The Sweaty Penguin

Hosted ByEthan Brown

The most fun you've ever had while learning environmental issues! Episodes include a comedy monologue and expert interview. Welcome to Antarctica's Hottest Podcast.

10. United Nations Environment Programme

Aside from some scary climate change reports you may hear in the news, what does the United Nations Environment Programme do? As it turns out, a lot less than you might expect, and that’s because UNEP was designed to have less power than many other UN affiliates. Today, we break down what UNEP has and hasn’t accomplished, some proposed improvements to UNEP, and why international cooperation on the environment is important regardless of one’s foreign policy beliefs. With special guest Dr. Henrik Selin: Associate Dean of Studies and Professor of International Relations at the Boston University Pardee School of Global Studies.

As a student of both international relations and environmental policy, I feel like I might be a human incarnation of the United Nations Environment Programme. However, I also like to think that I’m not nearly as powerless or disrespected as UNEP. UNEP, and really the UN as a whole, is easy to criticize for being ineffective and weak, and I do roast UNEP (a lot) in this week’s monologue. You might get the impression from listening to this episode (precisely because of my criticisms) that I think UNEP is worthless, but that’s actually the opposite of how I feel.

I actually love UNEP. It stands for many of the things I believe we will need to improve our world, not least of which including improved global cooperation and a prominent focus on environmental issues. However, my appreciation for UNEP actually pushes me to criticize its flaws, because I see the unrealized potential that it has. As we explain in the episode, UNEP is perpetually underfunded and is ultimately ineffective in making environmental progress because of its lack of regulatory and enforcement powers. These flaws are fundamental to UNEP, they have plagued the programme since its inception. This is for a myriad of reasons (which we get into on the episode), but there are ways to overcome these challenges.

Namely, overcoming these challenges will require getting the governments of the world to prioritize environmental issues, and for this to happen, they must understand the benefits of doing that. As citizens and individuals, we are powerless actors in the international system, but when we come together, we can have a profound indirect impact. Environmental education is so important precisely because it helps us all see what the human and environmental benefits are to stewarding the Earth, and when we, as a collective, understand this, we can begin to exert pressure on our systems of governance to change priorities and affect action. While global and domestic politics are as messy, complex, and convoluted as ever, this may be a hard message to take to heart. However, these ideas, and institutions like UNEP, have never been more important, and we must work to improve and empower them so that they can truly represent the interests of us, as citizens, and the Earth.


As an Environmental Analysis & Policy student but not an International Relations student, I learned a lot from Caroline and from Dr. Selin about global environmental governance here. And I’m still putting together my thoughts on this because getting 193 countries to agree on something is really hard. It’s pretty remarkable that they have found enough agreement to come together on issues of trade, health, food, and many others, including, to some extent, the environment.

Anything with the United Nations is also quite contentious, since even within parties, there’s significant disagreement on how to conduct foreign policy, and whether the goal is to make a better country or better planet. I sure don’t have an answer. What I do know is regardless of which goal you have in mind, global cooperation on the environment is a must. There’s just no way around it. It would be great if each country had its own environment to protect in an isolated system, but they don’t. The environment is all intertwined around the world, and the world is as strong as the weakest link here.

This all got me thinking of the Prisoner’s Dilemma. Two alleged coconspirators in a crime are arrested and each placed in separate rooms and given the same offer: If you confess and your partner does not, you’re free. If you don’t confess and your partner does, you’ll go to prison for life. If neither of you confess, we only have enough evidence to send both of you to prison for 1 year, but if both of you confess, you’ll both go to prison for 20 years. Should you confess? Well, if your partner confesses, you’d either confess and go to prison for 20 years or not confess and go to prison for life, so confessing turns out better. If your partner does not confess, you’d either confess and be free or not confess and go to prison for 1 year, so again, confessing turns out better. But by that logic, both prisoners would confess and go to jail for 20 years each, when if they had the opportunity to cooperate, they’d each only go to jail for 1 year, which would be preferable to both of them. Global environmental cooperation feels similar, where despite everyone cooperating being the universally best outcome, it doesn’t actually happen.

We hope this episode allows you to reflect on some of the discussions being had among International Relations scholars on how to facilitate cooperation on environmental issues. You may feel like none of the ideas in this episode are the right answer. That’s okay. It’s a really tough challenge, and all I’d ask is that you think about it a bit and remember that we have made progress. It’s not an easy cause, but it’s not a hopeless one. We can do it.



Leave a Reply