Global Politics

by Andrew Heywood

Chapter 16 Notes: Global Environmental Issues

  • How and why has the environment developed into a global issue?
  • Do modern environmental problems require reformist or radical solutions?
  • What are the causes and major consequences of climate change?
  • How far has international action over climate change progressed?
  • What obstacles stand in the way of international cooperation over climate change?
  • How has energy security shaped conflict both between states and within states?

The environment is often viewed as the archetypal example of a global issue. This is because environmental processes are no respecters of national borders; they have an intrinsically transnational character. As countries are peculiarly environmentally vulnerable to the activities that take place in other countries, meaningful progress on environmental issues can often only be made at the international or even global level. Nevertheless, international cooperation on such matters has sometimes been very difficult to bring about. This has occurred for a number of reasons. In the first place, the environment has been an arena of particular ideological and political debate. Disagreements have emerged about both the seriousness and nature of environmental problems and about how they can best be tackled, not least because environmental priorities tend to conflict with economic ones. Can environmental problems be dealt with within the existing socio-economic system, or is this system the source of those problems? Such debates have been especially passionate over what is clearly the central issue on the global environmental agenda, climate change. Despite sometimes catastrophic predictions about what will happen if the challenge of climate change is not addressed, concerted international action on the issue has been frustratingly slow to emerge. What have been the obstacles to international cooperation over climate change, and what would concerted international action on the issue involve? Finally, climate change is not the only issue on the global environmental agenda. Another issue of major concern is energy security, with some talking in terms of a new international energy order in which a country's ranking in the hierarchy of states is being increasingly determined by the vastness of its oil and natural gas reserves, or its ability to acquire them. To what extent has energy security reshaped global order, and are natural resources always a blessing?

  • The environment is often seen as the archetypal example of a global issue. The intrinsically transnational character of environmental processes means that countries are peculiarly environmentally vulnerable to the environmental activities that take place in other countries. Meaningful progress on environmental issues can therefore often only be made at the international or even global level.
  • Disagreements about the seriousness and nature of environmental problems, and about how they can best be tackled, are rooted in deeper, often philosophical debates about the relationship between humankind and the natural world. Reformist and radical strategies are influenced by contrasting views about whether human needs (anthropocentrism) or larger ecological balances (ecocentrism) should take precedence.
  • Climate change has dominated the international environmental agenda since the early 1990s. Although some disagreement persists, there has been a growing consensus that climate change is happening, and that it is the product of human activity, notably the emission, since the beginning of the industrial age, of greenhouse gases. However, substantial disagreement persists both about its consequences (and so the seriousness of the problem) and, most particularly, about how it should be tackled.
  • Effective international action to tackle climate change is hampered by a variety of obstacles to international cooperation. The most significant of these are: (perhaps fundamental) conflict between national self-interest and the common good; tensions of various kinds between developed and developing states; biases within capitalism in favour of growth; and a deeply-rooted ethic of materialism and consumerism.
  • Energy resources have come to be seen as having a growing bearing on matters such as security, development and conflict, particularly as access to oil, gas and coal has become a crucial factor in determining the shape of twenty-first century world order. However, it is by no means clear that natural resources are always a source of national power, in that resources may be a 'curse' when they, for instance, create economic imbalances and attract unwanted foreign interference.