A New Look at Environmental Treaties

Why International Environmental Agreements Work — or Fail
Professor Oran Young maps the terrain in a new book

Some international environmental agreements work better than others, and Bren professor Oran Young wants to understand why.

In his new book, Institutional Dynamics: Emergent Patterns in International Environmental Governance (MIT Press, 2010), Young presents insights that can not only explain why one environmental regime — defined as institutional arrangements that govern human-environmental interactions — is more effective than another, but may also be used in a predictive way to support better governance.

“Having worked for decades on questions relating to the creation and effectiveness of these agreements, I became aware of the need to learn more about institutional dynamics as a key to understanding why some environmental agreements succeed while others fail,” says Young. “I've been wanting to write this book for ten years but finally found the time to prepare the text during the summers of 2008 and 2009."

In the book, Young examines the following five case studies and describes each with a phrase to capture the essence of its distinct “style” of evolution in terms of effectiveness over time (italics):

The Montreal Protocol (goal: protection of stratospheric ozone)
Progressive Development: a regime begins well and, through various adjustments, remains successful.

The Antarctic Treaty System (goal: preserve and manage the resources and environment of the southern polar region)
Punctuated Equilibrium: a regime faces significant challenges over time but evolves to remain effective.

The Kyoto Protocol (goal: mitigate climate change by reducing greenhouse gas emissions)
Arrested Development: a regime may “get off to a promising start but then run into barriers or obstacles that block further development.”

The International Whaling Convention (goal: originally, to ensure a sustainable whale harvest; recently, to protect whale species)
Diversion: a regime is created for one purpose but is later redirected in a manner that runs counter to its original purpose.

North Pacific Sealing Convention (goal: preserve northern fur seal populations)
Collapse: the collapse of an institutional arrangement, either through formal termination of the agreement or through ineffectiveness that transforms it into a “dead letter.”

Young explains that regimes may move from one kind of evolutionary process to another and emphasizes the dynamic nature of any regime, while working toward what he refers to as an “endogenous-exogenous alignment theory.” “Endogenous” refers to elements inherent to the agreements themselves, and “exogenous” to conditions and circumstances beyond the agreement, such as new knowledge or changes in the political landscape.

Young’s goal is to generate “a theory of institutional change that can help us explain or even predict patterns of change occurring across the universe of international environmental and resource regimes.”

“Young is certainly the best-placed scholar in the field to build the ‘big-think’ type of argument this book puts forth,” writes Ronald Mitchell, professor of political science at the University of Oregon.

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Oran Young is professor and co-director of the Program on Governance for Sustainable Development at the Bren School and chair of the Scientific Committee of the International Human Dimensions Programme on Global Environmental Change, sponsored by the International Council Of Science (ICSU), the International Social Science Council (ISSC), and the United Nations University (UNU). He is the author of The Institutional Dimensions of Environmental Change: Fit, Interplay, and Scale (2002) and co-editor (with Leslie A. King and Heike Schroeder) of Institutions and Environmental Change: Principal Findings, Applications, and Research Frontiers (2008), both published by the MIT Press.

Oran Young