In this sense, many of the lessons from other environmental campaigns do not apply to climate change. In the case of ozone depletion, for example, with which climate change is often compared, alternative technologies (CFC substitutes) were available, regulation needed only to address a relatively small number of producers in a  small number of countries (mainly in the North) and the scientific consensus on the issue was in many ways more robust. The issue of climate change, despite a catalogue of recent extreme weather events which resemble effects associated with climate change, has less of the immediacy or moral outrage associated with issues such as toxic wastes and whaling. This negatively affects the prospects for short-term action on the problem.


In many ways the threat of human-induced climate change represents a classic collective action problem. It is a problem which affects everyone and which, to different degrees, is caused by everyone. The scale of international cooperation that is required is in many ways without precedent. The sources of the problem are widespread and ingrained in the everyday practices of production and consumption. The problem spans from the global to the local level and therefore requires changes at all levels of human activity from the household upwards. This presents an enormous challenge for effective interventions. As Geoffrey Heal (1999: 222–3) notes, carbon dioxide is produced as a result of ‘billions of decentralised and independent decisions by private households for heating and transportation and by corporations for these and other needs, all outside the government sphere. The government can influence these decisions, but only indirectly through regulations or incentives.’


Climate change is increasing recognised as one of the most serious environmental threats facing humankind. The rapidly growing consensus about the severity of the issue is at odds with the slow rate of progress to date in addressing the problem through international cooperation. The re-election of President Bush in 2004 in the United States did nothing to stem the tide of concern about the fate of the Kyoto Protocol, the key pillar of the global political architecture for tackling climate change, despite the agreement’s recent entry into force as a result of its ratification by the Russian Duma (UNFCCC 2004). Against this background, Pettit (2004: 102) cites a climate activist who suggests that ‘The chances of our getting anywhere near where we need to be with international diplomacy are grim’. Other activists, though increasingly frustrated at the low returns from continued engagement with the negotiations, see Kyoto as in many ways the only game in town and are unwilling to give up on an agreement they worked so hard to secure. Stalemate continues to prevail over the extent to which, and the ways in which, developing countries should assume commitments to reduce their own emissions. This, and other key issues regarding the mechanisms for delivering the goals of Kyoto, and the UN Framework Convention before it, have served to create divisions within the environmental movement, mirroring those which continue to cause fissures within the broader international community.

In particular, as we argued in Global Civil Society 2003, the last 20 years witnessed the institutionalisation of a social movement industry (McAdam, Tarrow and Tilly 2001; Smith 1997; Kaldor 2003). Indeed, environmental NGOs now make up 1,781, or 4 per cent, of the over 50,000 INGOs reported by the Union of International Associations in Brussels. In 1980, there were about 200 and in 1924 just one. In recent years, their number has been growing between 3 and 5 per cent annually( Kaldor, Anheier and Glasius 2003). The new social movements, and the NGOs they spawned, provide the institutional connection between the drop in confidence in conventional, nation-state institutions and the growth of global civil society.  In the environmental and other fields, they helped fill and, in cases like the Brent Spar case, expanded the confidence gap.

The precautionary principle and world risk society

The precautionary principle

The modern, state-centred concept of risk assumed its most developed expression in what has become known as the precautionary principle of policy-making (Lofstedt 2003; European Commission 2000). In its simplest formulation, taken from the 1992 Rio Declaration, the principle states, ‘where there are threats of serious or irreversible damage, lack of full scientific certainty shall not be used as a reason for postponing cost-effective measures to prevent environmental degradation.’ Subsequently, the application of the precautionary principle spread to other fields such as the chemical industry, pharmaceuticals, climate change, and even the threat of terrorism, although the term is largely used in relation to environmental risk. Indeed, it can be argued that the state’s responsibility for physical and material security – for protecting people against risks which range from nuclear war to poverty – was always an expression of the precautionary principle within the boundaries of the nation-state.