Realism & climate change | By Dr Shoaib Baloch


Realism & climate change

POWER politics continues to halt climate cooperation. Climate negotiation seems to be more a matter of geopolitical contention than a common good problem.

Major powers have been hesitant to reduce the use of fossil fuels because it may affect their industrial production and economic growth.

National interest—as power politics has made climate cooperation a prisoner’s dilemma; each country is loath to switching to renewable energy so that the rival state can surpass its wealth in the process—trumps international cooperation on key global issues.

Power struggle is the essence of global politics. Power maximization is the primary motive of states because it can enable them to protect their vital national interests in an anarchic international system.

Despite the fact that climate change is a global security threat, it seems to be not a cup of major powers’ tea unless it threatens their own national interests.

Some countries—prone to climate vulnerability—will lose their sovereignty by the virtue of climate devastation, but no country comes to the rescue as long as its own interests are not threatened.

Geopolitics is bound to obliterate the planet. It has preoccupied powerful countries in power game, while the rest of the world is left to the mercy of climate annihilation, pandemic ravage, nuclear cataclysm and food and water crises.

However, smaller countries are only used as tools for advancing geopolitical objectives whenever they fall into the strategic calculus of major powers, but they receive no substantial assistance in case of deficient geostrategic position.

Today, several countries across the world are vulnerable to climate destruction. Once war and traditional security threats have qualified to be the primary challenges to national security, now non-traditional security threats such as climate change, pandemics and resource scarcity appear to be some potent destructive forces.

Apparently, climate calamity has compounded security challenges. States are embroiled in climate-related issues such as floods, devastation of lives, destruction of infrastructure, mass dislocation and food crisis during heavy rains, while harsh weather, heatstroke, diseases, energy shortage, draught and famine in the time of dry summer season.

In the 21st Century, rethinking security has become mandatory. Those countries do not rejig their security policies will face critical security challenges in the future.

In fact, new security threats can eliminate some elements of national power which results in national enfeeblement; survival through the doctrine of self-help will remain a pipe dream in a decentralized international system where each state needs to guarantee its own security.

Realpolitik never allows constructive cooperation. Great powers do not comprise their national interests, and they see the rival power through the prism of power politics.

For example, despite the fact that the US and China have been major greenhouse gas emitters, both countries are wrangling for power as geopolitical competitors and will attempt to strike a climate deal that may not allow the adversary to gain more advantage.

Climate cooperation places some restrictions on member states. It bars the use of fossil fuels and stipulates to use renewable energy.

Its economic cost is huge, so it hangs back competing powers to cooperate on zero-sum game.

The US and China are hesitant to cooperate because both powers have to switch their industries to carbon-free-production mode that will affect their economic growth.

Moreover, even climate change is considered as a myth. Many politicians think that the rival state uses the pretext of climate change to undone their prosperity.

It is evident from the fact that the former President of the United States Donald Trump, withdrew the US from the Paris Agreement and termed the climate change as a “hoax” invented by China.

As a result, the Paris Agreement on Climate Change has become the hostage of power politics.

It demands a great deal of compromise between the US and China to uphold the agreement in true spirit, but both countries have attached too much importance to geopolitical consideration while cooperating with one another.

Realism is a guiding principle of a rational foreign policy. States cooperate on key global issues which are vital to their national interests.

What is important to the world does not almost always encompass the strategic calculus of great powers.

Unless and until climate change poses a major threat to the national security of great powers, there will be no substantial cooperation.

China suspended climate cooperation with the US as retaliatory action after Nancy Pelosi visited Taiwan in early August despite China’s strong opposition.

Bilateral meetings were scheduled in September to discuss on the issues of methane, clean energy, forestry and city-level climate actions.

But geopolitics obturated climate cooperation. Great powers are often in pursuit of power. National interests are never compromised; however, compromises are made for national interests.

If climate tragedy does not qualify to be a security threat for great powers, it will receive no good deal of consideration.

Besides this, the substances of realism can make global cooperation on ecological degradation implausible.

Nationalism projects that it’s not our problem; power politics tends to gain more power; zero-sum-game interest calculates to reduce the cost but to extract more benefits; geopolitical contest seeks maximum strategic advantage; and, great power competition attempts to break the power status quo.

Briefly, realpolitik influences climate decisions. To conclude, realism sets forth that states make rational decisions whether it goes to war, negotiate peace, or cooperate on global good problems.

They make cost-and-benefit analysis before taking any step. Russia invaded Ukraine was a rational decision; the US negotiated a peace deal with the Taliban was a rational decision; and, the world cooperated on Covid-19 pandemic was also a rational decision. Now states whether cooperate on climate change or not will be a rational approach, too.

—The writer is a strategic affairs and foreign policy analyst.


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