, accessed March 2015. Woodrow Wilson International Center, fully searchable archive of ECSP publications.

Global Environmental Change and Human Security (GECHS). At, accessed March 2015. According to the website, GECHS is a core project of the International Human Dimensions Programme: “We situate environmental changes within the larger socioeconomic and political contexts that cause them, and which shape the capacity of communities to cope with and respond to change. Our research focuses on the way diverse social processes such as globalization, poverty, disease, and conflict, combine with global environmental change to affect human security.”

Grist Magazine. At, accessed March 2015. Environmental news and commentary, critical journalism, and information resources on climate change issues and negotiations.

Institute for European Environmental Policy. At, accessed March 2015.

International Institute for Sustainable Development, Reporting Services Division (IISD RS). At, accessed March 2015. IISD RS provides a variety of multimedia informational resources for environment and sustainable development policy makers, including daily coverage of international negotiations, analyses, and photos. As the publisher of the Earth Negotiations Bulletin, IISD RS is recognized for its objectivity and issue expertise in the field of international environment and sustainable development policy.

IEA Database Website. At, accessed March 2015. The database of International Environmental Agreements (IEAs), containing over 1200 multilateral agreements and 1500 bilateral agreements, including texts, performance data, literature, membership, secretariats and a wealth of other information.

International Relations (IR) Theory website. At, accessed March 2015. An online resource for students, scholars, and other professionals interested in international relations theory and research.

Union of International Associations. At, accessed March 2015. A nonprofit clearing house for information on over 40,000 international organizations and constituencies. It has been a pioneer in the provision of information on international organizations and their global challenges since its foundation in 1910.