Unit 4D Environmental Politics

Global Environmental Politics

  • The environment as a political issue: Rise of environmental politics
    • Rachel Carson Silent Spring(1962); Animal Experimentation; Deforestation; Fossil fuel depletion; Greenhouse Gases; Carbon Dumping & Ozone Depletion; Acid Rain; Pesticides; Food Additives; Species Depletion and extinction
    • environmental degradation as a by-product of industrialisation;
    • Resource problems  – energy depletion; population growth, shrinking rainforests etc);
    • Sink problems pollution of air and water; carbon dioxide emissions; acid rain,
    • growth of  environmental activism from 1960s onwards  ‘green’ movement;
    • Environmental NGOs – Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth, etc);
    • 1970s-1980s concerns about resource depletion; since 1990s concerns about climate change/global warming.
    • Climate change is a global phenomenon.The issue cannot be tackled by nations working alone – requires a unique degree of cooperation to promote agreement on emission reduction targets, phasing out of CFCs

Approaches to the environment

  • Reformist/modernist ecology
    • balance between modernization (economic growth; industrialization, etc) and ecology (‘modernist ecology’)
    • sustainable development – future generations entitled to at least the same living standards as present generation;
    • ‘weak’ sustainability (technology and human capital compensates for natural capital);
    • reliance of markets (‘green capitalism’, etc) and human ingenuity (science, technology and innovation).
  • Radical ecology
    • environmental degradation stems from deeper, structural problems;
    • problem of ‘industrialism’ (large-scale production, the accumulation of capital, relentless growth; modernization is the problem);
    • capitalism underpins industrialism – ‘green capitalism’ a contradiction in terms
    • need to reject  consumerist and materialist values (source of ‘growthism’ and block to serious environmental politics;
    • ‘strong’ sustainability (‘ecological footprint’).
    • Tragedy of the commons


  • Garret Hardin, 1968


    • threat to ‘global commons
    • tension between private good and collective good,
    • between national interest and global well-being;
    • global commons despoiled (water, forests, energy resources, the atmosphere, animals
    • ‘free rider’ problem(how to persuade private bodies/states to address public/global problems?
  • Causes of climate change
    • debate about the existence and cause of global warming, but much reduced since about 2004-05 (growing scientific consensus);
    • ‘greenhouse effect’ (existence in the atmosphere of GHGs (carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide) that absorb and emit infrared radiation from the ground, trapping-in heat from the sun);
    • increased levels of GHGs, and particularly carbon dioxide, are human-induced or anthropogenic (caused by burning fossil fuels, as basis for industrial processes – energy, transport, construction.
  • Progress of international cooperation on climate change
    • 1988 establishment of IPCC;
    • 1992 Rio ‘Earth Summit’ endorse idea of ‘sustainable development’ and signing of UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC)
    • 1997 Kyoto Protocol; advantages of the Kyoto Protocol (legally binding targets for develop countries; developed ‘cap and trade’ approach;
    • Criticisms of Kyoto Protocol (unambitious targets; developing states not included (China and India);
    • USA remained outside; loopholes in emissions trading process, etc);
    • 2007 Bali conference; successor to Kyoto negotiated at Copenhagen conference in November-December 2009;
    • Obstacles to effective international cooperation  – ‘
      • free rider’ problem;
      • economic ‘costs’ are politically and electorally unattractive,
      • insufficient pressure from below
      • global recession
      • Self interest  – Economic growth-Tensions between the collective good and the national interest
      • Disagreement about whether climate change is natural or man made – energy corporations, mining corps etc minimize the extent to which climate change is manmade and irreversible
      • Question of climate debt –  the idea an obligation of the developed world to the developing world to compensate for environmental damage caused by the industrialised nations.
      • Debates of mitigation vs. adaptation
      • The tragedy of the commons – Hardin – how to tackle climate change (Public V Private)
      • Massive dependency on natural resources –
      • Tensions between developed and developing states  – Ideological conflict
      • Kyoto, – legally binding targets which turned out not to be legally binding
      • Copenhagen, largely a failure no binding targets were agreed upon to further the Kyoto objectives
      • Durban (2011, South Africa, (dubbed Copenhagen 2.0) – also regarded as a failure.
      • Differences between deep ecology (Radical ecology) and shallow ecology(Reformist ecology)
    • ‘Solutions’ to climate change


  • reformist solutions


        • modest GHG emission targets, allowing for economic growth;
        • ‘green’ technology to create a carbon-neutral economy;
        • market solutions (‘green’ consumerism; ‘green’ taxes; emissions trading, etc);
        • adaptation rather than mitigation


  • radical solutions
  • substantial cuts in GHG emissions;
  • restructuring of economy (greatly increased government intervention)
  • tackling consumerism and materialism steady-state economy
  • Adaptation Vs Mitigation
  • Adaptation
  • It is better to respond to the most pressing needs first. Longer term environmental change can be adapted to over time.
  • Efforts to stem global warming will not succeed. We need to tailor local strategies to dealing with the effects of this fact.
  • We can use an expansion of nuclear technology and more fuel efficient modes of transport.
  • We should plan to remove populations from coastal areas prone to flooding and improve seawalls and surge barriers.
  • The costs and benefits of mitigation are uncertain and longer term. We cannot foresee what environmental challenges will arise and therefore may be wasting efforts.
  • Adaptation has the potential to reduce adverse impacts of climate change and to enhance beneficial impacts, but will incur costs and will not prevent all damages.
  • Mitigation
  • The ability of human systems to adapt to and cope with climate change depends on such factors as wealth, technology, education, infrastructure, access to resources, management capabilities, acceptance of the existence of climate change and the consequent need for action, and sociopolitical will
  • Mitigating global warming will be easier than fighting it later
  • Adaptation in the form of humanitarian crises is unacceptable. It will condemn huge numbers to the worst effects of climate change
  • Unmitigated climate change will be too devastating to allow for the formulation of effective adaptation policies
  • The Stern Review (Nicholas Stern Economist 2009) argues that mitigation much less costly than the impacts of climate change.


PARIS CLIMATE CHANGE AGREEMENT 2015 in effect October 2016:

  • keep global temperatures “well below” 2.0C (3.6F) above pre-industrial times and “endeavour to limit” them even more, to 1.5C
  • To limit the amount of greenhouse gases emitted by human activity to the same levels that trees, soil and oceans can absorb naturally, beginning at some point between 2050 and 2100
  • To review each country’s contribution to cutting emissions every five years so they scale up to the challenge
  • For rich countries to help poorer nations by providing “climate finance” to adapt to climate change and switch to renewable energy.


  • Dr Ilan Kelman of UCL, London, says the lack of time scales are “worrying”. “The starting point of $100bn per year is helpful, but remains under 8% of worldwide declared military spending each year.
  • Only elements of the Paris pact will be legally binding.
  • The national pledges by countries to cut emissions are voluntary, and arguments over when to revisit the pledges – with the aim of taking tougher action – have been a stumbling block in the talks.
  • The pact promises to make an assessment of progress in 2018, with further reviews every five years.
  • As analysts point out, Paris is only the beginning of a shift towards a low-carbon world, and there is much more to do.
  • “Paris is just the starting gun for the race towards a low-carbon future,” says WWF-UK Chief Executive David Nussbaum.
  • Prof John Shepherd of the National Oceanography Centre, University of Southampton, says the agreement includes some welcome aspirations but few people realise how difficult it will be to achieve the goals.
  • “Since the only mechanism remains voluntary national caps on emissions, without even any guidance on how stringent those caps would need to be, it is hard to be optimistic that these goals are likely to be achieved.”

Realist Liberal and Critical Perspectives on the Environment


  • Realist
  • has paid little attention to the environment as an issue and is more concerned with survival than sustainability.
  • Because selfishness, greed and aggression are natural to humans and states it is assumed states and other forms of human organisation will plunder resources for short term gain.
  • Realists would also accept that most wars are resource wars.


  • Liberal
    • Nature is resource to be exploited and commodified.
    • It is assigned a value and thus exploited in a market efficient way.
    • Modern Liberals however have been concerned to develop a more positive approach emphasising the rights of future generations (Singer, 1993)
  • Critical
    • Two main theories have emerged. Feminism and ecology.
    • For most ecofeminists there is a link between patriarchy and environmental exploitation.
    • Deep ecologists on the other hand stress that humans have no specific rights over the environment.

Past Paper Questions (15 marks)

Why do states find it difficult to cooperate over environmental issues?

What is the tragedy of the commons and explain its implications for global environmental policy?

Explain why there has been a growing interest in strategies to adapt rather than reduce climate change.

Distinguish between the competing views of reformists and radicals over tackling global environmental issues.

In what sense is the environment a global issue and why is this significant?

Explain the implications of the idea of sustainable development

Distinguish between mitigation and adaptation as strategies for dealing with climate change.

Essay Questions (45 Marks)

‘Global warming sharply divides political opinion.’ Discuss.

‘The international community has failed to take concerted action over climate change.’ Discuss.

  • In the best cases, responses showed an awareness of a variety of attempts to tackle the issue of climate change, usually including the Rio ‘Earth Summit’ of 1992, the Kyoto Conference of 1997 and the Copenhagen Conference of 2009
  • In some cases, candidates demonstrated very thorough knowledge of the outcomes of Copenhagen in particular, as well as the ability to analyse the strengths and weaknesses of the resulting agreement.
  • Generally, the international community’s failure to take concerted action over climate change was stressed at the expense of the progress it has made
  • Kyoto at least established legally binding targets for a range of developed countries and Copenhagen at least demonstrated that the USA and China are willing to participate in the process of developing a response to the challenge of climate change.
  • On the other hand, strong responses often went beyond cataloguing the failures of the international community and, in addition, analysed the problems and difficulties confronting the international community on the issue of climate change.
  • These included the ‘tragedy of the commons’ and the ‘free rider’ problem, confl icts between developed and developing countries, and great power politics, notably rivalry between the USA and China or the USA and ‘the rest’.
  • Weak responses to this question tended to be characterised by insufficient knowledge and understanding, or knowledge and understanding that was not used as a basis for analysis and evaluation.
  • Blatantly one-sided answers also failed to meet requirements as far as synopticity is concerned.

To what extent was the 2009 Copenhagen conference on climate change a success?

Stronger candidates were able to provide a depth of knowledge of Copenhagen but also develop a wider argument about this process of tackling climate change.

Candidates highlighted successes such as that the Copenhagen Accord, through which the USA, China and other major developing countries committed themselves to cutting greenhouse gas emissions marked a significant advance over Kyoto, which imposed no obligations on developing countries to curb the growth of their emissions.

Similarly, the USA’s support for the Copenhagen Accord was an advance in the sense that the USA remained outside the Kyoto Protocol.

Many argued that Copenhagen was a ‘meaningful agreement’ in that it was a step on the road to more concerted action on the issue of climate change.

It should be judged in terms of preparing the ground for subsequent action, not in terms of its own specific achievements.

This was an area that stronger candidates developed.

Candidates balanced perceived success by countering with claims that the conference did not result in a legally binding agreement or any clear commitment to reach one in future.

The Copenhagen Accord does not set even non-legal targets for states to cut greenhouse gas emissions, and there is no global target for emissions reduction by 2015.

In addition, candidates made the point that the Accord is vague as to how the $100 billion fund for supporting developing countries in reducing emissions will be achieved.

Copenhagen gives mixed signs for success in tackling climate change and both reformists and radicals would argue that the Copenhagen conference strengthens their own view.

‘Effective international action over the environment will always be blocked by disagreement between developed and developing countries.’ Discuss.

To what extent is climate change an example of the ‘tragedy of the commons’?

‘International conferences on climate change are doomed to disappoint.’ Discuss.

To what extent has progress on environmental policies been blocked by conflict between developed and developing states?


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