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Realism Can Hamper but Also Help Solve Climate Change

Popularity 3Viewed 1208 times 2015-8-25 19:44 |Personal category:Commentary|System category:Life| Climate Change, Bright Mhango, China, Africa, UNFCCC

Climate and Climate Change: The issues

Climate is generally defined as a measure of the average pattern of variation in temperature, humidity, atmospheric pressure, wind, precipitation, atmospheric particle count and other meteorological variables in a given region over long periods of time. It is different from weather, which is the measure of these factors over a short period of time.[1]

Climate Change is thus simply put, the change in the average weather but the UNFCCC defines it as “a change of climate which is attributed directly or indirectly to human activity that alters the composition of the global atmosphere and which is in addition to natural climate variability observed over comparable time periods.[2]

Closely linked to climate change is global warming which is the alleged rise in global temperatures due to the increase of gases in the atmosphere which create a blanket that lets in solar energy and prevent it from leaving just like a greenhouse.

Rising levels of carbon dioxide and other heat-trapping gases in the atmosphere have warmed the Earth and are causing wide-ranging impacts, including rising sea levels; melting snow and ice; more extreme heat events, fires and drought; and more extreme storms, rainfall and floods[3].

Washington State Department of Ecology says scientists project that these trends will continue and in some cases accelerate, “posing significant risks to human health, our forests, agriculture, freshwater supplies, coastlines, and other natural resources that are vital to … economy, environment, and our quality of life.”

Over the past 10 decade, the world has emitted more CO2 than it did from the entire period since the start of the Industrial Revolution up to about 1970. In 2011 alone, the world emitted more than it did in the 30 years between 1850 and 1880[4].


It is figures like these that have catapulted climate change into the international agenda and subsequently International Relations.

The reversal of climate change takes the form of reducing emissions of greenhouse gases and to reduce greenhouses means curbing industrial pollution (output) and using cleaner technology among other measures all of which are undesirable by the industrialized states since they mean reduced output/ money.

The issue is also compounded by the fact that most of the emission is by the global north, which are rich and industrialized countries while the effects of climate change are being felt or will be felt more by the global south.

This is what Joshua Goldstein would term a collective goods problem. The collective goods problem, also known as “collective actions,” “free riding,” “burden sharing,” “prisoners’ dilemma,” “mixed interest game” or “tragedy of the commons” is the problem of how to provide something that benefits all members of a group regardless of what each member contributes to it.  The collective goods problem occurs in all groups and societies, but is particularly acute, as a world government to enforce on individual nations, the necessary measures to provide for the common good (Goldstein 2012).

Several efforts have been employed by states to curb climate change – efforts such as the Kyoto Protocol, but as the Slate reported, emissions are actually increasing and if climate change is real, it is coming to get the earth.

This paper would like to argue that in the current international regime, in which realism dominates, solving climate change is not easy if not impossible unless realism itself is expanded to include climate change as a security issue.

False Hope: Ozone Layer Gains

The Ozone Layer is a layer of ozone gas in the atmosphere which traps harmful ultraviolet rays that can cause cancers among other harmful effects. When the world woke up to the realization that the Ozone Layer was being depleted by chiefly chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) which were used in the refrigeration technology and aerosol sprays, it sprung into action.

The 1987 Montreal Protocol 22 states agreed to stop producing CFCs by 2000 but with more evidence of ozone layer depletion states went into urgent action and by 1995 major industrial nations phased out CFCs and as at now the Ozone Layer is said to be healing and will completely heal in the next five decades. (Goldstein 2012).

Former UN Secretary General Khofi Annan called the efforts to address the Ozone layer depletion as ‘perhaps the single most successful international agreement to date,’ and liberalist are likely going to use the this as an example of what institutions can do in international relations and climate change activists will cite it as the way to go in the fight against global warming, but they are mistaken.

As Goldstein put it, the   costs of replacing CFCs were much lower than those that need to be incurred to tackle global warming. For CFCs cheap alternatives were available this was in addition to the fact that the risks of ozone layer depletion were more immediate and concretely understood.

What would be of the Montreal Protocol if USA did not ratify it?   And if the USA did not ratify it, would smaller nations like Australia find it any meaningful to sign it?

The above question needs an understanding of realism as an international relations theory to be addressed.

Realism as a hurdle

Realism is an international relations theory that can be traced back to Niccolo Machiavelli and Thomas Hobbes. Among the core beliefs of Realism are the following[5]:

  • The world is a harsh and dangerous place. The only certainty in the world is power. A powerful state will always be able to outdo—and outlast—weaker competitors. The most important and reliable form of power is military power.
  • A state’s primary interest is self-preservation. Therefore, the state must seek power and must always protect itself
  • There is no overarching power that can enforce global rules or punish bad behavior.
  • Moral behavior is very risky because it can undermine a state’s ability to protect itself.
  • The international system itself drives states to use military force and to war. Leaders may be moral, but they must not let moral concerns guide foreign policy.
  • International organizations and law have no power or force; they exist only as long as states accept them.

That is to squeeze a whole body of theory into one paragraph because this paper is about climate.

Many states pursue realism, led by the USA[6] the only super power on earth as at now.  To put it in a crude way, the USA relies on its hard power to maintain its hegemony in the world. 

To have hard power, the USA has to have a viable economy that funds research and development or just general maintenance of the military. As such, anything that affects the US economy goes to the heart of the realist machinery this is why the USA did not sign the Kyoto Protocol, one would argue.

The US is only second to China in terms of Carbon Dioxide emissions[7], Carbon Dioxide being the main greenhouse gas. This means that whatever the other players in the Kyoto Protocol might have been doing, their efforts were shadowed by the USA.

Kyoto Protocol

The Kyoto Protocol is an international agreement linked to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, (UNFCCC) which commits its parties by setting internationally binding emission reduction targets.

It seeks to curb climate change using three approaches that is the Joint Initiative (JI), the Clean Development Mechanism (CDM) and the Cap and Trade initiative.

Joint Initiative is described in Article 6 of the Kyoto Protocol. Under Article 6, any developed country can invest in an emission reduction project in any other developed country as an alternative to reducing emissions domestically. In this way countries can lower the costs of complying with their Kyoto targets by investing in projects that reduce greenhouse gas emissions in a developed country where reducing emissions may be cheaper, and then using the resulting Emission Reduction Units (ERUs) towards their commitment goal.

The CDM is defined in Article 12 of the Protocol, and is intended to meet two objectives: (1) to assist parties not included in developed countries index in achieving sustainable development and in contributing to the ultimate objective of UNFCCC, which is to prevent dangerous climate change; and (2) to assist parties included in developed world in achieving compliance with their quantified emission limitation and reduction commitments greenhouse gas emission caps.

The CDM addresses the second objective by allowing developed countries to meet part of their emission reduction commitments under the Kyoto Protocol by buying Certified Emission Reduction units from CDM emission reduction projects in developing countries (Carbon Trust, 2009, p. 14).

International Emissions Trading or cap and trade is a market-based approach used to control pollution by providing economic incentives for achieving reductions in the emissions of pollutants.

A central authority (usually a governmental body) sets a limit or cap on the amount of a pollutant that may be emitted. The limit or cap is allocated or sold to firms in the form of emissions permits which represent the right to emit or discharge a specific volume of the specified pollutant. 

The cap and trade was one of the most hailed of the three initiatives but critics have slammed it saying it is ineffective.

In its report called Designed to fail? – The concepts, practices and controversies behind carbon trading, The NGO Fern unpacked the cap and trade and concluded that ‘The fact remains that after more than a decade of carbon trading, the level of CO2 in the atmosphere continues to rise by approximately 2 ppm each year.”


Fern argued that the caps set before the trading was launched were plagued by politics and that they were not designed to address the main issue of reducing emissions by being set to high allowing for more pollution by heavy polluting nations.


The cap also only covers countries in the global North and as such allowed countries in the North to move their production to the South and be seen as reducing their pollution. As an example, Fern cited China whose emissions rose up 25% because it was the dumping site for production from the global North. This ‘carbon leakage’ gives the impression of national reductions in the industrialized countries whilst global emissions stay the same or rise.


The geographical split of quotas, argued Fern, also meant it was impossible to fit international aviation and shipping into the cap (due to the difficulty in apportioning emissions on a geographical basis) – a major failing given that together these account for approximately five per cent (and rising) of emissions world-wide. The cap has therefore failed to put a limit on consumption of fossil-fuels.

As if to quote from realism where there is no bigger boss above states, Fern also decried the rampant inadequate and untrustworthy emission monitoring. Fern estimated error rates of between 10 to 30 per cent in the calculation of emissions and the high proportion of self-reporting, and low levels of independent verification, exacerbated this risk.

Some firms simply created more pollution in their production processes, Fern said, so they could claim credits for destroying them at the end of the process.

The pricing of carbon in the scheme was also said to be dubious …’In April 2006, the price of carbon permits in the EU ETS plunged to just € 1 per tonne CO2e, from a high of € 30. According to the market, the cost of pollution was virtually nil, as was the reward for reducing your emissions. If demand for permits were ever high enough to make prices spike, EU Member States have agreed to meet to find ways of bringing the price of carbon down again. So, there are structural checks in place to ensure supply and demand will not be allowed to price polluters out of the market.’[8]

The fact that an important element in shaping the continent’s future was left in the dry to the mercy of speculators and capitalists shows the lack of interest from states, if it was an issue that was a direct threat to the realist hard power machinery, the US itself would have led in ensuring the scheme worked.

Purdon (2011) argues that the carbon trading failure is not due to it being a failure as a system but rather there being lack of political will to support it. This is an indication that realism among the great powers might be at play in dealing with climate change.

This can be seen in China which is currently the biggest emitter of carbon dioxide and yet has tried to avoid the Kyoto Protocol by insisting that it is a developing nation and as such cannot be seen as the USA for example. China also argues that the rest of the nations got developed by polluting heavily and that trying to force it to curb pollution might be equal to trying to prevent it from developing.

China instead has invested heavily in clean technologies, but they will not erase the fact that it is putting out some serious Carbon Dioxide quantities into the atmosphere. Although this is just because the global North has moved production there and all the emissions in China are actually due to the making of goods that will be consumed in the global North.

Behind China’s stance is the fact that there is, in the end no one who can force it to curb pollution, itself being a nuclear power. What China needs is more industrial output which in turn will mean more revenues which can be used to get its blue water navy and get an army that is as advanced as the US to effectively compete on the global stage as super power.

The US and China are trapped in a prisoners dilemma. It is good for both of them to get to the climate change table and reduce emissions, but they would rather face the brutal effects of climate change than give in – all because of their realist thinking where power is everything and there is no one above the state.

There is hope: Realism as panacea

Mark Purdon cites Ostrom 2010; Keohane and Victor 2011 in postitulating that a consensus is emerging that a comprehensive international regime for cooperation on climate change is not within reach[9].

Manuel-Navarrete (2010) agrees with Purdon and says: “…the gloomy spectacle offered so far by international climate negotiations suggests that any global response will be hindered by traditional, twentieth century, politics as well as by global power asymmetries.”

The world has faced crises in the past and in the end, there seems to be always a solution and the case of climate change, some scholars have suggested that the very realism that is the current hurdle to progress now can be the panacea if only climate change found a way into the definition of realism.

Habib 2011 argues that despite the  general assumption holding that the anarchic international system consists of competing sovereign states who are unitary, rational actors the view disregards the fact that this anarchic system is itself housed within the wider structure of the Earth’s biosphere[10].

Gellers (2010) therefore suggests that realism can take in environment as a security issue and the whole issue of climate change will be on the agenda and consequently on the course to being tackled with the urgency it needs.[11]

Silburt (2012) hinges in on this and writes a case study on Canada. As if to convince the realist, he argues that climate change will destroy the environment which may in turn affect the ability of a state to stay secure.

For example,” writes Silburt, “changes in the environmental conditions of terrain, such as coastal erosion, increased floods, desertification, and the thawing of permafrost, affect states‟ access or control over strategic territory, creating new opportunities for relative power enhancement as well as vulnerabilities and challenges for maintaining security and existing power. Changes in precipitation patterns, temperatures and stream flows affect the ability of the terrain to support natural resource based industries.

“These changes can also affect a state’s access to key natural resources that help sustain the domestic populations of states and support its economic and war capacity. These  changes can also affect the geographical dimensions of its population, causing large-scale shifts in the size, geographic and demographic configuration of the population from “environmental refugees,” which have implications for the state’s labor force and create destabilizing effects on the economy, living dynamics and internal stability of the state. The increasing frequency and severity of natural disasters and other adverse consequences associated with climate change affect the key infrastructure and other dimensions of state capacity. These effects of climate change on the geopolitical components of power affect the relative power of states directly as well as their capacity to respond to other existing or emerging issues.”[12]

In realism, states only want to amass more power and they trust no one, if they can be convinced that climate change whether due to their actions or of other states is going to weaken their standing, they will have a huge motive to do something about it. And just like the cooperation between the US and Russia in ensuring nonproliferation of nuclear weapons, the same type of relationships can crop up to combat climate change proactively.

The depletion of the Ozone layer is a success story today because great powers took initiative, in the same vein, if the USA stepped forward and threw its weight fully behind combating technology, many nations would likely follow. Both for reciprocity, dominance or identity reasons as Goldstein would argue.


The paper has argued that climate change is an agreed upon issue and that to combat it means costs being paid, these costs however are too much for some realist nations like China and USA who want to sustain hegemony using spoils of an industry that is emitting gases into the atmosphere that might throw the earth into serious climate crises.

Realism has thus been seen as a block to achieving goals set to combat climate change. Goals such as the Cap and trade initiative.

In looking for the solution however, the paper did nominate the very realism as the solutions. All that needs to be done is to convince realist states that climate change is out to get them and to rob them of their ability to stay secure.

In that case the states would and will quickly address climate change.



Of course, this is all my thesis, what do I know, I am just a dreamer... 





Anne-Marie Slaughter (No year) International Relations, Principal Theories available at: retrieved 2014-05-17


Aviva Silburt A Realist Perspective on Climate Change: The Canadian Context

Norman Paterson School of International Affairs January 18, 2012


Benjamin Habib (2011) Climate Change and International Relations Theory: Northeast Asia as a Case Study Paper presented at the World International Studies Committee Third Global International Studies Conference, 17th – 20th August 2011, University of Porto, Portugal. Available at URL: retrieved 2014-05-17.


David Manuel-Navarrete (2010) Climate change and power: Isn’t it all about politics? Available at: retrieved 2014-05-06 retrieved 2014-05-17.


Eric Holthaus and Chris Kirk  (2014) A Filthy History available at: retrieved 2014-05-17.


Energy Information Administration (2011) Total Carbon Dioxide Emissions from the Consumption of Energy available at: retrieved 2014-05-17.


Carbon Trust (March 2009). "Global Carbon Mechanisms: Emerging lessons and implications (CTC748)". Carbon Trust website. Retrieved 2014-05-12.

"Carbon markets create a muddle". Financial Times. 2007-04-26. Retrieved 2014-05-12..




Gellers, Joshua Chad, Climate Change and Environmental Security: Bringing Realism Back In (February 20, 2010). Available at SSRN: or retrieved 2014-05-17.


IMF (March 2008). "Fiscal Implications of Climate Change". International Monetary Fund, Fiscal Affairs Department. Retrieved 2014-05-12..


John Mearsheimer Interview: Conversations with History; Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley (2002) available at:


Joshua S. Goldstein , Jon C. Pevehouse (2012) International Relations, 2012-2013 Update (10th Edition) Pearson Publishers.


Liverman, D.M. (2008). "Conventions of climate change: constructions of danger and the dispossession of the atmosphere". Journal of Historical Geography35: 279. doi:10.1016/j.jhg.2008.08.008. Retrieved 2014-05-12..



United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) (2011), Kyoto Protocol, UNFCCC, retrieved 2014-05-06. (2011) Essay: What are the basic core assumptions of Realism and Liberalism respectively? Are these theories mutually exclusive? Available at: retrieved 2014-05-20.


Mark Purdon  (2011) Climate realism and moral limit in international climate change politics  A Paper Presented at ICARUS II: Climate Vulnerability and Adaptation: Marginal Peoples and Environments May 5-7, 2011 The University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, MI available at URL: retrieved 2014-05-09.


Naughten, Austen (2010) Designed to fail? – The concepts, practices and controversies behind carbon trading Fern, 2010 available at: retrieved 2014-05-09.


Washington State Department of Ecology (2012) What is Climate Change available at: retrieved 2014-05-11

[1] Washington State Department of Ecology (2012) What is Climate Change available at:

[3] Washington State Department of Ecology (2012) What is Climate Change available at:

[5] See:

 Anne-Marie Slaughter  (No year) International Relations, Principal Theories available at: and Core principles/assumptions of Realism available at


[6] John Mearsheimer Interview: Conversations with History; Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley (2002) available at:

[7] Energy Information Administration (2011) Total Carbon Dioxide Emissions from the Consumption of Energy

[8] Naughten  A (2010) Designed to fail? – The concepts, practices and controversies behind carbon trading Fern, 2010 available at:

[9] Mark Purdon  (2011) Climate realism and moral limit in international climate change politics  A Paper Presented at ICARUS II: Climate Vulnerability and Adaptation: Marginal Peoples and Environments May 5-7, 2011 The University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, MI available at URL:

[10] Benjamin Habib (2011) Climate Change and International Relations Theory: Northeast Asia as a Case Study Paper presented at the World International Studies Committee Third Global International Studies Conference, 17th – 20th August 2011, University of Porto, Portugal. Available at URL:


[11] Gellers, Joshua Chad, Climate Change and Environmental Security: Bringing Realism Back In (February 20, 2010). Available at SSRN: or


[12] Aviva Silburt A Realist Perspective on Climate Change: The Canadian Context

Norman Paterson School of International Affairs January 18, 2012

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