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Climate Change

Abstract and Keywords

Greenhouse gases emitted anywhere affect people everywhere, and they will do so for a very long time. Progress on an international response to climate change has been bedeviled by ethical, political, and economic fractures, highlighting the severe limitations of the Westphalian state system. Non-state actors have played a crucial role in negotiations; some are “internationalist,” whereas others are “globalist.” Climate change is inseparable from capitalism’s insatiable appetite for growth. The rise of China destabilizes previous understandings of the world, including those of global studies and world-systems analysis. There are signs of a new cosmopolitanism, although securitization of the climate threat works against it. The globality of the natural world calls for a rethinking of global studies.

Keywords: climate change, global warming, global studies, Kyoto Protocol, Paris Agreement, China, cosmopolitanism, securitization

We all experience weather parochially, but local and regional weather is embedded in interlocking weather systems spanning the entire globe. So when human activity changes the climate, it becomes the global issue par excellence—one that will only gain in stature in the growing academic field of global studies. Climate change concerns not only every nation’s future climatic regime but also the functioning of the planet as a whole. In addition to a warming world, extreme weather events are increasing in frequency, the oceans are becoming more acidic as they absorb more carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, ice masses from glaciers to the Arctic to Greenland are melting, sea levels are rising, and many plant and animal species are facing extinction. Some of these changes are now irreversible and will affect the Earth for thousands or tens of thousands of years (Archer 2009). Climate change is therefore about the conditions in which all humans will live, however much we may think we have isolated ourselves from the weather, as complacent New Yorkers learned when Hurricane Sandy, intensified by human-induced climate change, devastated the city in 2012.

We know all this as a result of a remarkable process of global scientific cooperation that has prompted—if all too slowly—a unique process of global political cooperation. Today, a vast network of measuring instruments covers the Earth’s land masses, oceans, and ice sheets (Edwards 2010). Along with orbiting satellites bristling with sensors, the network comprises a truly global data collection and monitoring system. Meteorological agencies in all countries feed information into the system and rely on data supplied by other nations to forecast the national weather and assess the effects of global warming.

We know that the Earth’s atmospheric layer is shared by all of us, not merely because we all breathe it but because we now understand that what we do in our daily lives may affect the climate in the remotest areas of the globe. The carbon dioxide emitted from a power station in Seattle affects the climate in Beijing, and the emissions from vehicle exhaust pipes in Beijing influence the climate in Nairobi. The more scientists have discovered about the global climate system, the more we appreciate that our local weather connects us all. At least, it does for those who are open to the lessons of climate science. For a number of reasons, others remain doggedly closed to them (Hamilton 2010: 95–133).

That the Earth’s climate system rings the entire planet now seems obvious, yet it was not until the end of the nineteenth century that scientists first began to formulate a conception (p. 632) of a worldwide climate system operating in the planet’s thin layer of atmosphere. Scattered early ideas suggesting a global system of climate were brought together in an 1896 book by Julius von Hamm, The Earth as a Whole: Its Atmosphere and Hydrosphere, and yet a popular handbook published in 1922, and still being published in 1961, argued that “the notion of a global climate made little sense” because the weather is too changeable between the poles and the tropics (Edwards 2010: 67–69).

Until that point, the climate had been thought of as a local or regional phenomenon, as the average patterns of daily weather. But especially since the end of World War II, climatologists began to understand that the weather is influenced not only by local factors—latitude, vegetation, proximity to mountains and seas, urban air pollution, and so on—but also by planetary phenomena such as variations in solar insolation, the great air circulation processes that drive the monsoons, and, crucially, the greenhouse effect (Edwards 2010: 80).

Solar radiation warms the Earth, but the heat would be mostly radiated back into space if it were not for the atmosphere trapping some of it, in the same way that the glass of a greenhouse traps heat and warms it more than the air outside. The idea of global warming is best dated from the pioneering work of Swedish chemist Svante Arrhenius, who, in a now-famous 1896 paper, made some remarkably accurate calculations concerning the influence of carbon dioxide and water vapor on the average temperature of the globe. “Arrhenius,” writes Edwards, “may have been the first scientist to image that human activities might cause global climate change,” although he was concerned with global cooling rather than global warming (Edwards 2010: 74).

The greenhouse gases that help block some of the infrared heat escaping the Earth include water vapor, carbon dioxide, methane, and several others of lesser impact. The main sources of human-induced global warming are carbon dioxide emissions from the burning of fossil fuels (coal, oil, and natural gas). In 1958, Charles David Keeling set up instruments to measure carbon dioxide on top of an extinct volcano in Hawai’i. It soon became evident that the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere was steadily increasing year on year. Keeling’s first measurement in 1958 showed it at 315 parts per million (ppm), compared to the long-term pre-industrial level of the late eighteenth century of 280 ppm. In 1970, it had reached 325 ppm; it was 353 ppm in 1990, and accelerating through the 1990s and 2000s, in 2016 it broke through the 400 ppm mark, a level that had not been exceeded for 23 million years. Although scientists knew it was coming, it caused widespread alarm and rising anxiety among them and all who understand what is at stake.

The Keeling curve prompted some climate scientists to turn their minds to how industrial activity may be changing the climate, and by the late 1970s many began to worry that warming may cause serious harm. Scientists organized conferences to discuss their research, including an important one in Villach, Austria, in 1985, where it became clear that a broad consensus had emerged on the basic propositions of global warming. The issue began to filter into the political domain and the media in the United States and Europe. Developing countries began to take notice, too, because they would be the worst affected by a changing climate.

In 1988, the issue was debated in the United Nations General Assembly, leading to a declaration that climate change is a “common concern of mankind” (Bodansky 2001: 25). In a crucial development in the same year, the World Meteorological Organization and the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) founded the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). Although established by governments, the IPCC draws (p. 633) together the most qualified climate scientists from throughout the world to sift through and synthesizes all the latest scientific research, subjecting each of the major claims to the most rigorous scrutiny. In an unprecedented program of global scientific cooperation, approximately every five years it publishes the results of its work in three compendious reports—one on the science of climate change itself, one on the current and expected impacts of climate change, and one on the range of policies that might be adopted to counter global warming or adapt to it. Its fifth report was published in 2015. The evidence for human-induced global warming is drawn from a wide range of sources and is now mountainous.

Global Politics

The IPCC’s reports provide the foundations for international negotiations and represent the most extensive, thorough, and influential global scientific collaboration ever attempted. Its first report in 1990 laid the groundwork for the vital global agreement reached in Rio de Janeiro in 1992, the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. Soon ratified by virtually all nations of the world, the Convention’s objective (under Article 2) was to stabilize greenhouse gas emissions at a level that would prevent “dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system.” In recognition of the very unequal contributions of nations to global warming and the very unequal distribution of its harmful impacts—in summary, rich countries have caused the problem and poor countries will suffer most—Article 3.1 of the Convention required parties to make efforts in accord with their “common but differentiated responsibilities and respective capabilities”; that is, those most responsible for causing the problem, and those that can more easily afford to reduce their emissions, should take the lead.

The Convention and the two previously mentioned principles still underpin all international climate change negotiations. Although bilateral agreements and plurilateral agreements have played a significant role—none more so than the 2015 agreement between China and the United States—the global response to climate change has been governed by negotiations between the parties to the Convention. They meet formally each year at Conferences of the Parties (COPs), such as the landmark COP21 in Paris in late 2015. These global negations and the agreements they reach (or fail to reach) have a substantial, although variable, influence on each nation’s greenhouse gas reduction efforts. Among rich nations, some take their international obligations more seriously than others, with the main influences being the seriousness with which they treat the scientific warnings, the political influence of the fossil fuel lobby, and the “ecological consciousness” of their citizens.

The 1992 Framework Convention was the product of hard-fought negotiations in which the divergent positions of various parties, which had been forming over the previous few years, clashed (Bodansky 2001; Oberthür and Ott 1999). Sharp divisions have bedeviled negotiations ever since, with each nation or party striving to play its role while protecting the “national interest.” Climate change negotiations have brought into sharp focus the concept of the national interest, which in recent decades has come to be defined increasingly narrowly by economic impacts and the commercial interests of domestic businesses. The extent to which political leaders include protecting their citizens—not to mention the citizens of other nations and all future citizens—from the effects of dangerous climate (p. 634) change has been highly variable, and indeed the positioning of parties has changed as their governments have changed.

Climate change highlights, perhaps more clearly than any other issue, the difficulties and tensions created by the global order structured on the Westphalian state system—that is, the system, first agreed in Europe with the Peace of Westphalia in 1648, that divides the world into nations each with its own sovereignty over its territory. How does a nation defend its sovereignty when it cannot prevent other nations from transforming, perhaps dramatically, the conditions of life in one’s own territory? Only a collective approach by humanity, acting in concert to respond to a common threat, holds any hope, because climate change operates above all territories as a planetary phenomenon. It is changing, if slowly, how nations and people think about themselves and their place in the world.

While negotiations are conducted between states, non-state actors have had an important influence. International non-governmental organizations (NGOs) acting outside of the state system attempt to influence the actions of states and indeed of each other. For our purposes, there are two main kinds.1

Business organizations such as those representing the world’s coal industry and the nuclear power industry are the first kind.2 Corporations that are otherwise in competition with each other have a common interest in stopping or shaping responses to climate change. At their most influential, they form alliances with state negotiators, as at times they have, for example, with the Australian government (Hamilton 2001). In recent years, the monopoly exercised by the fossil fuel industries has been challenged by the alternative energy industries, mainly wind and solar, which have grown rapidly in size and therefore in political sway. Finance industries have also begun exerting influence, generally in a positive direction, as they seek to reduce the risk of carbon-based assets.

The world view of business organizations is better described as “international” rather than “global” because they link the business interests of their members across national borders rather than taking a global approach to the problems of climate change.

Global environmental NGOs such as Greenpeace and the World Wildlife Fund are the second kind of non-state actors. Although best known for their public campaigning, they also engage in lobbying and produce policy papers to shape opinion. Although there have been important differences in strategy between the environmental NGOs, they often cooperate and, at times, coordinate their activities. The larger groups have made concerted efforts to establish offshoots in developing countries and forge ties of solidarity with kindred organizations in the South. They also exchange ideas and coordinate their activities with local, national, and international NGOs through a number of continent-wide Climate Action Networks, which help internationalize the perspectives of national NGOs. These networks amplify the voices of the poor and vulnerable of the Global South. Because they are more focused on protecting the global commons from dangerous climate change and promoting global solidarity with poor and vulnerable people throughout the world, the perspective of environmental NGOs is better described as “global” rather than “international.”

At the COPs, environmental NGOs have had a substantial influence on various players. In the face of government and corporate resistance, their policy work and activism have helped frame proposals and outcomes more in keeping with what climate science states must be done to avoid dangerous climate change. They have influenced the negotiating stances of major parties, especially governments that aim to appeal to “green voters,” and have helped shape the media messages that go out to the world from the conferences. They (p. 635) have also provided expert support for nations too small to have the scientific and other expertise needed to participate effectively in negotiations.

Global Justice

Since the world met in Rio de Janeiro in 1992, international negotiations have been dogged by a critical question: Who is responsible?

Calculating each nation’s annual and historical greenhouse gas emissions is relatively straightforward, and it is done using a system of greenhouse accounting agreed at the Kyoto COP in 1997. But allocating blame and responsibility for fixing the problem is much more difficult. Blame matters because, as an ethical principle, it would seem that those most to blame for causing the damage to the global climate have an obligation to do most to fix it. Although the answers have often been acrimonious, the question of blame invites us to view climate change as one for the citizens of the world as a whole.

So who is to blame? Is it those nations that now have the highest annual emissions? Those that have contributed most during the past 200 years? Those with high emissions per person, even if as small rich countries their overall emissions are less than those of a large poor country? And just as a fair tax system asks the rich to pay proportionally more, should we not take into account the principle of capacity to pay for emission reductions as well as the principle of polluter pays? What about poor people in rich countries whose personal emissions are low compared to those of rich people in poor countries who drive around in limousines and live in mansions? Are we global citizens with a responsibility to all, and especially the world’s poor, or are we national citizens committed only to the “national interest”? And should those nations that have caused most disruption to the climate pay compensation to those nations that will be most damaged?

Posing these awkward questions suggests that at its heart the debate over how to respond to a warming world is an ethical one involving questions of global justice, despite the frequent framing of climate change as an economic question (Gardiner 2011). From the first day the global community began debating what to do, the negotiations have been mired, and at times wrecked, by differences over how to answer them. Nevertheless, the 1992 Framework Convention enshrined a number of principles that have guided negotiations. The principle of intergenerational equity declares that “the Parties should protect the climate system for the benefit of present and future generations of humankind.” The principle of “common but differentiated responsibilities and respective capabilities” captures the greater historical contribution of rich countries to the accumulation of greenhouse gas emissions in the atmosphere and imposes a greater obligation on those that can afford it to reduce their carbon emissions. Of course, agreeing to a broad set of principles is easier than implementing them. When there is no international enforcement mechanism, it is even more difficult.

In the 1990s, a concept emerged that is globally cosmopolitan in form and intention. “Contraction and convergence” is an ethical principle and a practical solution based on the idea that every person in the world ought to have the same entitlement to pollute the atmosphere—that is, “converge” on an equal per person right to emit (Meyer 2004). But avoiding dangerous climate change demands that emissions per person fall to a very low (p. 636) level—that is, “contract” to that level—usually by 2050. Calculations indicate that to avoid the worst effects of climate change, average per person carbon dioxide emissions would need to decline to approximately 1 tonne of carbon dioxide equivalent, compared to emissions in 2014 of 16.5 tonnes in the United States, 7.6 tonnes in China, 1.8 tonnes in India and 0.5 tonnes in Nigeria.3

The principle of equal per capita rights can be operationalized only by joining it with the notion of a global carbon budget—that is, the upper limit of global carbon emissions from now until 2050 that is consistent with keeping warming below the internationally agreed limit of 2°C. Fair shares of the global carbon budget for each state are then calculated by combining the two, leaving it to each country and its monopoly on law-making to decide how best to fulfill its commitment. So under a contraction and convergence approach, fair shares of the global carbon budget would be allocated to each nation, but how that share is divided among individual citizens is left to those nations to decide. They may not allocate their national carbon budget in an equitable way.

Although the principle of contraction and convergence has not been formally adopted, and is unlikely to be, the language of climate change treaties has increasingly reflected the idea behind it. Some states, such as the United Kingdom, have calculated their emission reduction trajectories accepting that their “fair share” of global emissions in 2050 should be no more than the global per capita average (multiplied by their population) needed to limit warming to less than 2°C.

The Lost Years, from Kyoto to Paris

When the COP was held in Kyoto in 1997, competing notions of fairness were exploited in pursuit of economic benefit. After exhaustive negotiations, the parties agreed to a protocol aimed at turning the principles enshrined in the Framework Convention into concrete, legally binding actions. The developed countries committed themselves to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions by certain percentages by 2012. The United States agreed to cut them by 7% compared to 1990 levels, the European Union by 8%, and Japan by 6%. (Australia demanded it be allowed to increase its emissions by 8% above 1990 levels and inserted a special loophole permitting a much higher increase (Hamilton 2001).) Recognizing their need to industrialize, and rich nations’ responsibility for most emissions, developing countries were not obliged to limit the growth in their emissions, although it was implied that at some future point they would make such commitments.

Before an international treaty can enter into force and become legally binding on participating parties, it must be ratified by a specified number of nations. (Ratification usually means formal endorsement by a nation’s legislature but may be done by presidential fiat.) While President Clinton was negotiating the protocol in Kyoto, the US Senate passed a resolution rejecting the treaty and any other treaty that imposed emission limits on some nations but not others. When George W. Bush became president in 2000, he announced that the United States would not be ratifying, which was almost a deathblow to the Kyoto Protocol. By 2005, enough parties had ratified the treaty for it to enter into force. Although the European Union was taking its commitment seriously, it was clear that the Protocol was (p. 637) wholly inadequate to tackle skyrocketing global carbon emissions and the increasingly apparent damage being caused by a warming world.

The search began for a new way to respond to the worsening problem. Global conditions were changing rapidly from those that gave rise to the Kyoto Protocol in 1997. Two stood out. First, the “top-down” approach of imposing, through negotiation, legally binding emission limits was no longer acceptable and had proven largely ineffective. Second, the profile of global emissions was changing radically, with China’s extraordinarily rapid industrial growth causing it to surpass the United States and become the world’s largest emitter of greenhouse gases in 2007. Today, China’s emissions are double those of the United States. China’s rapid economic expansion made it a far more powerful player in global politics. The reshaping of the global economy saw climate policy alliances shifting. Europe’s influence has declined sharply; new blocs such as BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa) have emerged; and the most vulnerable nations, especially the low-lying small island states and Africa’s poorest countries, have been increasingly isolated, although their isolation, combined with more confronting scientific forecasts, has made them more determined to demand strong actions.

When the nations of the world met at the climate change conference in Copenhagen in 2009, this global reordering was very apparent. Attempts to broker a new agreement were resisted by China, and the conference broke up in disarray. A period of deep gloom settled over activists, policymakers, and clean energy businesses, with no apparent way forward. But the process of rebuilding began. A new architecture emerged with two core components. The Kyoto-style top-down approach would be replaced by a “pledge-and-review” system in which every nation would, on the basis of its own assessment of its circumstances and obligations, pledge to reduce its emissions or the growth of its emissions and agree to review its contribution periodically (Zia 2013). There was an understanding that pledges would be expected from both developed and developing nations.

After a series of conferences and a great deal of work behind the scenes, including a historic bilateral agreement between China and the United States announced in September 2015, this new approach was agreed to by all parties at the Paris climate conference in December 2015. Since 2009, the Chinese Government, increasingly concerned about the impacts of climate change and severe urban air pollution, had shifted to a much more constructive approach. It also anticipates that its huge program of investment in renewable energy will see it become the global economic powerhouse for clean-energy technology.

China and the Reshaping of the Globe

From this very brief history, a number of conclusions can be drawn. First, the era of the United States’ global hegemony is over. The post-Soviet era of a single superpower, following the Berlin Wall’s collapse in 1989, lasted less than two decades. China is asserting itself as a countervailing force. An agreement between the United States and China was essential for a new global climate change agreement to emerge, and we should expect the same precondition in other matters of global affairs for the foreseeable future, perhaps until India attains a level of economic influence that creates a tripartite structure.

(p. 638) Second, China realized that it could exempt itself from emission reduction commitments but it could not exempt itself from the effects of a changing climate, including the domestic political unrest that environmental disputes cause throughout the “Middle Kingdom.” In addition, a powerful nation that exempts itself from global agreements limits its own influence, particularly on questions that profoundly affect every nation.

The changing role of China in international efforts to respond to the threat of climate change undermines one of the central planks of global studies, namely the binary view of the world taken by many global studies scholars based on the legacy of colonialism (the “postcolonial perspective”) and the understanding of globalization as the imposition on an unwilling South of the economic model and way of living of the North.

A glance at historical statistics for national greenhouse gas emissions shows the North to be responsible for bringing on climate change. And any familiarity with the history of negotiations and national actions from the early 1990s confirms the unwillingness of most rich nations to respond to the scientific warnings by cutting their emissions. The sharp division between North and South in the climate negotiations was predictable on purely moral grounds: “You caused the problem, you fix it.”

However, with the rise of China to the position of a global economic power, with the carbon emissions to match, it must be accepted that the old world of North and South has been upended. Many scholars have argued that China’s emissions do not count morally because a large portion of them is emitted making consumer goods exported to the North (Bonneuil and Fressoz 2016). The intention of this argument is to keep China firmly in the exploited South by continuing to attribute sole blame for climate change to the North and the capitalist world-system it established and still enforces. This perspective is an articulation of so-called dependency theory developed in Latin America in the 1960s and 1970s to explain continued subservience of developing countries after decolonization in the 1950s.

Yet any fair assessment of the example of China shows it is time to abandon simple notions of dependency. The facts speak against it. First, the share of China’s total emissions arising from export manufacture has been approximately 30%, a figure that is declining as China reorients its economy toward domestic consumption, which every year erodes the basis of the postcolonial argument. Although there is a long history of American and European corporations relocating factories to poor countries with lax environmental laws to avoid stricter ones at home, it is simply not true that corporations in the North imposed their dirty factories on China as a means of exploiting cheap labor and weak environmental laws. Aware of its lack of capital, expertise, and certain intangible resources, China invited corporations in the North to bring their factories to China but under strict conditions (Economist Intelligence Unit 2004). Foreign corporations, even the most powerful ones, often found themselves at the mercy of hard-nosed domestic companies with which they were forced to enter joint ventures. Those that refused to play by Chinese rules were forced to leave.

So China chose the path of export-oriented industrialization as an act of national sovereignty, and it did so as the quickest way of enriching itself. This was part of a deliberate shift in official ideology and practice first announced by Deng Xiaoping and then pursued vigorously by subsequent leaders (Shirk 1993).4 One sign of its astonishing success came in 2008 when the United States found that its ability to respond to the financial crisis was severely constrained because it had funded much of its public debt by borrowing from China’s central bank. Far from being a product of unequal relations of power, exchange, (p. 639) and material flows throughout the world, China’s massive greenhouse gas emissions are an expression of its sovereign power. If anything, compared to the United States, and certainly to Europe, global power and economic strength have tilted in China’s favor, as will be attested to by many in Africa, where Chinese corporations have bought up huge swathes of land and resources. Arguably, China’s coal-fueled growth has given it too much power over others.

China’s rise as a global economic and political power has given rise to a widening split within the South at international climate change negotiations. For many years, developing countries had negotiated as a bloc under the banner of “G77 plus China.” However, at the 2009 Copenhagen climate change conference, China adopted an intransigent stance leading to the effective collapse of negotiations, pursuing its own economic and geopolitical interests at the expense of the small island states and the most vulnerable countries.

In summary, the rise of China has fractured the old view of the world divided between the exploited South and the dominant North. To characterize China’s astonishing economic growth rates in the 1990s and 2000s, and so its enormous greenhouse gas emissions, as the result of neocolonial manipulation puts entrenched belief before history. A new, more complex, subtle and dynamic framework is required.

Climate Change as the Product of Capitalism

If the North did not impose its polluting factories on China, it did export something much more transformational—capitalism. The imperative of capitalism is the need for capital to continually expand through constant questing for new markets or a greater share of old ones (Barry 2012). A stationary capitalism is a contradiction in terms. It is driven by the restless search for higher profits and the growth of “shareholder value.” This is structured into and inseparable from the system itself. If anyone occupying its commanding heights became convinced that protection of the environment must come before profits and growth, then they would have no alternative but to resign. The improvement of living standards is incidental to the process of expansion of capital; it is not true that the rich get richer and the poor get poorer. Yet governments of right and left are united in their conviction that their first responsibility is to facilitate economic growth through providing conditions supportive of business. They insist that we can have both uninterrupted growth and a healthy environment. If only one were possible, then growth would undoubtedly come first, and the natural environment would go into terminal decline (as it arguably has).

This is why analysts such as Wright and Nyberg (2015) argue that “the threat of climate change is fundamentally connected with the expansion of global capitalism” (p. 6) and that businesses operate in an incentive system that encourages them to “devour the very life-support systems of a habitable environment” (p. 25). Angus (2016), too, writes of capitalism’s “fundamental drive to grow and speed up, and its consequent tendency to override and rupture nature’s essential processes and cycles” (p. 126). The expansion of capitalism in the nineteenth century became increasingly dependent on fossil fuels for energy, a trend that only intensified in the twentieth century. This gave enormous financial and political power (p. 640) to oil and coal corporations, a system that has been dubbed “fossil capitalism” (Angus 2016: 108; Malm 2016).

Harking back to the discussion of the role of non-state actors, when corporations organize to influence international treaty negotiations, they are doing more than protecting their commercial interests. They are defending a system, the global system of capitalism organized on neoliberal principles. In this goal, they mobilize an army of supporters—in the media, universities, think tanks, public institutions, and politics—whose function is to persuade the citizenry that climate change is not so serious as to require radical action and that the best way to respond is through the system itself.

China and World-Systems Analysis

Drawing on dependency theory, world-systems analysis emerged in the 1970s to counter modernization theory, the idea that all societies could be placed somewhere on a well-defined trajectory of economic and technological development. In modernization theory, each nation operates independently as it moves through the stages of development driven by the historical force of “progress.” Underdeveloped countries were lectured by the rich to speed up the process by emulating the practices of modern states. In general, this meant opening up their economies to foreign corporations and withdrawing government from the economy. Adopting liberal democratic forms was preferable, although in practice the United States was not averse to sponsoring coups and insurgencies to topple democratically elected governments if they did not act in ways sympathetic to US corporations.

World-systems analysis rejected the idea of autonomous nations moving more or less quickly along the path of “development.” The world is not made up of a collection of sovereign states but, rather, is composed of national components of a world system, with a few powerful ones occupying the “core” and the others consigned to the “periphery” (Wallerstein 1999: 192–197). The relationship between core and periphery has been one of unequal exchange, with the periphery providing raw materials at cheap prices, at times compelled by military force. In the nineteenth century, for example, Britain launched two wars against China in order to keep the supply of tea flowing.

The world system is driven by capitalist accumulation—that is, the endless imperative of capital to expand, mainly by finding new areas (geographically and socially) to draw into the commodity world. The world system began to take shape some five centuries ago. Its reach and power grew so that it now encompasses the entire world in a tightly knit system. The “globalization” of the 1990s and 2000s has only been a more intense phase. World-systems understanding has recently been mobilized by Bonneuil and Fressoz (2016), among others, to explain the climate crisis in terms of “unequal ecological exchange” whereby unequal flows of matter, energy, commodities, and capital between rich and poor countries have enabled the rich to become richer while imposing environmental degradation and exploitation on poor countries (pp. 224–225, 250–252).

The rise of China provides a fundamental challenge to world-systems understanding. It is true that China’s growth is due to the opening up of the nation to capitalist accumulation, but it contradicts the other main elements of the approach. First, as discussed previously, capitalism took hold in China as a result of decisions by the Chinese Communist (p. 641) Party and not because corporations or political powers in core countries imposed it. If there has been an “unequal ecological exchange” manifested in China’s enormous emissions of greenhouse gases, it is because China invested heavily in manufacturing and infrastructure as a deliberate strategy. Second, if as a poor country China was firmly on the periphery, its rapid growth into a global economic powerhouse—its total gross domestic product is expected to exceed that of the United States within a decade or two—has moved it from the periphery to the core, which undermines the core–periphery analytical structure, which is one of subjugation. Third, the Chinese model of capitalism is very different from the neoliberal model characteristic of the West, with widespread state ownership or state control of all major businesses.5 Although encouraged to grow aggressively, in the final analysis Chinese corporations serve the interests of the state rather than the other way around.

Thus, the rise of China (to take only the most striking example) both further unifies the world under the global system of capitalism and also divides it by demonstrating that capitalism can take sharply different forms and can itself, contrary to world-systems analysis, upset the core–periphery structure. It is a complex world in which the claim that “the prosperity of the rich countries is constructed by way of a monopolization of the benefits of the Earth and an externalization of environmental damages by the phenomena of dispossession and ‘unequal exchange’ ” (Bonneuil and Fressoz, 2016: 225) is unhelpful when taken as a general rule.

A New Cosmopolitanism?

If climate change threatens the future prosperity and stability of all nations, indeed of life itself, perhaps it will give rise to a growing cosmopolitan sentiment, the sense among the world’s citizens that “we are all in this together” and therefore must act collectively to respond to the danger. This is certainly the sentiment that is de rigueur in the rhetoric of leaders when they gather at climate change conferences.

In this form of cosmopolitanism, the world is viewed as “a community of people and not a set of countries” so that “ethical obligations and responsibilities are not defined or delineated by national borders” (Harris 2011b: 6–7). These sentiments are globalist rather than international in their recognition that “human beings, rather than states, ought to be at the centre of moral calculations” (Harris 2011a: x).

Although phenomena such as Brexit, Trumpism, and the rise of European xenophobia argue against it, there is evidence that this kind of sentiment is widespread in the world. It underpins the approach of influential NGOs. And some progressive nations negotiate with a view to balancing national interests with the interests of the poor and vulnerable wherever they may live. Chancellor Merkel’s decision in 2015 to admit an unlimited number of Syrian refugees to Germany was an expression of this standpoint, despite the backlash.

There was also evidence at the 2015 Paris conference that a cosmopolitan sentiment is gaining ground. The meeting itself and the agreement that came out of it can be seen as taking a small but important step toward a more global view. Undoubtedly, rising anxiety prompted by the warnings of climate scientists led to more willingness to join a common (p. 642) cause rather than retreat to the realpolitik of nations jockeying to protect a narrow version of the national interest.

A concrete and promising expression of cosmopolitan thinking could be seen in the activities of those engaged in the so-called Lima–Paris Action Agenda (LPAA).6 The LPAA brings together a multitude of non-state actors that are increasingly taking the initiative in combatting climate change. Thousands of representatives of provincial governments, city councils, businesses, financial institutions, and on-the-ground NGOs converged on the Paris conference eager to tell the world what they were doing, whether it be initiatives promoting cooperation in urban transport and electric vehicles, an international solar energy promotion alliance (initiated by India), or a group of major businesses committed to zero deforestation in their supply chains. Approximately 6,000 cities and local authorities signed on to the LPAA, committing themselves to the 2°C or less objective and, more to the point, adopting action plans to match. The ethos of the LPAA is a globalist one of sharing experience and supporting others.

In a strong sense, what these non-state actors do is crucial to what the state actors can credibly promise. Although one must be wary of hype and green-wash, the LPAA expresses, much more than national governments, the cosmopolitan commitments to the equal worth and dignity of each individual, active agency, personal responsibility, solidarity, and sustainability (Harris 2011b: 2).

The global approach of contraction and convergence (discussed previously) is built on the cosmopolitan belief that “the world is one domain in which there are some universal values and global responsibilities” (Harris 2011b: 5) and as such reflects a sense of global citizenship, particularly a sense of solidarity with those most vulnerable to the impacts of a changing climate. This is very much the starting point of the “climate justice” movement, a broad coalition linking climate change with human rights, equitable burden-sharing, and the well-being of the most vulnerable. By framing the issue in a way that directly links the activities of the rich to the lives of the poor, it meets the definition of cosmopolitanism as a “political philosophy of living in a global age” (Harris 2011b: 16).

However, cosmopolitanism is an elastic concept. Some environmental activists view themselves as global citizens acting on behalf of all peoples of the world. Many also view themselves as acting on behalf of non-human creatures and “the planet.” On the other hand, some executives and high-level personnel of multinational corporations also view themselves as “citizens of the world,” without attachment or loyalty to any particular nation, but active participants in the global marketplace. This kind of “free-market cosmopolitanism” reaches a grotesque apogee on The World, an ocean liner billed as “the only private residential community-at-sea.”7 The residents of the ship’s 165 luxury apartments enjoy “one of the most exclusive lifestyles imaginable,” living a stateless existence grounded only by visits to exotic ports.

Despite superficial appearances, the rootlessness of the super-rich and global technological workers militates against the emergence of the “thick ties” of common humanity needed to overcome our Westphalian norms and motivate us to consider the impacts of our actions on those far off. In other words, we need to feel our “cosmopolitan nearness” (Harris 2011b: 8), rather than regard the world as an abstraction while absolving ourselves of our moral responsibilities. Into the latter category we might also place those who dream excitedly of escaping a ruined Earth in a spaceship (Hamilton 2017).

(p. 643) Securitization of Climate Change

If there are signs of a growing global cosmopolitanism stimulated by the threat of global warming, there are powerful forces working against it, and none more so than the securitization of climate change, which serves to reinforce the “nation-centric” framing of the threat.

Climate change is already placing stresses on some societies and giving rise to instability. For example, human-induced climate change is believed to have contributed to the long-running war and humanitarian crisis in Darfur (UNEP, 2007). A severe drought in Syria, exacerbated by anthropogenic climate change, is believed to have helped precipitate the war in Syria that began in 2011 (Kelley et al. 2015). The ensuing flood of migrants to Europe created its own security problems. The Chinese Communist Party fears that its grip on power may be weakened if it does not respond to social unrest arising from severe urban air pollution, and it is conscious of the destabilizing effects of droughts in the country’s north and flooding in the south, expected to be more intense in a warming globe.

Climate change stresses are also expected to cause tensions among nations as they compete for scarce resources. A landmark German report warned that “climate change will draw ever-deeper lines of division and conflict in international relations, triggering numerous conflicts between and within countries over the distribution of resources, especially water and land, over the management of migration, or over compensation payments” (Schubert et al. 2007: 1). It identifies a number of “conflict constellations” where social and environmental linkages bring destabilization and possible violence. The constellations include growing competition over scarce water resources; decline in food production leading to collapsing social systems; increasing migration and economic difficulties due to climate-induced storm and flood disasters; and rising migration pressures due to drought, soil degradation, and water scarcity exacerbated by a weak capacity of institutions to respond.

Military strategists now describe climate change as a “threat multiplier” and have begun to factor the effects of global warming into their planning scenarios (Brown, Hammill, and McLeman 2007). A 2014 Pentagon report noted, “We are considering the impacts of climate change in our war games and defense planning scenarios, and are working with our Combatant Commands to address impacts in their areas of responsibility” (Banusiewicz 2014). One early manifestation has been the increasing militarization of the Arctic, where melting sea ice has opened up opportunities for sea-floor exploration and exploitation of fossil fuel resources (Singh 2013). In the summer of 2007, Russia took the opportunity of an ice-free Arctic to symbolically stake its claim to deep-sea oil and gas reserves by sending a submarine to plant its national flag on the sea-floor beneath the North Pole.8

Thus, a number of complex forces are at work. In response to the most global phenomenon imaginable, one arising above all from the relentless logic of capitalism, we are witnessing the opening up of new opportunities for capital accumulation but also the likelihood of growing political destabilization from climate-induced migration, the multiplication of security threats, and greater preparedness for conflict between nations. Analytically, we are seeing a tug-of-war between global studies and international relations as ways of comprehending the world.

(p. 644) Global Studies in the Earth System

Global studies emerged in response to dissatisfaction with the way orthodox international relations framed issues as contests between sovereign states and the way this framing mischaracterizes global issues that transcend borders. The new approach emphasizes the “globality” of people and their concerns. Yet it may be that global studies is better founded not on the globality of shared human concerns but, rather, on the emergent understanding of the globality of the natural world. To explain why requires a little more science.

The emergence in the 1980s and 1990s of a new kind of ecological thinking known as Earth system science changed the way Earth scientists thought about climate change and its implications (Hamilton and Grinevald 2015). So far, we have considered only the climate. Yet the atmosphere is only one of five “spheres” that make up the Earth system. The others are the hydrosphere, comprising rivers, lakes, oceans, and water vapor in the atmosphere; the cryosphere or ice masses, including those at the poles, over Greenland, and the world’s glaciers; the biosphere, consisting of all living things and their environments; and the lithosphere, the outer crust of the Earth. Beginning in the 1980s, scientists began to understand that each of these spheres is linked to the others. Together, they constitute a dynamic, integrated, complex Earth system that evolves through deep time but also may switch states quickly. In thinking about climate change and its effects, all of the spheres come into play—sea-level rise threatens low-lying Pacific islands, melting glaciers jeopardize water supplies in Peru, die-off in the Amazon forests could affect rainfall in Africa, and acidifying oceans (due to rising carbon dioxide concentrations) changes depositions on the ocean floor.

The essential problem of global warming arises because human beings during the past 200 years—and especially during the past 70 years—have been redistributing carbon around the Earth system. When we dig up and burn fossil fuels, we convert their stored carbon into carbon dioxide and dump it as waste into the atmosphere. Some is soaked up by vegetation, and some is absorbed by the oceans (making them more acidic). Over very long time scales, the carbon can be immobilized in fossils and rocks. But over years to millennia, some of it stays in the atmosphere, warming the globe, linking all future generations wherever they may live.

We now know that the impact of humans on the Earth system has become so powerful that we have changed the functioning of the Earth system as a whole, so much so that we have entered a new geological epoch, the Anthropocene, or the Age of Humans (Zalasiewicz et al. 2011). As the implications of this “earth-shattering” development sink in over the next two or three decades, perhaps humans will begin to think of themselves in a different way, as creatures with enormous but dangerous powers that somehow must be governed and controlled (Hamilton 2017). It is perhaps utopian to imagine that the arrival of the Anthropocene will give rise to a new spirit of global citizenship in the way envisaged by, for instance, the founders of the United Nations and the League of Nations before them. But it may compel nations, in the face of widespread breakdown of the natural systems that support life, to work much harder at cooperation, as no nation can solve the problem alone. If they do not, the future is bleak.

In a way, the advent of the Anthropocene brought humans together as a common entity for the very first time. Before its arrival, groups of humans—in towns, in regions, and in nations—were transforming the environments around them. At times, there were (p. 645) cross-border problems (emissions from smoke stacks in one country caused acid rain in neighboring countries). The arrival of the new epoch means that humans collectively are changing the way the Earth functions in its totality, even though it remains true that some humans are much more to blame than others. This is new in the history of humankind, and it has far-reaching implications for global studies. If we search for the foundations of global studies in intra-human relations alone, we are locked into a (Kantian) world of autonomous agents; but if those agents belong to the Earth system, they become “global” in a radically new way.


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                                                      (1.) A third group covers humanitarian organizations, such as the Red Cross, that campaign in the interests of the poorest and most vulnerable.

                                                      (2.) There has also been an internationally coordinated effort by climate science deniers (often with public or secret backing of fossil fuel corporations such as Exxon Mobil) to disrupt and undermine negotiations (Oreskes and Conway 2010).

                                                      (4.) These facts have not prevented senior Chinese officials from themselves turning to world-systems arguments to defend their own position at climate talks (Bonneuil and Fressoz 2015: 227).

                                                      (5.) For an overview, see (accessed October 14, 2016).

                                                      (6.) For objectives, participation, and figures, see (accessed October 13, 2016).

                                                      (7.) See (accessed October 13, 2016).