The Politics of Climate Change
Summary and Keywords
Climate politics presents difficulties for study given its interdisciplinary nature and the scientific complexities involved in climate change. Climate change politics had got its start in the mid- to late 1980s, as climate science became more and more accessible to policy makers and the general public. Yet prior to 2008, climate politics was only touched upon in major publications on international relations, with the exception of policy journals. Climate change was frequently referenced in articles on a range of topics, but it was not the primary focus of analysis. The recent years have seen an explosion in literature focusing on the topic, however. The potential for massive economic, political, and ecological dislocation from the consequences of climate change as well as from the potential policies to address the problem have since resulted in an extensive literature, with scholars addressing aspects of climate politics from every paradigm within international relations, as well as drawing on research in numerous other related disciplines. In addition, efforts to address the consequences of climate change have evoked controversial ethical and distributive justice questions that have produced an important normative literature. Overall, the literature on climate politics centers on two issues: how we can explain the international political response to climate change, as well as how the international community should respond to climate change.
Climate change is arguably the most important environmental problem facing the world today, and it has thus been the focus of substantial popular as well as scholarly attention. Since 1880, the earth’s average surface temperature has increased by 0.85 degrees centigrade (IPCC, 2014, p. 8). Most scientists agree that the observed temperature increases are consistent with the anticipated effects of the vast increase in levels of greenhouse gases (GHGs) in the atmosphere that have resulted from the burning of fossil fuels as well as other human activities. The overall warming has produced long-term shifts in average regional temperatures, precipitation, and sea levels, and this pattern is expected to accelerate as the quantities of GHGs emitted continue to increase. While the scientific discussion of anthropogenic climate change can be traced to the late 19th century, the focus on the politics of climate change has much more recent origins. Climate change emerged as a political issue during the mid to late 1980s, and its rise as a focus of social science research paralleled the explosion in research within the field of global environmental politics that also began during the late 1980s and has continued through to the present (Stevis, 2014).
The field of global environmental politics has established itself within the larger realm of international relations as a center of interdisciplinary work incorporating research from geography, economics, history, law, biology, and many others. While this interdisciplinary approach is one of the great strengths of global environmental politics, it also makes it difficult to define the boundaries and monitor the literature in this immense field. These strengths and difficulties are fully apparent in the study of climate politics. Climate change is characterized by substantial scientific complexity. The potential for massive economic, political, and ecological dislocation from the consequences of climate change, as well as from the potential policies to address the problem, have resulted in an extensive literature, with scholars addressing aspects of climate politics from every paradigm within international relations, as well as drawing on research in numerous other related disciplines. In addition, efforts to address the consequences of climate change have evoked controversial ethical and distributive justice questions that have produced an important normative literature. Dryzek, Norgaard, and Schlosberg (2011) provide a good overview of the vast range of complex issues posed by climate change and attempts to address the problem.
The unsettled nature of international and domestic policy responses to climate change has created openings for research on climate politics to have a significant impact on the global response. Scholars have thus sought to address a set of analytical and normative questions that have profound practical consequences for climate policy. How do we define climate change as a political problem? How do we explain the political response, or lack thereof, to the threat of climate change? How can obstacles to cooperation be overcome? What policies should be utilized to address the problem? What values should shape the responses to climate change? As scholars have analyzed these questions within the primary international relations paradigms, they have initiated a number of compelling critiques of these paradigms. The most important critiques reflect the overwhelming rejection by many climate politics scholars of the state as the primary focus of analysis within neorealism and neoliberalism. In addition, the climate politics scholarship has produced substantial critiques of the epistemic community literature and added substantially to the literature on environmental ethics and distributive justice.
The literature on the politics of climate change largely reflects the shifts that have occurred in the study of global environmental politics over the past 25 years. In reviewing this literature, it is inevitable that some areas of scholarship will not be fully represented. The focus here will be primarily on climate politics scholarship within the field of international relations. This will exclude important research in related disciplines such as economics and sociology, as well as within the political science sub-field of comparative politics. There is also a sizeable literature outside of the English language that will only be touched upon in the essay. Despite these limitations, the objective is to offer a review of the historical development of climate politics and to characterize the current state of climate scholarship within the larger field of global environmental politics.
This review will proceed with an overview of the major publication outlets for climate politics research and a brief review of the historical development of the study of the politics of climate change. The remainder will be organized around two types of questions that drive much of the literature on climate politics. First, analytically, how do we explain the successes and failures of the international political response to the problem of climate change? Second, from a normative perspective, how should the international community respond to climate change? Each question taps into a range of literatures that will be discussed in subsections below. This is a rather crude way of reviewing the field, but it provides a basic organizational structure for analyzing the current state of climate politics scholarship.
Publication of Climate Politics Research
In reviewing the literature on climate politics and the most prominent publication outlets, a number of interesting observations emerge. First, prior to 2008, very little had been published in the major international relations journals with the exception of the policy journals. Climate change was frequently referenced in articles on a range of topics, but it was not the primary focus of analysis. The international law journals and particularly the American Journal of International Law and the Stanford Journal of International Law stood out for their substantial coverage of climate policy and law as the issue emerged as a political problem. Prior to 2008, International Organization, the European Journal of International Relations, Journal of Peace Research, and World Politics had not published any articles primarily analyzing climate politics. International Security (Sebenius, 1991) and International Studies Quarterly (Betsill & Bulkeley, 2004) had published one climate politics article apiece. In part, the lack of articles in the top journals reflects the nature of climate change as a single environmental problem, which may be more effectively addressed within the context of larger studies of global environmental politics. Additionally, there was a methodological bias in the early study of climate politics toward qualitative case studies comparing a small number of cases over time or variation in responses to climate change across a limited number of states. Up until recently, there had been very little quantitative research published on climate politics.
The more dedicated journal outlets for scholarship addressing the politics of climate change have consistently been the more specialized journals focused on global environmental politics and foreign policy. Climatic Change, an interdisciplinary journal that began publishing in 1977, focuses primarily on scientific issues, but it provided one of the first outlets for research on climate politics (Kellogg, 1987; Brown Weiss, 1989; Fleagle, 1992). International Affairs (Grubb, 1990b; Paterson & Grubb, 1992) and Foreign Affairs (Schelling, 1997; Henry, Ronald, & Richard, 1998; Richard, 1998) published key studies on the international negotiations regarding climate change. In the early 1990s, several additional outlets for climate politics research emerged: Global Environmental Change (first published in 1990), the Journal of Environment and Development (1992), and Environmental Politics (1992). These journals, along with occasional publication of articles by other international relations and international law journals, provided the primary outlets for the publication of climate politics articles from 1990 through 2000.
Three new journals began publishing in 2001 and immediately became major locations for the publication of international climate politics research. Global Environmental Politics has emerged as the preeminent publication for environmental research within the field of international relations, and International Environmental Agreements: Politics, Law and Economics has established itself as an outlet for a range of research related to global environmental politics, international environmental law and policy, and comparative responses to international environmental problems. Finally, Climate Policy has established itself as an important dedicated journal for climate policy and politics research. All three have consistently published large numbers of high quality articles on the politics of climate change.
In recent years there has been an explosion in publications related to climate change beyond the journals described above. In part this reflects the application of more quantitative methods to questions related to climate politics (Bättig & Bernauer, 2009; Thiesen, Holtermann, & Buhaug, 2011; Busby, Smith, White, & Strange, 2013). It also reflects a shift in the questions being asked. Increasingly, climate scholarship has focused on the relationship between the consequences of climate change and conflict (Thiesen et al., 2011; Busby et al., 2013) as well as growing interest in issues of global governance and climate change. After publishing no articles primarily focused on climate change prior to 2008, the Journal of Peace Research published 19 articles related to climate change between 2008 and 2015, and the European Journal of International Relations published 6 articles primarily addressing climate change between 2010 and 2015.
Books on various aspects of the politics of climate change began to appear in the late 1980s, and the number of publications has ballooned in recent years. The university presses of MIT, Cambridge University, Manchester University, and Oxford University and commercial publishers Ashgate, Edward Elgar, Island Press, Earthscan (now a part of Routledge), and Routledge have been the most active publishers of books on climate politics. A review of this literature reflects the great diversity of approaches to the broader study of global environmental politics in terms of theoretical paradigms, the types of questions being posed, and levels of analysis. The quantity of publications related to climate politics continues to increase dramatically, and the range of outlets has expanded with the increasing scholarly, political, and public attention directed at climate change.
The Politics of Climate Change: Historical Origins
While scientists had been studying the forces influencing climate and climate change for over 100 years, climate change did not emerge as a salient political issue until the mid to late 1980s (Kellogg, 1987). Physical scientists spearheaded the initial publications addressing the politics of climate change by defining the problem and making climate science accessible to policy makers and the general public. Much of this literature centered on the question of the veracity of climate science, its political importance, and its relationship to concrete policy actions (Kellogg & Schware, 1982; Abrahamson, 1989; Schneider, 1989; Firor, 1990; Leggett, 1990; Balling, 1992). These researchers also initiated the debates surrounding appropriate policy responses (Hempel, 1993).
The scientific discussions spawned lively popular debates, with many authors arguing that climate change posed a major challenge to human existence on earth (Schneider, 1989; Oppenheimer & Boyle, 1990), and others arguing that climate change was a hoax perpetrated variously by developed states as a form of “environmental colonialism” (Agarwal & Narain, 1991), by environmentalists to bolster their antimarket/anticonsumption campaigns (Michaels, 1992), or as a ploy by scientists to enhance research funds (Boehmer-Christiansen, 1994a). Other authors sought to interpret climate change as a symbol of larger changes occurring in the global environmental and economic systems that should provide a warning of the unsustainability of the current socioeconomic system (McKibben, 1989; Oppenheimer & Boyle, 1990; Ehrlich & Ehrlich, 1991). Ross (1991) and Paterson (1996, pp. 1–3) provide good discussions of the early popular debates.
The early literature on climate politics also established the foundation for the various strands of scholarship that became more fully formed over the subsequent years. Some authors focused on issues of international ethics and justice in assigning responsibility for past actions and for future responses (Brown Weiss, 1989; Agarwal & Narain, 1991; Bergesen, 1991; Grubb, Sebenius, Magalhaes, & Subak, 1992; Shue, 1995, 1999). Others discussed the sorts of institutions and/or organizations that would need to be created to address climate change and other global environmental threats (Hampson, 1990; Lang, 1991; French, Hagerman, & Ryan, 1992; Gardner, 1992; Mintzer, 1992). Yet others assessed the viability of various policies to reduce GHG emissions (Grubb, 1989; Grubb, 1990a; Mintzer, 1992). All of these strands of scholarship were present in a nascent form as climate change emerged as a political issue, but it was not until the mid-1990s that these areas of inquiry began to reach analytical maturity.
The academic study of the politics of climate change grew dramatically in the mid-1990s as scholars turned their attention to the negotiations leading up to the Rio Earth Summit and the creation of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) and subsequently the Kyoto Protocol. Much of this work was focused on the history of climate politics and lessons for future environmental negotiations (Bodansky, 1993; Mintzer & Leonard, 1994; Bodansky, 1995). The works of Paterson (1996), Rowlands (1995b), and Luterbacher and Sprinz (2001) stand out as major markers in the transition from the early debates to more narrowly focused theoretical studies and policy analyses.
From the perspective of international relations theory, global environmental politics was heavily influenced by the neoliberal institutionalist literature of the 1990s, and the early theoretical literature on climate politics similarly approached the issue from this perspective (Sebenius, 1991; Ward, 1993). Paterson (1996) provides a transition to a more diverse application of theories to the politics of climate change. Paterson (1996, p. 7) rejected the neorealist and neoliberal institutionalist exclusive focus on interstate politics and argued that to understand climate change it was necessary to broaden the analysis to apply a historical materialist framework to capture issues of justice, the effects of global capitalism on the environment, and to thus transcend, what he viewed as, the artificial domestic–international division. He argued for the need to begin to focus on the relationship between domestic politics and international relations in understanding international negotiations. He also introduced a constructivist approach to analyzing changes in the understanding of climate change and appropriate solutions.
Paterson’s rejection of interstate relations as the primary lens through which to study climate politics presaged a wave of works that critiqued the dominant international relations paradigms and expanded the variables included in analyses of climate politics. Luterbacher and Sprinz’s edited volume (2001) includes chapters on a range of emerging approaches to analyzing international climate politics. The study of climate politics increasingly divided into more theoretical research focused on explaining climate politics within the context of the various international relations paradigms and normative research related to how this problem should be addressed, by whom, and with which policies and institutions. The remainder of the review is split between discussions of analytical research and normative research. This is an artificial divide. Many of the works reviewed here do not fall neatly on one side or the other, but this approach provides a way of thinking about the questions asked and the approaches to addressing them.
How Do We Explain the International Political Response to Climate Change?
The analytical literature evaluating the political response to climate change can be divided into historical/legal analyses; the application of international relations paradigms; and a focus on the relationship among domestic politics, nonstate actors, and international negotiations. The historical and legal analyses will be taken up briefly first because they have formed a smaller part of the international relations scholarship on climate change. The other approaches will be addressed in more detail in the sections below.
One of the starting points for analyzing climate politics is historical. How do we understand the basic history of climate change as a political problem and the resultant global response? There have been a number of works that address the history of climate politics (Bodansky, 1993, 1995; Mintzer & Leonard, 1994; Hecht & Tirpak, 1995; Paterson, 1996; Kopp & Thatcher, 2000; Cass, 2006; Gupta, 2014), that analyze the relationship between climate change and other contemporary environmental policy responses (Hoffmann, 2007), that evaluate the origins of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) (Agrawala, 1998a, 1998b), as well as works that analyze the specific provisions of the UNFCCC and the Kyoto Protocol (Grubb et al., 1999; Oberthür & Ott, 1999; Depledge, 2000; Kopp & Thatcher, 2000; Freestone, 2005). These works typically address additional theoretical questions, but they provide important histories, analyses of the major legal issues, and starting points for those studying climate politics.
There is also a substantial literature related to international climate law that will not be reviewed here due to its tangential relationship to international climate politics and space limitations, but Gray, Trasofsky, and Carlane (2015) provides a good entry point to issues of international climate law. This literature has focused more specifically on legal innovations and how climate law relates to other areas of law such as the environment, trade, and security. The interdisciplinary journal International Environmental Agreements: Politics, Law and Economics has published a range of articles on climate law, while law journals including the Stanford Journal of International Law, the American Journal of International Law, the International Comparative Law Quarterly, the Review of European, Comparative & International Environmental Law (RECIEL), and the Journal of Environmental Law have also published numerous climate related articles.
International Relations Paradigms
Within global environmental politics, the analysis of climate politics typically begins from one or more of the core paradigms of international relations theory: realism/neorealism, liberalism/neoliberalism, cognitive/constructivist approaches, and/or historical materialism (Rowlands, 1995b; Paterson, 1996; Luterbacher & Sprinz, 2001). The historical materialist approach has not been used as extensively in the climate politics literature and will not be discussed below, but its emphasis on the state and capital accumulation, as well as the Gramscian focus on hegemony, provides tools for analyzing national climate policies (Paterson, 1996, pp. 157–177). The approach also arguably provides a framework for understanding the North/South divide in climate politics (Hyder, 1992). A common theme in the climate politics literature is that the focus of the neorealist and neoliberal paradigms on states as the primary actors does not provide an adequate explanation for climate politics. Much of this literature on climate change has been devoted to expanding the theoretical focus beyond the state as the dominant actor to include a more prominent role variously for international institutions, intergovernmental organizations, international nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), and subnational groups as actors in their own right that are capable of altering global climate politics—often independently of state action. There has also been a growing emphasis on transnational relations in analyzing climate politics. These alternative perspectives will be addressed in subsequent sections.
Of the major international relations paradigms, realism/neorealism has had the least influence on the study of climate politics. While few scholars would deny the importance of power, national interests, and conflict in the climate negotiations, most have argued that realism has not provided a sufficient explanation for the interests and strategies pursued in the climate negotiations, and the outcomes of the international climate negotiations have not been fully consistent with an exclusive focus on national interests and relative power positions among states. Several authors have addressed the shortcomings of realism. Paterson (1996, pp. 98–99) notes the difficulty of measuring power resources and the inability of states to effectively utilize these resources within the climate negotiations. In addition, neorealism’s focus on states as unitary rational actors is problematic in issue areas such as climate change where the direct threat to national survival is less clear and immediate, where the domestic politics of states are critical to national positions, where international organizations such as the World Meteorological Organization (WMO), the IPCC, and the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) have played important roles, and where subnational and transnational actors have been extensively involved in the negotiations (Paterson, 1996; Rowlands, 2001). A pure focus on power politics highlights important elements of the negotiations, but overall it provides only a very limited and unsatisfactory understanding of the politics of climate change.
In addition to the general critique of neorealism, there has been a related dispute over whether the material interests of states can explain domestic and international responses to climate change. For example, Sprinz and Vaahtoranta (1994) have sought to establish an “interest-based” explanation of international environmental policy derived from the costs of addressing an environmental problem relative to the costs of the consequences of the environmental problem. Rowlands (1995a) found the approach to be woefully inadequate in predicting state responses to climate change and positions in the climate negotiations for the most important states in the negotiations; however, Grundig (2006) and Purdon (2014) argue that the neorealist approach may be usefully applied to explain important aspects of climate politics. Some authors within the neorealist paradigm have also sought to link climate change to security issues (Barnett & Finnemore, 1999; Penny, 2007). The focus on resource competition, migration, and conflict provides a useful lens for analyzing some problems related to the consequences of climate change, but this represents just one small aspect of climate politics. However, the literature in this area has grown substantially in recent years as the evidence related to the relationship between climate change and conflict has proven to be difficult to measure and analyze (Thiesen et al., 2011; Gleditsch, 2012; Koubi, Bernauer, Kalbhenn, & Spilker, 2012; Busby et al., 2013). Most of the literature addressed in the remainder of this review rejects a realist approach to analyzing climate politics and offers alternative approaches.
The paradigm that has formed the foundation for much of the literature on climate politics has been neoliberal institutionalism with an emphasis on the role of international regimes and institutions. Climate change emerged as a political issue during a period in which the neoliberal/neorealist debate was central to international relations theory (Baldwin, 1993). Global environmental politics was an area in which the neoliberal paradigm appeared to be particularly useful in explaining international political outcomes, and the emerging climate regime provided a timely case study of regime formation and operation; thus some of the early works on climate politics proceeded from a neoliberal paradigm (Sebenius, 1991). Although much of the literature on climate politics explicitly or implicitly begins from a neoliberal foundation, many scholars have heavily criticized the primary focus on states and international organizations within neoliberalism and have argued for a broadening of the perspective to include more prominent roles for nonstate actors.
The neoliberal institutionalist literature can be subdivided into two forms, and both have been present in the climate politics literature (Paterson, 1996, pp. 114–115; Rowlands, 2001, pp. 19–24). The first form analyzes the role of institutions with a particular focus on international organizations in shaping the negotiating environment and altering the incentive structures facing states in international negotiations. This is a more game theoretic or rational choice approach to climate politics, and the role of international organizations is largely constrained to facilitating agreements to achieve joint gains or avoid losses among self-interested states. The second form of neoliberalism views the effects of international institutions as much more dynamic. This approach emphasizes the role of institutions in promoting learning and altering national understandings of interests and the appropriate strategies for achieving those interests.
Within the first form of neoliberalism, several studies have analyzed the negotiating process and the interactions among states and international organizations in the early climate negotiations (Grubb, 1989; Skolnikoff, 1990; Paterson & Grubb, 1992). There is also a substantial body of literature devoted to analyzing the structural and procedural obstacles to success in the climate negotiations that has particularly focused on the Kyoto talks (Grubb & Yamin, 2001; Jacoby & Reiner, 2001; Soroos, 2001; Hovi, Skodvin, & Andresen, 2003; Depledge, 2000, 2005). A number of authors have also sought to apply rational choice game theoretic analyses to the politics of climate change to highlight collective action obstacles that must be overcome if countries are to achieve meaningful action to address climate change (Sebenius, 1995; Ward, 1996; Böhringer, Finus, & Vogt, 2002; Kennedy & Basu, 2014). For example, Ward (1996) evaluates the incentive structures created by domestic political variables that then shape the positions of states in the international negotiations. Several studies have addressed specific provisions of the Kyoto Protocol and the incentive structures influencing success or failure of negotiating an optimal agreement, the potential for enforcement and compliance, and the potential for the evolution of the climate regime (Victor, 2001, 2006; Hovi & Areklett, 2004; Schiele, 2014). From a developing country perspective, a number of scholars have argued that information asymmetries make it difficult for developing countries to participate effectively in the climate negotiations (Gupta, 1997).
The game theoretic approach can be fruitfully applied to evaluate negotiations, but it is limited in its explanatory value because state interests are largely viewed as static, which has not been fully consistent with the shifts in national positions over time in the negotiations. For example, Australia has shifted from climate negotiation supporter to laggard, and back to supporter (Cass, 2008). Once interests can be defined (see section on cognitive approaches below), game theoretic models can be usefully applied to explain the negotiating process and likely outcomes.
The second form of neoliberalism emphasizes the dynamic effects of international institutions on the perception of state interests and thus on the definition of interests and strategies. This approach emphasizes the role of international institutions in promoting learning, facilitating information exchange, assisting with the implementation of international agreements, preventing cheating, and increasing national capacity to fulfill international obligations (Haas, Keohane, & Levy, 1993). Within this approach, there has been a particular focus on the evolving international climate regime and the forces that have shaped the regime (Sebenius, 1991; Gupta & Van der Grijp, 1999; Andresen & Agrawala, 2002). There have also been studies of regime effects on state behavior (Halvorssen & Hovi, 2006; Oberthür & Tänzler, 2007). The alternative approaches to addressing climate change discussed in the sections below typically implicitly or explicitly begin from a focus on international regimes and then go on to critique the assumptions regarding the exogenous sources of state interests that make neoliberal analyses more static. They also critique the exclusive focus on the state and national interests and argue that the neoliberal paradigm is too limiting and must expand its focus to encompass alternative actors such as NGOs, subnational groups, and the media, among others, as actors independent of the state. While some authors have suggested ways in which the neoliberal focus on states could be amended to account for other actors (Vogler, 2003), the mechanisms for incorporating these actors within the framework of neoliberalism remain underdeveloped.
Authors applying cognitive approaches to understanding climate policy can be divided into three main groups, focusing on the roles of epistemic communities and the relationship of science to political power, the influence of international norms, and the impact of discourses in shaping understandings of issues and solutions. These approaches accept the significance of international institutions and regimes, but offer complementary frameworks for understanding changes in knowledge, identities, and interests among actors. All three treat intersubjective understanding among individuals as essential to their analysis.
As a new, complex, and poorly understood phenomenon, climate change was a perfect fit for the epistemic community literature launched by Peter Haas (1992), which focuses on the role of experts in the context of uncertainty in shaping international responses to complex problems. The approach has been utilized effectively to explain aspects of the emergence of a shared understanding of climate change and the broad shape of appropriate responses to the problem (Lunde, 1992; Gough & Shackley, 2001). The prominent role of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) in the interpretation of climate science and the shaping of political responses is a critical aspect of climate politics.
However, the influence of the epistemic community on the political response to climate change declined once international negotiations to address the problem began, and this observation inspired several critiques of the epistemic community approach. The literature on the relationship between science and policy shifted attention to the variables that influence the incorporation of science into the policy process (Andresen, Skodvin, Underdal, & Wettestad, 2000; Miller & Edwards, 2001a). The scholarship related to climate science and politics has substantially challenged the epistemic communities’ understanding of the role and effects of scientific communities in climate change discussions. Miller and Edwards (2001b, p. 5) argued that science is not simply about interpreting the physical world but is a “human institution deeply engaged in the practice of ordering social and political worlds.” In their view climate change has become the center of “a global transformation of world order,” and climate science has been a critical component of this shift (2001b, p. 3). Their reasoning accords with the growing critique that the epistemic community literature underestimates the politicization of the scientific process and the use of scientific evidence for political ends (Litfin, 1994; Jäger & O’Riordan, 1996; Boehmer-Christiansen & Kellow, 2002). In this view, scientists must be seen as political actors in their own right. In climate change, critics argue that scientists have used the uncertainties related to the pace and impacts of climate change to press for increased funding, to marginalize alternative voices, and to secure influence in the negotiations (Hart & Victor, 1993; Boehmer-Christiansen, 1994a, 1994b, 1996; Michaels & Balling, 2000; Boehmer-Christiansen & Kellow, 2002). Critics have also highlighted the selectivity of the climate epistemic communities’ problem identification and prioritization, which they argue have been biased toward the interests and concerns of developed states while marginalizing the interests and concerns of developing countries (Gupta, 1997; Lahsen, 2007).
The second cluster of cognitive studies of climate politics reflects a constructivist, norm-based perspective. Adherents argue that a focus on material forces in interest definition and relative power positions cannot fully explain the variation in national policy positions and the evolution of the international climate regime (Betsill, 2000; Cass, 2006; Fogel, 2007; Pettenger, 2007b). These scholars treat norms—socially constructed expectations of how actors should behave within a particular system—as structural phenomena that regulate state behavior. These studies have explored how international norms form, evolve, and regulate state behavior, sometimes yielding choices that would not be expected based on material interests alone. This approach tends to be more positivist in its methodology than the discursive approach and focuses on states interacting to define and revise normative understandings of how states should behave in a particular issue area to be considered legitimate actors (Pettenger, 2007a, pp. 8–9).
Betsill (2000) and Fogel (2007) argue that progressive climate related norms achieved prominence even in the United States despite the opposition of critical elements of the government and have influenced U.S. policy through various channels. Other authors have begun to analyze feedback between international norms and domestic politics and the conditions under which international norms achieve domestic salience and begin to influence state policies (Cass, 2006). Boehmer-Christiansen and Kellow (2002) argue that international norms significantly impacted the climate negotiations and provided the European Union in particular with a tool to shape the principles that underlie the Kyoto Protocol. However, these scholars also caution that material interests proved decisive in determining the actual commitments contained in the Protocol. The presence of international norms in the climate negotiations is difficult to dispute, but the overall effect of these norms has been the source of debate.
The discursive approach to constructivism is antipositivist and focuses on how dominant discourses develop and structure behavior. The central claim is that shifts in knowledge and values can produce change in interests and strategies. The manner in which climate change is framed as a problem has the potential to significantly shape political responses (Detraz, 2011; Hjerpe & Buhr, 2014). Discourses are also critical to the processes by which some actors and interests are privileged or marginalized within a social context. For example, Paterson and Stripple (2007, p. 149) argue that the “master discourse” in the climate debate has centered on territory and territorialization. This, largely unacknowledged, discourse has profound effects on how climate change is defined as a problem and thus how it can be addressed. Other authors have explored the impact of competing discourses such as “green governmentality,” “ecological modernization,” and “civic environmentalism” that have emerged in the global environmental governance of climate politics (Bäckstrand & Lövbrand, 2006). Thus, for example, Paterson (2001a) argued that the ecological modernization discourse has begun to alter how political and economic actors understand their interests by challenging the understanding of efforts to address climate change as incompatible with economic growth. The constructivist literature on climate politics, particularly in its normative and discourse analysis forms, is relatively underdeveloped, but scholars continue to explore its potential explanatory value in global climate politics.
Nonstate Actors, Domestic Politics, and International Negotiations
The study of the role of nonstate actors is an area where the climate politics literature has made significant new theoretical contributions in recent years. This literature represents a challenge to the neoliberal paradigm. Several scholars (Newell, 2000; Okereke, Bulkeley, & Schroeder, 2009) argue that the neoliberal regimes approach is important and useful, but that its exclusive focus on interstate relations is misplaced. A growing range of actors, including environmental NGOs (Arts, 1998; Betsill & Corell, 2001, 2007), corporations and industry groups (Paterson, 2001b; Skjærseth & Skodvin, 2003), indigenous peoples (Smith, 2007), and the media (Newell, 2000), play prominent roles in shaping the outcomes of international agreements and domestic policy debates and are in turn shaped by the evolving climate regime. The NGO literature in particular has attempted to refine the analysis of the conditions under which NGOs may significantly affect international policy (Betsill & Corell, 2001; Gulbrandsen & Andresen, 2004). Several authors have also begun to document and analyze the effects of NGOs on elements of the climate regime such as compliance, flexibility mechanisms, and other specific provisions (Gulbrandsen & Andresen, 2004; Hovi, Stokke, & Ulfstein, 2004).
Given the lack of progress in international climate negotiations, scholars have begun to explore the multilevel governance of global environmental politics and climate change in particular (Lundqvist & Biel, 2007; Jordan, van Asselt, Berkhout, Huitema, & Rayner, 2012; Bulkeley & Newell, 2015). This is a vibrant area of scholarship that highlights progress being made at other levels of governance to address climate change. There is a growing rejection by many scholars of the focus on states as the central actors and a renewed emphasis on the multifaceted nature of global environmental governance (Bulkeley & Moser, 2007; Hoffmann, 2012). Several scholars (Betsill & Bulkeley, 2004, 2006; Bulkeley & Betsill, 2003; Hakelberg, 2014;) argue that the focus on states in the study of climate politics excludes the growing role of cities in responding to climate change through reductions in GHG emissions and by networking with other nonstate actors to influence the broader climate regime. Betsill (2007) also highlights the role of regional organizations in the transnational evolution of climate governance. Others have highlighted the importance of subnational movements (Aall, Groven, & Lindseth, 2007; Moser, 2007) and the financial sector (MacLeod & Park, 2011) in altering state policies and interests over time. Bulkeley et al. (2014) explore the concept of “transnational climate governance” that operates at the level of transnational networks to shape global responses to climate change. This diverse and growing literature is still at a relatively early stage, and it is not clear if or how it can be incorporated into the neoliberal paradigm. However, it represents a compelling argument for expanding the focus from states and international institutions to a much broader range of actors.
Other scholars have focused specifically on the relationship between domestic political variables and national negotiating positions on climate change. A number of country studies have highlighted a range of domestic institutions, political actors, and interest groups that influence the formulation, pursuit, and implementation of foreign policy and related domestic climate policies (Hatch, 1993, 1995; Harris, 2000). Other studies have sought to link international and domestic forces to explain state behavior (Lisowski, 2002; Carlane, 2010). These studies provide important insights into the policies pursued by some of the most important countries, but often their larger theoretical significance is difficult to identify. Even some of the studies that highlight a larger number of countries are constrained either by the limited number of cases that a single author can evaluate (Cass, 2006) or by the difficulties of applying a common set of criteria across multiple authors in edited volumes (O’Riordan & Jäger, 1996; Harris, 2003, 2007).
Finally, there is a growing comparative politics literature that has analyzed the domestic climate policies of states. This literature has not been addressed here due to the international focus of the review and limitations of space. However, a number of books have been published addressing comparative national responses to climate change. See for example, Iwama (1991), O’Riordan and Jäger (1996), Collier and Löfstedt (1997), Hamilton (2001), Harris (2003, 2007), Cass (2006), and Carlane (2010). See also the November 2007 special issue of Global Environmental Politics, which applies a comparative political approach to evaluating the climate policies of several states. Several of these authors also address other issues related to global climate politics, but their works focus on either domestic determinants of foreign policy positions or the effects of international negotiations on domestic policy. Several works have also focused specifically on the European Union and its role in the climate negotiations (O’Riordan & Jäger, 1996; Gupta & Grubb, 2000; Schreurs & Tiberghien, 2007; Schunz, 2014).
How Should the International Community Respond to Climate Change?
In addition to the analytical works reviewed in the prior sections, much of the literature on global climate politics has a strong normative emphasis. This literature addresses a number of questions that are critical to the design of political responses to climate change. These questions can be subdivided into two categories: the determination of the underlying values and principles that should form the foundation of the international response to climate change, and the specific institutional/policy responses needed to address climate change. Some of the most important questions relate to the principles that should guide global climate policy. Who is responsible for climate change, and to what extent should this responsibility be tied to the burdens of addressing the problem? What responsibility does the current generation have to future generations? How do we define a fair and equitable distribution of the costs of addressing climate change? These are some of the critical philosophical and ethical questions that should influence the future conduct of climate policy.
In addition to the more philosophical questions, a number of scholars have focused on the specific institutional and policy changes that should be pursued to address climate change. Much of this work has focused on designing policies to effectively reduce emissions of GHGs, to remove GHGs from the atmosphere, and/or to adapt to the effects of climate change. However, beyond the policy focus, there has been a more fundamental analysis of the types of international organizations and institutional structures that would be required to address climate change. The literature in this area encompasses the full range of levels of governance from the transnational, to the international, to the state and local, and to the levels of peoples and individuals.
Justice and Equity in Climate Politics
One of the most vibrant areas of climate research has been in the area of environmental justice. Arnold (2014) provides an overview of the vast range of ethical issues that climate change poses. From the beginning, questions of equity and justice have been an integral part of the international response to climate change. The text of the UNFCCC contains explicit references to some of the principles that are to guide the global response to climate change. Article 3.1 of the convention states that “The Parties should protect the climate system for the benefit of present and future generations of humankind, on the basis of equity and in accordance with their common but differentiated responsibilities and respective capabilities” (UN, 1992, p. 9). This statement raises a number of obvious questions related to justice and equity (Grubb, 1995; Pickering, Vanderheiden, & Miller, 2012). It addresses issues of distributive justice both across peoples and countries in the world today (Hayes & Smith, 1993; Ringius, Torvanger, & Underdal, 2002) as well as intergenerational justice (Page, 2006; Gardiner, 2013). It raises questions related to assigning responsibility for past GHG emissions and for future emission reductions (Toth, 1999). Even in allocating emission reduction commitments across the developed world, there is substantial disagreement regarding what a “fair” or “just” distribution would be (Rowlands, 1997; Posner & Weisbach, 2010). In addition, there are also questions related to the consequences of climate change and who will bear them. What constitutes “dangerous” levels of anthropogenic climate change, and how should these changes impact international responses to climate change (Moss, 1995)? Increasingly, 2°C has been recognized as the critical threshold beyond which the potential effects of climate change become dangerous, but this has generated substantial political debate surrounding the implications of avoiding this outcome (Jordan et al., 2013).
Much of the debate has centered on the relative obligations of developed and developing countries in addressing the problem of climate change. Several studies have sought to establish responsibility for past emissions and allocate responsibility for the costs of addressing the problem (Hayes & Smith, 1993; Schüssler, 2011). There has been much written about the obligation of developed states to act before developing countries should be expected to pursue emission reduction commitments. This principle of common but differentiated responsibility has been enshrined in the UNFCCC and Kyoto Protocol and has been the source of debate as states have sought to define what this principle should mean in practice (Matsui, 2001). For international climate policy to move beyond the Kyoto Protocol, an understanding of what constitutes an equitable distribution of actions to address climate change is critical. A number of authors have sought to establish the principles that should underlie future negotiations (Claussen & McNeilly, 2000; Posner & Weisbach, 2010; Vanderheiden, 2011), although the international debate remains controversial and unsettled. Many scholars have also sought to link principles and policies into a map of a future climate regime (Schneider, Rosencranz, & Niles, 2002; Posner & Weisbach, 2010).
The focus on relative responsibilities for climate change has also produced questions about the relative consequences of climate change for individual countries and peoples—particularly for developing versus developed countries and for indigenous peoples. This in turn has highlighted the relationship between climate policy and the global economic system (Condon & Sinha, 2013) as well as the relationship between the consequences of climate change and human rights (Humphreys, 2010). The edited volume by Adger, Paavola, Huq, and Mace (2006) highlights the important role of political and socioeconomic variables in determining vulnerability to climate change and the ability to adapt. The contributors highlight the ways in which internal conflict, weak political institutions, poverty, displaced peoples, and numerous other problems function as exacerbating variables by worsening the adverse consequences of climate change and impeding efforts to respond effectively. They argue that many of these issues are insufficiently addressed in the debates over responses to climate change and adaptation. The plight of climate refugees has emerged as a particularly difficult area where international law remains unsettled (White, 2011; McAdam, 2014). While climate change induces growing numbers of migrants/refugees to seek survival and better lives elsewhere, what moral obligation does humanity have to those displaced by climate change (Risse, 2009)?
A number of scholars have highlighted the distributive and intergenerational justice issues that adaptation raises relative to mitigation of the threat (Schlosberg, 2012). Roberts and Parks (2007) capture the links between development and climate change in their quantitative analysis of the relative effects of climate change on people in developing and developed states, as well as the ability of political institutions to respond and adapt to climate change. They conclude that the international economic system and legacies of colonialism contribute to the vulnerability of developing states and restrict their ability to successfully adapt to the broader effects of climate change (Parks & Roberts, 2006); thus the focus on a fair distribution of emission reductions cannot come at the expense of addressing the unequal burden of adaptation (Paavola, 2005; Grasso, 2006; Schlosberg, 2012). Wapner (2014) argues that discussions of mitigation and adaptation do not capture the full range of effects of climate change. There is a third set of implications that he refers to as “climate suffering.” Failures to mitigate the effects of and to adapt to the consequences of climate change result in a residual category of “climate suffering” which reflects the experience of the world’s most vulnerable. A number of scholars have also been highly critical of international, and particularly the United States, responses to climate change on moral and ethical grounds and have provided various accounts of what an ethical response to climate change would look like (Harris, 2001; Brown, 2002).
Choosing Policies to Address Climate Change
The literature advocating various approaches to climate policy is vast and can be divided among those works evaluating the international architecture for addressing climate change (Baumert et al., 2002; Aldy & Stavins, 2007; Biermann, Pattberg, & Zelli, 2010), global policy solutions such as emission reduction commitments and implementing specific mitigation measures (Paterson & Grubb, 1996; Lomborg, 2010; Deetman, Hof, & van Vuuren, 2015), international funding mechanisms (Mintzer, 1993), flexibility mechanisms such as emissions trading (Tietenberg, Victor, Sandor, Cole, & Kelly,1994; Hahn & Stavins, 1995; Grubb & Neuhoff, 2006), technology transfer (Norberg-Bohm & Hart, 1995; Ockwell & Mallett, 2012), and works advocating institutional reform to improve international coordination, monitoring, and compliance (Barrett & Stavins, 2003; Hovi et al., 2004). A number of works have also evaluated the effectiveness of existing climate policies and proposed improvements (Peeters & Deketelaere, 2006; Buchner, Carraro, & Ellerman, 2007; Lomborg, 2010).
Intergovernmental organizations and various climate policy think tanks have played a central role in publishing literature evaluating and promoting specific policies to address climate change. The United Nations Conference on Trade and Development, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, the International Energy Agency, the World Bank, and the IPCC have frequently published reviews of national policies and analyses of the effectiveness of various policy approaches. A large number of research organizations and think tanks have been particularly active in research related to the design of policies to address climate change, and several of them stand out for the quantity and quality of their research. In Europe, the Center for International Climate and Environmental Research and the Fridtjof Nansen Institute in Norway, the Centre for European Policy Studies in Belgium, the Fondazione Eni Enrico Mattei in Italy, the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research, the Royal Institute of International Affairs, and the Institute for European Environmental Policy in the United Kingdom, and the Wuppertal Institute in Germany have hosted numerous climate policy related conferences, supported researchers, and produced a wide range of working papers, policy notes, and published works related to climate policy. In the United States, the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions, the Harvard Project on Climate Agreements, the World Resources Institute, and Resources for the Future, among others, have played similar roles. These organizations have had significant influence on the policy debates, and the scholars supported by these organizations have also helped to shape the climate politics debates within the field of global environmental politics.
Beyond the promotion of individual policy initiatives, there is a growing literature focused on changing how industrial production, energy generation, and consumption decisions are made and altering human behavior to minimize the impact on the environment. One point of focus has been the creation of a “carbon neutral society.” Kok, Vermeulen, Faaij, and De Jager (2002), for example, advocate a range of policy initiatives from consumer education efforts to tradable permit schemes that incorporate individuals into the trading systems. Firor and Jacobsen (2002) link the future of population increases to climate change and argue forcefully for population policies to address climate change.
The various strands of research provide a range of potential approaches to addressing climate change, but the debates in all of the areas of scholarship remain unsettled. In addition, the increasing analytical specialization and the narrowness of some of the debates do not lend themselves to linkages across literatures. One of the challenges of this growing field of scholarship is to begin to make these connections. There is a wealth of scholarship potentially available to policy makers. The challenge is to find ways to bring together discussions of normative issues, international institutional architecture, policy analyses, multilevel governance, and the various other strands of climate scholarship in ways that can help to shape the evolving global response to climate change.
I would like to thank Matthias Finger and David Downie, the ISA Compendium Environmental Studies Section editors, for their support and assistance in revising the entry and M. J. Peterson, Paul Harris, Pamela Chasek, Mary Pettenger, and the two anonymous reviewers for their helpful comments and guidance on the original entry.
Links to Digital Materials
Center for Climate and Energy Solutions. Nongovernmental organization providing research, news, and analysis related to the challenges of developing new energy technologies to address climate change.
Center for International Climate and Environmental Research (CICERO). Independent Norwegian research center dedicated to studying climate policy. Contains reports, news, and analysis related to climate politics.
Climate Ark[At. Portal and search engine that provides access to news articles, working papers, government reports, and scientific research related to climate change. Maintains links to major climate policy research organizations, government offices, and NGOs.
Earth Negotiations Bulletin. Produced by the International Institute for Sustainable Development. Provides summaries, news, and analysis from major meetings related to international climate negotiations as well as other environmental issues.
Harvard Project on Climate Agreements. Sponsored by the Harvard Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs. Supports wide ranging research related to international climate negotiations. Provides access to working papers, issue briefs, and expert commentary on climate negotiations.
Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Scientific intergovernmental body set up by WMO and UNEP to evaluate scientific research related to climate change. Provides access to IPCC reports on the state of climate science and policy. Contains PowerPoint slides and other visual materials related to climate policy.
Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, Environment Directorate. Contains research and analysis of climate policy from around the world with an emphasis on developed countries.
Resources for the Future—Climate Policy. U.S. based center for environmental and resource policy research. Provides access to news, analysis, and research related to domestic and international climate policy.
Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research. U.K. based center for climate science and policy research. Provides access to working papers, policy briefs, and research notes related to adaptation, energy, international development, and international climate negotiations.
United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. Website maintained by the Secretariat for the UNFCCC. Provides access to UNFCCC news, legal texts, background materials, and national reports. Includes greenhouse gas emission data from member states.
U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Archived snapshot of a previously available website as it was on January 19, 2017. Limited access to a source of information about the U.S. and international climate policy.
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