- Limits of Transnational Environmental Network Governance in North America
We have witnessed a remarkable acceleration of scholarship on North American environmental policy during the past half-decade, all the more notable for the concordance in approaches used by researchers. Drawing on developing literatures in IR and public administration on collaborative networks and governmental organizations as interactive bureaucracies,1 recent studies underscore the role of network participants in sharing knowledge and developing, coordinating, and implementing policy.2 In doing so, scholars focus on the network and organizational properties likely to bring about successful outcomes. They identify a place for subnational and federal government agencies, binational and trinational organizations, scientists, and economic stakeholders in governance arrangements facilitating mutual learning and adjustment, so that complex environmental problems can be managed in an integrative and inclusive way.
As fruitful as this approach has been, its utility remains less clear. Transboundary environmental issues in North America, like those in other regions, are a heterogeneous assortment, consisting of different types of problems often [End Page 176] nested within one another. Different issues implicate different actors and ecological processes, and thus potentially vary in terms of the relevance of transboundary networks and the organizations that engage with them. Furthermore, the existence of such institutional features does not necessarily mean that they include the range of stakeholders necessary for their effectiveness. Thus transboundary environmental networks on the North American scale likely have limitations, both as analytical units and as institutional constructs facilitating environmental governance. The three books reviewed below underscore these limits—intentionally or otherwise. All identify the normative ideal of inclusive networks sharing information and building capacity, and yet they all find practice falling far short, at least tacitly calling into question the utility of the network approach to transboundary North American environmental governance.
At the vanguard of the new movement is Environmental Policy in North America: Approaches, Capacity, and the Management of Transboundary Issues, by Robert Healey, Debora VanNijnatten, and Marcela Lopez-Vallejo. Here the authors have engaged in the ambitious project of circumscribing and defining what North American environmental governance consists of, and exploring the relevant domestic, bilateral, and trilateral institutions already in place. They argue that despite different legal frameworks and political cultures among Canada, the United States, and Mexico, their approaches to addressing diverse environmental issues are not so different as to present a substantial hindrance for trilateral cooperation. Rather, the problem is one of environmental governance capacity, defined as “the ability to propose, plan, choose a course of action, implement, and evaluate an effective policy” (p. 6). To enhance capacity and, to the extent necessary, bridge national policy differences, the authors propose three “critical functions for transboundary governance mechanisms” (p. 7), namely: creating comprehensive and stable transboundary networks, enabling mutual learning and information exchange, and facilitating the provision of resources.
This insight frames the subsequent analysis. Following an introduction laying out the authors’ approach, the book is divided into two parts. The first part consists of two chapters identifying the continent’s environmental challenges, surveying the environmental governance approaches and capacity of the three countries, and assessing the extent to which North America’s many binational and trinational environmental organizations and subnational networks are performing the three critical functions. These chapters provide a useful and comprehensive overview of the three countries’ domestic institutions participating in environmental policymaking, the political context in which they presently operate, and the functions of several under-analyzed binational and trinational organizations and agreements.
The authors highlight the problem of underfunded environmental departments (especially acute in Canada under the Harper government and in American states reeling from ongoing budget shortfalls) and the relative weakness of Mexico’s environmental governance capacity in relation to its...