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IP 3: Democratic quality and legitimacy in international environmental governance

International institutions have become the backbone of global environmental governance over recent decades. However, international environmental institutions are usually rather weak in terms of their capacity for monitoring and sanctioning non-complying members. They have only soft power with which to influence the behavior of their member states and the outcomes of international negotiations, a fact which renders their problem solving rather ineffective. Their soft power is mainly a function of how democratic the institution is and if it is considered to be legitimate; that is if its normative principles and rules are supported by states, civil society, and individuals. How successful international environmental collaboration is, is thus dependent on how international institutions and their procedures are designed and if they are perceived as democratic and legitimate.

The aim of this project is to assess how democratic and legitimate international environmental institutions are. It will examine the design and procedures of important institutions in several policy areas including biodiversity, whaling, long-range transboundary air pollution, protection of the stratospheric ozone layer, and international trade in toxic waste, in endangered species, and in tropical timber. Furthermore, it will investigate whether greater civil society involvement in global environmental governance would increase public support for these institutions, and also try to understand how the legitimacy of international environmental institutions is evaluated by the media. In particular the project will focus on the following questions:

  • When and why are international environmental institutions challenged by states, civil society, or other actors concerning their democratic quality and legitimacy?
  • When and why do their procedures and designs change in response to such challenges? And do they successfully cope with these challenges?
  • To what extent and why are international environmental institutions perceived by citizens and the media as democratic and legitimate, and what criteria of democratic quality guide or influence such perceptions.
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Project leaders:
Prof. Thomas Bernauer, ETH Zurich
Prof. Vally Koubi, University of Bern

Postdoctoral researcher:
Dr. Steffen Mohrenberg, ETH Zurich