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Hot Planet, Cold Wars : Climate Change and Ideological Conflict

Kane, Thomas M.
carbon, carbon dioxide, climate, economic development, environmental policy, global warming, greenhouse gas emissions, international policy and programs, models, politics, USSR, United States
Shared challenges can bring out the best in people, but they can also do the opposite. Global climate change is an archetypal shared challenge for humanity, and although the threat has inspired a substantial amount of international co-operation, efforts to moderate it have already proven divisive. These divisions go beyond economically-driven haggling over who must reduce greenhouse gas emissions by what amount. Attempts to mitigate human civilisation's effects on the climate raise questions of political principle. Moreover, these questions have the specific potential to mobilise certain states and quasi-states against certain other ones, and this has implications for the field of security studies. Thus, climate change threatens to revive ideological dispute among armed, organised economically-developed societies. Although the idea of a world war over carbon remains far-fetched, the parallels with the international politics of the mid–20th century are disturbing. Policymakers would be wise to take the political questions of climate change more seriously than they appear to have done in the past. Scholars may note that disputes over global warming challenge influential models of contemporary global politics. This paper explores the reasons why controversies over climate policy are likely to prove particularly divisive in international politics. The first section discusses the relative ideological consensus that has prevailed among developed societies since the collapse of the Soviet Union. Even pessimistic theorists initially took this consensus for granted. As of 2005, however, this consensus is stretched thin on numerous issues. One of these issues is climate policy. A second section of this paper discusses the stakes in the climate debate, suggesting that this dispute is likely to be a particularly important one. The third section notes that attempts to limit global carbon dioxide emissions raise questions about citizens' relationships to each other and to the state. Historically, such questions have raised issues of principle. These issues have had moral and emotional implications that run far beyond the material issues involved. Many nations, notably the US, have resolved these issues by adopting the political system known as republicanism. A fourth section discusses the concept of a republic and the problems it presents for those who wish to develop an international policy to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The fifth section notes that a broad, if informal, movement in early 21st century politics directly challenges republicanism. Debates over climate policy have already served to deepen this division. A conclusion sums up the paper's findings and reflects on their implications. Future work in the field of security studies will need to address the potential friction between republican and anti-republican political entities, and this paper highlights one of the forms this friction may take.