Realism vs. Liberalism in International Climate Governance

The concept of the international system as anarchic is the foundation for most, if not all, paradigms used in the study of international relations. There is a debate, however, between realists and liberals as to how states deal with this problem. Realists believe that international cooperation among states is very unlikely, because there are no laws or governments higher than states that have the power to force states to cooperate or communicate. Realists focus on relative gains, or how much a state benefits in comparison to others, rather than on absolute gains, or overall benefits (Bova 20). Only in the rare cases where a state can accrue relative gains from cooperation will communication between states occur, realists say, because if one state gains more power than another, that would be a threat to that second state’s national security and not be in that state’s national interest.

In contrast to realism, the liberal view is that international cooperation is in fact possible and it stresses the possibility of absolute gains as opposed to relative gains. Liberals do not disagree with realists that states will try to work towards their own national interest, but instead argue that it is in states’ national interests to cooperate. In terms of absolute advantage, states should wonder, “How much do I benefit compared to not cooperating?” While it might not be in a state’s interests to benefit less than other states, the fact that a state is benefiting at all nonetheless in its national interest.

With regard to climate change governance, while many realist expectations seem to play out in climate negotiations, it is actually liberalism that best explains efforts to regulate global climate change. Liberalism explains the existence of international institutions such as the UNFCCC and the Kyoto Protocol, and the fact that developing countries are working to reduce their GHG emissions.

With the rise in the number of international institutions post-WWII, realism has had the tough task of trying to remain a relevant and suitable paradigm for explaining countries’ relationships in the world in this new era. Realism asserts that while these international institutions might exist and mitigate anarchy to a degree, short of eliminating the idea of the sovereign state and its legitimate use of violence in the world, the international system remains unchanged, as these institutions have no real power over sovereign states (Bova 18). Take the Kyoto Protocol for instance. The protocol is “an international agreement setting targets for industrialized countries to cut their greenhouse gas emissions” (Kyoto Sendeco2). Countries that have ratified this protocol include Russia, Japan and the United Kingdom. The list goes on, but, very conspicuously, the United States is missing from that list. This is in line with realist thought; The United States, being the most powerful nation in the world, is able to make the rules as to what it chooses to do. The EU giving President Bush diplomatic flak about not ratifying the protocol won’t compel the US to join because, very simply, the US is more powerful than the EU (Reynolds).

The US’s reason for pulling out of the Kyoto Protocol in 2001 was partially due to the absence of an agreement signed by developing countries to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions (Bulkeley 30). But these developing countries were acting in their national interest, in line with realist thought. Much of the emissions in developing countries are produced by production facilities to provide citizens with basic amenities and needs such as electricity, warmth and water. Further, many developing countries have little money. Spending this money to reduce emissions instead of encouraging development and reducing poverty is obviously against these countries national interests (Bulkeley 46). Realist thought backs up these reasons for not committing to agreements reducing GHG emissions.

When looked at through a realist lens, climate change negotiations seem to be motivated by power politics and national interests. But a closer look reveals that there is instead more cooperation than disagreement in the realm of climate change governance. When the United States pulled out of the Kyoto Protocol, this “galvanize[d] the European Union and the G77+China into further ratification” (Bulkeley 23). Russian ratification in 2005 allowed the Kyoto Protocol to remain relevant, after many people worried that the largest contributor of greenhouse gases and most powerful nation pulling out would render it insignificant. Out of 36 countries that pledged to reduce emissions, only three have not managed to reduce or keep stable their GHG emissions, and out of the 33 that did, there are only three who did not pass the baseline amount for reduction (Kyoto UNFCCC). This directly goes against realist theory, as realists would predict that without the United States, there would be no incentive for others to ratify the Protocol (Bulkeley 23).

Before the Kyoto Protocol, in 1992, 154 countries with very sharp differences in opinion agreed to sign the UNFCCC, committing to reduce atmospheric concentrations of GHGs (Essential Background). This is especially significant considering the lack of momentum at the time and the absence of any norms or precedents for this type of accord (Belkeley 22).

Developing countries were notoriously absent from the Kyoto Protocol and from any binding agreement of CO2 emission reduction. This does not mean that developing countries have not reduced emissions though. On the contrary, many have done a lot to reduce their GHG emissions. China, the number one GHG contributor in the world, has reduced energy intensity by close to 20 percent and far surpassed targets for renewable energy laid out in its 11th Five Year Plan (Held 11). Mexico has become the first developing country in the world to sign into law a long-term emission reduction target, expecting to lower its emissions ultimately by 50% by the year 2050 (Held 14). Ethiopia plans to become carbon-free by 2025 (Held 15; Carbon Neutral). These countries are getting financial aid from larger developed countries to reduce carbon emissions, through carbon trading schemes and REDD+ programs. Contrary to realist theory, it is within these countries’ national interests to cooperate with other sovereign states (Held 12; Held 15).

While realism seems to explain some aspects of international climate change negotiations, liberalism, it seems, explains the negotiations on a much deeper level. In past eras, without many international institutions, realism explained states’ behavior much of the time, but as we move forward, liberalism is more and more able to explain state behavior. States need to realize how cooperating in climate change negotiations does not benefit only a few countries but is a mutual benefit for the whole globe. Hopefully, as norms surrounding climate governance change, states will begin to take more liberalist policies toward it, rather than administer mainly realist policies.



Works Cited

Bova, Russell. “Chapter 1: How to Think About World Politics Realism and Its Critics.” How the World Works: A Brief Survey of International Relations. Boston: Pearson Longman, 2012. 3-37. Print.

Bulkeley, Harriet, and Peter Newell. Governing Climate Change. London: Routledge, 2010. Print.

“A Carbon Neutral Ethiopia by 2025.” Make Wealth History. Web. 11 Sept. 2014.

“Essential Background.” Essential Background. UNFCCC. Web. 11 Sept. 2014.

Held, David, Charles Roger, and Eva-Maria Nag. Climate Governance in the Developing World. Print.

“Kyoto Protocol.” Kyoto Protocol. Sendeco2. Web. 11 Sept. 2014.

“Kyoto Protocol.” UNFCCC. UNFCCC. Web. 11 Sept. 2014.

Reynolds, Paul. “Kyoto: Why Did the US Pull Out?” BBC News. BBC, 30 Mar. 2001. Web. 11 Sept. 2014.

China's energy intensity has decreased since 1990
China’s energy intensity has decreased since 1990


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