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Table of Contents


Introduction: Why We Wrote This Book

This book, like many discussions concerning climate change, began with a conversation between someone with a good grasp of the history and debates about global warming and someone who had more recently begun to pay attention to them. The science was not discussed, nor debates about the validity of that science. Neither of us saw much point in second-guessing the qualified experts on the basis of secondary analysis. Rather, we became preoccupied with the question: Why is it so hard to develop meaningful strategies for addressing global climate change? If the vast majority of the world’s experts agree that climate change is real, and that human activities are either contributing or driving influences, then why has climate change not been embraced as the political challenge of this century? The problem then became how to consider who should be expected to do what, and why they should do so.

1. Waiting for What?

Through much of 2009, the world waited for political leaders to convene at a climate summit in Copenhagen. In turn, many of these leaders waited for others to lead the way in declaring emissions targets and other political strategies for responding to climate change. Overall, 2009 was a year in which the world waited for a new program of action to emerge. Some held high expectations of likely comprehensive agreements. Some expected that the Copenhagen Summit would provide a venue for intense political bargaining. Many believed that a raft of linked agreements would emerge from what was expected to be one of the most important meetings of government leaders since the first international climate change discussions of the 1980s. Even those with relatively modest expectations anticipated the likely negotiation of parameters for a new global climate change agenda. Few expected that this cornerstone event in 21st-century political leadership would result in so little. The Copenhagen Climate Summit provided no substantive new emissions targets, no new international standards or strategies and no new political alliances or coalitions of interests to support subsequent initiatives.

2. Limits to Global Consensus

Global climate change is likely to make it difficult for liberal democratic political systems to govern effectively and to continue to set the rules of behaviour and leadership within the international political community. It is also likely to end the dreams of progress that liberal democracies have helped to produce. This does not necessarily mean that capitalism will fail, or that totalitarian regimes will flourish. It does, however, mean that contemporary liberal democracies will need to achieve effec-tive new structures and identities as they adapt to an altered natural environment.

3. Governing Nature and Global Governance

Global climate change challenges many of the structures, processes and practices of the international political community and threatens the key political visions, beliefs and practices that underpin the roles and capacities of core actors. As argued in Chapter 2, the political structures and institutions arising from consensus-based decision-making processes will not achieve effective, efficient or timely international climate change responses (Stern, 2009). While slow responses sometimes arise from a lack of political will, it is more often the case that policy¬makers become caught in uncertainties concerning risk assessments and fluctuating prospects of effectively managing changed practices (Young, 2002). The political impacts of global climate change go beyond the consequences they pose for the forms, locations and distributions of human societies and their centres of production. They challenge core political values and ideals that seem fitting for the most significant set of issues yet to have faced human civilisations. Problematically, the prospect that existing core political values are challenged by global cli¬mate change is a dawning realisation that few political actors readily accept and acknowledge.

4. A Rowdy and Unruly Community

The international political community confronts a significant difficulty in addressing global climate change. Quite aside from the contested nature of the science that underpins the anticipated consequences, there are pressing international political problems that demand resolution. The canvas of voices seeking to express concerns or to participate in debates concerning the nature and impacts of global climate change incorporates a broad spectrum of social and political positions from environmentalists, scientists, economists, philosophers and industrialists. Their suggested responses to global climate change range from radical social, political and economic reform, such as the wholesale overturning of modern industrial capitalism, to advocating renewed faith in progressive technologies. Among them are appeals to fundamentally re-imagine human relationships with nature and property that would lead to reshaped human lifestyles and aspirations (Eckersley, 2005).

5. Water, Disorder and Disrupted Development

Many states will find themselves caught between a proverbial rock and a hard place as they seek to develop policies and regulations to meet the need for secure energy sources and securing food supplies in a changing global climate (Zhao and Running, 2010; Battisti and Naylor, 2009). Government planning cannot prevent less predictable rainfalls, more severe storms, droughts and floods, and yet governments will ultimately bear responsibility for their repercussions. Worldwide, it is governments that oversee and enable the development and maintenance of infrastructure to support modern societies and the industrial activities that sustain them. In the 21st century, industrialised states will grapple with an expanded array of challenges in ensuring the wellbeing of their people, economies and social sectors. Climate change consequences will routinely present ‘predictable surprises’, upsetting budget projections, demanding emergency responses and new forms of policy coordination (Bazerman, 2006; Bazerman and Watkins, 2004). These challenges will be even greater for states that lack established and adaptable infrastructure and governmental capacity (United Nations Development Programme, 2008).

6. Energy, Progress and Population

At this point in the 21st century, states are confronting changes in their physical environments and the conditions upon which their economies and systems of political and social organisation are based, and many are clinging to historically established aspirations, expectations and modes of behaviour. For these states, the changes that are occurring in the fertility and habitability of their land, their access to secure freshwater resources and energy supplies are unfolding alongside persistent hopes of prosperity. Their aspirations are sustained by enduring beliefs that modernisation and industrialisation are synonymous with progress, and corresponding fears that relinquishing such aspirations might threaten the well-being of existing societies and structures. For many, their abilities to enjoy long lives, access to secure food supplies and advanced medicines are linked with the overall economic prosperity attained through globalised production and economic markets in the 20th century. These achievements occurred through successive international arrangements and political structures that were premised upon energy consumption.

7. Energy and the Security Dilemma

At present, it is difficult to imagine a future when the current reliance upon fossil fuel energy sources are not central to the activities of human societies, their economies and the efforts of governments and other actors to maintain social order. This is especially true for developed states where higher energy requirements support daily life and the extensive networks that maintain social order. The nature of developed states and the affluent lifestyles they support rely upon high rates of energy consumption and expectations of their continued availability such that an ‘abundance of energy is what defines life in industrial nations and distinguishes it from traditional’ societies and lifestyles (Prugh et al., 2008, p. 101). Consequently, it has become important to confront global climate change while also finding and developing sources of energy that are less environmentally harmful. As has been observed by Bill Gates (cited in Mosher, 2011, ‘if we don’t have innovation in energy, we don’t have much at all’.

8. Water, Food and Fire

Throughout the 20th century, higher atmospheric temperatures increased the intensity of the global water cycle, altering the processes of water evaporation, cloud formation, rainfall, river flow and groundwater storage, thereby changing ‘its impacts upon regions and continents’ (Huntington, 2006, p. 90). Further changes will continue into the future as atmospheric temperatures continue to rise. These changes in the global water cycle are altering the distribution of water resources which will, over time, also alter the suitability of many parts of the world for human habitation (Postel, 2000, p. 941). As is often observed, climate change has begun to make parts of the world wetter, more prone to flooding, with shorter periods of intense rainfall, while others are becoming more prone to severe and protracted periods of drought. Many scientists argue that even if urgent action is taken to reduce green-house gas emissions in order to slow the rate of increasing atmospheric and ocean temperatures, water redistributions will create major challenges for current patterns of human settlement, food production and industrial capacities (United Nations Development Programme, 2008; Parry et al., 2007; Pearce, 2007). If the build-up of atmospheric green-house gases is not reduced, and atmospheric temperatures increase more quickly, scientists predict that some ‘areas of the globe… [will] become uninhabitable’ (Diffenbaugh and Scherer, 2011, p. 616; see also Sherwood and Huber, 2010).

9. Solutions, Ideas and Institutions

Ideas about transforming human societies contributed to the industrial revolution and entrenched beliefs in progress and civilisation alongside the development and adoption of new production practices. These developments were supported by additional ideas concerning rights and prosperity across the world. Modern states were created through these ideas and early states were supported by additional ideas concerning legitimate authority and capacities to exert an independent rule of law over territory (Philpott, 1997). Through these developments, states became key political entities as they were attributed particular status and rules were established for their conduct.

10. Rights, Responsibilities and Sovereignty

Climate change is a problem of extraordinary scale and constitutes one of the most significant challenges ever to confront the modern global community. Like the potential of global nuclear war, climate change threatens the continuation of modern societies. Prevailing scientific consensus, even at their most modest, is that it will fundamentally alter the political, social and economic activities of all societies. These effects call into question many of the development practices that have produced and sustained the contemporary world. In so doing, they undermine certainty in future industrialisation and raise doubts concerning current notions of progress.

11. Identity, Ethics, Security and Order

Climate change impacts present a series of escalating political ramifications for states and the broader array of actors who comprise the contemporary world. Responding to impacts such as rising atmospheric temperatures and sea levels, loss of agriculturally productive land, redistributions of water resources, increased storms and severe fires all demand new forms of action from political actors and organisations. These changes impose new responsibilities upon political, economic and social actors, including those who remain reluctant to accept new levels of authority and collective action. The Copenhagen Summit 2009 demonstrated the extent to which government leaders continue to clutch at historically based concepts of sovereign authority, prosperity, harmony, order and international influence. States continue to hope that their interdependent geophysical systems will prove amenable to independent management. Indeed, the limited outcomes of the Copenhagen Climate Summit suggest that states regard their political independence as more important than addressing global climate change.

12. Global Guardians

Popular notions of industrialisation and development are no longer viable and a growing global population cannot achieve affluent lifestyles configured upon Western images of progress (World Wildlife Fund, 2012, p. 6; Corson, 1994, pp. 206–207). Such aspirations inevitably collide with issues arising from global climate change and their political and economic implications. Across the world, governments, their citizens, international organisations, economic and social actors confront political challenges in resetting the ideas, values and practices that sustain their well-being. Cooperative international problem sharing will rely upon popularising new core values to ensure effective environmental management and sustainability. Whether or not human activities are drivers or mere contributing components of increased storms, redistributions in water and changed climatic patterns has become irrelevant. Also irrelevant are debates concerning potential rates and distributions of climate change impacts or arguments concerning the relative merits of various projection models. The world’s ecosystems cannot absorb the impending resource demands of the currently expanding population: these physical limitations would have required major changes in industrial practices regardless of observed changes in climate.

Conclusion: Why Global Responses Take Time

This book took far longer to complete than we initially anticipated, for many of the same reasons that have stymied rapid global responses to climate change. Life and other urgent concerns, the changing science, cycles of optimism and pessimism and continued scepticism all contributed. The simple question that gave rise to this project was: If addressing global climate change is a moral imperative, why are international responses so difficult to achieve? Our research confirms the assumption underpinning this question: international responses to global climate change are difficult to achieve, and the immensity of the problems create political obstacles that require political will and determination to resolve. Responding effectively to global climate change requires the international political community to collaboratively find solutions, and this is especially difficult given the magnitude of the problem and the diversity and number of necessary participants. Addressing climate change is so vexed because its consequences extend into a great many fundamental aspects of modern lifestyles — both lived and imagined. These same lifestyles are posited as potential or significant contributors to environmental problems. Accommodating so many uneven impacts and fundamental imperatives leads to responses marked by fits and starts, ambiguity, contested claims, conflicting interests and, ultimately, fatigue and malaise.


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