The relationship between us and the planet is changing. Humankind has entered a new geological age as humans are now a new planetary force driving major changes and forces of the Earth. What does that mean for our future? Complex environmental issues like climate change are “forcing all humans alive today to confront a fundamental ontological question about the human relationship with the natural world”. Anthropocene has emerged as a collision between humanity and Earth which largely revolutionises international relations. From now on, we should not talk about international politics any more, but rather use the term global politics, which also encompasses the study of the planet.
Climate change, issue of our time
The research of Petit et al. has proved that CO2 levels in the atmosphere coincide with atmospheric temperatures. And thanks to modern monitoring sites, we are able to measure CO2 levels in the atmosphere. The Mauna Loa is one of the most important of them all. Due to its location, measurements from the site are very accurate and altogether constitute the longest continuous record of atmospheric CO2 concentrations available on the planet. Its data is showing a clear increase in CO2 levels from 1960 to 2010. Relative to the pre-industrial era, the concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere went from approximately 280 ppm in 1750 up over 400 ppm. Consequently, the fact that temperature on Earth has risen on average of about 0.7 – 0.8° C over the last century, is no coincidence. We can therefore acknowledge that the temperature depends heavily on CO2 levels in the atmosphere and that these levels have been increasing ever since the beginning of the industrial revolution and that by this time have almost doubled. Moreover, according to the IPCC report on Climate Change from 2013, the “changes in many extreme weather and climate events have been observed since about 1950”.
Anthropogenic climate change is real and it is threatening more and more people in the world, especially those from developing countries, where the vulnerability to natural disasters is the highest. More warming will increase the probability of global disasters such as hurricanes, heat waves, heavy rain and droughts. If we look at the history of Earth, we represent an incredibly small piece of its timescale, yet we have managed to change the planet so much in so little time. If we pursue business-as-usual scenario, the impact of climate change can be disastrous. Ironically, we could be responsible for our own extinction. In this sense, we could argue that climate policy is not about saving the planet but about saving ourselves. Climate change has become one of the most urgent and most complex issues humanity will face this century. But not only because of its physical impacts, but also because of its nature as a problem.
“Climate change is a global commons problem. Its causes – man-made greenhouse gas emissions – and impacts are distributed and felt (albeit not equally) across the international system, transcending traditional boundaries and jurisdictions of the states of the international political system”. Because of climate change and specifically sea level rise, portions of territory will be lost to the sea and this trend will likely exacerbate in the future. Some countries, particularly small island nations, may lose their territory in its totality. This makes us realize that geography no longer depends on borders fought over in conflicts, but that to a great extent, new borders will be determined by such global phenomena as climate change or sea level rise. And what comes next? Can nations survive without their territories? Are we even able to imagine such a concept? Climate change raises many fundamental questions that will likely transform how we perceive the world we are living in. That makes climate change quite unique and different from most of other environmental problems. As a global problem, it requires a global response “encompassing the North and the South, local and global communities, and the public and private sectors. Ranging from global negotiations to individual choices, a diversity of actors […] need to be involved”. We have seen that it is essential for humanity to solve, or at least lower the impacts of climate change. Moreover, there is a consensus on climate change across the scientific community. Around 97 % of active climate scientists acknowledge human-induced climate change. These things considered, why is it that the international community has responded rather passively to the problem of climate change? Is it possible to combat climate change with the instruments we know?
Planetary international relations
In classical theory of international relations, the planet and humanity has always been considered as separate entities, ruled by different rules and powers. Dr Benjamin Habib brilliantly described this separation: “In pursuit of perpetual economic growth humans assume a limitless Earth, open for infinite resource exploitation and waste disposal. Earth is the external other, an unimportant footnote to the script of human politics and economic production. Clearly on a finite planet these assumptions are false. As a product of that culture, modern international relations theory has tended to follow that assumption, viewing the natural world as something unchanging, the background scenery in front of which the play of international politics is performed”. But now, the planet and the environment around us is also greatly affected by the struggle of power among nations. We cannot consider humanity apart from the planet any more.
Realistic theory of international relations
Realism has been one of the dominant theories of international relations. It builds its narrative principally around the concept of nation-state and national interest. Realist scholars, such as Kenneth Waltz or John Mearsheimer, see sovereign states as primary actors in an anarchic international system where the interaction between states is dominated by a rational desire to achieve hegemony. “States are primarily concerned with their own power and security - often at the expense of mutually beneficial cooperation”. Furthermore, in such a world, there is no supreme authority to determine relations in between states. In the absence of such authority, it is then “material power and military strength that are decisive in shaping the pattern of interstate relations. As a result, insecurity pervades the system and breeds an ongoing struggle between states for power and survival”. That does not mean that a state following a realist international policy would not by any case back up an agreement on climate policy. But such an agreement would only be given support if serving national interests. Therefore, realistic theory of international relations cannot provide a solution for climate change. In this sense, we could argue that national sovereignty is an obstacle to a global governance of the environment.
The world turning to the theory of realism
In June 2017, Donald Trump has announced that the US will be withdrawing from the Paris Agreement. Among the reasons for the withdrawal, American jobs and competitiveness were often repeated. Trump wanted American citizens to know that he is serving American interests, the country's national interest, consistently with the theory of realism. And in this sense, the US withdrawal from the Paris agreement did not represent a decision about climate policy, but was an event of international relations.
The theory of realism in itself is quite appealing. “A realist can draw on a tradition of influential texts to sustain this perspective on the world, providing a sense of building on solid intellectual and scientific foundations”. Moreover, realism provides comfort in a sense that it enables us to ignore non-traditional threats such as climate change, leaving them as second-order problems. Rather than contemplating on the impact of climate change on distant communities and future generations while living in moral anxiety, “one can focus on developing strategies of protection to keep those outside your territory, in the wild zones of global politics, at a safe distance”. Finally, not only the theory of realism offers a basis of intellectual authority and tradition, but also provides a sense of security “through accepting the optimistic view that we can continue “business as usual,” that the agents of organized irresponsibility may actually be responsible. There is, in this sense, an existential security against the terror of uncertainty and fear to be found in the view that things are “getting better all the time”, and that the experts and authorities governing the world we live in are in control”.
Limits of realism when tackling global problems
Could realism answer global non-traditional issues that emerged after globalization took over the world? Climate change is a problem that requires policy engaging decades if not centuries ahead. But political systems are not conceived to rule over problems with a vision long to the future and to anticipate and take action well before actual damages are made. In this case again, “the idea of government acting in our representation, built to face issues of the present, seems counter-productive”. Furthermore, “biosphere degradation, decrease in biodiversity, ocean acidification or chemical change of the composition of the atmosphere are global phenomena. And such problems would therefore require international action; nevertheless, states, democratic or not, were constructed to defend the interests of one community against another”. It comes therefore in no surprise that the governments of the world could not to this day come up with an adequate response to the world global problems. The realist theory cannot answer the global challenges of the world because “modern democratic institutions are inseparable of the epoch of their creation : the epoch of abundance characterised by a denial of limits of the biosphere and a denial of the human finiteness”. The moral security of the realist theory of international relations is an illusion, yet there are approaches to international relations “that seek to challenge the tendency of the discipline to provide such illusion on the dangers, inequalities and insecurities of global existence. These approaches suggest that the tendency of the discipline to provide moral security is part of the problem, limiting investigation on the issues that we confront, as well as limiting the search for alternative ways of living and securing”. Such approaches declared the discipline of climate change to be a “science of uncertainty”, as described by Hoffman; “it should be concerned with “the limits of action, of the ways in which states try to manage but never quite succeed in eliminating their own insecurity”.
Public climate scepticism
To efficiently combat climate change, public needs to be involved as well. In the end of the day, political structures as well as private companies, that are both essential instruments in climate action, are to some extent following public opinion. Still, for instance in the U.S. according to a poll from 2014, only 50 % of respondents believed that climate change was occurring because of human activities, while 23 % of respondents thought the natural patterns were the reason of the changing climate. The option of “no solid evidence about climate change” was chosen by 25 % of the respondents. Climate policies may generally be well informed by science, but the ability of governments to implement such policies may be hampered by public disapproval. Many scholars believe that public is getting fed-up with constant stream of environmental concerns. Media coverage often overplays the true level of scientific debate. And climate alarmists do not help resolving this issue. For example, the Guardian published in August 2016 an interview with a scientist Peter Wadhams, entitled “Next year or the year after, the Arctic will be free of ice”. Such alarmist messages should not be spread. Furthermore, NGOs like Friends of Earth, Greenpeace or even established political parties with climate agenda are often pejoratively called 'green radicals', diminishing the value of their position in the eyes of public.
Climate change and other complex global issues are challenging the international order and relations. First of all, “we must acknowledge that the debate over climate change, like almost all environmental issues, is a debate over culture, world-views, and ideology". But for the moment, we have not been able to come up with a system of governance that would help us tackle this new generation of global challenges. The key question that needs to be asked is what kind of governance do we need to successfully tackle climate change? Are states able to take decisions above only what they regard as their national interest and exit the realistic perspective of viewing the world? The realist theory of international relations will not provide us a basis nor necessary instruments for the effective and efficient solving of global issues such as climate change. The view of realists “rests on a dangerous contradiction; far from delivering security it serves to limit the way we think about the new generation of risks we face”. We must not continue dealing with global problems as we have done in the past because issues such as climate change cannot be solved with classical instruments of international relations. We need to embrace global thinking. “An innovative governance architecture is necessary to facilitate a leap from narrowly defined national interests to a global regime. […] Global governance, whether for climate change or for any of the myriad issues affecting the world as a whole, can only be built on the recognition of planetary interdependence”.
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NB: This paper was written as part of Climate Geopolitics course at Sciences Po Paris, Masters in International Energy. [edited]
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