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North American Environmental Transnational Activism Essay


Introduction

In recent decades, transnational activism has become a highly noticeable component of international relations in many facets of global governance (Hadden 2014). Unlike in the past where scholars of international relations viewed the state-system as the fundamental focus of scholarly and practical attention, contemporary researchers are increasingly focussing on transnational activism as a major hub of influence on global political affairs and other issues that have a direct impact on populations (Wapner 2002).

Today, it is evident that transnational activism has gained prominence in explaining important elements of global politics and also in responding to prevailing social, environmental, cultural and political challenges at the transnational level (Reitan & Gibson 2012). The purpose of the present paper is to discuss how transnational activism has altered the principles and practices of international relations about environmental issues.

Scope of the Paper

From the onset, it is important to note that this paper will focus on how transnational activism continues to influence environmental issues in North America. Although the United States will be the main focus, other North American countries such as Canada and Mexico will also be considered for comparison purposes. Additionally, the main environmental issues that will be used are global warming and climate change.

Understanding Environmental Transnational Activism

Transnational activism has been defined in the literature as “the mobilization around collective claims that are: a) related to transnational/global issues, b) formulated by actors located in more than one country, and C) addressing more than one national government and/or international governmental organization or another international actor” (Della Porta & Marchetti 2011, p. 428). The concept is exemplified by transnational activist groups that coalesce together to establish coalitions across state boundaries with the view to addressing a set of aims and objectives (Eilstrup-Sangiovanni & Bondaroff 2014).

Transnational environmental activism can be understood in the context of global coalitions and interest groups that come together to “share a sense of concern about the degradation of air, land, water, and diversity of species across the earth, and the intersection between human beings and their natural environment” (Wapner 2002, pp. 39-40). In North America, transnational environmental activism is largely driven by groups such as the Sierra Club, Canadian Environmental Network, and People’s Front in Defence of Earth and Water (Healy, VanNijnatten, & Lopez-Vallejo 2014). Although these groups are national in terms of organization and structure, they nevertheless engage in transnational environmental issues against the backdrop of intense political engagement and ideological orientation (Reitan & Gibson 2012).

Other activist groups such as Greenpeace and Conservation International are truly transnational in organization and structure because “they have offices in more than one country and concern themselves primarily with transboundary environmental issues” (Wapner 2002, p. 40). The two types of activist groups will form the focus of this paper due to their immense influence on global environmental and political issues.

Altering the Principles and Practices of International Relations

In the North American context, transnational activist groups such as Greenpeace and World Nature Organisation have on more than one occasion acted to put pressure on states, corporations and other actors to implement environmentally friendly programs and policies with the view to addressing the twin issues of global warming and climate change (Eilstrup-Sangiovanni & Bondaroff 2014). Available literature demonstrates that these groups are no longer perceived as outsiders in the global political arena and international relations; on the contrary, they are viewed as having an enormous influence on ideational institutions that inform contemporary life not only in North America but also globally (Wapner 2002; Swerts 2013).

It is important to clarify that, although transnational activism as practiced by these groups lacks the coercion component associated with state actors, it has nevertheless permitted the international arena due to the capacity of transnational activist groups to pressure political actors to support environmental protection (Reitan & Gibson 2012). A case in point is how Greenpeace has continued to pressure states to adopt clear, science-based targets to reverse the harmful effects of climate change (Greenpeace Climate Vision 2009).

Available literature demonstrates that transnational environmental activism in North America uses value- and belief-sharing as well as knowledge distribution to link activists across national borders in its quest to effect policy changes on important environmental issues (Pacheco-Vega 2015). This author argues that North American environmental non-governmental organizations such as the Sierra Club and the Canadian Environmental Network have been able to share information and transfer knowledge with the view to developing stronger, more robust advocacy coalitions with the capacity to influence policy frameworks on important environmental issues such as global warming and climate change.

This “soft power” approach has enabled the transnational activist groups to gain leverage against private interests and governments in creating unconventional forms of environmental regulation. It has been documented that “the use of soft power facilitates policy change (and actors’ attitudinal shifts) through the use of suasive instruments rather than command-and-control standards and regulatory instruments” (Pacheco-Vega 2015, p. 151).

For example, transnational activist groups such as the North American Pollutant Release and Transfer Registry Project have used the soft power approach to force Mexico to embrace more environmentally friendly policies that will reduce the adverse effects of global warming. Greenpeace and the Canadian Environmental Network have been known to use a non-coercive policy instrument of information sharing to raise awareness on issues related to global warming and climate change at the state, interest groups, and the general public levels (Healy, VanNijnatten, & Lopez-Vallejo 2014).

Transnational activism has also been able to alter the principles and practices of international relations by providing an enabling framework for whistleblowing, with the view to putting pressure on nation-state governments to comply with environmentally friendly regulations (Eilstrup-Sangiovanni & Bondaroff 2014). Here, it is important to mention that North American countries have put in place the Citizen Submission on Enforcement Matters (CSEM) process to provide citizens from the three countries (US, Canada, or Mexico) with the opportunity to present a submission against any country that fails to comply with its environmental laws (Pacheco-Vega 2015).

This means that environmental non-governmental organizations in the US can denounce Mexico or Canada for failing to comply with set environmental regulations on global warming and climate change, and activists in Mexico and Canada have the leverage to do the same against the US. The whistleblowing capability has forced state-government actors in this region to comply with regulations on global warming and other important environmental issues.

Additionally, it can be argued that transnational activism has altered the principles and practices of international relations due to its capacity to use the “power in movement” approach to create awareness on contentious environmental issues and to rally ordinary individuals into a confrontation with the political elite (Tallow 2005; Gilson 2011). This power has enabled transnational environmental groups in North America to not only participate in international conferences to address environmental concerns but also to gain greater access to multinational environmental negotiations and decision-making forums (Wapner 2002).

Many environmental nongovernmental organizations and transnational activist groups have received invitations to attend global environmental conferences as “observers” due to their refined organizational and mobilization skills. It is important to note that these NGOs and advocacy groups can influence the outcomes of such global conferences and, in specific instances, “provide much of the structure and content of on-going climate change negotiations” (Wapner 2002, p. 41).

This influence allows transnational environmental activist groups such as Greenpeace to usurp the role of state-government actors in developing and formulating international environmental treaties, hence limiting the role of state actors to that of implementing the regulations and directives. Consequently, in contemporary contexts, state actors cannot claim that they are in a position to make important policy guidelines on important issues of global warming and climate change without the direct input of transnational environmental activists.

Lastly, transnational activism has altered the principles and practices of international relations in terms of appealing to public opinion on important environmental issues (Eilstrup-Sangiovanni & Bondaroff 2014). Unlike state-actors who often employ coercion and intimidation to deal with international issues, transnational activism can change principles and practices of international relations by appealing to the masses through mechanisms such as symbolic politics and accountability politics.

In symbolic politics, transnational activist groups in North America have used symbols, actions or stories to develop awareness at the local, national and international levels about important environmental issues such as global warming and climate change. The People’s Front in Defence of Earth and Water, for example, has used symbolic politics to make an appeal to cherished and people-oriented norms and value systems with the view to showing an intrinsic fit between proposed environmental policies on global warming and the status quo (Rohrschneider & Dalton 2002; Tallow 2005).

Such reframing of important environmental issues through symbolic representation has enabled the transnational environmental groups to influence global issues and policies by reaching out to hospitable audiences. In accountability politics, it is evident that groups such as Greenpeace and the Sierra Club have been at the forefront in exposing gaps between discourse and practice with the view to holding state-government actors accountable for violations of previously established environmental policies and principles in the international landscape.

Conclusion

Using the North American context and the environmental lens, this paper has discussed how transnational activism has altered the principles and practices of international relations. From the discussion and analysis, it is clear that transnational activism will continue to influence international policy outcomes due to its immense influence in pressuring state actors, structural and operational efficiencies, and capacity to appeal to the masses. The structural and operational dynamics of transnational environmental advocacy groups allow them to not only share knowledge across national boundaries but also to act as whistleblowers in cases of noncompliance in environmental regulations. Lastly, it is clear that the “soft power” and “power in movement” approaches prevalent in transnational activism will continue to limit the coercive power of state-government actors and ensure that environmental issues are addressed.

Reference List

della Porta, D & Marchetti, R 2011, ‘Transnational activisms and the global justice movement’, In G Delanty & SP Turner (eds.), Routledge international handbook of contemporary social and political theory, Routledge, London, pp. 428-438. Web.

Eilstrup-Sangiovanni, M & Bondaroff, TNP 2014, ‘From advocacy to confrontation: Direct enforcement by environmental NGOs’, International Studies Quarterly, vol. 58 no. 2, pp. 348-361. Web.

Gilson, J 2011, ‘Transnational advocacy: New spaces, new voices’, Alternatives: Global, Local, Political, vol. 36 no. 4, pp. 288-306. Web.

2009. Web.

Hadden, J 2014, ‘Explaining variation in transnational climate change activism: The role of inter-movement spillover’, Global Environmental Politics, vol. 14 no. 2, pp. 7-25. Web.

Healy, RG, VanNijnatten, DL & Lopez-Vallejo, M 2014, Environmental policy in North America: Approaches, capacity, and the management of transboundary issues, University of Toronto Press, Toronto. Web.

Pacheco-Vega, R 2015, ‘Transnational environmental activism in North America: Wielding soft power through knowledge sharing’, Review of Policy Research, vol. 32 no. 1, pp. 146-162. Web.

Reitan, R & Gibson, S 2012, ‘Climate change or social change? Environmental and leftist praxis and participatory action research’, Globalizations, vol. 9 no. 4, pp. 395-410. Web.

Rohrschneider, R & Dalton, RJ 2002, ‘A global network? Transnational cooperation among environmental groups’, Journal of Politics, vol. 64 no. 2, pp. 510-533. Web.

Swerts, T 2013, ‘The democratic deficit of transnational environmental activism: A case study of e-waste governance in India’, Global Networks, vol. 13 no. 4, pp. 498-516. Web.

Tallow, S 2005, The new transnational activism, Cabridge University Press, New York, NY. Web.

Wapner, P 2002, ‘Horizontal politics: Transnational environmental activism and global cultural change’, Global Environmental Politics, vol. 2 no. 2, pp. 37-62. Web.

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