Protecting the environment in a globalised era

The G8 leaders meeting in Germany will need to address a range of international environmental issues this week. But do they have the power to act, asks Tang Hao, or does business have the upper hand?

Rachael Carson’s book, Silent Spring, makes clear how difficult it was in the US to put bans or restrictions on the use of pesticides, despite widespread public awareness about their harmful effects. This was largely because politicians with close links to industry conspired to prevent environmental laws reaching the statute books. Former US vice-president Al Gore once remarked: “It is astonishing to see the cosseting [the pesticide] industry has been accorded in Congress over the years. The statute that regulates pesticides, fungicides, and rodenticides sets far looser standards than those that regulate food and drugs, and Congress intentionally made them more difficult to enforce.”

In response to this conflict of interests, Carson felt that the environmental struggle would only be successful when it became political. But in her era, environmental politics could remain at a national level. Today we face more complex and international environmental issues. It can be seen easily how some large corporations – whose interests stretch far beyond any one country — have used their economic strength to buy political influence that will limit environmental protection. For instance, when a company builds its polluting factories overseas, it becomes even harder for any one country to control. Globalisation has given multinational corporations unprecedented economic and political power, and allowed them to become global monopolies.

Economic globalisation’s most important effect on the environment has been the rise of transnational interest groups who can ignore domestic and international environmental regulations for the sake of profits. The harm they do is far harder to mitigate than that of any national entity; politicians can make statements, NGOs can set up campaigns and the public can call for change, but these groups remain the main reason for our worsening environmental situation.


These obstacles and vested interests have always existed, but they have been enhanced in the transnational era. Even the most developed of countries are powerless to control them, and some even become partners in their anti-environmental strategies. Global politics increasingly becomes about keeping these interests on-side.

Governments find themselves unable to act on an ever-increasing range of environmental issues, something that the G8 leaders meeting at the summit in Heiligendamm this week will be keenly aware of. The reason is simple: when a corporation’s operations are restricted to one country, the government can act directly on the company. However, when companies are multinational and strengthened by globalisation, a single government can do little. This is particularly the case in the developing world, where governments are often unable to act, or are even unaware of the true situation. 

Democratic governments are more concerned about what happens within their own borders – where their voters live — than on the international stage. When the economy alone is globalised, the multinationals gain the economic and political advantage, and even their “home” countries are helpless. In the worst cases, governments become accomplices. At the G8 summit in 2005, the US attempted to ensure that the meeting’s report did not contain any mention of global warming and its effects. This act of climate-change denial was the ideal excuse for the US withdrawal from and subsequent failure to ratify the Kyoto Protocol. These differences remained at a meeting of G8 environment ministers in Potsdam, where the US remained unwilling to contribute funds for climate-protection measures in developing countries or to implement the emissions reductions called for in the Kyoto Protocol.

However, this is not to say that the politicians have all forgotten their responsibilities. We have seen politicians such as Bill Clinton, Al Gore, Jimmy Carter and many more establish environmental initiatives after leaving office, demonstrating their concern for the environment. But while in office they cannot achieve their aims due to corporate pressure. Only when they leave their positions of power are they able to act as concerned citizens. And while this deserves our respect, we cannot help but ask why they were not able to do more while in office.

People and governments

It is clear that if the environment is left in the hand of minority interest groups and the needs of humanity are not taken into account, environmental crises will only increase. The UK Met Office says that climate change, combined with the El Niño phenomenon, means global temperatures in 2007 will be the highest on record. UN predictions see temperatures rising by 1.5 to 6 degrees Celsius over the next century, affecting hundreds of millions.

It was the public that launched the environmental movement, but now it is led by traditional domestic politics, as well as environmental groups and beneficiaries (especially in the developed world). When 12 US states, along with several cities and NGOs won their court case against the Environmental Protection Agency and the US car industry in April, it required carbon dioxide to be viewed as a pollutant and regulated under the Clean Air Act. Environmentalists cheered the decision, but in comparison with the power of free-flowing global capital, the environmental movement still has a long way to go. Environmental NGOs are still unwelcome and restricted in many countries, and while economies may be globalised, politics and culture are often not.

Environmental protection is much less globalised than economic activity, and this will not be rectified by intergovernmental dialogue alone. The leaders of developed countries should be aware of their responsibilities as the heads of powerful democracies. Environmentally-aware citizens should widen their horizons, banding together to work on a broader scale; they should participate in civil society to pressure government and business, and press for stricter international environmental laws and harsher punishments for those who harm the planet. Attempts to play down the problems become steadily more useless as the crisis escalates. We can only succeed in environmental protection when global markets, international civil society and world governments play balanced roles.


Tang Hao, born in 1974, is a newspaper columnist and assistant professor of politics at Huanan Normal University. His essays and opinion pieces have appeared in Contemporary International Relations, International Studies, Nanfang Daily, Yangcheng Evening News, Southern Window,and many other publications.