Climate Change is the BIG issue in IR

COP_12_MAVThe most important issue in IR today, climate change, is receiving little scholarly attention in our discipline. To help address this gap, I am hereby winding down much of my work on war, retiring from my IR textbook, and will make climate change my main area of work. Thirty years ago I set out to understand war because it was the overriding moral issue of our time and the greatest threat to humanity. Today that issue is climate change.

Climate matters not only for practical reasons but because it cuts to the heart of IR as a field. IR is all about the governance of an “anarchic” system with weak central authority, in which power resides primarily in sovereign states whose individually rational decisions lead to bad outcomes for all. We call it the collective goods problem (public goods, collective actions, Prisoners’ Dilemma, etc.). It’s the central, pervasive theme of my IR textbook, shaping subfields from war to trade to international development. But the biggest example, the most difficult dilemma, and the case with the greatest impact is climate change.

Each actor’s economy benefits from burning fossil fuels, no single actor can affect the overall outcome alone, yet all will suffer catastrophic consequences as a result. The global governance mechanisms have proven very weak – the Kyoto treaty basically failed, targets are not being met, some leading economies are backsliding, and nobody has a workable plan for how to change our trajectory. Year by year, for our global institutions it’s “talk, baby, talk” while in the real world it’s “drill, baby, drill” from the melting Arctic to the American shale fields to the Persian Gulf.

The basic structural challenges to reaching agreement are amplified by several additional problems. Today’s generation would have to pay costs for the benefit of future generations – a hard sell whether in a democracy or an autocracy. Rich country would have to pay for the benefit of poor countries. And specific constituencies and regions will feel different costs and impacts:  multinational oil companies versus farmers in Bangladesh, for example. On top of it all, there is widespread public confusion about the issue, notably in its categorization as an “environmental” problem as though it will impact cute animals not cities.

This then is a prime area for IR scholarship in general and IR theory in particular.  The guru of IR theory, Robert Keohane, thinks so. But he writes, “In view of the magnitude of climate change, it is distressing to observe the slow response from political science as a discipline.” That’s an understatement. Consider the current issues of our leading IR journals. Let’s count the number of climate change articles and the total number of articles:

  • International Studies Quarterly, 0 for 16
  • Am. Political Science Review, 0 for 10
  • International Organization, 0 for 11
  • World Politics, 0 for 5
  • Journal of Conflict Resolution, 0 for 7
  • Journal of Peace Research, 2 for 8

Across these six journals, we have 2 climate-related articles out of 57. Both of those are about possible effects of shifting weather patterns on something we do study – armed conflicts. Not a single article deals with the challenge of an international system trying to come to terms with a massive collective goods problem that threatens civilization. This in a year when the world will gather in Paris to try for a new global agreement to grapple with the problem. Debra Javeline calls climate change “the most important topic political scientists are not studying.”

Climate change is not an environmental issue. It’s an existential issue – the slow-motion equivalent of an asteroid heading for earth. We have no effective global mechanism to develop and launch a mission to knock that asteroid off its trajectory. Yet every day it gets closer and harder to shift off its course. How would the world respond to that scenario?  Would a hegemon take the reins and implement a solution?  The G20?  The United Nations?  Would all countries have to contribute to an expensive solution?  Would competing programs by different states step on each other’s toes?  Would private companies abandon the profit motive to develop technologies to save us? These are the kinds of questions we should be asking about climate change in IR. Now would be a good time to start. The asteroid is not waiting.


[Photo credit:  COP 12 MAV by agenciaandes. Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons]

One response to “Climate Change is the BIG issue in IR

  1. Owain Blackwood

    An interesting pivot in political science; would certainly be intriguing to see some more in-depth analysis on climate change and its surrounding connections by academics in the field.