Application of Realism Theory to Climate Change

2613 words (10 pages) Essay in International Relations

08/02/20 International Relations Reference this

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 International relations is a perpetual puzzle in which it is impossible to have certainty regarding the events that will occur within it. However, to help predict what will happen within international politics, political theories have been created, three of which are realism, liberalism, and constructivism. Realism is a structural theory that favors observing the realistic nature of states concerning the idea that they pursue self-interested policies and wish to maximize power in order to ensure survival. Contrary to realism, liberalism leads to a more optimistic outlook of the world, in which international cooperation is feasible for allowing goals like peace and economic development to be achieved. On the other hand, constructivism contains a different perspective of anarchy in that states pursuing self-interested policies are not inherent to an anarchical system but socially constructed from the interaction between states. Furthermore, these theories can also be used to predict how countries will react to certain conflicts existing within contemporary society, such as climate change, which is a continuous problem that concerns not just the people who fuel the issue, but the entire globe. Analyzing major conflicts through realist, liberalist, and constructivist frameworks can provide insight as to how the globe will approach climate change. Within these three theories, I believe realism, due to reasons concerning anarchy and power, offers the best explanation to climate change; however, in order to help better the issue, a liberal approach is necessary.

To begin with, before understanding how each ideology can apply to climate change, it is imperative to comprehend the issue at hand. Climate change is a complication that although not everybody takes part in, nonetheless has disastrous effects for everyone. Since the Industrial Revolution, technological advancements have been increasing at an exponential rate, and although this helps bring humanity into a new age of society, there are some dangerous consequences. Due to a mass number of people now using industries that promote emissions, more greenhouse gases are clouding the atmosphere. This leads to a global temperature rise which can result in catastrophic consequences for the environment such as “phenological shifts by altering species’ growth rates and thereby the relative size ratios of interacting species” along with other aspects of the world (Rudolf, Singh 2013). If consumption is continued at these levels, humans could also emerge themselves into a problem that affects them directly by economic means as it is believed that a “3 degree Celsius global warming is as bad as losing 1.3 percent of income” (Tol, 2009). For these reasons it is critical to try to prevent climate change; however, the likelihood and method can be examined through different theories.

 Moreover, each of the three ideologies contains varying beliefs and center around differing core values. First, within realism, sub-theories exist: classic, defensive, and offensive realism. However, all revolve around the same idea: states strive for power. Classic realism centers around the belief that humans are power hungry and wish to maximize dominance, whereas defensive realism believes that states only acquire enough power to ensure their survival. Contrary to this, offensive realism revolves around certain assumptions that believe states tend to employ offensive foreign policies. In essence, because states can never rely on others for protection, they pursue self-interested policies and seek hegemony to secure their safety. Conversely, liberalism takes on a more optimistic outlook on international relations in that states have similar interests and can cooperate to achieve those goals such as “individual liberty, freedom of thought and expression, and criticism” (Boyd, 1948). Likewise, liberalism also advocates for change to aid social progression; however, with violence never being encouraged in the process. Also different from these ideologies is constructivism. The essence of constructivism is that, according to Wendt, “anarchy is what states make of it”, meaning anarchy is not an inherent aspect of the international system, but it is socially constructed by the states within (Wendt, 1992). To explain further, Wendt also argues, if states believe that international relations are a self-help system then this will become the norm and institutionalized. Moreover, it is also the interaction between states that compel them to pursue self-interested policies, not because of an anarchic system. Contrasting these theories side by side may provide insight into how issues, like climate change, have arisen in the world.

 Furthermore, analyzing approaches to climate change through a realist perspective can provide an understanding of how countries will react to it. Under realism, countries aiding others would do little to achieve individual states’ power acquisition and can also affect their power positions. Therefore, regarding climate change, it would be illogical for a state to send financial resources to sustain economic development and technological advancements. Although this would help prevent climate change by elevating society of numerous countries, it also inadvertently affects the global status of the sponsoring country and could compromise the power status of the state. To help illustrate this, the United States declined the Paris Climate Agreement and is determined to pull out in 2020. President Trump believes that there are “financial and economic burdens the agreement imposes on our country” that would hurt America’s economy (Mooney, 2018). It is impossible to say with certainty that his statement is completely true, but it could have some validity as the US would be forced to abandon current industries and move to more ecologically approved ones, which in turn could be more expensive, in addition to sending financial resources to other countries. As realism preaches survival it is imperative for states to first take care of themselves, therefore, little effective international cooperation is achieved, which could provide an explanation to how climate change has reached the state it has. Because of these reasons, among others, I believe realism offers the best explanation for climate change, which I will further expand later. Overall, a rational conclusion regarding realism in relation to climate change would be that states will continue to pursue self-interested policies and aiding the development of other countries could prove to be of little benefit and subsequently, they will not commit to these actions.

 Secondly, analyzing the conflict of climate change through a liberal lens provides a different perspective involving optimism and international cooperation. As stated before, optimism and the possibility for change are at the heart for liberalism, therefore, I see two likely scenarios for a global response to climate change. The first is that countries will come together and cooperate to solve the issue. A clear reflection of this is already evident within today’s society through the Paris Climate Agreement in which their goal is to explicitly, “strengthen the global response to the threat of climate change” (, 2018). Through this agreement, countries are actively coming together to seek a resolution towards the issue. Furthermore, they are taking an extra step in which, “parties will take stock of the collective efforts” (, 2018). This organization is a conspicuous modern-day example of liberalism as states recognize the threat, and are peacefully cooperating by pooling their resources together in hopes of solving the issue. Another liberal response to the issue would be to advocate for change. For instance, if a catastrophic event occurred, evidently caused by climate change, a global liberal approach would be to first ascertain that the event precipitated because of climate change, then later commit to appropriate reforms within their respective societies, with a fundamental purpose to improve the condition of the environment. To another extent, I do not see liberalism within international relations being the root of how climate change has become the problem that it is, simply because the optimistic nature of the theory contradicts this. However, I do believe that liberalism must be employed if climate change is to be stopped, which I will detail further later. To conclude, a global response to climate change through liberal means would be for countries to commit to peaceful collaboration in efforts to create a resolution and emphasize change if it is deemed necessary.

 Thirdly, constructivism also provides another scope on how the international system will approach the issue with its different perceptions on anarchy and institutions. Within constructivism, the idea of self-help is believed to be socially constructed from the interactions between states and is not innate of an anarchic system. Moreover, the theory can also be applied to how the globe will approach climate change as it suggests international institutions are socially constructed by states and their interactions. By this logic, the stress on climate change within global policy is completely determined by the states. To help illustrate this, if states wish to prioritize ecological integrity then this will become the norm and cooperation can be feasible. Contrastingly, if states do not strive to put an emphasis on environment protection then the issue will not be prioritized and will remain in the state it is in presently. Personally, I do not particularly believe the arguments within this theory. One of my main arguments against constructivism is that it practically assumes that the interests within states are all alike and does not account for the idea that social interactions and institutions relative to climate change can also be constructed by individual actors, such as presidents. For example, there is a large population in the United States that believes that the nation needs to address climate change more directly; however, President Trump believes environmental institutions, like the Paris Climate Agreement, “disadvantages the United States to the exclusive benefit of other countries” and subsequently he withdrew the US from the agreement (, 2017). This exemplifies an argument against constructivism as it shows the idea that particular people in power can massively influence international policy as President Trump is essentially ceasing interaction between the US and the world regarding this issue, even though it may go against the majority of the populations’ wishes. To conclude, a constructivist application to climate change would regard that it is the opinions and interactions between the states which will dictate and construct a global response to the matter in question.

 Furthermore, I believe that realism, for reasons regarding anarchy and power, is the most convincing theoretical framework to explain how climate change has reached the stage it has. The first reason is anarchy; in contemporary society, no higher authority exists in the world that serves as a police force to maintain order and keep states in check. One can try to argue that the United Nations could be today’s existing higher authority; however, membership is strictly voluntary and the fact that it lacks an extensive military force means that it cannot prevent a militaristic war. Since no central authority exists, there are no worldwide regulations that countries must follow, and in this case of climate change, countries are free to run their economies as they wish. This provides a reason for how pollution and environmental destruction was able to build up so massively in a short amount of time, simply because nobody was there to stop it. Another reason why I advocate for realism is that all countries strive for power. Numerous past examples, such as Nazi Germany, Wilhelmine Germany, and Napoleonic France, have exemplified the idea that countries strive to become more powerful than others, and today is no exception. Furthermore, according to Charles Kegley, “cooperation only takes place if states expect to make gains” (Kegley, 1995). Therefore, I see it illogical for countries, all looking to become hegemons, to peacefully cooperate and send resources in hopes of preventing climate change, because it comes at a country’s own expense and subsequently helps others. For these two reasons, among other factors, I believe a realist framework in international relations offers the best explanation for climate change.

 However, despite believing that realism best explains how climate change became the problem that it is, I believe liberalism is the best path moving forward to solve the issue. If climate change continues at the pace it is right now, then humans can immerse themselves into a problem that could be tricky to navigate out of. Liberalism offers a solution to this. As stated before, there are some liberal models already present within society such as the Paris Climate Agreement, and although participation is voluntary, it is still benefiting the environment and the globe. Countries, including some of the biggest carbon producers, such as Britain, China, and India, are all actively participating and setting goals for themselves to help reduce emissions and shift to renewable energy. This type of active awareness among people is necessary if climate change is to be prevented, as it will take a global effort to do it. To a further extent, the optimistic aspect of liberalism is also necessary to help reduce climate change as humans must first believe they can solve the issue through cooperation. The Paris Agreement, among other examples, shows that this is possible and feasible to say that improvement is presently happening, and likely to get better in the future. For these reasons, involving peace, optimism, and cooperation, I believe liberalism is the best approach to climate change.

 To sum up, after analyzing international relations through realist, liberalist, and constructivist approaches to climate change, I believe that realism offers the best explanation for the issue, but liberalism providing the best solution. Within realism, it is illogical for states to help others even if it would help reduce climate change because it would give away their own resources and it is in their best interest to first take care of themselves. In a liberal world, states have optimism in which they can peacefully cooperate to find a solution to climate change. A constructivist outlook on climate change would conclude that the globe’s approach to the issue is socially constructed. Likewise, this makes a global response difficult to predict as it depends on whether or not states choose to stress environmental protection, and how they will act accordingly. In conclusion, every political theory has its merits and its limitations, and no single theory provides a concrete answer for solving issues, but they can prove to be immensely insightful in determining how major conflicts arise and how international relations will respond.

Works Cited

  • Brown, Chris, and Charles W. Kegley. “International Affairs (Royal Institute of International Affairs 1944-).” International Affairs (Royal Institute of International Affairs 1944-), vol. 71, no. 4, 1995, pp. 828–829. JSTOR, JSTOR,
  • Martin, Boyd A. “Liberalism.” The Western Political Quarterly, vol. 1, no. 3, 1948, pp. 295–297. JSTOR, JSTOR,
  • Mooney, Chris. “Trump Withdrew from the Paris Climate Deal a Year Ago. Here’s What Has Changed.” The Washington Post, WP Company, 1 June 2018,
  • “The Paris Agreement.” UNFCCC,
  • Rudolf, Volker H. W., and Manasvini Singh. “Disentangling Climate Change Effects on Species Interactions: Effects of Temperature, Phenological Shifts, and Body Size.” Oecologia, vol. 173, no. 3, 2013, pp. 1043–1052. JSTOR, JSTOR,
  • “Statement by President Trump on the Paris Climate Accord.” The White House, The United States Government, 2017,
  • Tol, Richard S. J. “The Economic Effects of Climate Change.” The Journal of Economic Perspectives, vol. 23, no. 2, 2009, pp. 29–51. JSTOR, JSTOR,
  • Wendt, Alexander. “Anarchy Is What States Make of It: The Social Construction of Power Politics.” International Organization, vol. 46, no. 2, 1992, pp. 391–425. JSTOR, JSTOR,
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