Environmental Politics

Gulf Oil Spill

The Gulf Oil Spill of 2010

IPCC Report 2013








Rio 20+

The IPCC Dissected

Durban Assessed

Greenpeace Multimedia

Clickable Guide to the Environment

Short Answer Questions

Why do states find it difficult to cooperate over environmental issues? (15 marks)

The difficulty of fostering co-operation between and amongst states over environmental issues can be illustrated by slow progress in tackling climate change despite growing agreement that global warming is occurring.

The limitations of the Kyoto Protocol, and the difficulty of developing a successor to Kyoto, provide evidence of this.

The key obstacle to ensuring concerted environmental action over climate change and other issues is that a healthy environment is a collective or public good, in which states share a common fate if they fail to deal with the problem, but individual states have an incentive to be ‘free riders’, in that they hope to enjoy benefits without having to pay for them.

This is often illustrated by the idea of the ‘tragedy of the commons’ (Hardin). In this, pasture that is held in common tends to be destroyed as herdsmen, intent on achieving maximum gains, over-graze the land to the detriment of all. Individual ends therefore conflict with the collective or public good.

In environmental affairs this is reflected in a desire of self-seeking states to do as little as possible whilst hoping that other states will act on their behalf. Such tendencies are strengthened by the fact that, over climate change in particular, the states that contribute the most to the problem are the ones that must pay the highest price if concerted action is to be brought about.

How and why do environmental issues create tension between the developed and the developing worlds? (15 marks)

Environmental issues create tension between developed and developing countries in at least two ways:

Environmental degradation is often seen as one of the consequences of economic globalization, particularly in the developing world. This occurs because it creates pressure for economic restructuring, industrialisation and urbanisation in states that have little capacity to ensure effective environmental protection.

This has led to the almost universal acceptance in the developing world of the idea of ‘sustainable development’, which links economic to environmental concerns, taking account of the ecological implications of development.

Concerns about environmental protection and ecological sustainability also appear to deny developing-world states the opportunity to catch up with the West.

Western states developed through large-scale industrialisation, the exploitation of finite resources and a willingness to pollute the natural world, practices that they now seek to deny to the developing world.

In the politics of climate change, this is acknowledged in the idea that states have ‘common but differentiated responsibilities’, while developing countries expect developed ones to take the lead in tackling climate change, because they ‘caused’ the problem, developed countries believe the responsibility should be more broadly spread, reflecting current contribution to climate change rather than past contributions.

What is ‘the tragedy of the commons’, and explain its implications for global environmental policy? (15 marks)

The ‘tragedy of the commons’ is the idea that common land, before the introduction of enclosures, was often subject to over-grazing because each herder was able to keep as many cattle as possible on the commons.

Sooner or later, this would lead to tragedy as the number of cattle came to exceed the ‘carrying capacity’ of the land. As Garrett Hardin put it, ‘Freedom in a commons brings ruin to all’.

The ‘tragedy of the commons’ has significant implications for global environmental policy as the environment is a ‘global commons’ and self-interested states behave in the same ways as self-interested herders.

This idea therefore emphasises that if states are unconstrained they will inevitably despoil the environment because they place national interest before wider, long-term environmental considerations.

The primary implication of this is that environmental issues require an increase in political controls and regulations, perhaps some form of world government, as the primary threat to the environment stems from the existence of sovereign states.

Explain why there has been growing interest in strategies to adapt to, rather than reduce, climate change. (15 marks)

Mitigation strategies attempt to limit global warming by reducing the emission of greenhouse gases.

Examples of mitigation strategies include the following:

• Fuel switching from coal to gas.

• The wider use of nuclear power .

• The greater use of renewable heat and power.

Adaptation strategies involve learning to live with climate change. These include the following:

• The relocation of settlements, especially on coastal zones.

• Improved sea walls and storm surge barriers.

• Adjustment of planting dates and crop varieties.

Distinguish between the competing views of reformists and radicals over tackling global environmental issues. (15 marks)

Reformist thinking on environmental issues is evident in the views of mainstream politicians and political parties, sometimes seen as ‘light’ greens or ‘modernist’ ecologists.

Reformist approaches to global environmental issues have a number of features. These include the following:

Industrial capitalism is broadly accepted, in the belief that environmental issues can be adequately dealt with without significant constraints being applied to the capitalist market.

An emphasis is placed on the idea of sustainable development, which recognises that economic growth is good but merely requires that it be balanced against ecological considerations.

Environmental degradation can be tackled without a major increase in government intervention at national or global levels; indeed, this may be achieved largely through technological innovations and the responsiveness of capitalism to environmental concerns.

Radical thinking on the environment stems from the views of environmental NGOs and activist pressure groups. Radical approaches to the environment have a number of features, including the following:

Global capitalism is often seen as the primary cause of environmental degradation, in which case a major shift is needed away from free trade and neo-liberalism towards tighter regulation at both national and global levels.

The ability of states to pursue the national interest, prioritising economic growth and national prosperity over wider global concerns, is seen as a major cause of environmental degradation. Radical thinkers therefore tend to call for the establishment of strong and often legal supranational environmental regulation.

Materialism and consumerism are seen as major contributors to environmental problems, driving economic growth and state egoism. Radical approaches to the environment therefore often call for cultural change as well as political change.

In what sense is the environment a ‘global’ issue, and why is this significant? (15 marks)

The environment is often viewed as the archetypal example of a global issue in at least two senses.

First, environmental processes are no respecters of national borders, and therefore have an intrinsically transnational character. States are thus peculiarly environmentally vulnerable to the activities that take place in other state.

Second, some environmental issues, notable climate change, have worldwide implications, affecting, albeit in different ways and to different degrees, all counties and all peoples.

The chief implication of the transnational character of environmental issues is that they cannot be addressed by states acting alone.

Meaningful progress on environmental issues therefore often only be made at the international or even global level.

As global issues require global solutions, environmental issues place a particular emphasis on international cooperation.

This, then, creates tension between national self-interest and the common good.

Climate Change Resources

Essay Questions

‘Global warming is forcing international cooperation over environmental issues.’ Discuss. (45 marks)

Global warming is a recent phenomenon. For more than three decades leading to the 1970s climatologists believed that global cooling was occuring. Indeed some scientists argued that CO2 emissions would delay the onset of an ice age because CO2 would act as a blanket around the earth, keeping warm air inside.

Since the 1980s some scientists have expressed fears that global temperatures have been rising at an unprecedented rate. There is now widespread agreement that climate change, or global warming, is occurring.

There is less agreement over the causes of global warming, and whether global warming will have dire consequences, or if it will have beneficial consequences in some cases, and in others can be addressed using modern technology.

Achieving concerted global action on climate change is complicated since the tradition within International Relations is state-centric, centered around concepts of state sovereignty and the belief that states pursue their national interest.

Moreover, global environmental problems tend not to be caused by deliberate acts of national policy, but instead are the unintended side-effects of broader socio-economic processes.

Non- state actors such as firms are at least as important as states in that their activities will lead to environmental damage.

However, states do legislate within their territories and so should play a central role in developing and enforcing environmental solutions.

Environmental pessimists argue that humans are causing global warming.

They are also alarmed at the impact of global warming. Higher temperatures (between 1C and 5C higher by 2100) will speed the melting of the polar ice caps and sea levels will rise.

Studies indicate that the Arctic ice cap has shrunk by about 14,000 square miles since 1950. The sea level will rise by an average of 1-2mm per year, affecting many island countries such as the Maldives.

Also the frequency of violent storms and extreme weather has increased bringing devastation to many areas (note the effects of el Nino).

Environmental optimists point out that the Earth has natural warming and cooling trends, and since the Earth cooled slightly in the 1950s and 1960s any warming will have little overall effect.

The Bush administration have found scientists who claim that C02 is unlikely to cause any significant temperature change.

Other optimists claim that the only chance of a modest climate change is high. Indeed, some optimists argue that some areas will benefit from global warming.

Why should northern Britain worry about higher temperatures?

Growing seasons will lengthen and quality of life will improve. Inevitably some areas will suffer from rising sea levels or longer dry periods, but other areas will benefit. There will be winners and losers.

With such diversity of scientific opinion it is not surprising that concerted action on climate change has been difficult to achieve.

‘Global warming sharply divides political opinion.’ Discuss. (45 marks)

Climate change through global warming has become one of the most prominent issues in global politics. While there has been growing agreement that climate change is happening and that it is anthropogenic or human-induced, there continues to be a major debate about how pressing or serious the problem of global warming is.

Environmental groups have highlighted the pressing importance of global warming in a number of ways. In the first place, they have underlined the steep rate at which climate change is taking place, and therefore the seriousness of its impact.

It is widely argued that any temperature change of 3oC or above will have profound implications for weather patterns and human populations worldwide. Increased tropical cyclone activity creates a greater risk of death and injury from flooding and from water- and food-borne diseases, and also leads to major displacement of populations.

The increased evidence of extreme high sea levels causes a greater risk of death and injury by drowning, especially in the world’s great river deltas and in low-lying island groups.

Drought and the advance of desertification are likely to lead to an increased risk of food and water shortages, malnutrition and disease.

Although climate change will particularly affect Africa and the Arctic, its impact will be felt across the globe – an estimated 200-850 million people could be forced to move to more temperate zones by 2050 due to water shortages, sea level crises, famine, conflict and so on.

Furthermore, the problem of global warming is acute because of the radical nature of the strategies needed to address it.

In this view, effective action on climate change requires urgent agreement on bold targets to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, which will only be implemented through significant economic restructuring and an extension of ‘green’ interventionism by the state.

Fossil-fuel economies need to be transformed into carbon-neutral economies, and this may also have profound implications for levels of economic growth and consumption levels.

On the other hand, climate change sceptics argue that the problem of global warming has been exaggerated in a number of ways.

Some, although a diminishing number, continue to question whether climate change is happening and argue that it is more a natural, than a human-induced, phenomenon.

Others point out that predictions about global warming and its impact have often been exaggerated by environmental NGOs in order to promote fear and anxiety, even a kind of environmental hysteria.

Furthermore, the effects of global warming are by no means always negative and that human communities have a remarkable capacity to adapt to changing circumstances.

Sceptics certainly favour adaptation strategies over ones that seek to mitigate the impact of global warming. Finally, reformist or modernist environmentalists argue that the strategies to contain climate change are readily to hand, notably in the form of so-called ‘green’ capitalism and through technology that is already being developed, such as new forms of renewable energy, hybrid and electric cars, ‘clean’ coal and so on.

‘The international community has failed to take concerted action over climate change.’ Discuss. (45 marks)

International co-operation over climate change was initiated by the ‘Earth Summit’ in Rio in 1992.

The most significant international conferences on the issue have been at Kyoto in 1997 (which led to the Kyoto Protocol to the UN FCCC) and at Copenhagen in December 2009 (which was convened to frame a successor to the Kyoto Protocol, which runs out in 2012). However, opinions diverge on the effectiveness of these developments.

Environmental groups have been starkly critical of the international community’s response to the challenge of climate change. Particular criticisms have focused on the limitations of the Kyoto agreement.

The targets set at Kyoto were, arguably, quite inadequate in terms of preventing global warming, and the USA’s refusal to ratify the treaty dealt Kyoto a fatal blow, setting back the process of tackling climate change by over a decade.

Moreover, the targets set at Kyoto applied only to developed states, thereby excluding emerging economies were fast becoming major emitters. Chinese carbon emissions exceeded those of the USA’s for the first time in 2008.

The Copenhagen meeting attracted, if anything, even more criticism, being widely considered a failure.

In particular, no legally-binding targets emerged from the conference, at either the state or the global level, with tensions between the USA and China supported by other emerging economies widely being credited for this.

The main obstacles to concerted international action include the cumulative impact of state self-interest, especially in view of the likely economic impact of implementing tough emissions reductions, great power tensions in a multipolar context, and rivalry between developed and developing states.

The international community’s response to climate change can, nevertheless, be defended. For example, Kyoto has always been seen as the first step in a longer process of international co-operation.

As such, it made sound progress in terms of establishing the principle of binding emissions targets, and recognised the differentiated responsibilities of developed and developing states by, initially, setting targets for developed states only.

Moreover, it is also notable, that international co-operation on the issue has grown, with Russia and Australia, initially non-participants, signing the Kyoto Protocol and the Obama administration in the USA adopting a much more sympathetic stance on environmental policy generally and on climate change in particular.

This was evident at Copenhagen, which, for all its limitations, demonstrated a recognition by the USA and China in particular that their participation in this process is essential. As such it marked and important step on the road to more concerted action.

To what extent was the 2009 Copenhagen conference on climate change a success? (45 marks)

The 2009 Copenhagen conference on climate change was called to formulate a successor to the Kyoto Protocol. Views about its success and failure have diverged dramatically, however.

The conference has been viewed as a success for a number of reasons, including the following:

The so-called 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.

However, the Copenhagen conference has widely been considered a failure for a number of reasons. These include the following:

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 if no global target for emissions reduction by 2015.

The Accord is vague as to how the $100 billion fund for supporting developing countries in reducing emissions will be achieved.

The Copenhagen conference is widely viewed as having become the victim of both the reluctance of governments generally to take bold action on climate change in the context of a global recession, and of great power politics, with China taking the opportunity to demonstrate its burgeoning influence in the light of the shifting balance of global power.

‘Effective international action over the environment will always be blocked by disagreement between developed and developing countries.’ Discuss. (45 marks)

Effective international action over the environment has often been difficult to bring about, as the example of climate change clearly indicates.

One of the key problems underpinning lack of progress is disagreement between developed and developing countries.

This occurs for at least three reasons.

First, developing countries tend to believe that many environmental problems are essentially caused by developed states, being linked to a process of industrialisation that has continued for over 200 years.

Second, developing countries are generally unwilling to take action over the environment that then blocks their ‘right to development’. On the grounds of social justice they should be treated differently from developed countries.

Third, as most of the world’s population lives in developing countries, they tend to argue that the responsibility for tackling environmental problems should take account of population size. Clearly, this is resisted by less populated, developed countries.

However, there is a growing recognition that environmental problems are global and so do not merely threaten developed or developing countries or particular parts of the world more than others.

This is leading to a growing consensus that countries, developed and developing, should all shoulder a responsibility for tackling environmental problems, not least because a growing proportion of the world’s emissions and pollution is being generated by developing countries rather than developed ones.


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