PROBLEMSHIFTING: a research programme on the complex dynamics of problem-shifting in global environmental governance

Ongoing Research

The Problem Shifts Database: Towards protecting the environment ‘as a whole’
Rakhyun E. Kim, Ashok Vardhan Adipudi, Işık Girgiç, Nazira Kozhanova, Lucie Oelschläger, Heikke Merilin Raidma, and Mara Scheibenreif
Global environmental problem-shifting, or the pursuit of a global environmental objective by undermining the chance of achieving another, is of increasing concern in the age of interconnectivity. Certain decisions may lead to problems that are more chronic and severe, which may in turn shift elsewhere, thereby creating a network of shifting problems. Yet we have a limited understanding of when problem shifts occur and how problematic they are. Who makes the decision to trade a problem for another problem, under what conditions, and to what effect? These questions remain under-investigated, at least in part due to the common bias that environmental institutions are inherently green, and hence their side effects unintended or inevitable. Where the phenomenon has been researched, evidence remain scattered in various case studies exploring it under different concepts such as spillover. Here we introduce the problem shifts database by systematically identifying and organizing empirical cases with a novel analytical framework. The database presents generic types of problem shifts identified from over 100 cases collected through a global survey and expert interviews. Each entry provides a literature-based review of the causes and effects of, and governance responses to, environmental problem-shifting. Preliminary analysis of the dataset shows that problem shifts are often not simply unintended consequences as many were anticipated at the time of decision-making, warranting further research into the political dynamics of underlying risk-risk trade-offs. Furthermore, the observed degree of interconnectivity between problem shifts suggests that there is a latent risk of systemic institutional failure triggered by a critical shift. Our synthesis also suggests that governance responses targeted at addressing individual trade-offs in isolation may not suffice to improve the collective problem-solving potential of international environmental institutions, and system-level interventions would be needed. We conclude with a research agenda on the complex dynamics of problem-shifting in global environmental governance, which we argue is a key prerequisite for protecting the environment ‘as a whole’.
Overall Impact of a Network of Institutions
Ashok Vardhan Adipudi, and Rakhyun E. Kim
International environmental treaties do not operate in silos but interact with one another, forming a giant web of connections. The effective management of globally networked risks depends on the outcomes from and the structure of the treaty network. When analysing the effectiveness of individual institutional structures such as regimes, governance scholars have not fully considered the consequences of the overall patterns emerging from these networked interactions on the effectiveness of the treaty system. Such a systemic view of the network furthers analysis of the collective effectiveness of these agreements and helps identify interlinkages critical to tackling networked risks. In this paper, we advance the concept of overall impact of institutional architectures as the net product of a group of interconnected institutions that are subject to mutual interaction effects. By bridging three separate bodies of literature on institutional effectiveness, institutional interactions, and networks of institutions, we propose a novel framework to assess the overall impact of a group of international institutions. The framework uses institutional design to examine institutional effectiveness, effects of institutional interactions, and the overall impact of the network. We apply our framework to a group of institutions and demonstrate how the framework yields overall impact while incorporating the network structure and its effects. As a contribution to modelling the international treaty system, this work provides the basis for future assessments of the systemic effects of networked phenomena in global governance.
Overall Problem-Solving Potential of Networked Institutions: The Effects of Problem-Shifting
Ashok Vardhan Adipudi, and Rakhyun E. Kim
International environmental agreements depend on each other and are supposed to be working towards their respective objectives. While cooperating and coexisting in this shared space, institutional mechanisms inadvertently engage with and experience spillovers. Spillovers, thus, create an excess inflow of problems that are beyond the respective institutional capacity, leading to institutional inability to solve the problems that were carved out for that institution. In the networks context, spillovers become crucial as the overall problem-solving potential (i.e., the net value of institutional capacity) of this system of environmental agreements is never obvious. In this work, we examine the changes in the ability of a group of institutions to address their problems. Using an expert survey, we collect and quantify capacity and problem sizes of these institutions. This data is used to run a stock and flow system-dynamics model that helps account for these interlinkages and how such interlinkages impact the flow of problems. The work, as a quantitative study of problem-shifting’s (in)effective contributions to the functioning of international environmental agreements provides insights into the systemic effects of problem-shifting, and paves the way for a better understanding of systemic risk and how it can be tackled.
The responsibility gap of the plenary decision-making bodies of multilateral environmental agreements: Challenges and potential ways forward
Işık Girgiç, and Rakhyun E. Kim
The leading role of plenary decision-making bodies in the adaptive evolution and effective implementation of multilateral environmental agreements (MEAs) implies a mission to take effective and timely measures to address the environmental problems under their concern. But what happens when these treaty bodies fail to take necessary measures to achieve their objectives, or the measures taken induce negative environmental or socioeconomic effects? For instance, while the COP UNFCCC and COP CBD promote biofuels as an important protection measure, the absence of a set of global sustainability criteria for its production and use leads to habitat and biodiversity loss as well as food and land insecurity in many regions. Similarly, while the establishment of environmental protected areas is accepted by the COP CBD as a key wildlife conservation measure, this practice has had negative socioeconomic effects on local and indigenous communities (e.g., loss of property, forced resettlement, and denial of access to natural resources). Previous studies have given little attention to the potential undesired, or even unlawful implications of the actions – or inactions – of plenary treaty bodies, which seemingly stems from the assumption that international environmental regimes are inherently ‘green’. Yet, these treaty bodies shape and influence many aspects of social, economic, and environmental policy-making activities at the global and local levels with far-reaching consequences on humans and their environment. We study both COPs and international organizations acting as supreme decision-making organs of MEAs to highlight the potential implications of this responsibility gap, and identify the shortcomings of, and potential improvements to, international legal frameworks for holding international environmental decision-making bodies responsible for harms resulting from their (in)actions.
Towards Planetary Nexus Governance in the Anthropocene: An Earth System Law Perspective
Louis Kotzé, and Rakhyun E. Kim
Nexus governance recognises that sustainability concerns such as water, energy, and food security are interlinked, and provides an alternative to fragmented governance. While it has mostly been applied in the domestic context, the need for nexus governance is also apparent at a planetary scale, as highlighted by interacting planetary boundaries, global telecoupling, and global tipping cascades. However, international environmental law is unable to facilitate what we call ‘planetary nexus governance’. This is mainly because international environmental law lacks an ecological Grundnorm, and because its primary rules of conduct remain fragmented in the absence of effective secondary rules on how primary rules should relate to one another. Recognizing this challenge, scholars have recently proposed earth system law as a new framework to rethink, in an integrated way, law in an Anthropocene context. Building on this framework, we suggest that international environmental law should adopt a unifying Grundnorm such as planetary integrity. We also suggest that international institutional law, as a body of secondary rules, has an important role to play in facilitating planetary nexus governance by bringing together fragmented bodies of international law. We briefly discuss ways in which international environmental law could re-orientate itself to better facilitate planetary nexus governance.
2C or not 2C? The normalizing effect of the Paris Agreement temperature target on solar geoengineering
Nazira Kozhanova, and Rakhyun E. Kim
Solar geoengineering used to be one of climate change policies met with a persistent backlash from the international community. However, as of now solar geoengineering got significantly normalized, seen as a more realistic option, despite remaining concerns. The solar geoengineering discussion is nested within the larger climate change debate which was largely shaped by the Paris Agreement. Thus in this paper we track the normalization of solar geoengineering in the light of the temperature framing of the goal of the Paris Agreement in 2015. In order to look into the dynamics of normalization, we use the concept of the performativity of the temperature target. Using this concept, we argue that the introduction of the target as a goal of the Paris Agreement created a discursive structure of the problem for solar geoengineering normalization as the most fitting solution for the reframed problem. We look into these patterns by using discourse analysis of two cases with opposing intentions towards geoengineering. Our preliminary findings show that first the framing of the climate change problem, and then the solar geoengineering solution have changed from the broader framing towards the framing in terms of the temperature following the Paris Agreement.
The Emerging Network of Transnational Climate Litigation
Steve Lorteau, and Rakhyun E. Kim
The legal implications and practical effects of anthropogenic climate change have spawned widespread litigation before national and international courts. In adjudicating disputes regarding climate policy or inaction, domestic courts are increasingly referring to other judicial decisions abroad. This citation practice has become prevalent in the most recent years, giving rise to an inter-jurisdictional dialogue in the form of a transnational climate litigation network. This study uncovers, for the first time, the structure of the transnational climate litigation network using network science methods. The transnational climate litigation network consists of 2,266 links involving 23 national and international jurisdictions. Our analysis of this network suggests that judges are actively participating in a inter-jurisdictional dialogue on many issues of climate law, including the urgency of climate change, the need to consider emissions in environmental permitting, and human rights obligations in the context of climate change. These points of dialogue illustrate how judicial actors can serve as norm diffusers within broader systems of transnational climate governance.
Risking risk trade-offs in ocean fertilization governance
Renate Reitsma, Rakhyun E. Kim, and Miranda Boettcher
Contemporary international environmental decision-making deals with an increasing interconnection between environmental problem areas. This can lead to risk-risk trade-offs. In dealing with risk-risk trade-offs, some multilateral environmental organizations accept a degree of risk to their mandate. Why is that the case? We zoom in on the governance of ocean fertilization by the London Convention/London Protocol (LC/LP) to explore why risk-risk trade-offs happen in global environmental governance. We ask, why did the LC/LP accept a degree of risk to their own goals by engaging with ocean fertilization technologies? We build on the premise of organizational ecology that decision-making by international organizations is in part shaped by self-interest. We used process-tracing and focused on anticipated processes of the LC/LP to explain the outcome of the risk-risk trade-off. The materials used were nine elite interviews and 68 meeting reports of the LC/LP that were analyzed using content analysis to identify the reflection, reasoning, and visioning processes the LC/LP used in their risk-risk trade-off. From the reconstruction of the risk-risk trade-off, we learned: i) The approach to risk-risk trade-off decisions is based on historical anticipation processes about LC/LP’s relevance and global applicability. ii) Accepting a degree of risk was the best way to protect their current ability to reach their primary goal. iii) Accepting a degree of risk could future-proof the role of the LC/LP in marine environmental governance. And iv) the LC/LP was guided by an ideational motivation to pursue the effectiveness and success of its technocratic and science-based structure and apply it to new marine-related issues. Based on this anticipation and reasoning of the LC/LP we conclude that the LC/LP accepted risks to their primary objective (marine protection from pollution) on ocean fertilization to future-proof its authority in marine governance. This puts forward the broader hypotheses that international organizations undertake risk-risk trade-offs to future-proof their authority.
Sustainability in a multi-planetary context: An exploration of implications for earth system governance
Xiao-Shan Yap, and Rakhyun E. Kim
There has been an explosion of space activities by private enterprises in recent years, driving what is dubbed the New Space revolution. SpaceX, as a frontrunner, is working towards the goal of ‘occupying’ Mars by 2050, with a view to transforming humans into a multi-planetary species. The prospect of a multi-planetary society begins to impact the discourse of planetary sustainability, where Mars and other celestial objects are increasingly framed as a solution to earth system transformation. There is an imminent shift in the paradigm from ‘planetary’ to ‘multi-planetary’, which will have far-reaching implications for earth system governance. This Perspective explores these implications by focusing on the risk of increasing fragmentation of space governance through the proliferation of institutions and private space actors. We explicate how a few core assumptions of earth system governance may be impacted and argue for an expansion of the scope of governance beyond the Earth System.