An idea whose time has come: Green Politics

Authors: Anurag Mishra and Aaditya Vikram Sharma*

As the world forages wide and digs deeper to discover the origin of the latest Public Enemy Number One, the widely believed conjecture among the public is that it originated from a wet market in Huanan, China. Scientists across the world are having a tough time finding the exact source of the virus, and world leaders are demanding a probe to look into its origins. Still, the zoonotic origin of the virus holds firm ground. Whether it was a horseshoe bat, a civet cat or a pangolin is a mystery yet to unravel.

The zoonotic origin of the virus once again brings to the fore, most compellingly this time, the questions which our leaders have long been avoiding. These questions are manifest in the four epidemics the world has seen in the last 20 years or so. Apposite among those questions is the ecologically unconcerned economic development and its wide-ranging concomitants. The very idea of sedentary urban human settlements is based on the clearing of forests and its transformation into fertile croplands. But, ever since economic growth became the cornerstone of human development and “mass production – mass consumption” the widely accepted way to sustain the burgeoning population, humans have pushed their domain more and more into the forests, thinning the line that exists between the humans and the wildlife.

To put things into perspective, the atmosphere never had carbon dioxide gas concentration of more than 300 ppm in the last half a million years or so. In 2019, it was more than 410 ppm, a direct consequence of decimating forests and increasing industrial activity. This event, among others, has been in the making for quite some time.

In the wake of the scientific developments taking place in the early 1970s, environmental concerns started to translate into political agendas. With the United Tasmania Group, the first Green Party contesting the 1972 state elections of Tasmania, Australia, the era of green politics had formally hit the road. Cut to 2020, the political experiment of green politics has been a nominal success. Even though the Greens have a presence in almost 90 countries across the world, it is a peculiar case of “a mile wide, an inch deep”.

In this series of articles, the authors set out to make a case for the need of a more assertive green politics while encapsulating the history of the Greens, the scientific developments and simultaneous accretion of environmentalism into environmental politics. This instalment covers the inception of international environmental politics since the second world war and traces the beginning of the green political movement.

The New World Order

Environmental issues have become one of the predominant points of discussion in international politics. Today, UN environmental summits are held, reports are generated by committees formed national and internationally to understand and mitigate climate change and other environmental problems, and citizen activism is at an all-time high. There is blunt awareness about the impact of human activity on the planet. In fact, in 2016, scientists recommended that the current epoch on Earth be labelled as ‘Anthropocene.’ However, this awareness is a recent phenomenon– it was not always so.

As the second world war ended in 1945, a new world order emerged. New institutions and agendas were created to instil adherence to international law and respect for human rights. To achieve the former objective, the United Nations (UN) was created. Under Article 1 of the UN Charter, “The Purposes of the United Nations are: 

To maintain international peace and security, and to that end: to take effective collective measures for the prevention and removal of threats to the peace, and for the suppression of acts of aggression or other breaches of the peace, and to bring about by peaceful means, and in conformity with the principles of justice and international law, adjustment or settlement of international disputes or situations which might lead to a breach of the peace;

To develop friendly relations among nations based on respect for the principle of equal rights and self-determination of peoples, and to take other appropriate measures to strengthen universal peace;

To achieve international co-operation in solving international problems of an economic, social, cultural, or humanitarian character, and in promoting and encouraging respect for human rights and for fundamental freedoms for all without distinction as to race, sex, language, or religion; and

To be a centre for harmonising the actions of nations in the attainment of these common ends.”

As can be seen above, none of the aims refer to the protection of the environment. This is not to say that the environment had not been harmed. As the Second World War raged from 1939 till 1945, environmental damage had been caused on an unprecedented scale. The war ended when the United States (US) used atomic weapons on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. This caused destruction, likes of which had not been seen before, to the cities and their people, as well as the environment, the effects of which are still seen today.

Until the 1960s, environmental protection was not considered an issue. The world would instead concentrate and move on to an unprecedented era of development. The US economy grew exponentially as its left-over wartime industrial base was tapped by the civilian industry. Europe had been left devastated by the war, and the US aided its allies’ economic growth via the Bretton Woods System and the Marshall Plan (formally the European Recovery Program). The Soviet Union developed and became the other superpower, alongwith the United States. This ‘development’ was achieved through massive industrialisation and development of new technologies. It is pertinent to note that the newly independent countries of Asia and Africa were more or less left out of this phase of development. 

“Discovery” of Damage

Man-made greenhouse effect, capable of having a significant impact on Earth’s temperature was suggested by Swedish scientist Svante Arrhenius as early as in 1895; the Swede believed that equable climates would appear across the Earth which would lead to an agricultural bounty across the planet. Ironically, Arrhenius’ anticipated boon turned out to be a menacing villain. In 1972, the United Nations Conference on the Human Environment (Stockholm Conference) cemented environmental issues as an agenda in international politics. It led to the creation of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP). According to Encyclopedia Britannica, “it laid the foundation for global environmental governance.”

In 1985, a remarkable discovery was made. The reputed science journal Nature published a paper by Joe Farman, Brian Gardiner and Jonathan Shanklin about the discovery of the “ozone hole” over Antarctica. Despite this, it was not until the establishment of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change in 1988 that climate change made news, a year after the Montreal Protocol had been agreed on.

Since Montreal, the world has made some significant strides in order to mitigate the crisis. However, what is unfortunate is that even the Paris Agreement makes climate action voluntary for the nations and the targets to cut down emissions of greenhouse gases nationally determined. The absence of a major emitter, the US, further jeopardises the realisations of the goals under the treaty.  Further, scientists suggest that even if the Paris Agreement’s goal of limiting global warming under 2 degree celsius are met with, it might not be able to avert wide-scale human-made natural disasters.

As stated above, in 2016, the Anthropocene Working Group voted for addition of the Anthropocene Epoch to the geologic time scale, citing the unprecedented and massive impact that humans have made on our planet. A formal declaration of the Anthropocene epoch by the International Commission on Stratigraphy might take some time, but it is now writing on the wall that the business as usual approach will take us to irreversible destruction. Our generation is already witnessing the rising of sea levels, increasing intensification of cyclones and dead zones in the oceans, and more vigorous incidences of forest fires.


Due to the events highlighted above, environmental issues came to the forefront. The United Tasmania Group of Australia was to become the forerunner of a movement that would span across continents. This ‘movement’ was the creation of new political parties and the growth of new leaders who aimed to mitigate the damage to the environment. These political parties are now known to us as green parties. Green parties function as flag bearers of environmental concerns in the political arena while also advocating social-democratic economic policies and social justice.

The next part of the series will deal with the inception of the green party movement and its relevance in the contemporary world and domestic politics.

* Assistant Professor, Vivekananda Institute of Professional Studies, New Delhi.

Anurag Mishra
Anurag Mishra
Anurag Mishra is an independent researcher. He holds an LL.M degree from the Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai.