The ideas of institutionalists are grounded in the fields of political science and international relations. They share many of the broad assumptions and arguments of market liberals—especially the belief in the value of economic growth, globalization, trade, foreign investment, technology, and the notion of sustainable development. Indeed, moderate institutionalists sit close to moderate market liberals. It is a matter of emphasis. Market liberals stress more the benefits and dynamic solutions of free markets and technology; institutionalists emphasize the need for stronger global institutions and norms as well as sufficient state and local capacity to constrain and direct the global political economy. Institutions provide a crucial route to transfer technology and funds to the poorest parts of the planet. Institutionalists also worry far more than market liberals about environmental scarcity, population growth, and the growing inequalities between and within states. But they do not see these problems as beyond hope. To address them, they stress the need for strong institutions and norms to protect the common good. Institutionalist analysis is found in publications by organizations such as the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and by many academics who focus their analysis on “regimes” (international environmental agreements and norms, defined more precisely in chapter 3) in the fields of political science and law.
Institutionalists see a lack of global cooperation as a key source of environmental degradation. Ineffective cooperation partly arises because of the nature of the sovereign state system, which gives a state supreme authority within its boundaries. In such a system states tend to act in their own interest, generally leaving aside the interest of the global commons. Yet like market liberals, institutionalists do not reject the way we have organized political and economic life on the planet. Instead they believe we can overcome the problem of sovereignty as the organizing principle of the international system by building and strengthening global and local institutions that promote state adherence to collective goals and norms. This can be most effectively carried out through global-level environmental agreements and organizations.
The process of globalization makes global cooperation increasingly essential (and increasingly inevitable). But institutionalists stress that unfettered globalization can add to the pressures on the global environment. The task for those worried about the state of the global environment, then, is to guide and channel globalization, so it enhances environmental cooperation and better environmental management. This point has been stressed most forcefully by key policy figures such as former Norwegian Prime Minister Gro Harlem Brundtland in her role in the 1980s as head of the World Commission on Environment and Development and Canadian diplomat Maurice Strong as head of UNEP . The aim of this approach is to ensure that global economic policies work to both improve the environment and raise living standards. Controls at all levels of governance, from the local to the national to the global, can help to direct globalization, enhancing the benefits and limiting the drawbacks.
For the global environment, institutionalists believe that institutions need to internalize the principles of sustainable development, including into the decision-making processes of state bureaucracies, corporations, and international organizations. Only then will we be able to manage economies and environments effectively—especially for common resources. For many institutionalist academics, like political scientist Oran Young, the most effective and practical means is to negotiate and strengthen international environmental regimes.14 Many within the policy world, such as in the United Nations Environment Programme, add the need to enhance state and local capacity in developing countries. Thus, many institutionalists call for “environmental aid” for the developing world. It should be stressed, however, that institutionalists do not necessarily support all institutions uncritically. Some point to badly constructed institutions as a source of problems. Many point, too, to the difficulty of trying to measure the implementation and effectiveness of an international agreement or institution. But a defining characteristic of institutionalists is the assumption that institutions matter— that they are valuable—and that what we need to do is reform, not overthrow, them.
Institutionalists also argue that strong global institutions and cooperative norms can help enhance the capacity of all states to manage environmental resources. What is needed, from this perspective, is to effectively embed environmental norms in international cooperative agreements and organizations as well as state policies. Along these lines, many institutionalists support the precautionary approach, where states agree to collective action in the face of some scientific uncertainty. Institutionalists also advocate the transfer of knowledge, finances, and technology to developing countries. Organizations like the World Bank, the United Nations Environment Programme, and the Global Environment Facility (GEF) already play a role here. And many institutionalists point to the creation of, and changes within, these organizations as evidence of progress.