Climate Politics: What the World Could Do

17 minute read

Updated on Sat Jul 03 2021

You’ve probably read in our other courses about how science can offer solutions to climate change, but have you ever thought about the role of global politics in solving the climate crisis? This course will look at the tools that politics offers us and how we can use them to help us in the fight against climate change.

Let’s start with a great success story for global climate politics - the Montreal Protocol - to see how global climate politics has the potential to make a difference.

What is the Montreal Protocol?

Back in 1989, a global agreement called the Montreal Protocol came into force. This agreement was made to reduce the use of ozone-depleting substances in things like aerosols and refrigerants.

The ozone layer is a layer of gases in the upper atmosphere that protects the Earth from harmful ultraviolet (UV) radiation. However, in the 1970s, scientists discovered that human activities were damaging this important “shield”.

They found that the chemicals used in aerosols and refrigerants were also destroying the ozone layer because, as they rose into the stratosphere, they were hit by UV radiation from the sun, causing them to release reactive chlorine particles that react with, and effectively destroy, the ozone. The Montreal Protocol was therefore introduced to protect the ozone layer by phasing out the production and consumption of these so-called ozone-depleting substances.

How much did global consumption of ozone-depleting substances decrease between 1986 and 2016?

1986 was one year before the Montreal Protocol was adopted (it was later signed in 1989). This reduction in ozone-depleting substances also led to reduced greenhouse gas emissions because many of these chemicals are also extremely powerful greenhouse gases.

Relative to CO₂, how many times more effective are the worst ozone-depleting substances at trapping heat in our atmosphere?

Indeed, ozone-depleting substances can be over 10,000 times more powerful at trapping heat in the atmosphere than carbon dioxide!

Just look at the blue part of the graph below, which gives an estimate of the greenhouse gas emissions avoided as a result of the Montreal Protocol:

The impact of the Montreal Protocol on ODS emissions

Without the Montreal Protocol, ozone depletion would have increased ten times by 2050 compared to current levels and skin cancer (caused by over-exposure to harmful UV rays from the sun) would be more common. We’re also seeing early signs of recovery in the Antarctic ozone layer hole! However, recent evidence suggests that certain ODS emissions are on the rise again.

Why do you think the Montreal Protocol was so successful? Select all that apply.

It wasn’t just countries and scientists that made the Montreal Protocol a big success - it was a team effort! By participating in the global conferences that resulted in the Protocol, the private sector (the part of the economy that encompasses for-profit businesses that are not owned or operated by the government) was able to engage in discussions and reach compromises with governments, which encouraged them to develop innovative ways to use alternative chemicals that were less damaging to the ozone layer in their products.

Non-governmental organisations (NGOs) also played an extremely important role by campaigning to raise awareness.

The Montreal Protocol was a team effort

The Montreal Protocol is considered to be one of the most successful environmental agreements ever. It shows that global climate politics has the potential to make a difference when it comes to climate change! However, it is important to note that the two problems are fundamentally different. Climate change is a much harder problem to solve than ozone depletion.

So why haven’t we tackled other climate issues in the same way? Unfortunately, addressing greenhouse gas emissions more broadly is different for three important reasons:

  • It was relatively easy to address the ozone layer specifically because fewer countries had a financial interest at stake.
  • While only minor changes to industrial processes are required to reduce some types of emissions, reducing all greenhouse gas emissions will need the global economy to be completely re-imagined. This is because fossil fuels (oil, coal and gas) remain dominant in supplying global energy needs.
  • It is really difficult to distribute the burdens of addressing climate change among different countries fairly.

High-income countries have historically emitted more than low-income and middle-income countries.

Between 1850 and 2002, how much higher were the emissions from high-income countries compared to low-income and middle-income countries?

Emissions have also increased in low-income and middle-income countries as they have sought to increase the standard of living for their citizens. This raises a big question: if high-income countries were able to increase the standard of living of their citizens in the past by increasing emissions, why should the countries that are still developing be denied the same opportunity to increase their standard of living?

CO₂ emissions of developing and developed countries from 1850 to 2011

Why does politics need to be involved in solving climate change?

Scientists may discover innovative solutions to climate change, but they can’t force people to implement them - this is why we need politics to put science into practice! In other words, scientists deliver the facts; politicians make policy decisions based on these facts.

Scientists and politicians need to work together

Sometimes, politicians use laws as a mechanism for achieving their aims - laws involve rules that indicate how we must act.

Policy then outlines the directions and actions that politicians want to take on an issue, and sometimes they use laws to implement this policy. When creating policies, politicians take into account many factors, such as the economy and science.

But translating climate science into policy and law is not always easy for three reasons:

  • Climate science needs to be made clear and understandable for local policymakers so that they can evaluate the best available evidence effectively in order to make well-informed decisions.
  • There is sometimes a lack of political consensus about the level of action required, and the type of action required which can often hamper policy agreements and therefore implementation.
  • As environmental problems are becoming increasingly complex and uncertain, it is becoming more difficult to distinguish between the roles of science and policy.

One organisation trying to provide politicians with accurate science is the IPCC. What does IPCC stand for?

The IPCC is the United Nations (UN) body that provides policymakers with regular scientific assessments on climate change, its implications, and potential future risks, as well as putting forward options for adaptation and mitigation. This means that the IPCC not only considers science, but it also considers the potential responses to the science by weighing up options for adaptation and mitigation.

Three key areas that the IPCC considers for their reports

Although the IPCC describes itself as a neutral body that provides supporting resources to politicians rather than dictating policy, the purpose of the IPCC is to engage governments in climate decision-making, which can be considered a political purpose in itself. For example, IPCC reports are important to international climate change negotiations.

IPCC reports are also endorsed by member governments of the IPCC. While science has justified global political cooperation to address climate change, this cooperation has also helped to bring legitimacy to the science of climate change.

Why can’t individual nations solve climate change by themselves?

Global politics isn’t the only type of politics - we also have domestic politics!

What does “domestic politics” refer to in this context?

While domestic politics is important in driving efforts to combat climate change, it is not enough by itself because the issue of climate change is a so-called “collective action problem”. A collective action problem occurs when there are factors that discourage people from joining in with a joint effort to pursue a common goal.

A simple hypothetical example of a collective action problem involves commuters travelling during rush hour. If commuters can only travel by bus or car, this gives rise to three different scenarios, as shown in this image:

It’s easier to fix problems when we all work together

Which option do you think is the most difficult to convince people to choose?

And which option do you think would be best?

From the image, we can see that Option 3 will lead to the least traffic and mean that, on average, people will get to their destination faster than Options 1 and 2. But, it is difficult to persuade people to take the bus rather than the car because, in each of the 3 scenarios, each individual person will always arrive faster if they take the car rather than take the bus! So the collective action problem is: “how do we persuade individuals to sacrifice the best outcome for themselves in the short term in favour of the best outcome for everyone as a group?”

It is essentially the same problem when it comes to thinking about solving climate change - in particular, countries need to work together to avoid a collective action problem. However, as we will find out throughout this course, getting everyone to agree to help is much easier said than done!

Fixing climate change will require everyone working together

Climate change is made even more complicated because, while it can sometimes be expensive to reduce emissions in the short term, climate change is expected to harm both the global standard of living and the economy in the long term.


We’ve learned about the importance of global action in addressing a global problem. One country can’t solve climate change alone which is why working together is so important. Countries must trust that others will also act to address climate change so that they will each be more willing to take action to reduce their own emissions and bear any economic burden that this may temporarily cause. It’s not just about government cooperation either - in the next chapter we will learn about the role of other players in global climate politics.

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