Comment: Why we should care about climate change – and the political consequences

Abby Simkin 11 March 2013

“Turn the tap off”. “Don’t leave that light switched on”.

“Don’t you know the ice caps are melting?”

We’ve all seen the awareness campaigns and the societies frantically trying to emphasise the importance of guarding against climate change and energy shortage. One of the problems is that many do not feel the direct effects. We hear about energy shortages and how sea level rises may threaten the existence of Bangladesh, but as long as our feet stay dry and we can cook Sunday Roast, we don’t “feel the burn”.

But energy and environmental concerns have wider impacts. Cambridge University Environmental Consulting Society Secretary, Ibrahim Yate, says: “People think food price increases here are easy to weather, but poorer people in the world are being priced out from their daily bread supplies”. Such problems hold high life-importance and are usually climate-change related, which can cause tensions between the affected and the unaffected on the international stage. The media often imply that international political tensions can have serious implications for related policies, but I would argue that those policies could actually have serious implications for politics.

Ultimately, in a state-centric system whereby states are selfish and protective of their sovereignty, climate change and energy usage have the potential to undermine completely the stability of the international system.

People fail to realise that the environment is a global phenomenon, transcending borders and ignoring hierarchies, and that in order to treat its problems, policy consensus must be achieved; after all, one state’s small carbon footprint can be overshadowed by another’s Size 10s.

Unfortunately, states are reluctant to cooperate. They each have their own concerns and environmental problems are regionally based. A lot of the time, it’s a sad case of “out of sight, out of mind”. There is little incentive to adopt expensive pro-environmental policies in a competitive market, particularly when others may not make the same sacrifice.

Furthermore, some states do not have the resources or the expertise to establish an effective lower energy/emissions plan. Even if they did, there are so many problems and problems so big that it can seem a daunting if not impossible task for mere humans to tackle.

Finally, states are often short-sighted. Initially, ignoring environmental problems prevents a small loss in capital. Ultimately, tension over energy shortages and environmental alterations could cause violent conflict over energy supplies; political friction; mass emigration from the worst affected areas; and the loss of up to 9% of GNP for developing countries. Weak states may even fail, terrorism and drug trades growing in their ashes. As International Relations expert Professor Christopher Hill says: “The indirect political effects” of environment change “are likely to endanger stability in most parts of the globe.” In the face of such dangerous possibilities it is difficult to condone international inaction.

The selfishness of states over internationally salient issues will ultimately be to their own and others’ detriment. Once those “hypothetical” environmental problems hit, they will undermine the very values governments are misguidedly trying to protect. Once that happens, one state’s flood could become everyone’s drowning.

Abby Simkin