Environmental governance refers to the systems and processes through which decisions are made about how to manage and protect the natural environment. It encompasses a wide range of actors, including governments, businesses, NGOs, and individual citizens, and it involves the use of a variety of tools and approaches, such as laws, regulations, incentives, and voluntary agreements.
Over the past few decades, there has been a growing recognition of the importance of environmental governance in addressing global environmental challenges, such as climate change, biodiversity loss, and pollution. However, there has also been a trend towards increasing polarisation in environmental governance, with different groups taking increasingly extreme positions and finding it harder to reach consensus on how to address these challenges.
One factor contributing to this polarisation is the politicisation of environmental issues. Environmental issues, such as climate change, air and water pollution, and biodiversity loss, are some of the most pressing challenges facing the world today. These issues have significant impacts on human health, economic development, and social welfare, and as such, they are often the subject of political debate and policymaking and represent the ‘toughest, most intractable political issue’ we currently face. The politicisation of environmental issues refers to the way in which they are used and manipulated for political gain.
This can involve the use of environmental issues as a wedge issue to divide voters and win elections, the use of environmental policy to advance the interests of certain industries or groups, or the use of environmental concerns as a justification for broader political agendas. This came to a head in the 2022 UK Conservative Party leadership election, when the delegates discussed environmental issues and these issues were superimposed on the issues of an ‘energy crisis’ and a significant lack of ‘energy security’.
This superimposition of environmental issues onto other agendas is one example of the polarisation of environmental governance due to politicisation, something that makes progress on the climate increasingly difficult when no common consensus can be achieved.
Another factor is the increasing influence of special interest groups. Some businesses and lobby groups have a vested interest in maintaining the status quo and may resist efforts to implement more stringent environmental protections. Utilities, power generation, fossil fuel, and real estate groups oppose climate policies.
This opposition is largely successful as across the world, these groups generally have much more support in legislative branches of government and represent factions that the public cannot deal without. The current economic crisis and the earlier fuel price crisis exemplifies this. Thus, special interest groups that obstruct and undermine environmentalist policies lead to further polarisation of environmental governance, particularly among the support base.
The media can also play a role in exacerbating polarisation, by presenting environmental issues in a biased or sensationalised way and amplifying the voices of those with extreme views. During the Bush administration in the U.S., the media often emphasised uncertainity among scientists about climate change and its impacts, purporting commonly held beliefs about on climate change cynicism that exist today.
Fast forward to the current media view on global environmental governance that focuses on ‘tension’ and the absolute need to respond in agreement to the Climate Crisis, as seen in reporting for 2022’s COP27, creates a distorted view of the issue and make it harder for people to come to an informed and balanced understanding of the problems and potential solutions.
Overall, the increasing polarisation of environmental governance is a cause for concern, as it can make it difficult to address environmental challenges in a cohesive and effective way. It is important for all actors to work towards finding common ground and finding ways to bridge the divide to address these challenges in a sustainable and equitable manner.