Climate change has turned out to be one of the most pressing issues that the world is facing currently. Yet, as a matter of fact, environmental degradation has been happening since the 19th century itself. However, it took time for environmentalism to feature as a foreign policy issue – it was predominantly considered as a matter of domestic politics until recently. It was only in the latter half of the 20th century that environmental problems and the phenomenon of climate change (in particular) emerged as international concerns and vital global agendas, and thus are now gradually being incorporated into foreign policy domains. For instance, in 1986, Ambassador Richard Elliot Benedick delivered a speech at a symposium sponsored by the Ecology Law Quarterly, whereby he highlighted the incorporation of international environmental diplomacy as “a new dimension of diplomacy” on the foreign policy agenda. It is a fact that international environmental diplomacy has never been considered as an issue under traditional diplomacy, pointed out Ambassador Benedick; and this can be said to be one of the primary reasons for the non-feature of environmental issues into diplomacy and international relations.
The increasing number of natural catastrophes across the globe are the shreds of evidence of the growing negative consequences of environmental degradation. This number, actually, has been gradually rising every year; simultaneously, the scale of destruction that each of the disasters is inflicting has been intensifying and becoming more and more widespread. In an article written in 2004, David Roberts had attempted to explain the interconnectedness of environmental matters and issues of international affairs:
“Our emissions are connected to climate change: droughts, floods, and violent storms. Climate change is connected to means of subsistence: agriculture, fishing, tourism, and energy production. Means of subsistence are connected to upheaval: starvation, disease, population displacement, and armed conflict. The knee bone’s connected to the hip bone. The hip bone’s connected to the thigh bone. We’re all stuck on the same planet.”
At present, we can notice an ongoing realisation by nation-states worldwide about this interrelation, which has compelled them to admit that crucial environmental crises transgress national/state borders and require global cooperation and concerted action.
Foreign policy practices are key variables in international cooperation on the environment. Yet, this has relatively been quite ignored in the environmental studies literature too. Although science-based discussions on anthropogenic climate change had started way back in the late 19th century, the focus on the topic from a politics and social science perspective has relatively contemporary roots. Loren R. Cass highlighted the interdisciplinary nature of global environmental politics and has also emphasised that climate change was commonly ‘referenced’ in research works in reputed international relations journals before 2008. Practically expressing, it was until the momentous milestones in the mid-1990s – the Earth Summit at Rio de Janeiro, and the creation of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), followed by the Kyoto Protocol – that the geopolitical angle on the question of global climate change started being studied seriously.
A major factor from a ‘values’-perspective that has been obvious in every debate on the politics of climate change and environmental degradation is that of justice and equity. This is where the concept of Common but Differentiated Responsibilities and Respective Capabilities (CBDR–RC) come into play as a leading principle in climate negotiations worldwide. This principle is a significant highlight in the international climate change regime, which indicates the relative obligations of developed and developing countries in addressing the problem. While being firmly embedded in the legal framework of global climate change, the CBDR-RC principle has created controversies and ample uneasiness to the industrialised countries especially; they argue that global power structures have altered, and consequently the principle need to be modified accordingly.
As a result of coordination between different countries and their foreign policies, international agreements on environmental issues are signed between the countries. The world saw commendable results culminating into the Paris Agreement in 2015, which is said to be the first global treaty on combatting climate change by controlling greenhouse gases emissions, curtailing global temperatures, and also binding legal commitments for all countries. Yet, the United States (US), which was once a leading country in environmental diplomacy, has decided to keep itself out of this historic agreement lately. The upcoming 26th United Nations Climate Change conference, popularly known as the Conference of the Parties (COP26), which got postponed to 2021 due to the global outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic, is predicted to be a vital one after the Paris Agreement. With the presidential elections set in November 2020, some experts say that the countries in the world would get some time in hand before the COP meeting to adjust and respond according to the US election results.
The climate calamity is a severe crisis, and the deficient intensity concerning the problem is perplexing and reasonable at the same time. The following are a probable few reasons, as mentioned in a recent report by the Brookings Institution –
- Climate change is an inherently complex issue, in comparison to even the earlier generation of environmental problems, therefore leading to a lack of political action.
- The relation between jurisdiction and accountability, which are fundamental in matters of governance is fragile when it comes to climate change.
- Lack of trust in the government results in a deficiency of collective action, which is the primary way to fight against climate change.
- There is a glaring dearth of mention of climate change from most of the platforms in the domain of imagination, such as novels, movies, etc., which are influential in forming society’s attitudes.
When it comes to the implementation-factor in strategic ranks of policymaking, for instance, one of the main tools that exist to integrate environmental and sustainability considerations into policies and decision-making, namely strategic environmental assessment (SEA). Application of the SEA process into plans and programmes even at the local levels like public planning and private associations (sometimes) can bring about efficient policymaking and in turn better governance. The SEA is said to be providing a much more strategic angle to the Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA), which was first introduced in the 1960s.
Thanks to the advancement of environmental considerations into the critical international itinerary and as important constituents of states’ foreign policy formulation, countries like Germany, China and India have demonstrated bolstering of their soft power potential through their respective environmental foreign policy as well as domestic climate policy. As İrem Aşkar Karakır writes,
“Shifting to a constructive environmental foreign policy has allowed rising powers to shape the framework of global climate negotiations. In recent years, leaders of the emerging powers have sought to project their countries as responsible actors in world politics, which do not only promote peace and development, but also actively contribute to global governance. As a result, proactive commitment of rising powers to global governance in a number of fields including environmental protection have played critical role in strengthening their soft power.”
The unique element in the concern of climate change is that the crisis is a planetary one and so cannot be tackled by a single nation or a group of states. Therefore, global collaborative action is the only road ahead for this long-term issue. In fact, mitigating climate change can be taken worldwide as an opportunity in the foreign policy of countries to collaborate with each other as well as on international organizational platforms, hence bringing in a catalytic push in the gamut of bilateral and multilateral relationships. Now that there is awareness and recognition of the problem, and also some understanding on the possible ways-out, the only factor remaining is the willingness of countries to act together and the implementation of relevant policies and plans globally and nationally. How the nations go about it further in practice is what needs to be seen in the upcoming times.