Changes in the environment can impact international relations theory, despite enjoying only a limited amount of attention from scholars of the discipline. The sorts of influence that may be identified include ontology, epistemology, concepts, and methods, all of these being related to varying perspectives on international relations. It is likely that the most profound implications arise at the ontological level, since this establishes assumptions about, for example, whether the world we wish to understand is both political and ecological. However, more recently the recognition of the practical challenge presented by the environment has become widespread, though it has not yet translated into a significant impact on the discipline of international relations, even when theoretical implications are noted. It is now almost obligatory to include the environment in any list of modern international relations concerns, as over time it has become necessary to include peace, underdevelopment, gender, or race, as they quite rightly became recognized as significant aspects of the field. Moreover, the environment, as a relatively novel subject matter, has naturally brought some critique and innovation to the field. However, studies of the environment are also subject to such descriptors as “mainstream” and “radical” in debates about how best to tackle the subject. As is often the case, the debates are sharpest among those with the greatest interest in the subject.
There is wide consensus among global environmental politics (GEP) scholars about the urgent need for leadership in international climate negotiations and other environmental issue areas A large number of GEP studies elaborate rhetoric and actions of aspiring leaders in GEP. In particular, these studies seek to identify which states have sought to provide leadership in international negotiations on the environment, and how they have exercised this role in institutional bargaining processes at the international level. The biggest share of GEP studies generally focus on leadership in environmental governance within the United Nations (UN), and international negotiations on climate under the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change in general, or the role of the European Union (EU) in those negotiations in particular. Many GEP scholars have also investigated the leadership role of the United States in international environmental regime formation, whereas there are no systematic investigations concerning China’s leadership in GEP. In addition to the states, GEP literature identifies a wide range of other actors as potential leaders (and followers) in environmental issue areas: international organizations, non-governmental organizations, corporations, cities, religious organizations, social movements, politicians, and even individuals. Since leadership is a social relation, a growing number of scholars have moved to study perceptions of leadership and to conceptualize the relationship between leaders and followers. GEP scholars also identify some qualitative aspects a leader must have in order to attract followers. Many empirical studies show that despite the EU’s aspiration to be a climate leader, it is not unequivocally recognized as such by others. At the same time, it seems that some forms of leadership, especially those based on unilateral action, do not necessarily require followers and recognition by others. In addition to the leader–follower relationship, the motivation of leadership constitutes one of the key controversies among GEP scholars. Some argue that self-interest is a sufficient driver of leadership, while others claim that leaders must act for the common good of a wider constituency (or at least be perceived to do so). To conclude, most scholars studying leadership in GEP regard structural leadership (based on material capabilities and hard power) as an important type of leadership. Much less attention has been paid to the social dimensions of leadership; this is undoubtedly a gap in the literature that prospective studies ought to fill.
Loren R. Cass
Climate change politics refers to attempts to define climate change as a physical phenomenon as well as to delineate and predict current and future effects on the environment and broader implications for human affairs as a foundation for political action. Defining the causes, scale, time frame, and consequences of climate change is critical to determining the political response. Given the high stakes involved in both the consequences of climate change and the distributive implications of policies to address it, climate change politics has been and remains highly contentious both within and across countries. Climate politics presents difficulties for study given its interdisciplinary nature and the scientific complexities involved in climate change. Climate change politics emerged in the mid- to late 1980s, as climate science became more accessible to policymakers and the public. However, scholarship on international climate politics was relatively slow to develop. Prior to 2008, major publications on international relations (except for policy journals) only lightly touched upon climate politics. Climate change was frequently referenced in articles on a range of topics, but it was not the primary focus of analysis. Since 2008 there has been a dramatic increase in literature focusing on climate change. The possibility of massive economic, political, and ecological dislocation from the consequences of climate change as well as from policies to address the problem have resulted in an extensive literature. Scholars have addressed aspects of climate politics from every paradigm within international relations, as well as drawing on research from numerous related disciplines. The international relations theories that shaped the scholarship on climate politics provide the foundation for understanding the ongoing normative debates surrounding domestic and international policies to address climate change.