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UBC Theses and Dissertations

Advocates, experts or collaborative epistemic communities? : Defining the scientific role of NGOs in international environmental negotiations Johnson, Lindsay Emma


This thesis analyzes the extent to which nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) are able to act as experts and participate in scientific communities surrounding international environmental negotiations. It argues that in international environmental negotiations of a complex, scientifically-uncertain nature, many NGOs have been able to contribute as experts on issues of policy and science. Rather than engaging in "symbolic politics," many NGOs have oriented their activities towards developing expertise and scientific research by working in collaboration with a number of scientific communities. The evidence from NGO activity in three case studies: the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement (GLWQA) and the North American Waterbird Conservation Plan (NAWCP) - suggests that many NGOs are able to produce knowledge, commit to a shared set of normative and causal beliefs based on scientific principles, exercise a similar set of criteria for validating knowledge, and work in partnership-mode with other members of the scientific community in order to advance the shared cause of their respective international environmental negotiation. Several causes are identified to explain why many NGOs shift their activities away from advocacy and symbolic politics and towards developing expertise. The empirical findings of these case studies have implications for several theories of international relations. Theorists of international relations have, for the most part, described the activities of environmental NGOs in terms of their ability to persuade, pressure and gain leverage over much more powerful organizations. Theoretical concepts such as the "transnational advocacy network" and the "epistemic community" underestimate the scientific role that many NGOs have been able to play in complex and scientifically-uncertain issue areas such as climate change, water pollution and waterbird conservation. This thesis asserts that an alternative theoretical concept is necessary to account for the expert role of NGOs in several international environmental negotiations. Specifically, it coins and develops the term collaborative epistemic community as a more inclusive and accurate concept that accounts for the multitude of participants within expert communities and the scientific role of NGOs demonstrated in this study.

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