Climate Change in the International Relations Theory

In what ways have global environmental problems such as climate change challenged traditional conceptions of international relations?


Human society has always depended on the vitality of the environment. People got food, clothes, and dwellings from the available resources. They worshiped and sacrificed to the unknown phenomena or objects that they believed to be untouchable and sacred gods. Since the beginning of industrialization, people changed their awesome fear to the greedy desire of profit, and the scale of the damage caused to the nature started acquiring new dimensions. In the second half of the 20th century, an unprecedented rate of economic growth led to qualitative changes in the balance of the relationship between man and nature, and ecological problems became the question of concern worldwide.  

Theories of international relations co-exist in the paradigm of idealistic and pragmatic views. The most common schools are realism and liberalism. Constructivism has got a growing number of adherents (Viotti & Kauppi, 2012). However, none of the theories can fully describe, analyze, or predict the outcome of the international cooperation precisely. Moreover, human activity has led to a considerable upheaval in the global nature balance; and nowadays, countries compete and cooperate not just for economic, cultural, and industrial purposes but for the possibilities of ecological survival (Dauvergne, 2005). The international threats of global warming caused people worldwide to reconsider the basic principles of production, recycling, and gas emissions reduction. The geography of natural disasters is changing its landscape, and people face ruinous cataclysms in the non-typical and unexpected locations. The ecological problems led to the creation of a new branch in the theory of international relationships. Green politics focus on the steps to prevent the global warming (Burchel, 2014). Alarming natural disasters make states reconsider their primary values of autonomy, self-defense, and capital growth in the face of ecological problems. Global warming and the climate change have shown that the theories of international relations need to be reconsidered in the face of the real threat to the vitality of the environment.

History of International Relations Theories

The development of the modern green politics originates in the long process of development of human attempts to unite on the international level for the common good and to sustain the world balance. Political realism was primarily a reaction to the interwar idealistic thinking of the 20th century (Dunne, Kurki & Smith, 2013). The neglect of the primary motives of the vast majority led to a bloody and uncontrolled anarchical contest. The Second World War became the evidence of the lack of realistic thinking. The basic principles of the theory were survival, self-reliance, and self-improvement of the states. They had to conduct foreign policy as players in the anarchic international system, based on geographical location (Dobson, 2006). Consequently, as the highest organizational form, the states are in constant competition with each other. The government acts as an autonomous rational actor, pursuing its own interests in the international arena. The main aim is to maintain and strengthen the security, sovereignty, and survival. Realism claims that the pursuit of inner interests and further interaction is the result of the accumulated resources. The theory persecutes military, economic and political empowerment of the states (Viotti & Kauppi, 2012).

The international theory of liberalism originates from idealism. It argues that public needs are primary to the state interests. The well-being of people is the determinant of behavior in the international arena. In contrast to the realism, where the state is a unitary player, liberalism allows pluralism in the actions of the state representatives. Therefore, preferences vary from state to state, depending on the culture, economic system, or political regime. Liberalism also believes that the interaction between states is not limited to the problem of national security, but it also includes the interaction through trading companies, organizations, and individuals. This theory implies that not states but cultures interact in the international relations. For example, the film industry of a country may spread around the world, and it will be a direct sign of strength of culture in international relations (Viotti & Kauppi, 2012).

Neo-liberalism shows a fundamental relationship with globalization, especially in the economic sphere. Penetrating into the world economy, free international market begins affecting international relations directly through transnational corporations. In these circumstances, public interests remain important but not vital.

A key principle of constructivism is a belief that foreign policy depends on uncontested ideas, shared values, culture, and social identity (Dobson & Eckersley, 2006). Constructivism argues that international reality influences social values. It gives new meaning to the material world and criticizes traditional statistical approach of liberalism and realism in the analysis of international relations. This theory focuses on the fact that international relations are a social construction (Viotti & Kauppi, 2012). While realism implies security and material force and liberalism refers to the interdependence of economic factors and domestic policy, constructivism underlines the importance of ideas in international relations. These include goals, threats, fears, identities, and other elements of reality that affect the state and non-state objects of international relations. Constructivists believe that ideological factors have goals and outcomes in the long run, and this is an advantage over the materialistic theory (Smith & Owens, 2008). For example, constructivists indicate that the increase of members in the U.S. Army will probably be negatively perceived in Cuba or Russia (historically hostile states); whereas in Canada and the UK (historical allies of the U.S.), it will be perceived positively. Therefore, the perception of the same phenomenon in international relations may vary depending on the ideological conditions in states (Dauvergne, 2005).

Moreover, constructivists do not support the idea of constant anarchy in international relations, arguing the volatility and the subjectivity of the phenomenon. Alexander Wendt notes that “anarchy is what states make of it” (Wendt, 1992).

The issue of climate change has become one of the main points on the agenda in the world. Officials of the highest rank regularly discuss major negotiating areas, including the UN, the Big Eight, and the Big Twenty (Giddens, 2013). However, the existing international instruments, such as the Kyoto Protocol, are ineffective and can not provide a radical reduction of greenhouse gas emissions on a global level. Current negotiations are tight and do not bring tangible results. The issue of climate change is a vivid example of the tragedy of the commons and the whole theory of international relationships. Some countries pursue short-term interests and use natural resources without thinking about the general damage in the future. Another illustration of this approach is the annual UN Summit on Climate Change held in Warsaw in November 2013, where industrialized and developing countries once again did not hear each other (Burchel, 2014).

The UN Convention on Climate Change and the Kyoto Protocol

In 1992, the countries agreed on the need for international action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and adaptation to climate change under the UN Convention on Climate Change. Almost all countries supported the Convention;however, being general in nature, it does not provide specific commitments to reduce emissions to ratifying states. In 1997, the Kyoto Protocol supplemented the Convention. It set legally binding rules to reduce greenhouse gas emissions for the period between 2008 and 2012 (Kyoto 1). In 2012, it was made a general decision to extend the validity of the Protocol until 2020 (Kyoto 2) (Death, 2013).

Unfortunately, the Protocol did not lead to the radical reduction of global emissions as it provided for the decline only in the industrialized countries. The United States, the most powerful generator of greenhouse gas emissions, has signed the agreement but did not ratify it because of the change of administration and the lack of domestic consensus on international obligations. Finally, the limited composition of the participants of the Kyoto Protocol accounts for only 13% of global emissions, which is not enough to solve the problem of global climate change (Death, 2013). The result is the need for a new international agreement that would make the key source countries reduce their destructive activity.

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The Reasons and Dimensions of the Climate Change

The volume of global greenhouse gas emissions is growing from year to year, and the connection between this process and the warming has long been proved. According to the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which was engaged in the research in this area, the concentration of the carbon dioxide, methane, and nitrous oxide in the atmosphere has reached the record level in the last 800,000 years. Global average temperatures have risen by 0.85 degrees compared to 1880 (Lake, 2013). The countries of the United Nations have developed a scientifically based consensus that any warming of more than two degrees Celsius relative to pre-industrial values represents the increased risk. It is fraught with deep, irreversible and costly impacts on the environment, population and economy of the world.

The group of experts also concluded that keeping the temperature rising by two degrees is possible, but the total emissions of carbon dioxide (CO2) should remain at 1,000 pentagrams carbon. This is the carbon budget of the Earth, and people need to make sure to stay within it. Nevertheless, the limit was half exhausted as early as in 2011. If the world economy will continue to grow in the current carbon-intensive mode, the limit will exceed by 2045 (Lake, 2013).

Negotiations on the new agreement began in 2007 and reached its highest point at the meeting of world leaders in Copenhagen in 2009. This forum is often referred to as the diplomatic impasse since it resulted in procedural scandals, flows of mutual accusations, and the inability of participants to formalize even the smallest and vague agreement. Nevertheless, there were substantive results which formed the framework for further action and, most importantly, induced the creation of the Working Group for detailed discussion of the new UN treaty on climate change in 2011. This agreement is to be adopted in Paris at the end of this year. Taking into account the long period of ratification by individual countries, it should come into force in 2020 (Burchel, 2014).

Despite the obvious difficulties in achieving the interim arrangements, the prospects for a new agreement are encouraging because the negotiations have been continuing for many years. The main participants have good understanding of each other and have a vision of the future regime. The new agreement will be comprehensive and will include not only mitigation measures but also adaptation to climate change, technology transfer, financial assistance, and capacity building.

As part of the emission reduction, the new agreement, unlike the Kyoto Protocol, will apply to all countries, including the U.S., China, India, and others. The key question is how it will be legally binding for individual states and what differences will be for both developed and developing countries. China, India, Brazil, and other large emerging economies have a conviction that the industrial world bears historical responsibility for the current climate change (Burchel, 2014). They stress that, despite the rapid industrial growth, the emissions per capita are significantly inferior to industrialized countries and the economic growth is absolutely necessary to address many challenges of development. For their part, industrialized countries insist on the fact that in recent decades the world economy has changed dramatically, and total volume of emissions of developing countries will soon reach that of the developed states. In their view, the new treaty can produce results only if the commitment to reduce emissions covers all the country. This fundamental difference between the developed and developing countries is the basis of many difficulties on the way to a new treaty.

Analysis of the International Relations Theories Application to the Climate Change Problem

Reducing emissions is not enough. The negative effects of climate change are already happening around the world, all in different ways. Many countries face the threat of the sea-level rise, droughts, floods, and loss of agricultural land. A number of them are extremely poor and unable to resist any negative influences or prepare for them. Warsaw Summit opened shortly after the typhoon "Haiyang," which many scientists called the most powerful typhoon ever reaching land in the history of the mankind. The tropical cyclone took thousands of lives, left millions of people homeless, and caused massive destruction in the coastal areas of the Philippines (Lake, 2013). Scientists can not yet claim that warming will increase the frequency of hurricane phenomena, but they are sure that the intensity of tropical cyclones will increase. This aspect gives new meaning not only to the concept of historical responsibility but also to the very essence of the contradictions between the developed and developing countries. The developing world consists of poorer countries. They demand both immediate and drastic reduction of emissions to stop global warming and the financial support for their own adaptation to the adverse effects of this process from the industrialized countries (Lake, 2013). In 2010, the Parties of the Convention established a Green Climate Fund to assist developing countries in mitigating the effects of global warming. However, the negotiations on the conversion of the Fund's operating body are still being held due to the world financial crisis (Death, 2013). The question of its financial filling persists and remains unresolved.

Warsaw Summit became an intermediate event on the way to the Paris Agreement. It received most of the skeptical assessment in the media. However, the summit managed to make some important solutions. The parties agreed to establish a results-based system of financing activities for the protection of tropical forests. Industrialized countries have pledged more than $100 million for adaptation projects in the developing world (Death, 2013). Disputes raised questions about the mechanism of compensation and the roadmap to the Paris Agreement. Poor countries urgently required from the developed world to take on the financial responsibility for damage caused by the adverse impacts of climate change. Such an approach might lead to numerous legal claims over the loss of territory, infrastructure, and income. Developed countries opposed, proposing to repay the material damage in the form of a component of the adaptation process without establishing direct responsibility. Ultimately, the parties have found a compromise formula, and in principle, the mechanism is ready to start. However, the contradictions have not disappeared and are likely to appear again.

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On the one hand, the United Nations does not deal with the problem of climate change because intensive negotiations conducted under its auspices for several years have not given tangible results. On the other hand, the head office of international relations is not able to do more than its members want. In addition, the global policy on climate change is no longer limited to the UN platform and is implemented within the set of supranational, national, and sub-national initiatives. The U.S. and China, two major sources of greenhouse gas emissions, have developed a plan to reduce emissions from heavy-duty vehicles, buildings, industrial plants, and coal energy sources on a bilateral basis (Death, 2013). Under public pressure, Beijing has ambitious plans to reduce emissions of air pollutants in urban areas. China also became the world leader for investing in the development of renewable and clean energy. In general, the investment in this sector is quite impressive, although the related technology is cheaper. In the U.S., emissions reduced through the shale revolution and the transition from coal to gas (Death, 2013).


Despite the availability of multiple international relations formats for controlling the climate change and greenhouse gas emissions, the world is in dire need of a global structure that could give impetus and coordinate efforts to combat global warming, curb the growth of emissions, and assist the most vulnerable countries in overcoming the negative consequences. Current negotiations under the auspices of the UN can lead to a new treaty by the end of 2015. However, considering the deep conceptual differences between the developed and developing countries, the decision should be made on the basis of the lowest common denominator and, at the same time, be an effective international instrument for the prevention of dangerous climate change. From this perspective, the theories of international relations and the methods of the United Nations show their deficiency and irrelevance to the demands of the reality and thus challenge all the previously conducted researches and theoretical achievements.

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