Politics of climate change

Doi (identifier) Kyoto Protocol Wikipedia:Citation needed

Sign reads "Political change not climate change" at the Melbourne climate strike in 2019

The complex politics of global warming results from numerous cofactors arising from the global economy's dependence on carbon dioxide (CO
) emitting fossil fuels; and because greenhouse gases such as CO
, methane and N
(mostly from agriculture) cause global warming.[1]

  1. Implications to all aspects of a nation-state's economy: The vast majority of the world economy relies on energy sources or manufacturing techniques that release greenhouse gases at almost every stage of production, transportation, storage, delivery & disposal while a consensus of the world's scientists attribute global warming to the release of CO
    and other greenhouse gases. This intimate linkage between global warming and economic vitality implicates almost every aspect of a nation-state's economy;[2]
  2. Perceived lack of adequate advanced energy technologies: Fossil fuel abundance and low prices continue to put pressure on the development of adequate advanced energy technologies that can realistically replace the role of fossil fuels—as of 2010, over 91% of the world's energy is derived from fossil fuels and non-carbon-neutral technologies.[3] Without adequate and cost effective post-hydrocarbon energy sources, it is unlikely the countries of the developed or developing world would accept policies that would materially affect their economic vitality or economic development prospects;
  3. Industrialization of the developing world: As developing nations industrialize their energy needs increase and since conventional energy sources produce CO
    , the CO
    emissions of developing countries are beginning to rise at a time when the scientific community, global governance institutions and advocacy groups are telling the world that CO
    emissions should be decreasing.
  4. Metric selection (transparency) and perceived responsibility / ability to respond: Among the countries of the world, disagreements exist over which greenhouse gas emission metrics should be used like total emissions per year, per capita emissions per year, CO2 emissions only, deforestation emissions, livestock emissions or even total historical emissions. Historically, the release of CO
    has not been even among all nation-states, and nation-states have challenges with determining who should restrict emissions and at what point of their industrial development they should be subject to such commitments;
  5. Vulnerable developing countries and developed country legacy emissions: Some developing nations blame the developed world for having created the global warming crisis because it was the developed countries that emitted most of the CO
    over the twentieth century and vulnerable countries perceive that it should be the developed countries that should pay to fix the problem;
  6. Consensus-driven global governance models: The global governance institutions that evolved during the 20th century are all consensus driven deliberative forums where agreement is difficult to achieve and even when agreement is achieved it is almost impossible to enforce;
  7. Well organized and funded special-interest lobbying bodies: Special interest lobbying by well organized groups distort and amplify aspects of the challenge (fossil fuels lobby,[4][5] other special interest lobbying[citation needed]);

The focus areas for global warming politics are Adaptation, Mitigation, Finance, Technology and Losses[clarification needed] which are well quantified and studied but the urgency of the global warming challenge combined with the implication to almost every facet of a nation-state's economic interests places significant burdens on the established largely-voluntary global institutions that have developed over the last century; institutions that have been unable to effectively reshape themselves and move fast enough to deal with this unique challenge. Rapidly developing countries which see traditional energy sources as a means to fuel their development, well funded environmental lobbying groups and an established fossil fuel energy paradigm boasting a mature and sophisticated political lobbying infrastructure all combine to make global warming politics extremely polarized.[citation needed] Distrust between developed and developing countries at most international conferences that seek to address the topic add to the challenges. Further adding to the complexity is the advent of the Internet and the development of media technologies like blogs and other mechanisms for disseminating information that enable the exponential growth in production and dissemination of competing points of view which make it nearly impossible for the development and dissemination of an objective view into the enormity of the subject matter and its politics.[citation needed]

Nontraditional environmental challenge

Traditional environmental challenges generally involve behavior by a small group of industries which create products or services for a limited set of consumers in a manner that causes some form of damage to the environment which is clear. As an example, a gold mine might release a dangerous chemical byproduct into a waterway that kills the fish there: a clear environmental damage.[6] By contrast, CO
is a naturally occurring colorless odorless trace gas that is essential to the biosphere.[contradictory] Carbon dioxide (CO
) is produced by all animals and utilized by plants and algae to build their body structures. Plant structures buried for tens of millions of years sequester carbon to form coal, oil and gas which modern industrial societies find essential to economic vitality. Over 80% of the worlds energy is derived from CO
emitting fossil fuels and over 91% of the world's energy is derived from non carbon-neutral energy sources.[citation needed] Scientists attribute the increases of CO
in the atmosphere to industrial emissions and scientists agree the increase in CO
causes global warming. This essential nature to the world's economies combined with the complexity of the science and the interests of countless interested parties make climate change a non-traditional environmental challenge.

Carbon dioxide and a nation-state's economy

The vast majority of developed countries rely on CO
emitting energy sources for large components of their economic activity.[7] Fossil fuel energy generally dominates the following areas of an OECD economy:

Peak oil may significantly affect geopolitics.[8]

Perceived lack of adequate advanced low-carbon technologies

As of 2019 fast growing cities in developing countries lack alternatives to traditional high-carbon cement,[9] and the hydrogen economy and carbon capture and storage are not widespread.

Industrialization of the developing world

The developing world sees economic and industrial development as a natural right and the evidence shows that the developing world is industrializing.

Metric selection and perceived responsibility / ability to respond

There are disagreements over which countries should be subject to emissions restrictions.

While the biosphere is indifferent to whether the greenhouse gases are produced by one country or by a multitude, the countries of the world do express an interest in such matters. As such disagreements arise on whether per capita emissions should be used or whether total emissions should be used as a metric for each individual country. Countries also disagree over whether a developing country should share the same commitment as a developed country that has been emitting CO
and other greenhouse gases for close to a century.

Some developing countries expressly state that they require assistance if they are to develop, which is seen as a right, in a fashion that does not contribute CO
or other greenhouse gases to the atmosphere. Many times, these needs materialize as profound differences in global conferences by countries on the subject and the debates quickly turn to pecuniary matters.

Most developed countries place very modest limits on their willingness to assist developing countries.

Vulnerable developing countries and developed country legacy emissions

Some developing countries fall under the category of vulnerable to climate change. These countries involve small, sometimes isolated, island nations, low lying nations, nations which rely on drinking water from shrinking glaciers etc. These vulnerable countries see themselves as the victims of climate change and some have organized themselves under groups like the Climate Vulnerable Forum. These countries seek climate finance from the developed and the industrializing countries to help them adapt to the impending catastrophes that they see climate change will bring upon them.[10] For these countries climate change is seen as an existential threat and the politics of these countries is to seek reparation and adaptation monies from the developed world and some see it as their right.


Global warming politics focus areas

Government policies regarding climate change and many official reports on the subject usually revolve around one of the following:

Consensus-driven global political institutions

The primary mechanism for the world to tackle global warming is through the Paris Agreement, which replaced the Kyoto Protocol in 2020, both established under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) treaty.

In 2014, the UN with Peru and France created the Global Climate Action portal for writing and checking all the climate commitments[19][20]

National politics

A 2014 study from the University of Dortmund concluded that countries with center and left-wing governments had higher emission reductions than right-wing governments in OECD countries for the time period 1992–2008.[21] In 2019 climate change became an increasingly important political issue in Germany.[22] In 2019 the highest court in the Netherlands has upheld a landmark ruling that defines protection from the devastation of climate change as a human right and requires the government to be more ambitious in cutting greenhouse gas emissions.[23] The future energy policy of China includes one of the most important climate decisions of the early 2020s: when to stop building coal-fired power stations.[24]

City politics

City politicians advocating measures which have local short-term benefits for their constituents, such as low emission zones, may also have the co-benefit of reducing greenhouse gas emissions.[25]

Politics of scrapping fossil fuel subsidies

The International Monetary Fund periodically assesses global subsidies for fossil fuels as part of its work on climate, and it found in a working paper published in 2019, that the fossil fuel industry received $5.2 trillion in subsidies in 2017. This amounts to 6.4 percent of the global gross domestic product.[26] In line with these findings, the Central Banks of France and the United Kingdom appealed to stop subsidies to fossil fuels and the European Investment bank has announced it will stop financing fossil fuels projects by the end of 2021.[27]

According to the International Institute for Sustainable Development most attempts to remove fossil fuel subsidies are successful and the keys points are to: consult, compensate poor people affected by the change, and implement step-by-step.[28]

Politics of coal phase out

Sandbag and Europe Beyond Coal have analysed policy in Europe and suggest that coal phase out should be: ambitious, legislated. just. clean, economic, healthy, reliable and smart.[29]

Politics of trees

As of 2019 the preservation of forests is emerging as a global political issue.[30]

Special interests and lobbying by non-country interested parties

Global warming has attracted the attention of left-wing groups, as here with the Democratic Socialists of America.

There are numerous special interest groups, organizations, corporations who have public and private positions on the multifaceted topic of global warming. The following is a partial list of the types of special interest parties that have demonstrated an interest in the politics of global warming:

The various interested parties sometimes align with one another to reinforce their message. Sometimes industries will fund specialty nonprofit organizations to raise awareness and lobby on their behest.[41][42] The combinations and tactics that the various interested parties use are nuanced and sometimes unlimited in the variety of their approaches to promote their positions onto the general public.

Interaction of climate science and policy

Global warming has attracted the attention of central bank governors, as here with Mark Carney, appointed UN envoy for climate action in 2019.

In the scientific literature, there is an overwhelming consensus that global surface temperatures have increased in recent decades and that the trend is caused primarily by human-induced emissions of greenhouse gases.[43][44][45]

The politicization of science in the sense of a manipulation of science for political gains is a part of the political process. It is part of the controversies about intelligent design[46][47] (compare the Wedge strategy) or Merchants of Doubt, scientists that are under suspicion to willingly obscure findings. e.g. about issues like tobacco smoke, ozone depletion, global warming or acid rain.[48][49] However, e.g. in case of the Ozone depletion, global regulation based on the Montreal Protocol has been successful, in a climate of high uncertainty and against strong resistance[50] while in case of Climate Change, the Kyoto Protocol failed.[51]

While the IPCC process tries to find and orchestrate the findings of global (climate) change research to shape a worldwide consensus on the matter[52] it has been itself been object of a strong politicization.[53] Anthropogenic climate change evolved from a mere science issue to a top global policy topic.[53]

The IPCC process having built a broad science consensus does not hinder governments to follow different, if not opposing goals.[53][54] In case of the ozone depletion challenge, there was global regulation already being installed before a scientific consensus was established.[50]

A linear model of policy-making, based on a more knowledge we have, the better the political response will be does therefore not apply. Knowledge policy,[53] successfully managing knowledge and uncertainties as base of political decision making requires a better understanding of the relation between science, public (lack of) understanding and policy instead.[51][54][55] Michael Oppenheimer confirms limitations of the IPCC consensus approach and asks for concurring, smaller assessments of special problems instead of large scale attempts as in the previous IPCC assessment reports.[56][needs update] He claims that governments require a broader exploration of uncertainties in the future.[56]

It has been estimated that only 0.12% of all funding for climate-related research is spent on the social science of climate change mitigation.[57] Vastly more funding is spent on natural science studies of climate change and considerable sums are also spent on studies of impact of and adaptation to climate change.[57] It has been argued that this is a misallocation of resources, as the most urgent puzzle at the current juncture is to work out how to change human behavior to mitigate climate change, whereas the natural science of climate change is already well established and there will be decades and centuries to handle adaptation.[57]


Historical annual CO2 emissions for the top six countries and confederations.
See or edit source data.
CO2 emissions per capita from 1900 to 2017.[58]

Historically, the politics of climate change dates back to several conferences in the late 1960s and the early 1970s under NATO and President Richard Nixon. 1979 saw the world's first World Climate Conference. 1985 was the year that the Vienna Convention for the Protection of the Ozone Layer was created and two years later in 1987 saw the signing of the Montreal Protocol under the Vienna convention. This model of using a Framework conference followed by Protocols under the Framework was seen as a promising governing structure that could be used as a path towards a functional governance approach that could be used to tackle broad global multi-nation/state challenges like global warming.

One year later in 1988 the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change was created by the World Meteorological Organization and the United Nations Environment Programme to assess the risk of human-induced climate change. Margaret Thatcher 1988 strongly supported IPCC and 1990 was instrumental to found the Hadley Centre for Climate Prediction and Research in Exeter.[59][60]

In 1991 the book The First Global Revolution was published by the Club of Rome report which sought to connect environment, water availability, food production, energy production, materials, population growth and other elements into a blueprint for the twenty-first century: political thinking was evolving to look at the world in terms of an integrated global system not just in terms of weather and climate but in terms of energy needs, food, population, etc.

1992 was the year that the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) was agreed at the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro and the framework entered into force 21 March 1994. The conference established a yearly meeting, a conference of the parties or COP meeting to be held to continue work on Protocols which would be enforceable treaties

1995 saw the creation of the phrase "preventing dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system" (also called avoiding dangerous climate change) first appeared in a policy document of a governmental organization, the IPCC's Second Assessment Report: Climate Change 1995.[61] and in 1996 the European Union adopt a goal of limiting temperature rises to a maximum 2 °C rise in average global temperature.

In 1997 the Kyoto Protocol was created under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) in a very similar structure as the Montreal Protocol was under the Vienna Convention for the Protection of the Ozone Layer which would have yearly meetings of the members or CMP meetings. However, in the same year, the US Senate passed Byrd–Hagel Resolution rejecting Kyoto without more commitments from developing countries.[62]

Since the 1992 UNFCCC treaty, eighteen COP sessions and eight CMP sessions have been held under the existing structure. In that time, global CO2 emissions have risen significantly and developing countries have grown significantly with China replacing the United States as the largest emitter of greenhouse gases. To some, the UNFCCC has made significant progress in helping the world become aware of the perils of global warming and has moved the world forward in the addressing of the challenge. To others, the UNFCCC process has been a failure due to its inability to control the rise of greenhouse gas emissions.

A number of proposals for a Global Climate Regime are currently discussed, as the Durban Platform for Enhanced Action calls for a comprehensive new agreement in 2015 that includes both Annex-I and Non-Annex-I parties.

Selective historical timeline of significant climate change political events

Daniel Patrick Moynihan, pioneer of the political treatment of the greenhouse effect

Political economy of climate change

Political economy of climate change is an approach that applies the political economy thinking of collective or political processes to study the critical issues surrounding the decision-making on climate change.[citation needed]

The ever-increasing awareness and urgency of climate change have pressured scholars to explore a better understanding of the multiple actors and influencing factors that affect the climate change negotiation, and to seek more effective solutions to tackle climate change.[68] Analyzing these extremely complex issues from a political economy perspective helps to explain the complex interactions between different stakeholders in response to climate change impacts and provides broader opportunities to achieve better implementation of climate change policies.[citation needed]

Climate Change is first and foremost a political issue now that it has become a widely believed fact.[69] When dealing with climate change, the inhabitants of countries must see themselves as “global citizens” rather than separate entities if any real long-term progress is to be made.[citation needed] In accordance with a global perspective, countries balance legislation regarding climate change in a way that benefits developing nations while refraining from discouraging developed nations from contributing to the effort.[citation needed]



Climate change and global warming have become one of the most pressing environmental concerns and the greatest global challenges in society today. As this issue continues to dominate the international agenda, researchers from different academic sectors have for long been devoting great efforts to explore effective solutions to climate change, with technologists and planners devising ways of mitigating and adapting to climate change; economists estimating the cost of climate change and the cost of tackling it; development experts exploring the impact of climate change on social services and public goods. However, Cammack (2007)[70] points out two problems with many of the above discussions, namely the disconnection between the proposed solutions to climate change from different disciplines; and the devoid of politics in addressing climate change at the local level. Further, the issue of climate change is facing various other challenges, such as the problem of elite-resource capture, the resource constraints in developing countries and the conflicts that frequently result from such constraints, which have often been less concerned and stressed in suggested solutions. In recognition of these problems, it is advocated that “understanding the political economy of climate change is vital to tackling it”.[70]

Meanwhile, the unequal distribution of the impacts of climate change and the resulting inequity and unfairness on the poor who contribute least to the problem have linked the issue of climate change with development study,[71][72] which has given rise to various programs and policies that aim at addressing climate change and promoting development.[73][74] Although great efforts have been made on international negotiations concerning the issue of climate change, it is argued that much of the theory, debate, evidence-gathering and implementation linking climate change and development assume a largely apolitical and linear policy process.[75] In this context, Tanner and Allouche (2011) suggest that climate change initiatives must explicitly recognize the political economy of their inputs, processes and outcomes so as to find a balance between effectiveness, efficiency and equity.[75]


In its earliest manifestations, the term “political economy” was basically a synonym of economics,[76] while it is now a rather elusive term that typically refers to the study of the collective or political processes through which public economic decisions are made.[77] In the climate change domain, Tanner and Allouche (2011) define the political economy as “the processes by which ideas, power and resources are conceptualized, negotiated and implemented by different groups at different scales”.[75] While there have emerged a substantial literature on the political economy of environmental policy, which explains the “political failure” of the environmental programmes to efficiently and effectively protect the environment,[77] systematic analysis on the specific issue of climate change using the political economy framework is relatively limited.

Current Context: The Urgent Need for Political Economy

Characteristics of Climate Change

The urgent need to consider and understand the political economy of climate change is based on the specific characteristics of the problem.

The key issues include:

Socio-political Constraints

The role of political economy in understanding and tackling climate change is also founded upon the key issues surrounding the domestic socio-political constraints:[70]

Research focuses and approaches

Brandt and Svendsen (2003)[86] introduce a political economy framework that based on the political support function model by Hillman (1982)[87] into the analysis of the choice of instruments to control climate change in the European Union policy to implement its Kyoto Protocol target level. In this political economy framework, the climate change policy is determined by the relative strength of stakeholder groups. By examining the different objective of different interest groups, namely industry groups, consumer groups and environmental groups, the authors explain the complex interaction between the choices of an instrument for the EU climate change policy, specifically the shift from the green taxation to a grandfathered permit system.

A report by the Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD) (2011) takes a political economy approach to explain why some countries adopt climate change policies while others do not, specifically among the countries in the transition region.[88] This work analyzes the different political economy aspects of the characteristics of climate change policies so as to understand the likely factors driving climate change mitigation outcomes in many transition countries. The main conclusions are listed below:

Tanner and Allouche (2011)[75] propose a new conceptual and methodological framework for analyzing the political economy of climate change in their latest work, which focuses on the climate change policy processes and outcomes in terms of ideas, power and resources. The new political economy approach is expected to go beyond the dominant political economy tools formulated by international development agencies to analyse climate change initiatives[89][90][91] that have ignored the way that ideas and ideologies determine the policy outcomes (see table).[92] The authors assume that each of the three lenses, namely ideas, power and resources, tends to be predominant at one stage of the policy process of the political economy of climate change, with “ideas and ideologies predominant in the conceptualisation phase, power in the negotiation phase and resource, institutional capacity and governance in the implementation phase”.[75] It is argued that these elements are critical in the formulation of international climate change initiatives and their translation to national and sub-national policy context.

Comparison between the new and traditional political economy analysis of climate change initiatives
Issue Dominant approach New political economy
Policy process Linear, informed by evidence Complex, informed by ideology, actors and power relations
Dominant scale Global and inter-state Translation of international to national and sub-national level
Climate change science and research Role of objective science in informing policy Social construction of science and driving narratives
Scarcity and poverty Distributional outcomes Political processes mediating competing claims for resources
Decision-making Collective action, rational choice and rent seeking Ideological drivers and incentives, power relations

See also


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