This chapter will delineate the field of global environmental politics, and track the emergence and rapid acceleration of global environmental problems since the end of World War II. It will also introduce the key global environmental discourses of limits to growth, sustainable development, ecological security, environmental justice and the concept of planetary boundaries, together with the proposed new geological epoch called ‘the Anthropocene’. It will then explore how environmental scholars working in the major theoretical traditions of International Relations (IR) – realism, liberalism and critical theory – have approached and responded to a fundamental puzzle of global environmental politics: why is it that, despite a rapid increase in public environmental concern and environmental legislation and environmental treaties at the national and international levels, the most serious and irreversible global environmental problems facing the international community have continued to worsen? Finally, the chapter turns to contemporary challenges, focusing on the shifting role of the United States in tackling the most serious global environmental problem of all: climate change.
The study of global environmental politics has emerged as a problem-oriented and multidisciplinary field of inquiry that seeks to understand: (1) how and why global ecological problems arise and persist; (2) how ecological risks are distributed through space and time; and (3) how the global community (encompassing states and nonstate actors) has responded, or ought to respond. These three basic questions frame the field of inquiry of global environmental politics. They also signal the enormous political challenges facing international and transnational collective efforts to protect the earth's ecosystems and climate in a world of nearly 200 sovereign states with vast disparities in capacity, resource endowments, population, cultures and levels of economic development.
Global environmental politics is a sprawling field of study in terms of both the sheer breadth of the object of study and the variety of disciplinary frames that are relevant to global eco-political problems. While the primary object of study is political responses to global and trans-boundary environmental problems, the distinction between global and trans-boundary, and national and local, environmental problems is hard to maintain. All global ecological problems produce different local effects, and many local and transnational practices contribute to global ecological problems.