Lorraine Elliott and See Seng Tan
Lorraine Elliott and See Seng Tan

Ethics, International Relations, and Global Environmental Governance

Nov 26, 2012

Lorraine Elliott, professor of international relations at the Australian National University, delivered a public lecture entitled "Ethics, International Relations, and Global Environmental Governance" in Singapore at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University, on Monday, November 19, 2012.

The seminar was co-convened by RSIS and the Global Ethics Network of Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs, and was moderated by the RSIS's associate professor See Seng Tan, a Carnegie Council Global Ethics Fellow. Dr. Tan also served as rapporteur of this summary.

Lorraine's talk drew on more than a decade's published work to canvass ways in which we might understandand indeed make sense ofthe links between ethics and global justice, key organizing principles in international relations (particularly sovereignty and legitimacy), and a critical-practical politics of global environmental governance. She did so with a reference to a cosmopolitan sensibility underpinned by principles that acknowledge a global community of humankind based on a structure of mutual recognition, solidarity, and equal moral worth, and that recognize global justice among peoples as well as among states as a fundamental objective of international political practice.

Cosmopolitan Harm Conventions

Building on the scholarship of Andrew Dobson, Ian Clark, Andrew Linklater, Thomas Pogge, and others, Lorraine discussed two forms of harm to the environment, namely, that caused by environmental degradation and that caused by environmental injustice. Borrowing from the so-called "harm conventions"(1) do no harm, (2) protect from all harm, and (3) remedy harmshe assessed the prospects for cosmopolitan harm conventions for dealing with environmental injustices. Lorraine discussed problems associated with "rights-based" approaches to environmental injustice and presented a case for "duty-based" approaches to the issue, arguing for individual and collective action even if those who assume such obligations are not the specific instigators of harm nor had a direct hand in creating or perpetuating inequalities themselves. Crucially for Lorraine, peoples and societies who are most affected by transnational environmental harm and injusticeand most often excluded from the list of stakeholders and "rightsholders"need to be heard.

Legitimacy and Sovereignty

Lorraine focused on legitimacy and sovereignty as the link between harm conventions and ethical principles, on the one hand, and global environmental governance on the other. She discussed the problems confronting a legality-based approach to legitimacy, which stresses state sovereignty and property and authority rights, when viewed through the lens of a cosmopolitan harms convention. Rather than conflating legality with legitimacy and states, she proposed appropriating the concept of political community, which effectively places the treatment of environmental injustices within the intersubjective context of the relevant political community and rule systems. Those rule systems ought to frame global environmental governance not just in regulatory terms but, fundamentally, in ethical terms and with that implicit value judgments about appropriate practices, justice, and the nature of rights and duties and to whom these are owed.

Institutional Practice

Lorraine concluded with a reflection on what all of this means at the practical/operational dimension. She discussed the tensions between representation and effectiveness in existing institutions and the prospects for building more inclusive, democratic, transparent, and accountable institutional arrangements, principles, and norms for responding to environmental injustices. She also reflected on the challenges posed by the need to ensure intergenerational equity where cosmopolitan harm conventions are concerned.

Audience Response

The talk was warmly received and elicited a number of comments and questions from the floor. Concerns touched on included the entrenchment of the neoliberal economic order and the apparent limited prospects for reforming if not transforming that order. Discussion focused on the role of academics and experts as "activists" whose intellectual and moral duty was to speak truth to power not only via education but possibly political action. There was some discussion on the debate over whether a "responsibility to protect" principle was required for climate change and other environmental challenges.

Finally, there was concern over whether a global environmental crisiswhat Thomas Friedman has referred to as hitting "rock-bottom"were necessary to impel governments to act. It was suggested that, as it was, 20–30 percent of the world's population was already at "rock-bottom" and hence in desperate need for redress.

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