A new study published in PLOS ONE provides an overview of the globally-networked environmental NGO sector. Dr. Gregory M. Thaler, assistant professor of international affairs, with lead author Dr. Stefan Partelow from the Leibniz Centre of Tropical Marine Research (ZMT) and co-author Dr. Klara J. Winkler (McGill University, Canada), collected and analyzed a dataset of 679 environmental NGOs from around the world with data on mission statements as well as human and financial resources.

We sat down with Dr. Thaler to break down the findings from his study:

What are ENGOs and why are they important?

ENGOs are environmental non-governmental organizations. These are nonprofit groups devoted to environmental issues like climate change mitigation, biodiversity preservation, or pollution control. The largest ENGOs are household names such as Greenpeace or WWF, but there are many groups working on environmental issues from the local to international level that look very different from those high-profile groups.

NGOs play a crucial role in global environmental governance processes, such as the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), the UN Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), and the UN Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD), which are known as the Rio Conventions because they came out of the 1992 Rio Earth Summit. Just at the UNFCCC, there are over 700 ENGOs admitted as observers to international climate negotiations. These ENGOs help to define environmental problems and develop policy responses worldwide, but it’s very difficult to get a comprehensive picture of the global ENGO sector.


How does your study change the way ENGOs are analyzed?

There are two primary methodological innovations in this study. The first innovation relates to how we go about producing a descriptive overview of the ENGO sector.

Other studies of environmental NGOs have generally focused on a handful of well-known organizations, or they have used some a priori set of criteria to define an ENGO, and groups that do not meet those criteria will not be analyzed. We chose to ask instead, what are the NGOs that are active in global environmental governance processes? So, we took the population of NGOs participating in the UN Rio Conventions in the mid-2010s, when we began this project, and we consider those organizations environmental NGOs. This strategy allows organizations to ‘self-select’ into the category, and it allows us to see that groups such as Oxfam or the Norwegian Refugee Council, which are not usually considered environmental NGOs, are actively involved in global environmental governance processes, and so we argue that they should be considered a part of this globally-networked ENGO sector. Previous studies would miss these organizations and the role they play in global environmental politics.

Based on this selection strategy, we identified 978 ENGOs accredited to the Rio Conventions, and we began collecting data about these organizations and their missions using their websites and email requests. Our final dataset comprises 679 ENGOs. This sample is still providing us with just a partial view of the total ENGO population worldwide, and it is a snapshot from a specific moment in time, but it demonstrates a strategy for allowing the ENGO sector to define itself, and it captures a core of globally-networked organizations. We hope this approach will be expanded in the future to develop an increasingly comprehensive picture of the sector.

The second methodological innovation of this study relates to our analysis of environmental discourse. In addition to knowing about the locations and human and financial resources of these organizations, we wanted to know how they talk about environmental problems and solutions, so we collected the mission statements of our 679 organizations and used those mission statements to analyze environmental discourse in the ENGO sector. Previous studies have mostly identified environmental discourses either deductively or with poorly-specified inductive methods. We conducted quantitative content analysis of mission statements to identify four major discourses in the ENGO sector, and ours is the first typology I know of that derives from a systematic analysis of actually-existing discourse.


Why is it important to understand global environmental discourse and the topology of the global ENGO sector?

A discourse is a shared way of understanding the world – a system of ideas, definitions, and values that structures how we think and act. So, environmental discourses are sets of concepts and meanings that help to determine how we understand environmental problems and think about potential responses.

There are multiple ways of understanding and talking about environmental problems, and different discourses produce different political responses. We need to understand the major discourses used by organizations working in global environmental governance and how these discourses relate to other characteristics of these organizations, such as their geographical locations and the human and financial resources they mobilize in support of their missions. The topology of the ENGO sector that we produce in this study is a visualization of how organizational power and discursive constructs are distributed. With this topology, we can see, for example, whether more powerful ENGOs tend to view environmental issues differently from less powerful groups, or whether ENGOs from one region talk about the environment differently from ENGOs in another region.


What insights did your study reveal about the ENGO sector?

Our study confirmed some common assertions about ENGOs and also produced novel insights. Our data support common narratives about power disparities between ENGOs in the Global North and Global South, for example. We calculated a structural power index for a subset of our sample based on organizations’ human and financial resources, and in the quartile of ENGOs with the greatest structural power, 84% are based in Europe or North America.

With regard to more novel insights, our selection strategy illustrated that NGOs participating in global environmental governance are more diverse than conventionally imagined. Beyond the high-profile conservation organizations considered by most previous studies, the ENGO sector includes research groups, religious associations, and human rights and development organizations, which all help to produce the global environmental agenda. These ‘unconventional’ ENGOs include some of the largest organizations in the sector in terms of human and financial resources.

We found substantial heterogeneity when it comes to environmental discourse, and many ENGOs participate in multiple discourses, but we were able to identify four distinct discourses with our data: Environmental Management (focused on conservation and natural resource management), Climate Politics (focused on governance and civil society engagement on climate change), Environmental Justice (focused on community empowerment and respect for nature and human rights) and Ecological Modernization (focused on business innovation and technology). While some previous studies have identified similar discourses, we were able to identify these as the four most widespread discourses in the ENGO sector, and the importance of Environmental Justice and Climate Politics has been substantially underestimated by previous work.

Given the prominence of Climate Politics and participation in global environmental governance by organizations with diverse social and development agendas, we ultimately suggest that the ‘Environmental NGO’ sector may now be better understood as a ‘Sustainability NGO’ sector that addresses concerns much broader than classic environmental conservation issues.


How does this study build the foundation for environmental governance and policy going forward? 

NGOs are powerful actors in environmental governance. This study provides a clearer picture of the global environmental NGO network and the discourses that these organizations use to understand and address environmental problems, both of which are crucial contributions in this time of planetary crisis.


For the original publication: [https://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0232945]