Ken Conca,  An Unfinished Foundation: The United Nations and Global Environmental Governance (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015), 332. pp.

Reviewed by: Alexander Suen (PhD Candidate at the Balsillie School of International Affairs)

The United Nations has long been criticized for its inefficacy in a broad array of global governance efforts, but none more than in the realm of environmental governance. In An Unfinished Foundation, Ken Conca finds that the UN has a “record of failure, inaction, and disappointment” (p. 3). Existing multilateral efforts, such as the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), have largely failed to stem the tide of environmental degradation. Throughout the book, he examines the causes of its lacklustre record, which looks at the foundational framework in which the UN was conceived, and the historical pathways in which governance roles developed. Conca advances the notion that the UN stands on four pillars: economic development; international law; peace and security; and human rights (p. 11). Environmental governance is founded only on the former two, Conca argues, which hamstrings efforts to create truly effective governing regimes, which raises the question: “How did it come to pass that the UN embraced this limited way of seeing, understanding, and addressing environmental challenges?” (p. 11).

Official Emblem for the UN Conference on the Human Environment
Photo Credit:UN Photo

According to this line of inquiry, the limits of environmental governance were established along with the UN in the postwar period, not in at the United Nations Conference on the Human Environment, Stockholm 1972, as it is usually suggested. In the aftermath of the Second World War, decolonization swept through the former colonies of the Global North, resulting in a desire by new states to secure their territorial sovereignty against economic oppression from their former imperial capitals. Subsequently, the ‘sustainable development’ framework, which prioritizes economic development and preservation of national sovereignty, became the default approach to environmental governance. The 1982 World Commission on Environment and Development (WCED) continued this trend, while the 1992 Rio Earth Summit constituted the “high water” mark of this process, cementing the prioritization of development over rights and security discourse (p. 9). The cementing of this sustainable development discourse, enacted through international treaties, thus constrained the possibilities for UN agencies to execute efficacious environmental governance regimes.

U.N. Scientific Conference on Conservation and Utilization of Resources Continues Session
Photo Credit:UN Photo

Conca’s historical approach to examining the UN processes which developed into later multilateral environmental governance efforts is compelling and well-evidenced in this book. He backs up his claim to an earlier, pre-Stockholm Conference, UN effort to govern the global environment, with reference to relatively unknown events such as the 1949 Conference on the Conservation and Utilization of Resources (p. 44). He also rebuts two common myths about the UN: firstly, that it is merely a tool of great power interests; and secondly, that it is a powerful independent actor which seeks to create a literal world government (pp. 19–20). Given the ascendancy of right-wing nationalism (and apparently as a consequence, skepticism towards multilateralism and rise in conspiratorial thinking) across the globe since the publication of this book, Conca was remarkably prescient. But suggestions about the creation of a World Environment Organization (WEO) with legal ‘teeth’ could arguably be an inappropriate violation of state sovereignty (p. 5). Conca also argues that the Global South, usually represented by the G-77 bloc, has been historically skeptical of any effort by the Global North to impose costly environmental measures. The language of Stockholm was transformed to secure their own perceived natural interests, particularly the prevention of foreign exploitation of natural resources. Indeed, such concerns were not without merit: high level UN panels have emphasized that illegitimate exploitation of natural resources has contributed to instability of vulnerable governments, especially in sub-Saharan Africa (p. 162). The Agenda 21 document asserted the right of states to permanent sovereignty over natural resources (PSNR), which boosted the legitimacy and consensus acceptance of that concept of permanent sovereignty over natural resources (PSNR) (p. 64). PSNR was also re-affirmed through the New International Economic Order (NIEO) movement in the early 1970s, in the height of the decolonization period (pp. 39–41). Over time, this principle became embedded in the legal frameworks of international agreements on the global environment. One can see the limitations of this framework most clearly in the UNFCCC and the resulting 1997 Kyoto Protocol, which gridlocked multilateral progress on climate change for decades afterwards. In addition, Conca notes that early in the postwar period, environmental issues became the purview of specialized agencies, such as the World Meteorological Organization (WMO), the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), and the International Labour Organization (ILO) (pp. 43–47). This further ‘locked-in’ environmental governance into the international treaty system, putting the global environment at the mercy of state-level sovereignty concerns.

Climate Change Conference Meets in Kyoto, Japan, 1-10 December 1997
Photo Credit: UN Photo/Frank Leather

Conca’s proposed solution is to bring in the other two pillars (peace and security, and human rights), to have the full set of tools available for governing the global environment. He argues that the environment is clearly both a matter of human security and human rights, but earlier formulations were restricted to rights in terms of nations instead of individuals (pp. 51–52). Some of the proposed security foundations already exist in the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) framework, but according to Conca, the suggestion has thus far been considered too controversial for the UNFCCC to even contemplate (p. 143). When it comes to the securitization of environmental challenges, the UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon made explicit calls to incorporating environmental security into the existing governing regimes (pp. 156–158). Furthermore, UN peacekeeping and peacebuilding missions have frequently grappled with what are arguably direct impacts of climate change, with space for environmental security provided by the imprimatur of the Secretary General (pp. 158–159). However, despite near-consensus of the UN in recognizing the severity of the threat of climate change, many states raised the question of whether the Security Council was the appropriate venue for discussing governance action. South Africa stated outright that solutions to climate change were of a specifically developmental nature, not security (p. 168). Later in the chapter, Conca argues that there have been some promising developments in the incorporation of environmental concerns in post-conflict peacebuilding, but its presence in “conflict management” remains weak or nonexistent (p. 177).

Conca’s argument is intriguing, and his explication of the earlier foundational period of environment governance is compelling. He grapples with the existing literature, addressing many potential criticisms and disparate viewpoints on the problem of efficacy in global environmental governance. His critique of the current weaknesses and blind spots in the UN-led efforts in environmental governance is especially powerful. An Unfinished Foundation is therefore a highly recommended book for anyone who has an interest in global environmental governance, or critiques of the UN. It constitutes excellent scholarship and challenges the usual assumptions about the historical genesis of that governing regime. Conca also lays out six avenues of improvement:

  1. Finding an explicit human right to a safe and healthy environment;
  2. Acknowledging an environmental responsibility to protect;
  3. Infusing the law-and-development approach with a stronger peace-and-rights practise;
  4. Find a legitimate, but limited, environmental role for the UN Security Council;
  5. Exploit opportunities for environmental peacebuilding;
  6. Reconceive and strengthen what it means for the UN to adopt a “system-wide” response to environmental challenges (p.14).

Overall, these suggestions are intriguing but lack the specifics necessary for a comprehensive policy response. While criticisms toward the securitization of the environment have been mentioned, skeptics could argue that they have not been satisfactorily addressed. Russian, Chinese, and the current American administration’s diplomats are likely to continue to argue that any usage of the UN’s Security Council for the purposes of addressing environmental security is a massive overreach of UN power. Indeed, since the book was published, President Trump’s rise to power has thrown large swathes of the international system into disarray. Alternative scales, such as at the regional, municipal or even grassroots levels; or intra-regional blocs, could have greater efficacy in governing the global environment. Nonetheless, the environmental challenges facing the world are of a truly global scale, and the refurbishing of existing UN systems may indeed be the best hope for humanity in the twenty-first century. Thus, Conca’s book remains an important contribution towards the literature on global environmental governance.


Feature image photo credit: UN Photo (cropped from original)