Looking Ahead: Why Climate Politics Is Hard and How We Can Fix It

17 minute read

Updated on Sat Jul 03 2021

How can domestic politics limit global climate politics?

While international cooperation is needed to solve climate change, domestic policy is critical for reaching any international climate agreements.

Climate change will impact different countries differently, which can influence a state’s position in global climate politics.

For example, low-lying island countries face an existential threat from rising sea levels. In contrast, some countries, such as the UK, China, and Canada, experienced a slight economic benefit from climate change between 1991 and 2010.

This is largely due to the slight increase in agricultural productivity and labour productivity seen in these countries as a result of warmer temperatures. However, these benefits are likely to be outweighed by other, negative consequences of climate change.

Given the serious impacts of climate change, you would expect it to take centre stage in domestic and global politics. So why hasn’t it? Well, there are 3 key reasons why:

(1) Not all voters support action on climate change

For example, in many countries, there is not yet a social consensus on climate change. When people consider an issue like climate change, they tend to not just look at the science - instead, they are also influenced by the media, educators, and cultural and political leaders. Voters might also be focusing on other more visible and tangible issues, such as education, the economy, and health.

Your perception of climate change can be influenced by many things

Deliberate climate change denial campaigns by major political, industrial and media leaders (e.g. fossil fuel businesses, conservative media and conservative think tanks) have increased political polarization and distrust in science.

For example, Donald Trump, President of the United States from 2016-2020, has expressed contradictory and confusing views on climate change. A similar denial of science occurred in the 1950s when the tobacco industry tried to go against the evidence of the link between cigarettes and lung cancer.

It is important to note that climate denial (rejecting all evidence of human-caused climate change) is distinct from scepticism, which is a healthy characteristic of science.

So, which of these approaches do you think would help to combat climate denial? Select all that apply.

(2) The short-term perspective of many governments is inconsistent with the medium-long term nature of climate change

This means that politicians end up focusing on issues that have an immediate impact on their people, rather than issues that will impact more people in the future.

Climate change should not be thought of as a distant problem

The high degree of uncertainty in predicting long-term climate change and the costs and benefits associated with it makes it difficult for governments to assess where their national interests lie.

In practice, this difficulty can be seen in the gap between the short-mid term targets in countries’ nationally determined contributions (NDCs) to reducing emissions under the 2015 Paris Agreement and the reductions in global greenhouse gas emissions that are required in order to achieve the temperature goal of the 2015 Paris Agreement.

(3) A lack of financial resources and competing priorities for development

Even when countries are vulnerable to climate change, this does not always mean they can easily take action to help solve it!

For example, one of the most vulnerable countries to climate change is India: the Himalayan Glaciers that provide the primary water source for parts of Northern India are beginning to melt as a result of global warming. This is expected to cause substantial floods and droughts throughout the region.

Widespread poverty in India makes economic development critical, but the current development model involves fossil-fuel-based energy use and consumption-intensive growth.

Competing Priorities in India

What are the limitations of global politics?

Reaching consensus is challenging

This is largely because it is difficult to find an outcome that everyone considers to be fair.

Climate change is not just a practical problem, but an ethical problem too: what one person or community considers to be fair may be seen as unfair by others, making it difficult for different players to agree on solutions to climate change.

For example, for decades, representatives of low-income and middle-income countries have argued that they should not have to limit their emissions until high-income countries limit theirs and compensate for the suffering experienced in lower-income countries, such as widespread poverty.

Reaching consensus on what is fair is important because effective solutions to climate change will not be found or put into practice if they are not perceived to be ethical and just.

The concept of environmental justice is one way we can think about fairness in the context of climate change.

What do you think environmental justice means?

The movement for environmental justice has a long history in minority communities. For example, indigenous communities have long fought against the environmental degradation of their lands and, in the United States in the 1980s, campaigners condemned the dumping of toxic waste in poor communities that were majority African-American. Over time, the environmental justice movement has come to also include climate change.

Environmental burdens

The principle of common but differentiated responsibilities and respective capabilities (CBDRRC) has also become an important tool in global climate politics - it is referred to in the UNFCCC 1992, the Kyoto Protocol 1997 and the 2015 Paris Agreement.

CBDRRC is the acknowledgement that despite a shared, global obligation to tackle climate change, countries’ responsibilities and capabilities will be unequal given variations in their social, economic and ecological circumstances. However, CBDRRC is difficult in practice because there is little agreement on its logic, content, and application to particular situations.

For instance, low-income to middle-income countries focus on the responsibilities of high-income countries to mitigate climate change given their historical contribution to emissions. Meanwhile, some high-income countries, especially the US, want to focus on a country’s capabilities to do something about reducing emissions now.

The idea of CBDRRC has been an important factor in reaching consensus in global climate politics. While countries don’t agree on its exact meaning, CBDRRC enjoys universal support.

CBDRRC can be achieved in various ways:

  • Holding different countries to different legal obligations. For example, the Kyoto Protocol only imposed legally binding greenhouse gas emissions reduction commitments on high-income countries.
  • Supporting countries that lack the capacity to mitigate climate change. For example, the 2015 Paris Agreement requires high-income countries to help lower-income countries with financial support and assistance in developing and accessing technologies.
Lower-income countries need help to adapt

Enforcement of international law is unsatisfactory

Simply creating laws does not change reality unless the laws are followed. Compelling someone to follow the law is called enforcement. If someone is following the law, they are being compliant.

Unfortunately, international laws can be difficult to enforce because often they create vague obligations with unclear objectives. States can also be unable or unwilling to enforce international law.

So, how can we solve this problem? Some factors that can help people and countries to comply with international law include:

  • Increasing the political motivation of those responsible for enforcement to make sure that laws are followed in practice
  • Making standards clearer

But even these measures are dependent on political motivation too!

Another way compliance might be achieved is through border carbon adjustments. These are tariffs (taxes on imports) that are imposed on the carbon emissions of products from a country that is not complying with international law (a non-compliant country) when the products are imported into a compliant country. These measures may help to prevent activities that are high in emissions from simply relocating production to another country that does not regulate emissions as much.

Compliant countries may charge non-compliant countries taxes to import their goods

Can global politics solve climate change by itself?

Global politics is complicated and requires action from many different players. To provide a basis for political action, global politics and science must go hand in hand.

But even if scientists and politicians are on board, they will not be enough by themselves. To really make progress on solving climate change we’ll need everyone to play their part, from big businesses to individuals, including you! It really is a team effort.

Next Chapter