Why global warming sharply divides political opinion


Climate change through global warming has become one of the most prominent issues in global politics. While there has been growing agreement that climate change is happening and that it is anthropogenic or human-induced, there continues to be a major debate about how pressing or serious the problem of global warming is. However, although there have been a variety of global conferences and meetings and the environment has been placed highly on the agenda of politicians hoping to come to office, very little has been addressed and few pledges have materialised never mind achieved. Even the Paris Climate Change commitments seem to be recently unraveling. This is mostly due to the ‘great powers’ complacent attitude towards climate change and the perception that it is of lesser importance than domestic national interests and growth.

Non-governmental actors are not divided on the issue of climate change. In the first place, it is no secret the steep rate at which climate change is taking place, and therefore the seriousness of its impact. It is widely argued that any temperature change of three degrees Celsius or above will have profound implications for weather patterns and human populations worldwide. Increased tropical cyclone activity creates a greater risk of death and injury from flooding and from water- and food-borne diseases, and also leads to major displacement of populations. The increased evidence of extreme high sea levels causes a greater risk of death and injury by drowning, especially in the world’s great river deltas and in low-lying island groups. Drought and the advance of desertification are likely to lead to an increased risk of food and water shortages, malnutrition and disease. Although climate change will particularly affect Africa and the Arctic, its impact will be felt across the globe – an estimated 200-850 million people could be forced to move to more temperate zones by 2050 due to water shortages, sea level crises, famine and conflict. Many NGOs, the most prominent being Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth, have put pressure on all international institutions and organisations to act and some significant progress has been made through various global conferences. Liberal theorists value the contribution such NGOs can have on states, as they build pressure from below and maintain a spotlight on commitments made at conference.


On the other hand, climate change sceptics argue that the problem of global warming has been exaggerated in a number of ways. Some, although a diminishing number, continue to question whether climate change is happening and argue that it is more a natural, than a human-induced, phenomenon. This can be seen especially amongst Republican presidential candidates but was also reflected deep within the Bush administration. Others point out that predictions about global warming and its impact have often been exaggerated by environmental NGOs in order to promote fear and anxiety, even a kind of environmental hysteria. According to the New York Times article by Nicholas St Fleur, the US is the country where the topic of climate change is most widely debated by politicians and public. For instance, a report by Ipsos Mori in 2014 illustrated that the US has more climate change deniers among the respondents than any other country. Britain and Australia also had a large percentage that claimed they did not agree with the notion of human-caused climate change. It was argued in this report that one of the reasons for this is because the variations of perspectives of climate science has been polarised and politicised, especially in the news media, within those countries. Deniers include Nick Griffin, leader of the BNP who believes ‘global warming is a hoax’, Christopher Monckton, the Third Viscount Monckton of Brenchley; and Tony Abbott, the former prime minister of Australia; but also elements of the British Conservative Party like former Chancellor Nigel Lawson.

Furthermore, the problem of global warming is acute because of the radical nature of the strategies needed to address it. In this view, effective action on climate change requires urgent agreement on bold targets to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, which will only be implemented through significant economic restructuring and an extension of ‘green’ interventionism by the state. It is argued that significant progress is being made toward these goals through conferences such as the COP 21 in Paris. The conference produced an agreement hailed as “historic, durable and ambitious”. Developed and developing countries alike are required to limit their emissions to relatively safe levels, of 2C with an aspiration of 1.5C, with regular reviews to ensure these commitments can be increased in line with scientific advice. Fossil-fuel economies need to be transformed into carbon-neutral economies, and this may also have profound implications for levels of economic growth and consumption levels. Radical ecology encompasses a range of green perspectives that call, in their various way, for more far-reaching, and in some cases, revolutionary change. As opposed to seeking to reconcile the principle of ecology with the central features of capitalist modernity, it views capitalist modernity and its structures as the root cause of environmental degradation. A variety of these perspectives can collectively be categorised as forms of social ecology meaning that the advance of ecological principles therefore require a process of radical social change. Although not mainstream political opinion, they do make up a large constituency of anti-globalization activists and recently reflected in the new membership of the Labour Party.


In contrast, the effects of global warming are by no means always negative and that human communities have a remarkable capacity to adapt to changing circumstances. Sceptics certainly favour adaptation strategies over ones that seek to mitigate the impact of global warming. In the early months of 2014 a group of thirty corporate lawyers, coal lobbyists and Republican political strategists began meeting regularly in the headquarters of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. Their aim was to start developing a legal strategy for dismantling the climate change regulations they feared were coming from President Obama. The group, headed in part by Roger R. Martella Jr. a top environmental official in the George W. Bush administration, and Peter Glaser, a prominent Washington lobbyist, had begun its work early in preparation for future proposals from President Obama. By the time Obama announced the regulations at the White House in August 2015, the small group that had begun its work at the Chamber of Commerce had expanded into a vast network of lawyers and lobbyists ranging from state capitols to Capitol Hill, aided by Republican governors and congressional leaders. Even as early as the Kyoto Protocol in 1997 the world was seeing strategies of adaptation as opposed to mitigation such as the relocation of settlements, improved sea walls and storm surge barriers and crop relocation. This clearly highlights that the deep division in opinions of climate change have spread over too many decades to ever come to a clear and coherent conclusion.


It is often argued that compromises need to be made between fully developed countries and developing countries because there needs to be equal development opportunities but also acknowledgment of its environmental effects. For example, the Paris climate change agreement in December 2015 illustrated that financial aid would be provided to poor nations to help them cut emissions and cope with the effects of extreme weather; also countries affected by climate-related disasters will gain urgent aid. As part of a global effort, developed country Parties should continue to take the lead mobilising climate finance from a wide variety of sources, instruments and channels, noting the significant role of public funds, through a variety of actions, including supporting country-driven strategies, and taking into account the needs and priorities of developing country Parties. Such mobilisation of climate finance should represent a progression beyond previous efforts. As it stands the achievements of the Paris Peace conference have been significant because of the acknowledgment that developing countries cannot afford to adapt to environmentally friendly methods as rapidly as that of developed countries therefore, the ‘great powers’ of the world have a moral obligation to help those poorer countries to put a stopper in climate change. The Paris summit was remarkable as for the first time it brought the US, China and Russia into a deal.

However, despite the short term optimism of the achievements and negotiations of the Paris conference, past agreements such as Kyoto 1997, Copenhagen 2009 and Durban 2010, arguably foreshadow the fate of those agreements made in Paris. The conference only occurred in December 2015 therefore, has only be effective for five months highlighting its novelty as a global agreement. Despite claims that the deals made in Paris are far more specific than Kyoto thus more strongly legally binding, great powers such as the US and China (China still technically a developing country) have the power to disobey the agreement without any serious consequences. From a realist perspective, the most important things to exert power and establish hegemony is to have a strong economy alongside a strong military; consequently, concerns for the welfare of the environment are of a far lesser concern. This is why Kyoto, Copenhagen and Durban failed because developed countries failed to reduce their carbon dioxide emissions and in the case of the US and China they increased the amount they produced. The only great power that managed to significantly reduce their carbon emissions was the EU; however, it is widely discredited due to the inaccurate ‘emissions trading scheme’ which simply redistributed carbon emissions as opposed to eradicating them.

To conclude, tackling climate change is always going to be discussed as an issue at global summits and conferences because it is becoming increasingly more difficult to deny its imminent threat. Although most political actors now accept the existence of climate change they play lip service to a long-term strategic approach to reducing it. Until developed countries are affected by the result of climate change then little will be done to reduce carbon emissions into the atmosphere because ‘hard’ power elements such as economics, military and development will continue to be second to none on the world stage.

Florence Campbell

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.