Environmental Issues

Ribeira Lixo GDFL

Ribeira Lixo GDFL

Environmental Issues

Global environmental issues are an important part of international relations. In fact, the international community, in recent years, has stressed the importance of fighting climate change, in order to protect the environment, through documents such as the Kyoto Protocol, and more recently during the COP21 United Nations Climate Change Summit. However, international activisits were speaking out about the harm that humans were doing to the environmental as early as the 1970s and 1980s. In the 1980s, the thinning of the O-zone layer began to be a major concern. Today, such issues, along with global warming and climate change are at the center of environmental politics. In fact, individual activists, NGOs, as well as states have come together through international organizations such as the United Nations to derive strategies related to environmental issues such as global warming and reducing harmful chemicals in the atmosphere.

The conditions of the environment have a major effect on human livelihood and relations amongst one another. These issues are clearly political in nature. For example, shortages of fresh water (or water degradation), a clear environmental issue, are said by many to be a potential cause for future conflicts in the world; there are many states fighting over this precious resource, and as fresh water supply dwindles, the tensions may increase. Along with water issues, pollution is an other concern in international affairs, and is continuing to impact how communities live.

This section of the website includes works on the environment in international affairs and global environmental issues in international relations. Here we have linked to a number of essential readings on the environment, as well as other articles and books on subsections of this theme that will help one understand the severity of things such as global warming, deforestation, and clean water, and other environmental issues as they relate to human interactions and international relations.

Global Environmental Issues

There are many reasons as to why global environmental issues have found a place in the studies of international relations. Many view environmental issues as one directly related to human security. In fact, “[t]he environmental security approach to international relations emphasizes that the ecological crisis we face is also a threat to national security. Environmental degradation is perceived to be as serious a threat to human societies as the traditional military threat” (Payne, 2013: 207). For example, “Throughout history, environmental factors have had serious implications for all aspects of human existence, including the rise and fall of great civilizations, the spread of infectious diseases, war and peace, economic prosperity and hunger, migration and resettlement, population growth, and global inequality” (Payne, 2013: 207).

Thus, environmental issues have been a concern for centuries. However, it has been argued that current global environmental issues differ from those in the past for a number of reasons: As Barbara Johnson (1997: 13-14) (in Payne, 2013: 208) explains,

  1. Contemporary environmental problems are predominantly global in their cumulative consequences.
  2. Whereas our current environmental problems represent biodegenerative products of humanity–such as air and water pollution, deforestation, overfishing, and soil erosion–our ancestors faced environmental constraints that were primarily related to the biophysical parameters of nature, such as access to water, soil fertility, and temperature.
  3. Natural forces created environmental problems for our ancestors. Today, however, some populations are more vulnerable to environmental crises principally because of human activities and government policies.
  4. Ancient societies had more time and space to deal with environmental threats than we do today

There are a number of global environmental issues that have received the attention of scholars, activists, citizens, and practitioners. We shall examine some of the issues below.

Biodiversity: Biodiversity is understood as “[t]he large number of diversity of organisms on Earth” (Payne, 2013: 212). While biodiversity exists throughout the world, there is heavy concentration in countries such as Brazil, India, Colombia, Ecuador, Madagascar, etc…(Payne, 2013). As Payne (2013) explains, “[b]iodiversity provides many benefits. Ecosystem functions–such as carbon exchange, watershed flows of surface and ground water, the protection and fertility of soils, and the regulation of surface temperatures and local climates–are influenced by biodiversity. Diversity lessens the vulnerability of agricultural crops to diseases and pests This is increasingly important for large-scale, specialized agriculture” (212). Moreover, “[b]iodiversity is especially important for medicinal and pharmaceutical product development” (Payne, 2013: 212). However, with a dis-concern for the environment, the effects on biodiversity can be detrimental. For example, we are already seeing this with disregard for the rain forest. By not protecting the rain forest, such as the ones in Brazil, can alter biodiversity, particularly since the rain forests in “Brazil alone contains 25 percent of the world’s plant species” (Payne, 2013: 212). 

One of the key ways that humans are impacting biodiversity is through deforestation. For example, “[t]he Amazon rainforest is estimated to be disappearing at the rate of 3 million acres a year[,]” and “[t]he Congo Basin–comprised of Cameroon, Gabon, the Central African Republic, Republic of Congo, the Democratic Republic of Congo (formerly Zaire), and Equatorial Guinea, which had the second largest tropical forests in the world–is losing about 8.9 million acres a year to deforestation” (Payne, 2013: 215). These losses are greatly damaging biodiversity, as there are so many species that live within these forests. Furthermore, we rely heavily on the forests for clean air, water, as well as agriculture (Payne, 2013). Furthermore, rain forests help greatly with absorbing carbon dioxide that we humans are producing (Payne, 2013). 

Looking at South America, “[T]he loss of tropical rain forests is most critical in terms of biological diversity. Tropical rain forests cover only 6 percent of Earth’s landmass, but at least 50 percent of the world’s species are found in this biome. Moreover, the Amazon contains the largest undisturbed stretches of rain forest in the world. Unlike Southeast Asian forests, where hardwood extraction drives deforestation, Latin American forests are usually seen as an agricultural frontier. State governments divide areas in an attempt to give land to the landless and reward political elites. Thus, forests are cut and burned, with settlers and politicians carving them up to create permanent settlements, slash-and-burn plots, or large cattle ranches” Rowntree, Lewis, Price, & Wyckoff, 2015: 104). It must also be noted that some are cutting areas in the tropical forests with the hopes of finding valuable minerals and metals (such as gold) (Rowntree, Lewis, Price, & Wyckoff, 2015).

There have been some attempts at addressing the environmental issues surrounding biodiversity through international relations. For example, environmental activities continue to provide information about the important of the rain forest, for example, and biodiversity as a whole on the world and on humans. Furthermore, there have been international cooperative efforts to address this issue. Specifically, there have been calls for an “international regime” to focus on biodiversity, with the Convention on Biological Diversity, which was initiated in 1991. The Convention on Biological Diversity has been signed by 150 states during the 1992 Rio Earth Summit (CBD, 2014).

This document “provides for (1) national identification and monitoring of biological diversity, (2) the development of national strategies and programs for conserving biological diversity, (3) environmental assessment procedures to take into account the effects of projects on biodiversity, (4) sharing of research findings in a fair and equitable way, (5) the provision of technology for the conservation and use of genetic resources by the industrial countries, and (6) the facilitation of participation in biotechnology research by countries that provide genetic resources” (Payne, 2013).

Moreover, with regards to deforestation, governments in countries with forests have also set up legal protections for these lands. For example, in Brazil, the government has set up a special program called the Nossa Natureza (Our Nature) Program, which, among other things, placed limitations on logging, reduced financial incentives from those hurting the rain forest, established national parks, and continued to promote the environment (Payne, 2013).  Along with this, there have also been movements toward certifying wood, which is not unlike human rights movements to label diamonds and other material products. By establishing forest certification, those buying wood products will know exactly where the wood came from, and can be assured that their product was not produced by wood that has harmed the forests, or the communities living in or near these forests (Payne, 2013).

Atmosphere: There has been great concern surrounding the condition of the Earth’s atmosphere, particularly since 1985, when scientists discovered a hole in the ozone layer. The reason that the ozone is so important is that it blocks out harmful rays from the sun. And thus, the   “[d]epletion of the ozone layers allows more harmful rays to reach Earth, resulting in more skin cancer, eye cataracts, weakened immune systems, reduced plant yields, and damage to ocean ecosystems” (Viotti & Kauppi, 2013: 497). And yet, we have know that using chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) does in fact hurt the ozone layer (Viotti & Kauppi, 2013).

Global Warming: One of most pressing factors surrounding human behavior with regards to environmental issues is global warming. Global warming understood as “the increase in the Earth’s average surface temperature since the Industrial Revolution, primarily due to the emission of greenhouse gases from the burning of fossil fuels and land use change…” (Leiserowitz, Feinberg, Rosenthal, Smith, Anderson, Roser-Renouf, & Maibach, 2014: 6). According to atmospheric scientists, the continued of fossil fuels leads to additional carbon dioxide on earth, which in turn forms a sort of “thermal blanket that keeps more heat from escaping into space” (Viotti & Kauppi, 2013: 497). And as this continues, the temperature on Earth with rise. This in term has great effects on the environment; temperatures will change, which will affect crops, as well as Earth’s landscape. Furthermore, rising sea levels will cause great problems for those living on the coasts, as it will be lead to floods (Viotti & Kauppi, 2013: 497-498). Members of the international community has tried to work intensively to fight against increased global warming. One of the ways that they have tried to do this has been with the passage of the Kyoto Protocol, which focuses on reducing greenhouse gases into the environment (Payne, 2013).

Ocean Pollution: Ocean pollution is a real danger for the environment. There are many ways that ocean pollution occurs. Some actors dump their trash into the ocean. Other issues  such as oil spills have detrimental consequences for the seas, and all inhabitants in the ocean. This was quite clear with the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill off the Alaskan Coast, and more recently with the 2010 British Petroleum (BP) oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico (Payne, 2013), where the spill greatly affected animals in the waters, as the toxins in oil can and did kill various sea life. In addition to this, oil in the ocean has other long terms effects. For example, speaking about oil spills in general, Payne (2013) explains that “…the longer oil remains on the surface of the oceans, the more it blocks sunrays and oxygen essential for the health and survival of marine life” (219). The International community, through international organizations and law, have attempted to stop the spread of oil and other pollution into the oceans. For example, there have been various international conventions on the issues, such as the 1954 International Convention for the Prevention of Pollution of the Sea (ICPS), and the International Convention for the Prevention of Pollution by Ships (ICPPS) that came into being in 1973 (Payne, 2013). 

Freshwater: While the majority of the world’s surface is covered by water, the small percentage of fresh water compared to salt water is increasingly becoming a dire problem in the international system. As clear fresh water is becoming more scarce, this is going to affect humans’ ability to live, since water is a necessity for human life form. However, many humans do not have consistent access to fresh water, with [a]pproximately one-third of the world’s population [living] in countries that suffer from what scientists term moderate-to-high water stress. This is defined as a situation where water consumption is more than 10 percent of renewable fresh-water resources” (Viotti & Kauppi, 2013: 500). 

It is important to understand, and then work towards fighting natural resource depletion


Convention on Biological Diversity (2014). Available Online: http://www.cbd.int/convention/ 

Johnson, B. (1997). Life and Death Matters: Human Rights and the Environment at the End of the Millennium, Walnut Creek, California, Alta Mira Press.

Leiserowitz, A., Feinberg, G., Rosenthal, S., Smith, N, Anderson, A., Roser-Renouf, C., & Maibach, E. (2014). What’s In A Name? Global Warming Versus Climate Change, May 2014. Yale Project on Climate Change Communication, George Mason University Center for Climate Change Communication, pages 1-31.  Available Online: http://environment.yale.edu/climate-communication/files/Global_Warming_vs_Climate_Change_Report.pdf 

Payne, R. (2013). Global Issues. New York, New York. Pearson.

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