- The study of political theories and ideas related to the environment;
- The examination of the environmental stances of both mainstream political parties and environmental social movements; and
- The analysis of public policymaking and implementation affecting the environment, at multiple geo-political levels.
Neil Carter, in his foundational text Politics of the Environment (2009), suggests that environmental politics is distinct in at least two ways: first, "it has a primary concern with the relationship between human society and the natural world" (p. 3); and second, "unlike most other single issues, it comes replete with its own ideology and political movement" (p. 5, drawing on Michael Jacobs, ed., Greening the Millenium?, 1997).
Further, he distinguishes between modern and earlier forms of environmental politics, in particular conservationism and preservationism. Contemporary environmental politics "was driven by the idea of a global ecological crisis that threatened the very existence of humanity." And "modern environmentalism was a political and activist mass movement which demanded a radical transforamtion in the values and structures of society."
Environmental concerns were rooted in the vast social changes that took place in the United States after World War 2. Although some beginning can be identified in earlier years, only after the war did they become widely shared social phenomena. This began with outdoor recreation in the 1950s, extended into the wider field of the protection of natural environments, and then became infused with attempts to cope with air and water pollution and still later with toxic chemical pollutants. After World War 2, environmental politics became a major public concern.
Effectively responding to global climate change necessitates some form of international governance to achieve shared targets related to energy consumption and environmental usage. Climate change complicates political ideology and practice, affecting conceptions of responsibility for future societies as well as economic systems. Material inequality between nations make technological solutions insufficient for climate change mitigation. Rather, political solutions can navigate the particularities of various facets of environmental crisis. Climate change mitigation strategies can be at odds with democratic priorities of prosperity, progress, and state sovereignty, and instead underscore a new collective relationship with the environment.
The international political community is presently based on democratic principles that prioritize individual freedoms and capitalist systems that make quick and ambitious climate responses difficult. Interest-group liberalism is guided by individual human priorities. Groups unable to voice their self-interest, such as minorities without suffrage, or non-humans, are not included in the political compromise. Addressing environmental crises can be impeded when citizens of liberal democracies do not see environmental problems as impacting their lives, or when they lack the education to evaluate the importance of the problem. The human benefits from environmental exploitation and protection compete. Considering the implications of ecological degradation for future human generations can give environmental concerns a basis in anthropocentric liberal democratic politics.
William Ophuls posits that liberal democracies are unfit to address environmental problems, and that the prioritization of these challenges would involve a transition to more authoritarian forms of government. Others counter this by pointing to the past successes of environmental reform movements to improve water and air quality in liberal societies. In practice, environmentalism can improve democracy rather than necessitate its end, by expanding democratic participation and promoting political innovations.
The tensions between liberal democracy and environmental goals raise questions about the possible limitations of democracy: in its responsiveness to subtle but large-scale problems, its ability to work from a holistic societal perspective, its aptness in coping with environmental crisis relative to other forms of government. Democracies do not have the provisions to make environmental reforms that are not mandated by voters, and many voters lack incentives or desire to demand policies that could compromise immediate prosperity. The question arises as to whether the foundation of politics is morality or practicality. A scheme that conceives of and values the environment beyond its human utility, an environmental ethics, could be crucial for democracies to respond to climate change.
Alternative forms of democracy for environmental policy
In political theory, deliberative democracy has been discussed as a political model more compatible with environmental goals. Deliberative democracy is a system in which informed political equals weigh values and debate priorities to make decisions, as opposed to a democracy based on interest aggregation. This definition of democracy emphasizes informed discussion among citizens in the decision making process, and encourages decisions to benefit the common good rather than individual interests. Philosopher John Rawls claimed that reason prevails over self-interest in deliberative democracy, making it a more just system. The broad perspective that this discursive model encourages could lead to a stronger engagement with environmental concerns.
Climate change is slow relative to democratic political cycles of leadership, which impedes responses by politicians who are elected and re-elected on much shorter timescales. In political theory, the lottery system is a democratic design that allows governments to address problems with future impacts. Deliberative bodies composed of randomly selected representatives can draft environmental policies that have short-term costs without considering the political consequences for re-election.
Scholarly journals representing this field of study include:
- Carter, Neil. 2007. The Politics of the Environment: Ideas, Activism, Policy, 2nd ed. New York: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0-521-68745-4
- Hays, Samuel P., and Barbara D. Hays. Beauty, Health, and Permanence: Environmental Politics in the United States, 1955-1985. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1987. Print.
- Edmondson and Levy (2013). Climate Change and Order. pp. 50–60.
- Baber and Bartlett (2005). Deliberative Environmental Politics.
- Mathews, Freya (1991). "Democracy and the Ecological Crisis". Legal Service Bulletin.
- Ophuls, William (1977). Ecology and the Politics of Scarcity. San Francisco: W.H. Freeman and Company.
- Paehlke, Robert (1988). "Democracy, Bureaucracy and Environmentalism". Journal of Envronmental Ethics.
- Fishkin, James (2009). When the People Speak. Oxford University Press.
- Guerrero, Alexander (2014). "Against Elections: The Lottocratic Alternative". Philosophy & Public Affairs.
- Environmental Politics journal homepage