Global warming is a man-made disaster

If global warming is a 'man-made' disaster why have governments around the world failed to do very much about it?

One of the most important phenomena affecting nations in the 21st century is global warming. Global warming is defined generally as the progressive rise in average global temperatures caused by increased emissions of greenhouse gases, and is often referred to as the effect on the climate of human activities[1]. Though there have always been natural cycles of changing climate, global warming is considered to be man-made due to increased burning of fossil fuels and large-scale deforestation, which have led to a large increment in carbon dioxide emissions, coinciding with steadily rising temperatures[2]. Although efforts have been made to reduce the effects of global warming, governments around the world have failed to effectively tackle the issue. There are several reasons for this failure, including the problem of governing the commons, effects on the economy, as well as the difficulty in achieving global cooperation over the issue. This essay aims to discuss and analyse the main reasons why governments have failed to successfully reduce global warming.

One of the most fundamental reasons why very little has been achieved by governments in the effort to combat global warming lies with the difficulty of governing the commons. When a resource is not under jurisdiction of a single sovereign state, it is considered to be part of 'the commons', implying unrestricted access to anyone[3]. This means that no individual state has reason to preserve the resource, but rather to take as much of it for themselves as possible, usually leading to over exploitation[4]. The other issue with the commons is that they are often used as 'sinks' for degraded waste products[5]. It is generally possible to solve this issue by allocating the commons into private ownership, thus creating incentives to preserve and manage them. However, this solution is not viable for the atmosphere because it is impossible to enclose, thus difficult to divide between states. As with any other resource that lacks ownership, the atmosphere becomes subject to the tragedy of the commons, but without the simple solution of private ownership. Therefore, it is difficult to negotiate an agreement over emission limits because states gain higher individual benefit than individual costs from increasing production, as the total cost of pollution is shared[6]. However, with the spread of globalisation, it is feasible that an increased awareness of a shared global space can increase states' self-interest in protecting the environment.

However, globalisation can in some ways be considered to be a reason for the limited success in curbing global warming. The relationship between the process of globalisation and the problem of environmental degradation is fairly complex, as though globalisation may raise the importance of protecting the commons, it may actually heighten the problem. Globalisation has lead to the spread of industry around the world, resulting in rising levels of production and consumption, which in turn leads to increased emissions[7]. The demand for open borders and free trade makes it more difficult for governments to enforce environmental regulations as firms are more able to evade them by moving to areas in which regulations do not exist or are lower[8]. The more difficult or complicated the regulation process is, the more unlikely governments are to succeed in lowering emissions. This has led to the argument that international trade is incompatible with environmental protection, as increased trade and globalisation lead to further industrialisation, production and consumption, thus increasing global emissions, limiting governments' ability to stop global warming. Governments may also have failed in successfully accounting for externalities of pollution (environmental and social damage) as pollution taxes and regulations have not been at a socially efficient level, thus leading to inefficiently high emissions[9]. However, many people argue that globalisation actually increases the efficiency of production, as long as markets take into account these externalities[10]. The spread of wealth and knowledge to new regions brought about by globalisation can also be argued to improve local environments due the facilitation of global awareness.

Therefore, possibly a more viable explanation for the failure of governments in regulating global warming emerges from the potential economic costs of reducing production and consumption. It may not be in the national interests of states to reduce emissions, as this would involve limiting production by regulating emissions. Furthermore, reducing the emissions of greenhouse gases would involve regulation of energy, transport, agriculture, and industry, which are fundamental to modern economies[11]. Therefore, governments are reluctant to ban greenhouse gas emissions or to call for severe cuts as this could potentially have devastating effects on their economies, thus lowering living standards. Moreover, the cost of developing new technology and renewable energies to replace current production methods is vast, even though there are potential economic benefits from investing in alternative energy technologies[12]. Governments may therefore forego sustainability at the expense of economic growth.

However, probably the most important reason why governments have not succeeded in significantly reducing global warming is the difficulty in achieving global cooperation on the issue. Although the tragedy of the commons, globalisation and economic effects play a large role in the past failure in the reduction of global warming, most of these problems ultimately stem down to the lack of cooperation between states in dealing with the issue. Global warming is an issue that transcends national boundaries, involves irreversible damage to the environment, and affects all states, thus requiring international cooperation[13]. Many attempts have been made at reaching cooperation in the past, through numerous summits and meetings, and the creation of treaties and global institutions, such as the Kyoto Protocol and the United Nations Environment Program[14]. These attempts have had limited success in bringing the issue of global warming onto the global agenda. For example, the issue of governing global commons has been approached by creating a framework of mutually acceptable standards of behaviour, and the issue of economic costs for states has been tackled by setting global emission targets (Kyoto Protocol for example). However, regardless of these attempts, it has been impossible to forge global cooperation for several reasons. Firstly, international environmental meetings often serve many other political objectives, thus making it less likely that states will reach an understanding[15]. In conjunction, states may have conflicting national interests over political issues, the economy, trade policies, as well as the environment, making it difficult to forge a deal that adheres to each state's needs. In addition, since international cooperation involves transboundary regulation, some have made claims that environmental action and new forms of "global governance" may be a threat to state sovereignty, thus further complicating cooperation[16]. Furthermore, it is important to consider the role of hegemons, especially the United States, in forging international cooperation. In recent years, the US has rejected many global efforts in environmental policymaking, withdrawing from the Kyoto Protocol, challenging the need for new treaties and questioning the precautionary principle in environmental protection[17]. If the US fails to act on global warming by accepting emission limits or by taking environmental leadership, other nations will find it difficult to do so while still remaining economically competitive. Therefore, there are many reasons explaining why governments have failed to do so little about global warming, largely arising from the difficulty in global environmental cooperation.

In my opinion, although governments around the world have failed to fully prevent the negative effects of global warming, there have been many achievements that have brought the world closer to successfully understanding how to do so. In many cases, environmental problems can be managed through cooperation in global institutions and treaties[18]. Despite USA's failure to ratify Kyoto, there is significant proof that emissions targets do work in slowing down global warming[19]. Furthermore, solutions such as tradable permits and carbon taxes have gone a long way in finding a market based solution to the problem of greenhouse gas emissions[20]. International action could be further encouraged by the acknowledgement of global warming as a national security risk, as environmental degradation leads to both internal and external conflicts by potentially deepening poverty cycles and leading to mass migration away from degraded areas[21]. By accentuating the security risks associated with global warming, governments may be more inclined to act, as security issues are crucial to governing a state.

Even though global warming is acknowledged as a man-made disaster, governments have failed to fully stop its effects. This can be attributed to the difficulty in governing the global commons, the spread of globalisation and the potential effects on the economy of cutting emissions, as well as the difficulty in reaching global cooperation in environmental policy. Governments still face the task of finding a socially optimal level of regulation, the difficulty of ensuring emission standards are met once a treaty has been signed[22], as well as managing the connections between climate change, security, and globalisation. However, if powerful nations take the lead in promoting environmental norms, and if states adopt a precautionary principle on global warming, international cooperation can potentially succeed in providing governance regimes for important global commons.

Word count: 1500

Bibliography:

Baylis, J. Smith, S. and Owens, P. (eds), The Globalization of World Politics: An Introduction to International Relations, 4th Edition (Oxford: Oxford University Press).

Steans, J. and Pettiford, L. (2005), International Relations: Perspectives and Themes, 2nd Edition, (Harlow: Pearson Education).

Krugman, P. Wells, R. Graddy, K. (2008), Economics; European Edition, (Worth Publishers).

Cline, W. (1992), The Economics of Global Warming, (Institute for International Economics).

Victor, D. (2001), The Collapse of the Kyoto Protocol and the Struggle to slow Global Warming, (Princeton University Press).

Nordhaus, W. Boyer, J. (2000) Warming the World: Economic Models of Global Warming, (Massachusetts Institute of Technology).

Hardin, G. (1998), 'Extensions of the Tragedy of the Commons', Science; New Series, 5634(280): 682-683

Barnett, J. (2003), 'Security and Climate Change', Global Environmental Change, 13(1): 7-17

Falkner, R. (2005), 'American Hegemony and the Global Environment', International Studies Review, 7(4): 585-599

Hersch, J. Viscusi, K. (2006), 'Allocating Responsibility for Failure of Global Warming Policies', Responses to Global Warming: The Law, Economics, and Science of Climate Change, 155(20): 1657-1694

Barrett, S. (1990), 'The Problem of Global Environmental Protection', Oxford Review of Economic Policy, 6(1): 68-79

Robert, K. Basile, G. Kuehr, R. (2002) 'Strategic Sustainable Development - Selection, Design and Synergies of Applied Tools', Journal of Cleaner Production, 10(3): 197-214

Houghton, J. (2005) 'Global Warming', Reports on the Progress of Physics, 68(1): 1343-1403

Flohn, H. (1980), 'Possible Climatic Consequences of a Man-made Global Warming' United Nations Environment Programme, at: http://www.iiasa.ac.at/Publications/Documents/RR-80-030.pdf

[1] Houghton, J. (2005) 'Global Warming', Reports on the Progress of Physics, 68(1) p.1343

[2] Flohn, H. (1980), 'Possible Climatic Consequences of a Man-made Global Warming' United Nations Environment Programme, at: http://www.iiasa.ac.at/Publications/Documents/RR-80-030.pdf, (Date Accessed: 20/02/2010)

[3] Hardin, G. (1998), 'Extensions of the Tragedy of the Commons', Science; New Series, 5634(280) p. 682

[4] Barrett, S. (1990), 'The Problem of Global Environmental Protection', Oxford Review of Economic Policy, 6(1) p.68

[5] Baylis, J. Smith, S. and Owens, P. (eds), The Globalization of World Politics: An Introduction to International Relations, 4th Edition (Oxford: Oxford University Press) p.358

[6] Hardin, G. (1998), 'Extensions of the Tragedy of the Commons', Science; New Series, 5634(280) p. 683

[7] Baylis, J. Smith, S. and Owens, P. (eds), The Globalization of World Politics: An Introduction to International Relations, 4th Edition (Oxford: Oxford University Press) p.352

[8] Nordhaus, W. Boyer, J. (2000) Warming the World: Economic Models of Global Warming, (Massachusetts Institute of Technology) p.3

[9] Hersch, J. Viscusi, K. (2006), 'Allocating Responsibility for Failure of Global Warming Policies', Responses to Global Warming: The Law, Economics, and Science of Climate Change, 155(20) p.1659

[10] Krugman, P. Wells, R. Graddy, K. (2008), Economics; European Edition, (Worth Publishers) p.483

[11] Baylis, J. Smith, S. and Owens, P. (eds), The Globalization of World Politics: An Introduction to International Relations, 4th Edition (Oxford: Oxford University Press) p.362

[12] Robert, K. Basile, G. Kuehr, R. (2002) 'Strategic Sustainable Development - Selection, Design and Synergies of Applied Tools', Journal of Cleaner Production, 10(3) p.202

[13] Cline, W. (1992), The Economics of Global Warming, (Institute for International Economics) p.9

[14] Baylis, J. Smith, S. and Owens, P. (eds), The Globalization of World Politics: An Introduction to International Relations, 4th Edition (Oxford: Oxford University Press) p.356

[15] Houghton, J. (2005) 'Global Warming', Reports on the Progress of Physics, 68(1) p.1391

[16] Steans, J. and Pettiford, L. (2005), International Relations: Perspectives and Themes, 2nd Edition, (Harlow: Pearson Education) p.214

[17] Falkner, R. (2005), 'American Hegemony and the Global Environment', International Studies Review, 7(4) p.585

[18] Steans, J. and Pettiford, L. (2005), International Relations: Perspectives and Themes, 2nd Edition, (Harlow: Pearson Education) p.206

[19] Hersch, J. Viscusi, K. (2006), 'Allocating Responsibility for Failure of Global Warming Policies', Responses to Global Warming: The Law, Economics, and Science of Climate Change, 155(20) p.1662

[20] Krugman, P. Wells, R. Graddy, K. (2008), Economics; European Edition, (Worth Publishers) p.481

[21] Barnett, J. (2003), 'Security and Climate Change', Global Environmental Change, 13(1) p.10

[22] Victor, D. (2001), The Collapse of the Kyoto Protocol and the Struggle to slow Global Warming, (Princeton University Press) p.55

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