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Open Access Publications from the University of California

Policy Paper 29: The Political Economy of International Environmental Cooperation

  • Author(s): Rich, Changhua Sun;
  • Bobenrieth, Eugenio;
  • Potter, Brian;
  • Carlisle, Heather;
  • Williams, Paul;
  • Richards, Alan;
  • Ackerman, Richard
  • et al.

Few now doubt that successfully managing environmental challenges will be central to public policy in the coming century. Unless the international community can cope with transnational problems such as global warming, destruction of species and tropical rain-forests, depletion of oceanic fish stocks, and increasing water scarcity in arid regions, both domestic and international conflicts may easily arise. The problems of international environmental political economy pose increasingly pressing issues for analysts, policy makers, and citizens.

Such concerns helped to motivate the project, “The Political Economy of International Environmental Cooperation,” sponsored by the Institute on Global Cooperation and Conflict and generously funded by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur foundation. The project supported University of California graduate students writing their Ph.D. dissertations on issues of international environmental cooperation. On concluding their dissertation research, the doctoral candidates presented policy papers at a workshop held in Santa Cruz, California. The student-organized workshop brought together these promising young scholars and policy analysts with various senior members of both the academic and international policy community. A key intellectual theme of the project was the (always difficult, always necessary) marriage of theory and policy. However varied the details of international environmental political economy may be, the core problem is always the same: how to induce self-interested, often myopic, decision makers to “do the right thing,” or to behave in ways that minimize environmental damage and/or optimize the utilization of natural resources in the presence of external constraints. Addressing such problems is difficult enough within a polity; forging the transnational cooperation needed to cope with environmental issues confronts still greater obstacles.

The papers in this policy paper offer an Aristotelian line-up of earth, fire, air, and water issues. The problems of optimal depletion of forests (Bobenrieth), managing global emissions and related global warming problems (Rich), water negotiations in two different regional settings (Carlisle and Williams), and issues of oceanic fisheries (Potter) all receive close, detailed attention. The volume concludes with an evaluation of their work from the perspective of a World Bank professional on the policy-making process. The result shows how the interaction of theory and empirical material can generate results helpful to policy makers. We hope that such close work between theoretically grounded, empirically rich policy analysts and professional decision-makers will become increasingly frequent in the years ahead.

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