Climate Realism: A New Framework

Lucas Tersigni is a third year International Relations Student at the University of Western Ontario and has served as a Senior Editor of The General Assembly Publication since its inception in October 2017. He specializes in history of diplomacy, theories of realism, US foreign policy, Cold War history, and foreign policy analysis. He can be reached at ltersig@uwo.ca.

The second in a two part series on climate change, realism is examined and adapted to fit twenty-first century challenges.

This article sets out to do two things. First, explain the general themes of classical realism and provide an update on its current framework. This will include an examination of a key realist theorist, Hans J. Morgenthau. The second part of this article will apply this updated theory to the issues of climate change, as discussed in my previous article, and show how following a modified realist doctrine can improve our chances of solving climate change in a quick and efficient way.

Hans Morgenthau is largely credited as being the first theorist to fully explain realism as a theory rather than a set of loosely related assumptions on human nature. In his book, Politics Among Nations, written in 1948, Morgenthau outlined the underlying themes that previous realists such as Thucydides, Niccolo Machiavelli, and Thomas Hobbes had touched upon in their works. These themes are as follows:

  1. Humans are inherently violent to one another;
  2. States, at the federal level, are the only important actors in the international realm;
  3. State sovereignty is supreme;
  4. Morality and politics are to be separate from each other, but exist in a balance: A man who is only a moral man is a fool, and a man who is only political is a beast;
  5. Power is always defined by tangible factors such as military and economic power;
  6. The international system is anarchic, and all nations act only to maximize their power and security;
  7. The pursuit of power is a zero-sum game, and this will inevitably lead to a security dilemma wherein one nation’s pursuit of absolute power and security threatens all other nations;
  8. Alliances are only temporary at best and pursuit of power and security should only be done unilaterally. In this, Morgenthau includes a critique of the United Nations and gives reasons why it must fail;
  9. Finally, realism is an empirical and pragmatic philosophy.

As is evident in the themes listed above, realism operates on the assumption that humans are intrinsically violent towards one another. Realists argue that these are the tacit rules by which actors abide by regardless of inter-governmental organizations or international law since there are no mechanisms to force compliance. However, it is important to note that this theory was concocted as tensions began rising between two previous allies, the US and the Soviet Union, in the early Cold War period.

While I mostly agree with realist assertions of human nature and the general notions of how states act in the international system, there are facets of realism that need to be updated to fit the twenty-first century context. In particular, I will examine themes 5, 8, 7, and 2 with respect to climate change.

Theme 5 is interesting because recent international developments have drastically changed this notion. As events such as the Vietnam and Iraq wars have demonstrated, simply having more money and military might than the opponent does not guarantee victory. Instead, soft power considerations are becoming increasingly important. This is an area where Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is excelling because he projects a positive image of Canada abroad, giving Canada a more advantageous position in the world. Conversely, President Trump’s general rhetoric has alienated America’s allies and has weakened America’s position and public image. Reneging on the Paris Climate Accords has made America particularly unpopular with European leaders, with German Chancellor Angela Merkel denouncing Trump after his decision to drop out of the Paris Accords.

Theme 8 is clearly a product Morgenthau’s observations. Morgenthau had no doubt observed that the grand alliance of the Second World War had been shattered with the Americans and the Soviets now confronting one another as enemies. However, since 1948, a collective security framework has become commonplace and is extremely popular. I am talking, of course, about NATO, history’s most powerful military alliance. Since the effects of climate change are expected to displace 150-200 million people by 2050, and these refugees have the potential to cause instability and increase international terrorism (I discuss this more here), the Paris Accords are like a collective security agreement. Only here, states don’t work together to protect themselves from enemies, but from nature. Because America is one of the world’s largest polluters, the Paris Accords cannot function properly without it.

Theme 7 is closely related to theme 8. If the Paris Accords are a collective security apparatus against climate change, then America’s refusal to participate in this is a unilateral pursuit of power. Trump has dropped out of the Paris Accords because he believed that they put America at an economic disadvantage to its developing competitors like China and India. By doing this, President Trump is attempting to play on the notion that power is a zero-sum game. The issue here is that collective action on climate change is more beneficial to America in the long run rather than continuing to use fossil fuels for energy as a short-term advantage over its rivals.

Finally, theme 2, and especially in the climate change context, is untrue in the twenty-first century. In the US and Canada, climate action is mostly implemented at the state or provincial level, and not the federal level. This means that, despite federal support for the Paris Accords, state governments can actually choose to follow their own climate action plans, regardless of what the federal policy is. In the US, 20 states, 110 cities, and over 1000 businesses and universities have pledged their support of the Paris Accords. This is a clear demonstration that the old realist notion of federal governments being consequential is dead.

In all, a new climate realism framework would look something like this:

  1. Humans are inherently violent to one another;
  2. All levels of government and businesses are important international actors;
  3. State sovereignty is supreme;
  4. Morality and politics are to be separate from each other, but exist in a balance: A man who is only a moral man is a fool, and a man who is only political is a beast;
  5. While tangible sources of power are certainly helpful, the nature of today’s mass media and diplomatic focus to world affairs means that soft power and public opinion are very valuable considerations of power;
  6. The international system is anarchic, and all nations act only to maximize their power and security;
  7. Power sharing is important to the overall security of the international system. While the system may still be anarchic, states will ensure each other’s survival to prevent increased incidences of terrorism;
  8. Alliances can be permanent and popular when countries share the same intrinsic goals and when problems beyond state-versus-state affairs arise;
  9. Finally, realism is an empirical and pragmatic philosophy.

Pay particularly close attention to theme 9. This is a holdover from the beginnings of realist theory, and this focus on empiricism and pragmatism is what allows realism to evolve over time. Without it, realism would still be a draconian theory with no connections to the modern international system and its challenges. With it, however, it provides a good framework by which policymakers can formulate long-term foreign policies.