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Section 1: Introduction and Overview

In this section we discuss the role of the nation-state in addressing the complex issues associated with global environmental change; the importance of international environmental treaties and agreements; national level resource data; national policy information; and remotely sensed data--and the importance of integrating the various types of information together.

Global Environmental Change and Human Activities

During the past several decades, humans have become much more aware of their impact on the environment. Even more recently, the scientific community has recognized the important interrelationships found between human activities and natural biological, climate and environmental systems, and the impact that all four have on human welfare.

Determining the impact that human activities have on the environment has been a source of contentious debate in the United States and other parts of the world. It is important to understand that it is not the purpose of this guide to advocate any position with respect to the arguments which drive this debate.

However, deforestation, ozone depletion, and rising CO2 levels in the atmosphere provide ample evidence that human activities influence global environmental systems. While the ultimate consequences and even significance of these activities are open to discussion, the fact remains that human activities do affect the environment.

The Role of Nation-States

Nation-states are, and will continue to be, the most important political units that take responsibility for organizing human responses to global environmental change.[1]

Because environmental change may be a direct result of global economic activity, nation-states will be required to implement any international agreements intended to reduce, eliminate, or adjust current industrial practices. Furthermore, national-level government will be best equipped to deal with the broad environmental changes that occur within the borders of any given country.

Although international and regional organizations, such as the United Nations (UN) and the European Union (EU), play a crucial role in forging consensus for international action concerning the global environment, it is the nation-state which must ultimately implement agreed upon strategies.[2]

For example, regional and global institutions play an important role in framing the scope of specific environmental threats and are adept at forging consensus on what types of collective action should be pursued. However, prescriptive measures to address the adverse affects of environmental change require action at the national level.

International Environmental Treaties and Agreements

International environmental agreements are a key mechanism by which nations manage natural resources and deal with an environment that varies greatly across space and time. These agreements enable nations to search for equitable and efficient solutions to problems that arise from the intersection of natural and human systems that transcend national boundaries. Because nation-states are the primary political units forced to deal with such issues as global climate change, land use and land cover patterns, stratospheric ozone, and other global environmental problems, the need for future international environmental agreements between nation-states is likely to be substantial.

Furthermore, the implementation of existing agreements is also extremely important, especially as the need for international cooperation on global environmental change increases with the connectivity and complexity of global environmental, economic, and political systems. Thus, international environmental agreements are increasing in importance as tools to help promote equitable and efficient strategies to mitigate the adverse effects of problems such as global climate change, stratospheric ozone depletion, and changes in land-use/land-cover patterns.

National Response Information

The existence of international environmental treaties and agreements responding to environmental issues sometimes drives the creation of national response strategies and action plans. On the other hand, strong national interest in an issue may drive an issue onto (or off) the international agenda.

In either scenario, it is often important to know how particular nations respond to various global environmental issues. Sometimes national response strategies are generated as part of a coordinated international undertaking, perhaps arising out of the terms of a treaty; other times, national response strategies are generated at the initiative of individual nations, or at the behest of non-governmental organizations.

A useful summary of major international action plans, programmes, and strategies developed from 1972 to 1992 is provided in Tolba et al., The world environment 1972-1992: Two decades of challenge, pp. 753-754.

Natural Resource Indicators

Because nation-states will continue to be the most important international actors capable of addressing the adverse affects of environmental change for the foreseeable future, it is important to track and obtain natural resource data at the national level. Many (although by no means all) environmental issues can be analyzed and understood in terms of behavior aggregated to national scale and moderated by national governments.

Socio-economic data, such as population, economic, land-use, and biodiversity information, offer important insight into the environmental status of individual nation-states. These indicators (or variables) also enable researchers to track information which is highly relevant to global environmental change.

Linking Environmental Treaties and Agreements with National-Level Indicators

National-level data are important when considered in conjunction with environmental treaties and agreements. When combined, these data enable researchers to explore the characteristics of states which have or have not entered into international environmental treaties. For example, what are the characteristics of states which enter in agreements protecting biodiversity? If a greater understanding of national characteristics and behavior can be obtained, it may be possible to formulate future agreements which are more attractive to a wider range of states.

Resource indicators also allow the effects of environmental treaties to be tracked over time. For example, by studying national Carbon-Dioxide (CO2) emissions, researchers may be able to assess how closely specific countries are adhering to their agreed upon emission-targets stipulated by the Framework Convention on Climate Change (FCCC) and thus determine whether the treaty is having the desired effect. Although many treaties, such as the FCCC, are much too new to be judged a success or failure, a long-term monitoring system requires access to comprehensive socio-economic data.

Linking Environmental Treaties and Agreements with Resource Indicators

The Pressure-State-Response framework modified and adopted by the World Bank is a convenient and widely used way to explain the linkages among environmental treaties and resource indicators (Dumanski, 1996). For example, pressure indicators such as population pressure and land use served as indices for intergovernmental negotiating committees for environmental treaties which eventually led to the development of treaties. Treaties provide the basis for identifying and developing state indicators which measure the change in quality of the resource or the environment.

Similarly, the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) emphasized the need for developing national inventories of anthropogenic emissions which are measured by state indicators such as atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases (see Figure 1 for an illustration of the PSR concept). Response or performance indicators are useful in evaluating the effectiveness of treaties at the national level. For example, the percentage of years for which a country has submitted an annual report to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) helps to monitor how CITES member countries implement the prohibition against commercial trade in endangered species.


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