Are we in a Constitutional Moment of global environmental politics?

Constitutional Moments

There are a lot of founding moments in political realiy.   Times in which the majority of the world’s actors recognize and create new rules, ideas, and systems (or at least don’t resist the powerful actors attempts to do this).  The rules, ideas, and systems of governance hit roadblocks, suffer sudden disasters (wars, economic collapses, epidemics, etc).

Bruce Ackerman (1998, pg. 409), an American Constitutional Scholar, explains that:

During normal politics, the center of American politics is occupied by politicians and parties content with interstitial modifications of the existing regime…While there are many groups devoted to fundamental reform, each wants to transform the system in very different ways, and none can plausibly claim to set the agenda for the mainstream of American opinion.  That is what changes during a constitutional moment...a broad movement of transformative opinion has now earned the authority to set major aspects of the political agenda.

Post World War II was one of the most significant international constitutional moments which resulted in the Allies creating a series of political and economic institutions and rules meant to provide stability and peace.  Anne Marie Slaughter and William Burke-White extend the idea to the realm of international law:

In 1945, the nations of the world, concerned about the continuing threat of interstate aggression, committed to a basic principles of not using force in interstate relations.  The principle was articulated in Article 2(4) of the U.N. Charter…The framers of the U.N. Charter were responding to two world wars, countless interstate wars, and indeed, centuries in which the primary threat to international peace and security was the aggressive use of force by one state against another.

Constitutional moments are thus those points where new norms of behavior and ideas can be implemented across systems.  They need not be successful in creating new norms of behavior and ideas, but they can yield significant overhaul of the system.  Minor reforms, fixes, and incremental solutions give way to more significant overhauls, replacements, and comprehensive solutions.

Simply put, constitutional moments are when overhaul is possible. 

Constitutional Moments and Global Environmental Politics

Recently, UNEP released the Foresight Report: 21 Issues for the 21st Century.  Authored by a number of top scholars it looks at a series of issues, ranks them based upon their problem, and discusses possible governance solutions.  Early in the document (page 6), the report makes a provocative claim:

Incrementalism and piecemeal approaches to global governance may not guarantee the urgently needed transition to more sustainable means of production and consumption. It appears that we may be seeing the emergence of a ‘constitutional moment’ in the development of international relations and governance, comparable in recent times only to the major constitutional moment of 1945 ‘post World War II’ that saw the emergence of a multitude of new, and often unprecedented, international norms, institutions, and agencies. Similar fundamental revisions in norms, processes and mechanisms of global governance would help address the global sustainability challenge.

The argument made by the report is that the institutions, norms, and governance structures are nearing a moment where a sizable majority will push for overhaul.  Even more bold, the current era is one which is only matched by the post-World War II moment.

What would there need to be for a Constitutional Moment?  1. There is a significant group calling for an overhaul or 2. There is a moment of significant crisis which makes overhaul a reasonable response.

Did I Miss Something?

Is there a significant group calling for an overhaul?  If so, where are they?  The EU-Africa coalition is pushing for strengthening of UNEP.  And I suspect this will happen, but is there the critical mass of actors ready to push for a significant institutional overhaul?  It doesn’t seem that there is.  Climate change negotiations are paralyzed currently.  There does seem to be the possibility of large groups being mobilized quickly if a breakthrough were possible, but there is certainly no significant constituency at this moment pushing for overhaul.

Is the system in crisis?  The global recession should certainly cause pause.  The major failures in the energy system over the past two years should certainly cause pause.  The continuing degradation of soil, forests, oceans, biodiversity, climatic health, solid waste pollution, water resources, fish stocks, and others should also cause pause.  I’ll be blunt: I am very concerned.  But if the learning breakthroughs haven’t happened yet for many actors, I’m unsure about what will.  I think it is clear that the system is in trouble; systems in crisis are those where people are aware of the trouble. The situation may be one where we are in 1938 and not 1945.

The resources for a constitutional overhaul of global environmental politics are plentiful. Actors, networks, and coalitions for a sustainable future seem to be primed and ready when a constitutional moment may arise.  Awareness may hit the tipping point and the difficult decisions may be made consciously.  We may get to the moment where we become aware of the unique opportunity provided to us in a small window…but until then, reform and trying to do better may be the best option.

  • Bruce Ackerman.  (1998) We The People: Transformations. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.
  • UNEP (2012) 21 Issues for the 21st Century: Result of the UNEP Foresight Process on Emerging Environmental Issues. Alcamo, J., Leonard, S.A. (Eds.). United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), Nairobi, Kenya.
  • Anne Marie Slaughter & William Burke-White (2002). “An International Constitutional Moment” Harvard International Law Journal. Vol. 43, #1.

2 thoughts on “Are we in a Constitutional Moment of global environmental politics?

  1. Pingback: Does the Global Environmental Political System need an Overhaul at Rio+20? « Lullaby of the Commons

  2. Pingback: Rio+20 Countdown Review: The Impacts of the Identity Crisis at Rio+20 « Lullaby of the Commons

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