From climate change and biodiversity loss to rising pollution and sea levels, global environmental issues continue to evolve and pose new threats to the international community. This makes it all the more important for institutions to remain adept at addressing challenges and coordinating environmental action. iAffairs Canada interviewed Dr. Michael Manulak, an Assistant Professor at the Norman Paterson School of International Affairs, to discuss his recent publication, Change in Global Environmental Politics: Temporal Focal Points and the Reform of International Institutions.

Why do you think temporality and temporal focal points have been largely absent in International Relations theory’s discussion of how international institutions change?

A big finding of the book is that significant institutional change requires the engagement of a wider spectrum of actors than often realized. It steps away from the focus of much International Relations theory on hegemonic leadership or on the activities of a small number of large state-based actors. It embraces the increasing role of non-state, sub-state, and sub-national actors in global politics.

It is from this perspective that issues of temporal coordination matter immensely. With a small number of big actors, coordination challenges are less important. When change involves the active engagement—including substantial political and analytical investments—of hundreds (even thousands) of independent actors, coordination challenges emerge as a fundamental issue in updating institutions.   

Why is the temporal focal point framework of particular importance for international environmental institutions? In other words, what role does it play in accounting for particular challenges that international environmental institutions face, such as the incremental nature of climate change and the vast number of actors in the global environmental governance space?

The book analyzes the significant impact of Temporal Focal Points (TFPs) in the now 50+ year history of environmental multilateralism. While TFPs have facilitated institutional change in the environment field, the framework is highly applicable to other areas of institutional activity. Indeed, the sheer number and diversity of relevant actors in global environmental governance likely means that the arrival of TFPs is less common than in smaller, more homogeneous institutional contexts.

The web of global environmental governance is quite complex and troublesome to coordinate which, as you mention in your book’s introduction, has resulted in institutional suboptimality. How can we use a temporal focal point framework to reconcile these coordination issues in a timely manner?

The analysis of issues of temporal coordination leads us to shift our focus to mechanisms that facilitate coordination among many, diverse actors in global politics. We must complement a state-based focus on geo-strategy, what Anne-Marie Slaughter refers to as a “chessboard” view of world affairs, with a focus on dynamic “webs” of international interactions.

Instead of hoping for a recognition of interest alignments between the governments of the United States and China, for instance, reformers should engage a broader set of global players in a more comprehensive and consistent manner. International institutions must be flattened, giving a wider range of players a stake in reform.

Shifts in geopolitics, notably the steady rise of China, current aggressive military actions by Russia, and challenges to the American hegemon indicate a shift in world order that seems to favour authoritarian governments. Do you see this temporal space as one that could potentially regress or reverse certain progress on global environmental issues?

The geo-political shifts that you mention are highly important. Many analysts have discussed a resurgence of great power politics and new processes of de-globalization. At the same time, many of the existential challenges facing for the world community require global cooperation. On global health or climate, for example, international cooperation is compulsory. It simply doesn’t make sense to have a strictly national policy on these issues.

“While a more fragmentary world order makes temporal coordination problems more severe, likely hindering efforts to realize change, it is interests—rather than goodwill—that drive international cooperation.”

The big geopolitical players have a common interest in cooperation and in revising suboptimal institutions. Russia’s aggressive actions in Ukraine have made energy transition a strategic imperative. The challenge for international organizations in the coming decades will be in providing avenues for relevant actors to further their shared interests in cooperation.

In 2018, you authored a publication titled “A bird in the hand: Temporal focal points and change in international institutions”. Would you say that your book builds on this research? Have you seen shifts in global environmental governance trends since this publication?

My article first presented my research findings concerning TFPs. The book definitely builds on that research. One major development in the book is an adjustment to the definition of TFPs, loosening somewhat the insistence on the exogenous-origins of TFPs. It recognizes that no TFP is inevitable and opens up greater space for the role of strategic players in enhancing the conspicuousness of focal points. The book also better contextualizes modes of institutional change and clarifies key elements of the theoretical model. 

Empirically, the book is a very substantial step forward on the article. In the book, I seek an original contribution to historical knowledge of global environmental politics. I draw upon eight archives in five countries and dozens of interviews with leading actors, including Gro Harlem Brundtland, Elizabeth Dowdeswell, and Maurice Strong. There is a lot of new material in there that allows to better understand global environmental politics. I am also far more direct in the book on policy implications.  

Is there a particular aspect of your research that you find to be particularly compelling or surprising?

I found the empirical end of the project especially compelling. I am an historian by training, so I really enjoyed sifting through diplomatic documents and other archival sources. I was lucky to get access to tens of thousands of pages of documents and, while the book is very theoretical, I very much enjoyed researching and writing about vital negotiations in the history of global environmental politics. There is so much colour and diplomatic intrigue in the book. I hope that this comes through in the pages!

I wrote the first draft of this book while conducting doctoral studies in Oxford. I then had the benefit of spending five happy years in government, only re-visiting the project when I returned to academia in fall 2019. The book has changed a lot since the first version. I re-wrote and re-worked more than half of it based in part on my experience in government. At the same time, I was surprised how well the basic intuition of the model corresponded to my experience representing the government within international institutions and working within the bureaucracy. 

Where do you see Canada’s role in international environmental institutions? How can we help catalyze an opportune time for global environmental politics to change in ways that address coordination challenges?

Canada has traditionally been a real leader in environmental politics. At the landmark 1972 Stockholm conference, Canada was among the two or three most active and influential players. Canada was the original proponent of what became the Brundtland Commission, which popularized the concept of sustainable development. Canada was very active at the Rio Earth Summit.

“The fingerprints of Canada and Canadians feature prominent in the history of global environmental governance. In all of this, Canada had a clear sense of its interests in shaping environmental cooperation.”

The United Nations system continues to face a high degree of fragmentation in the environmental field and in the pursuit of sustainable development. There is an ongoing need to tighten the links between UNEP and many of the multilateral environmental agreements. The High-level Political Forum on Sustainable Development needs to be strengthened. 

Canada can be an active player in addressing these challenges. To do this, it must cultivate its links with other international actors in a more consistent manner, strengthening and building ties with a wide and diverse set of global players. This should not be restricted to traditional state-to-state relationships, of course. Doing this is about the long game, to be sure, but being able to bring these relations to bear in furthering Canadian interests in global environmental cooperation will position it to tackle key coordination challenges.

Emily Wesseling is an M.A. Candidate at the Norman Paterson School of International Affairs. She completed her B.A. in International Studies and French at the University of Idaho in 2020, and has particular research interests in Canadian affairs, diplomacy, and foreign policy. Her current experiences include a teaching assistantship at Carleton University and a research assistantship with the World Refugee & Migration Council.

Photo Credit: Dati Bendo from 

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