Regime Theory ( Realist, Neo-liberal, Constructivist views) & the Role of Science in Environmental Policy
• Began in 1970s; “regime” borrowed from domestic concept and reflects liberal prescriptions for translating the domestic political structure to the international level.
• Regimes are implicit or explicit principles, norms, rules and decision-making procedures around which actors’ expectations converge in a given area of international relations.
• A regime is not the same as an International Organization, although it may incorporate one.
Three types of regime theory:
• Power-based, realist view focusing on hegemonic actor in international system. Regimes help states coordinate action.
• Interest-based, neo-liberal view focusing on states realising common interests and pursuing absolute gains. State behaviour in this view is shaped by institutional arrangements (accepts many realist tenets: role of power, state as primary rational actor assumption, also accepts importance of non-state actors).
• Knowledge-based regimes (constructivist): state interests are not given but created. Beliefs (normative and causative) are shaped by the conditions and environment and can be changed – epistemic communities.
* A treaty is generally understood to be “a formally concluded and ratified agreement between states” (The Concise Oxford definition). The terms convention and treaty are often used interchangeably but conventions are sometimes more specifically understood as a multi-lateral form of treaty.
* There are various regime definitions that vary in detail but all generally adhere to the basic notion that regimes provide a framework for regulating the behaviour of states within a specified issue area. Thus, according to Osherenko and Young:
Regimes are social institutions composed of agreed upon principles, norms, rules, and decision-making procedures that govern the interaction of actors in specific issue areas. They are the rules of the game that determine the character of recognised social practices. Whereas some international institutions are broad and encompassing, (for example, the international economic order), most regimes deal with a limited set of well-defined activities or a specific geographical area of interest to some subset of the members of international society. Often regimes are limited both functionally and geographically.
* The “agreed upon principles, norms, rules, and decision-making procedures that govern the interaction of actors” are specified by the treaty/convention(s) upon which the regime is based (i.e., a multi-lateral treaty). In the case of the International Whaling Commission (IWC), for example, the relevant convention is the International Convention for the Regulation of Whaling (ICRW).
* The “specific issue area” of the ICRW is the regulation of whaling and conservation of stocks.
* The ICRW is administered by the IWC, which was created out of the ICRW. Thus, the regime is, strictly speaking, the ICRW rather than the IWC. The IWC, however, is often referred to as a management regime although it is actually only an intergovernmental organization (N.B. All intergovernmental organizations (with legal personality under international law) are based on a treaty BUT all treaties do not necessarily establish a corresponding intergovernmental organization e.g., NAFTA, GATT, the UNFCCC).
Knowledge-based Perspectives on International Regimes
Not surprisingly, most of the existing work on the evolution and function of international environmental regimes – such as the IWC’s International Convention on the Regulation of Whaling, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Flora and Fauna, the International Agreement on the Conservation of Polar Bears, and the Montreal Protocol on Ozone Layer Depletion – has been provided by a broad scope of international relations theorists and researchers focusing largely on regime theory. Within the broadly defined field of regime theory, which includes game theory, functionalism, structuralism and cognition among its main theoretical approaches, various arguments have been constructed over the last two decades to counter the traditional realist view of international relations, which largely has dominated international relations theory
Some regime theory analysts, such as Peter Haas, have suggested that advice from scientists and other “experts”, based on “consensual knowledge”, can influence policy making by providing policy makers with explanations of “cause and effect relationships” and the “complex interlinkages between issues” in response to uncertainty issues. Within regime theory, the theoretical approach that has the most to say about the role of science and knowledge in the construction and evolution of environmental regimes is that of cognitivists like Haas who focus on the role of epistemic communities in fostering international co-operation on environmental problems.
However, cognitivist views on the importance of epistemic communities in providing scientific consensus as a basis for policy making are problematised to a large extent by the example of the IWC. Cognitivists propose that because knowledge and ideas can alter the interests of governments, scientific convergence on the dimensions and effects of a given activity can lead to improved co-operation between states in managing its environmental impact. Examples such as international co-operation to reduce ozone depletion, which increased as uncertainty diminished (according to cognitivists), are often used to illustrate the influence scientific uncertainty can have on policy making. But as the IWC’s experience indicates, scientific advice seldom comes without caveats and almost never is unanimously supported or unquestioned. The question of how and why policy makers choose some advice over other advice in the absence of certainty or consensus, therefore, is an important one. Cognitivist theorists, by attributing a key role to scientific agreement in the successful functioning of a regime, appear to have largely ignored this question and, as a consequence, the ways in which such consensus can occur and the extent to which it needs to occur in order to have any meaningful impact both remain unclear.
I am not suggesting here that the advice of scientists and other experts is of no significance in the formulation of policy. I am instead proposing that it is the nature of science and the question of how scientific advice is treated and judged by policy makers that need to be focused upon in order to better understand the role played by science in policy making, rather than simply contending that consensus among scientists or other groups of experts (however such groups might be defined) can (and do) influence and shape policies.
Haas acknowledges the epistemological problems associated with positioning science as a means of accessing and describing reality. At the same time, however, he bases the concept of epistemic communities and the role they play on the assumption that the collective efforts of epistemic communities can, over time, produce “consensus about the nature of the world.” One of the problems with this view is that such consensus often only occurs after previously disputed predictions of a particular result or threat are borne out by it actually taking place, as was the case with the Antarctic collapse. In this sense, the ability of epistemic communities to help avoid undesirable policy outcomes seems unclear, since advice of this nature is likely to be handicapped by the same kinds of political and economic priorities that have dominated IWC policy.
Because cognitivist theorists generally regard the resolution of scientific uncertainty issues to be an important determinant in regime policy formulation and co-operation, achieving scientific consensus becomes a critical factor in the success or failure of a regime. But in addition to the problem of how such consensus can occur, the closely related question of how much consensus is needed before uncertainty issues can be overcome is also left unanswered in any definitive sense.
As the IWC’s experience with policymaking – in addition to other environmental issues such as global warming – indicates, opinions among scientists or other expert groups are almost always divided. And even when a clear majority opinion has been available, as was the case in the IWC on several occasions, it seldom has been sufficient to compel those with important interests at stake to refrain from using any lingering uncertainties as a basis for continued opposition. Examples of this include the Antarctic whaling nations’ refusals to adopt the recommendations of the Committee of Three and Committee of Four, the US government’s clear rejection of the Scientific Committee’s advice on the moratorium, and also the refusal of many in the commission to adopt the RMP on the unanimous advice of the Scientific Committee in 1993. But, as the IWC experience with scientific advice generally shows, consensus among scientists is a very rare thing. According to Butterworth:
Post-1980 you’ll find very few cases dealing with substantive issues upon which the Scientific Committee has given consensus advice. It is almost always that some advised this, but others advised that. Thus it is in a way a bit misleading to say, for example, that the Scientific Committee never recommended the Antarctic Sanctuary (“contrary to the requirements of the Convention”). The Committee’s modus operandi (arising originally from a desire to avoid voting) has led to a position where it will almost never say anything definitive on an issue of importance, because “lobby groups” from either side of the debate will be represented in the Committee and ensure the absence of a consensus statement contrary to their interests.
Thus, while cognitivist theory recognises the important role played by scientific uncertainty in regime policy, it fails to adequately address both the unavoidable existence and fundamental causes of the divisions over uncertainty issues that so often occur and is, therefore, unable to explain clearly what constitutes an epistemic community and why such communities of experts should be considered important in the removal of uncertainty as an impediment to co-operation on policy. Peterson, in his application of an epistemic community-based analysis to the IWC, makes some questionable judgements when identifying epistemic community influence in the commission by appearing to set cohesiveness and uniformity of views among experts as a necessary precondition for epistemic communities.
In Peterson’s view, for example, it does not seem possible for one to be both a cetologist and an environmentalist, a somewhat problematic assumption that allows him to then cite the divisions within the IWC Scientific Committee as having been an important reason behind the committee’s general inability to influence commission policy. Peterson writes that: “The cetologists, the only group to qualify as an epistemic community [in relation to the IWC], suffered enough internal dissension and outright defections in the 1970s to lose that status temporarily.” Peterson then goes on to argue that:
It is likely that even a united cetologist community would have been unable to use the Scientific Committee as a mechanism for framing choices in the 1970s and early 1980s. The cetologists’ internal divisions ensured that this became the case.
But given the theory-dependent and unavoidably value-based nature of observing and interpreting “facts”, how could it be possible to avoid divisions over the relevance or non-relevance of any uncertainties associated with the data at hand? And as Peterson himself notes, even unanimously supported scientific advice was unlikely to have given the Scientific Committee any more influence, as has been the case on the very few occasions when the committee did give unanimous support to its recommendations. The very nature of science, and the problems it involves, means that uncertainty is unavoidable in any research.