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The Problems Posed by Realist Assumptions of International Relations in Confronting the Challenges of Climate Change

Abstract on The Globalization of World Politics

Realism is an international relations theory that has been extensively used to explain how nations respond to potential threats such as climate change, war etc. Nonetheless, climate change, which is a relatively new aspect has become a major point of debate on the global political arena. There is a general agreement among scientists that the global deforestation, burning of fossil fuels into the air have major implications to global warming at significant levels. A rise of global temperatures above 2°C is poised to generate a dangerous effect on the world as a whole. The change will interfear with regular weather patterns, consequently disrupting the lives of many people. This paper explores some of the challenges posed by realism theory when addressing the challenges associated with climate change.

Research Question

What problems do realism exhibit as it regards the discussion on climate change?

The Concept of Realism

  1. Realists believe that autonomous states are the prime actors in the international system[1].
  2. Realists also consider the international system as anarchic owing to the absence of a world government that governs other states[2].
  • Though different transnational, supranational and international institutions as well as non-state actors including the World Trade Organization, EU, and UN are mandated to create rules within a system for different states, these actors do not harbor the military capabilities or legitimacy enjoyed by states[3].
  1. Realists also regard a discreet foreign policy to be one that focuses on securing the interest of a nation, help it in obtaining and maintaining power and protecting its very existence and survival[4].

The Problems of Realism in Addressing Climate Change

1)Political Implausibility of Collective Actions

i) States have a tendency of favoring moves of raising their own adaptive capabilities owing to the fact that domestic adaptations appears to be more secure and devoid of dilemmas associated with international adaptation and mitigation[5].

ii) Some countries may not have the capability or the resources to address climate challenges on their own; hence requiring the support of others[6].

 iii) International protocols and institutions which are inappropriately designed, such as the Kyoto Protocal prevent certain states from realizing their environmental objective[7].

  1. Some states do not have political will in safeguarding environmental interests as they consider it less important[8].

Strong Correlation between Energy Consumption and Economic Growth

  1. Mitigation efforts such as carbon pricing poses cost implications to the economies of the nation[9].
  2. Governments have to ponder between the trade-offs on policy objectives and their mitigation efforts on climate change[10].
  • Most of the renewable power sources are unstable hence the need for thermal and other non-renewable power supply[11].
  1. The higher a nation’s economy, the higher the production and hence higher energy consumption[12].

Conclusion on The Globalization of World Politics

From this discussion, it is clear that the central tenet of Realism assumption in international relations is the focus on the state as the primary actor in international politics. Further, the main force that shape state action is the assumed anarchy inherent in the international system. A major problem associated with this theory in addressing climate change is the concern of states with their own security, and power, often at the expense of other states. There is also lack of political goodwill by certain states which regard climate challenges as secondary to other national issues. What is more? Some states do not have the capability or resources to address climate change and hence; they would require the support of other sovereign and powerful states in this endeavor. Poor institutional frameworks and guidelines have also added to the dilemma; practically making it hard for some states to take part in climate protection measures.

Bibliography for The Globalization of World Politics

Dunne, T. and Schmidt, B., 2014. Realism. In: Baylis, J., Smith, S., and Owens, P., 2014. 6th Ed. The Globalization of World Politics: An introduction to international relations. Oxford: Oxford University Press. pp.99-112. 

Hepburn, Cameron and Teytelboym, Alexander, ‘Climate change policy after Brexit’, Oxford Review of Economic Policy, 33:1 (2017), S144–S154 

Jos Olivier, Klara Schure, and Jeroen Peters, Trends in Global CO2 and Total Greenhouse Gas Emissions: 2017 Report (The Hague: PBL Netherlands, 2017).

Kim, Sung-Young and Thurbon, Elizabeth, ‘Developmental environmentalism: Explaining South Korea’s ambitious pursuit of green growth’, Politics & Society, 43:2 (2015), pp. 213–240 

Keohane, R. O. and Victor, D. G., ‘Cooperation and discord in global climate policy’, Nature Climate Change, 6:6 (2016), pp. 570–

Mearsheimer, J., 2013. Structural Realism. In: Dunne, T., Kurki, M., and Smith, S., 3rd Ed. 2013. International Relations Theories: Discipline and Diversities. Oxford: Oxford University Press. pp.77-93. 

Pearson, A., 2015. Realism and Politics Among States in the 21st Century. Centre for Geopolitics and Security in Realism Studies, pp.1-11. 

Peters, Glen, Andrew, Robbie, Solomon, Susan, and Friedlingstein, Pierre, ‘Measuring a fair and ambitious climate agreement using cumulative emissions’, Environmental Research Letters, 10:10 (2015), p. 105004

IEA, Key World Energy Statistics 2017 (OECD/IEA, 2017).

Sofer, K . , 2015. The Realist Case for Climate Change Cooperation. accessed on 6th, October, 2020.

Susanne Dröge and Oliver Geden, After the Paris Agreement: New Challenges for the EU’s Leadership in Climate Policy (Berlin, 2016 SWP Comments 19/2016), p. 3, available at: {}

Victor, David, ‘What the Framework Convention on Climate Change teaches us about cooperation on climate change’, Politics and Governance, 4:3 (2016), pp. 133–141

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