The True Nature of a “Global” Problem

In much of popular rhetoric, global warming is called a “global problem.” Which, of course, is true. The Earth’s atmosphere and oceans obviously do not arrange themselves according to a country’s boundaries, and emissions from one country will affect the entire globe, not just the country of origin itself. Global warming is a problem that affects all corners of the world.


But what exactly does it mean for something to be a “global problem”? The way that the phrase “global problem” is interpreted can have radically different consequences for global climate change negotiations, as Harriet Bulkeley and Peter Newell discuss in their book Governing Climate Change.


Consider the global problem of GHGs (greenhouse gases), which have a major impact on climate change. Generally, it is assumed that the most important players in reducing GHG emissions are nation-states, as they are the most powerful actors in the anarchic international system. But, as Bulkeley and Newell argue, oftentimes these nation-states are limited as to how directly they are able to influence carbon emissions in their country. Most of the time, it is non-state actors, such as multinational corporations or individual consumers, that most directly influence the amount of carbon emissions.


Furthermore, even if international agreements on climate policy seem to assume that nation-states can easily reduce or contain these emissions, much of the time it is a lot more complicated as to how much influence governments really have. That is because most of the GHGs produced in a country are emitted by processes and actors that defy national borders.


It is very complicated as to how to deal with emissions by non-state actors across national borders, but one of the first things that should be done is to increase consumers’ environmental awareness and education. Most people–myself included– do not understand how much of an impact they can have on the environment, even if they are just buying food at a supermarket. Meat has a higher carbon footprint than most other foods, as it requires fossil fuels to produce fertilizer and provide irrigation for the corn feed, and ruminant animal’s waste generates methane, which is a large contributor to global warming. This is just one of the ways that what we buy affects the environment. It’s not the only solution, but more educated consumers could have a large impact on the mitigation of climate change, and might even help to change the attitudes of corporations and industries to become more environmentally friendly. This change at the community level is a very important step in changing the attitude of society toward climate change.neighborhood


2 Replies to “The True Nature of a “Global” Problem”

  1. The role of non-state actors in climate governance is an important one that we will return to repeatedly this semester. Your observation that diets that include meat have a large carbon footprint brings into focus a little recognized measure that each of us can take that can have a large effect on our personal contributions to the greenhouse effect. Some may choose to eliminate meat and meat products entirely from their diets. But simply reducing the amount of meat we eat moves in the right direction — and it can have significant health benefits when part of a more thoughtful approach to diet and nutrition.

  2. This is a great point about that faults in solving a “global problem” with only nation-states. Although we organize our world with nation-states, many decisions, like what to eat as you’ve mentioned, happen regardless of whose boundaries we live in. To go even further than personal decisions, community-based decisions and public movements can make a difference in looking at a global problem outside of the nation-state framework. A prefect example is the climate march to day in New York made up of concerned citizens protesting for a stronger effort to address climate change.

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