Why We Are Failing to Address Climate Change: an IR Perspective

(Antarctic Sea Ice)

Intergovernmental organizations such as the UNFCCC (United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change) have not been able to produce a framework for the effective mitigation of human-caused climate change (Otto). The most recent accord adopted by the UNFCCC, the Paris Climate Accord, establishes the goal of limiting global warming to 1.5C or “‘well below 2C’” above pre-industrial levels, however, the Climate Action Tracker, a scientific analysis which tracks data from the European Union and 36 other states, asserts that “‘under current pledges [of the Paris Accord], the world will warm by 2.8C by the end of the century…close to twice the limit they agreed in Paris’” (Climate Action Tracker). This paper draws on both theoretical and case study-based research in the fields of international relations and climate security to explore the reasons for these failures, as well as analyzing potential ways to address them and create approaches for coming to multilateral climate agreements

Climate change is one of the most pressing issues facing humanity, and yet it is one international institutions have repeatedly failed to cohesively address. The Kyoto Protocol of 1997, The Copenhagen Accord, and the Paris Climate Accord have each been key steps in the UNFCCC’s attempts to create a multilateral climate agreement, but none have been successful in creating a framework for states to meet emissions targets in time frame which could effectively combat climate change (Morgan, Yamide). Global warming has been shown by extensive research to increase the rate and duration of wildfires, tropical storms, and droughts. Desertification will become more frequent, resulting in crop failures and associated food insecurity, and rising sea levels reduce access to fresh water and liveable land (Zerbe). Climate refugees, individuals displaced by the results of climate change, are stressors on governments and societies, and as of 2007, the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) has recognized and researched the implications of Climate Security, the intersection of climate change and threats to states, interstate systems, and individuals. The challenges of a warming planet are coming, and societies will face the consequences whether or not intergovernmental organizations decide to act.

The application of international relations theory to the failures of IGOs to address climate change provides one aspect of the answer to the question of why coming to sufficient agreements is so difficult. In his research at the University of Duisburg-Essen, Dr. Daniel Otto identifies three primary divisions within the UNFCCC COP and applies realism and constructivism to explain failures of cooperation.

The first division is amongst developing nations. The Alliance of Small Island States, Brazil, and South Africa hold a position that all states are responsible for climate change, and that all states must make emissions reductions. On the other hand, Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC), China, and India believe that only the “causers” of climate change, who they believe to be developed nations, are responsible and should make emission reductions (Otto).

The second division is one amongst developed nations. It is primarily between the European Union (EU) and the United States. The EU has acted as a pusher of reform, and remains far ahead of the United States in terms of public awareness and willingness to address the problem, as well as with regulation of corporations from federal governments. The EU has pushed for reforms to be legally binding and top-down (meaning that IGOs would set limits which all states would have to hit), and maintains support from environmental political parties. The United States continues to lag behind in reform, and its position is one in support of voluntary targets and bottom-up implementation such as the COP 15 in Copenhagen. The US position is supported by businesses and industry which generally do not want to be forced to meet reduction targets which they view as inhibiting growth and international economic competition (Otto).

The third division is one between developing and developed nations. It centers on debates around historic responsibility for climate change. The G77 has powerful member states such as China who emphasize a “right to grow”, meaning the right to expand their economies without inducing the costs of emissions reduction targets. Furthermore, they support the notion that climate change was primarily caused and accelerated by the industrial revolutions of developed states like the US and the UK and therefore those states are responsible for meeting reduction targets, not developing nations. In short, G77 states generally support binding commitments for developed nations only, while the US and groups like Jusscannz support voluntary targets for all states (Otto). A cohesive climate agreement would mean hurdling all three of these conflicts.

The application of international relations theory to the issue does not paint a very bright picture, either. Realist theory takes states to be the only relevant actors, and prioritizes military, economic, and political power as primary concerns. Under realism, there is no incentive for cooperation because meeting emission reduction targets are only desirable when they are not as steep as those of your competitors, and therefore only relative gains can be made (Otto). Even the generally more optimistic Constructivist theory, which takes states as well as individuals and collectives to be relevant actors, does not implicate a clear framework for cooperation. Because there are not common norms or a common perception about climate change, agreeing on common goals is unlikely. The lack of common norms is highlighted by the difference between the EU and the US, where the EU views itself as a pusher of reform and has high societal awareness, whereas the US is inhibited by lobbyist groups, division amongst its political parties, and denial of the scientific evidence for climate change (Otto).

For IR science, climate change raises new questions and presents unprecedented challenges. Rising sea levels, for example, threaten to place states such as the Maldives, 80% of whose landmass is under one meter of elevation, underwater (Zerbe). If a state such as the Maldives were to be uninhabitable, would it maintain sovereignty? Would other states continue to recognize it? Would it maintain international responsibilities? (Zerbe). Climate security is a field of study under the umbrella of international relations which seeks to answer these questions and others about the material disruptions of climate change.

The environmental and ecological impacts of climate change will come with secondary security effects on societies, such as “increased migration flows, the potential of new conflicts, food shocks, trade disruptions, and the catastrophic consequences of breaching climate ‘tipping points’” (Bergamaschi). The United Nations Organization on Migration estimates that there will be between 150 million and 200 million climate refugees by 2050 (Zerbe). As the security risks posed by climate change become harder to ignore, states are beginning to research responding to them. Notably, the US Intelligence Community Worldwide Threat Assessment declared climate security a high priority due to the risk of increasing conflicts from factors like rising food prices and water scarcity; These factors place pressure on governing institutions and enable social tensions, political instability, and terrorism and other forms of violence (Zerbe).

Given imminent security risks on top of all the other known changes global warming is bringing to the planet, one would hope the UNFCCC would be able to overcome their barriers to cooperation sooner rather than later. Wilson Center Environmental Change and Security scholar Ruth Greenspan Bell presents a number of simple solutions. Firstly, climate change must be re-framed in the foreign policy community as a priority on par with nuclear proliferation and warfare (Bell). It must not be viewed, as it is now, as an issue unhelpful to the careers of public policy experts and one which is important in rhetoric but not in action (Bell). Secondly, the United States can commit to making incremental progress, such as is common with arms-reduction negotiations. “The important result,” Bell writes, “would be defeating the notion that nothing can be resolved unless everything is resolved” (Bell).

The effects of climate change affect us all, in every state and region. Natural disasters and human caused catastrophes are already happening, and will continue and accelerate moving forward. The good news is, the power to act, through forums such as the UNFCCC, as well as individual action, lies with humanity. Now it is time to act on that power.

“Antarctic Sea Ice.” CNN, CNN, www.cnn.com/2018/06/13/health/melting-sea-ice-antarctica-study/index.html.

Bell, Ruth Greenspan. “Change on Climate Change.” Foreign Affairs, 24 Sept. 2015, www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/2015-09-23/change-climate-change.

Bell, Ruth Greenspan. “Change on Climate Change.” Foreign Affairs, 24 Sept. 2015, www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/2015-09-23/change-climate-change.

“The Climate Action Tracker.” The Climate Action Tracker | Climate Action Tracker, Climate Action Tracker, climateactiontracker.org/about/.

Morgan, Jennifer, and Yamide Dagnet. “A Blueprint for an Effective International Climate Agreement.” World Resources Institute, 1 Dec. 2014, www.wri.org/insights/blueprint-effective-international-climate-agreement.

Otto, Daniel. Why Climate Change Negotiations Fail — An International Relations Perspective. YouTube, YouTube, 21 July 2015, www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZWUIIM0jgYY. Accessed 17 May 2021.

Zerbe, Noah. International Relations and Climate Change. YouTube, YouTube, 7 Oct. 2020, www.youtube.com/watch?v=B_SZvj2S-mg.

“The Climate Action Tracker.” The Climate Action Tracker | Climate Action Tracker, Climate Action Tracker, climateactiontracker.org/about/.

Morgan, Jennifer, and Yamide Dagnet. “A Blueprint for an Effective International Climate Agreement.” World Resources Institute, 1 Dec. 2014, www.wri.org/insights/blueprint-effective-international-climate-agreement.

Otto, Daniel. Why Climate Change Negotiations Fail — An International Relations Perspective. YouTube, YouTube, 21 July 2015, www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZWUIIM0jgYY. Accessed 17 May 2021.

Zerbe, Noah. International Relations and Climate Change. YouTube, YouTube, 7 Oct. 2020, www.youtube.com/watch?v=B_SZvj2S-mg.

I am a high school student in the United States with research interests in International Relations.