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Global Environmentalism and Diplomacy, Fifty Years Since Stockholm: Changing the System or Tranquilizing Citizens?

Although it began to «go global» already in the era of the League of Nations, environmental diplomacy has grabbed substantial media attention only since the UN Conference on the Human Environment, held at Stockholm fifty years ago (1972). Ever since, environmental regimes serving the protection of nature (endangered species, forests, rivers and oceans) and the biosphere (stratospheric ozone and climate), as well as prohibiting obnoxious human practices (like producing and dumping toxic or harmful substances) have proliferated. All the same, the mobilization of non-renewable resources by humanity has continuously increased over the last fifty years, species have been decimated, and the rate of destruction of the Amazonian rainforest has increased dramatically under the current Brazilian government. Does environmental diplomacy really follow the objective to protect nature, or is it more about tranquilizing citizens by means of clever communication strategies?

Analyzing the media and interviewing actors, as some social sciences do, will not provide satisfactory answers to this question. This panel claims that historians with their archival research methods may provide better clues: recourse to confidential governmental sources, and in some cases the internal documentation of international organizations, allow potentially more detailed insights into the origins of regimes, the positions of leading actors, lines of conflict, and the effects of regimes on state practice and international cooperation. Governments (and supranational actors) engaged in environmental diplomacy act within a space characterized by actor’s convictions, electoral constraints (when there are free elections) and the need to stage its media representation, domestic public opinion (when there is freedom of expression), and lobbies. There may also be a tension between a government’s wish to appease a certain domestic audience, while maintaining an international reputation, e.g. of reliability, and «soft power». Research in government archives, especially on documents written for internal and confidential use with a view to preparing a position or a decision, allow for a better understanding of the constraints, the dilemmas and the logics weighing upon governments engaged in environmental diplomacy than analysing public declarations made at summits. Thus, too broad generalizations frequent in Anglo-saxon academic publications on global environmental politics, can be discarded.

Based upon these preliminary reflexions, the present panel proposes

1) to highlight new historical research on global environmental diplomacy and governments’ (or the EU’s) motives when engaging in environmental diplomacy, and

2) to focus in particular on the debate about the question of sustainability in the capitalist world system, and the compatibility between development goals and environmental protection.

Whether environmental diplomacy serves to bring about change or simply to tranquilize citizens will be the overarching question.

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