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All environmental issues have embedded within them the possibility for both violence and peaceful resolution. To avoid violence and to promote peaceful resolution, environmental problems are addressed in the international community by drafting treaties. As more complex environmental issues enter the treaty-making process, it becomes increasingly important to determine the conditions under which this process can be successful. This article is designed to consider one of these conditions: consensus.
There is an assumption that before states can draft an effective environmental treaty, they must agree on both the key elements of the environmental problem and the necessary solution. It is believed that the way a state perceives the problem (problem representation) will determine its willingness to become a party to the treaty. It is also believed that the way a state perceives the solution (solution representation) determines the level of commitment to honoring and implementing the resulting treaty. There is a general belief that an issue that achieves a relatively high degree of consensus will tend to be addressed more effectively and more peacefully than an issue over which there is substantial disagreement. Yet counterexamples exist. It is not clear if consensus is necessary. This article brings together the current understanding of consensus, decision making, and problem solving in political science, psychology, and cross-cultural communication. The article suggests the conditions under which consensus can lead to effective treaties. A typology is created and several environmental case studies are presented that will help determine if and when consensus is necessary.
Before we proceed further, it is important to discuss briefly the concept of effectiveness. There are many ways to define effectiveness: existence of a treaty, regime formation, regime maintenance, number of parties to a treaty, and so forth. Each definition has its advantages and disadvantages, and there is not yet an agreement on how best to define effectiveness. For the purposes of this article, an effective treaty is defined as a treaty that appears to be resolving the problem that it was designed to address. This means that the treaty involves actions that are regulating, controlling, and, perhaps, eliminating the cause of the problem as current scientific understanding defines it today (Scapple, 1994). Although effectiveness is mentioned frequently and is important in this article, it is not possible to provide a complete analysis of effectiveness for each case and situation discussed. The primary purpose of this article is to look at the role that consensus plays in environmental treaty making.
Theories of Problem Solving
Treaty making is a procedure for solving a problem; in this case, the problem is an environmental one. The treaty-making process is not easy; conflict can result from the process as easily as it can be resolved by the process. There are differences in culture and language that affect the operation as well as differences in past experience, goals, and levels of development. In addition, there are political tensions and alliances that affect the negotiations, economic implications that must be considered, and diplomatic protocol that must be maintained.
Each discipline seems to look at problem solving in a slightly different way. There are many theorists in psychology who consider the cognitive processes of individuals to help determine how a problem is identified and how it is then resolved. Others in both psychology and political science take an information-processing approach. Resolving a problem is viewed as a system, and hypotheses are created about how information is obtained, remembered, used, and discarded. Still others, particularly in political science, look at the collective process of making a decision and the conditions under which decisions are made. Finally, cross-cultural communication theorists look at the role that culture plays in communicating ideas and reaching collective decisions.
All of these theories offer clues to answering the question about whether consensus is necessary for effective environmental treaties. None offers the unique answer. Thus, it seems important to integrate this body of information. It is acknowledged that there may be some problems that result when theories at the individual, state, and international levels are integrated. Decision makers in an international negotiation process certainly function as individuals, but they also play a more complex role as representatives of government. Thus, one can argue that a theory designed to apply to small group decision making among ordinary people cannot apply to a negotiation between diplomats who have unique pressures that come from many levels of government. Although difficulties may occur, the knowledge gained through theory integration is far greater than the possible problems that may result. Thus, this article is a first step toward this integration and a better understanding of the role that consensus plays in environmental treaty making.
To begin the discussion, the treaty-making process will be broken down into the two components of problem solving: identifying the problem and searching for the solution (Cowan, 1986; Davidson, 1995). Each component will be considered separately. Once the components are presented, they will be linked in a typology that will begin the process of understanding when and under what conditions consensus is necessary.
Many people believe that one of the keys to resolving a problem lies in how that problem is represented in the minds of the decision makers. These values (Bonham, Heradstveit, Narvesen, & Shapiro, 1978), understandings (Shapiro & Bonham, 1982), or ontologies (Sylvan & Thorson, 1992) constrain and define the way in which states both perceive the problem but also identify the problem-solving task. Problem representation (also called by some theorists problem identification or definition) must precede any attempt to resolve the problem. In fact, arriving at an agreement on the nature of the problem is perceived by many to be a necessary condition before an appropriate solution can be reached (Davidson, 1995; Gick & Lockhart, 1995; Voss, Tyler, & Yengo, 1983; Voss, Wolfe, Lawrence, & Engle, 1991). But how consensual that decision must be is unclear. Given the intercultural composition of treaty-making bodies, consensus is unlikely to be achieved on most issues. Thus, it is necessary to determine what variables lead to differences in problem representation. There appear to be four categories of variables that lead to disparate views of a problem.
Characteristics of the Problem
International problem solving is an interesting phenomenon that has been described as complex (Funke, 1991) and ill-structured (Simon, 1973; Voss et al., 1991). The problem may be complex for many reasons: Not all variables are directly observable, multiple goals may exist, or multiple variables or links between those variables may be present (Funke, 1991). The problem may be ill-structured because there are no clear standards for evaluating a solution, there may be multiple problem spaces, and the information may require a large amount of computation (Simon, 1973, p. 183). Most problems in international relations are either complex or ill-structured. When these conditions exist, it is less likely that a consensual problem representation will be achieved.
Different Ways to Process Information
Some theorists suggest that the core variable that explains differences in problem representation is how individuals process information. Cognitive variations explain why "[d]ifferent people often make very different inferences even with the same information" (Cowan, 1986, p. 772). Differences in problem representation can also be explained because individuals perceive risk in different ways and have varying degrees of willingness to accept risk in making decisions (Slovic, Fischoff, & Lichtenstein, 1980). Difficulty can also arise if new information contradicts current understandings of the situation. Individuals can respond in many ways to anomalous data: ignore, reject, or exclude the data; hold the data in abeyance; reinterpret the data to fit existing understanding; or develop a new theory by accepting the anomalous data (Chinn & Brewer, 1993, p. 4). Because most environmental issues are not thoroughly understood and include anomalous data, this variable goes a long way to explaining differences in problem representation.
Differences in Personal Experiences
Personal experiences seem to play a large role in explaining why problem representations differ. Cowan (1986) believes that an individual's ability to define a situation as a problem depends in part on that person's familiarity with the situation. To identify cues that might be problematic, a person must have already experienced similar cues that actually did lead to a problem. A person who has not experienced such problems might not identify the early signs. Cole (1991) states that members of an intracultural decision group are likely to diverge because of the different life experiences of the individuals. Witte and Morrison (1995) indicate that the problem is even more acute in an intercultural setting. They state that "members of different cultures often bring different sets of interpretive assumptions to a communication interaction" (p. 216). If one's image of the future is shaped by past experiences (Cole, 1991), then past experiences can have important ramifications for environmental problem solving.
Differences in Worldview
One intercultural difference that seems particularly important in the environmental arena is worldview. Worldview "is conceived as encompassing that set of beliefs about the …