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date: 25 September 2017

Climate Change and Geopolitics

This is an advance summary of a forthcoming article in the Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Climate Science. Please check back later for the full article.

Historical assumptions that climates shape human societies in particular places are widespread. But these modes of thinking are being dramatically reversed as it is recognized that human activities are now on such a scale that they are influencing the global climate. Many so-called climate deniers still refuse to accept these new insights into the human situation, and at least implicitly insist that the geographical context for human affairs is simply a given set of conditions. But despite this opposition, the recognition that human choices and decisions about which economic systems will be built in coming generations will have dramatic effects on the future of global climate finally shaped the first nearly universally accepted climate change agreement in Paris in December 2015.

How climate is invoked in political discussion is tied into diverse cultures and hence comes to be part of public discourse in numerous ways. How state policymakers and political advocates of diverse ideological stripes situate “their” state in the world and in relationship to other states and within a wider world system is a crucial part of how political identities are constructed and appropriate courses of action rendered legitimate. These processes are key to how geopolitics works and how politicians and public opinion shape policies.

Despite the widespread acceptance of the 2015 Paris agreement on climate change action, numerous arguments about who should act and how to deal with climate change persist. Such differences are in part a matter of geographical location, and a matter of whether an economy is dependent on fossil fuels revenue or subject to increasingly severe meteorological hazards and rising sea levels. Partly in response to these differences, the Paris agreement devolves primary responsibility for climate policy to individual states.

These differences are also connected to political rivalries among states and disputed claims about historical legacies of colonization and injustice, who should lead in international affairs, and how world order should be structured. Such formulations impute responsibilities within the international system in ways that former colonial and industrial powers frequently refuse to accept. Policy responses to climate change draw on these different geographical representations of the world, with various sources of climate danger and opportunity specified in terms of how they affect “our” society.

From this follow political arguments about how societies and governments ought to behave on the basis of their understandings of the identities in particular places in the world and their role in the larger patterns of progress, rivalry, and history. These matters of geopolitical culture shape political responses to climate change profoundly, and in turn have large consequences for the future configuration of the planet’s climate.