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The Realist Guide to Solving Climate Change

Put aside all your idealistic fantasies about the world’s biggest crisis, and here’s what’s left.

By , a columnist at Foreign Policy and the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.
Fires at sunset in the agriculture town of Ruropolis, in northern Brazil, on Sept. 6, 2019.
Fires at sunset in the agriculture town of Ruropolis, in northern Brazil, on Sept. 6, 2019. JOHANNES MYBURGH/AFP via Getty Images

As you probably already know, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) just issued its latest report detailing what the world’s leading experts think is happening to our planet. Drawing on hundreds of rigorous scientific studies, it deals solely with the sources and physical effects of global warming. Subsequent reports—to be released next year—will address the social, economic, and political consequences. If you were hoping for reassuring news from this report, however, you’re going to be massively disappointed. For a sobering assessment of what it means, see this overview from the Economist or this quick explainer from Foreign Policy’s Christina Lu.

The IPCC has now concluded that average global temperatures will continue to increase until at least 2050 and the pace is accelerating. In its words: “Global surface temperature will continue to increase until at least the mid-century under all emissions scenarios considered. Global warming of 1.5°C and 2°C will be exceeded during the 21st century unless deep reductions in CO2 and other greenhouse gas emissions occur in the coming decades.”

It also says the evidence is “unequivocal” that this increased temperature is due to human activity (mostly the burning of fossil fuels) and not to natural variation. In the unlikely event that humanity drastically reduces greenhouse gas emissions and gets to net zero by midcentury, then the increase could be limited to only 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels, the target adopted by the G-7 countries back in May. That would be a remarkable achievement, but it would still mean more extreme weather events—droughts, fires, floods, etc.—of the sorts we’ve experienced this year.

As you probably already know, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) just issued its latest report detailing what the world’s leading experts think is happening to our planet. Drawing on hundreds of rigorous scientific studies, it deals solely with the sources and physical effects of global warming. Subsequent reports—to be released next year—will address the social, economic, and political consequences. If you were hoping for reassuring news from this report, however, you’re going to be massively disappointed. For a sobering assessment of what it means, see this overview from the Economist or this quick explainer from Foreign Policy’s Christina Lu.

The IPCC has now concluded that average global temperatures will continue to increase until at least 2050 and the pace is accelerating. In its words: “Global surface temperature will continue to increase until at least the mid-century under all emissions scenarios considered. Global warming of 1.5°C and 2°C will be exceeded during the 21st century unless deep reductions in CO2 and other greenhouse gas emissions occur in the coming decades.”

It also says the evidence is “unequivocal” that this increased temperature is due to human activity (mostly the burning of fossil fuels) and not to natural variation. In the unlikely event that humanity drastically reduces greenhouse gas emissions and gets to net zero by midcentury, then the increase could be limited to only 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels, the target adopted by the G-7 countries back in May. That would be a remarkable achievement, but it would still mean more extreme weather events—droughts, fires, floods, etc.—of the sorts we’ve experienced this year.

That target is probably too optimistic, however, because efforts to address this problem have consistently fallen short in the past. Thus far, the nations of the world have set inadequate targets and then failed to meet them. It takes little imagination to foresee the likely social, economic, and political consequences of this failure, and none of them are good. The Financial Times editorial board got it right: “Time is running short to avert ‘hell on earth.’”

The bottom line: We are currently losing the battle to prevent catastrophic human-made changes to the environment on which all life depends. And it is the major powers—the advanced industrial states that have the biggest economies and that produce the most greenhouse gases—that are primarily responsible.

For realists, this outcome is both unsurprising and troubling. The central focus of all realist thought is explaining how states will behave in a world without a legitimate central authority that can protect them from each other or otherwise constrain their behavior. Realists argue that this situation creates a “self-help” system where each state relies primarily on its own resources and strategies to survive. In such a world, the major powers will compete for power and/or security and focus on relative position as much or more than on absolute gains because being weaker than others may leave you vulnerable to pressure or at risk of being conquered. Trust will be scarce, altruism rare to nonexistent, and selfish national interests will routinely override broader cosmopolitan values.

If you don’t believe me, consider how the major powers have responded to the COVID-19 crisis. They have blamed others for the problem, competed to get vaccines for themselves while leaving billions of people with inadequate supplies, imposed unilateral travel restrictions without consulting other nations, and generally acted like the self-interested actors that realism depicts. And dealing with the coronavirus was an easy problem compared with getting humanity to make the adjustments necessary to achieve net-zero carbon emissions.

Realists recognize that cooperation is possible—indeed, it happens all the time—but they emphasize that it is inherently fragile, usually falls short of what might be optimal, and rarely occurs if it requires a state to make sacrifices that might leave it poorer and weaker and thus more vulnerable to others in the long run.

For these reasons, realists do not find it odd that the major powers have failed to do enough to address the problem of climate change. On the contrary, their behavior is precisely what the picture I just sketched would lead you to expect. No major power is going to make big sacrifices in the near term to deal with climate change if it thinks that doing so will leave it at a disadvantage relative to others. Moreover, given that there is no global authority that can enforce an agreement, states have to worry that they may make sacrifices while others cheat, leaving themselves worse off yet still facing an overheating planet along with everyone else.

In his landmark book Man, the State, and War, Kenneth Waltz used Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s famous parable of the Stag Hunt to elucidate this problem. If a group of hunters cooperate to catch a stag, they will enjoy a venison dinner. But if one spies a hare and goes for that instead, they will lose out on venison, and most of them will go hungry. So it is with climate change: Success requires all the major industrial powers to cut emissions, but each may be tempted to cheat and especially if they expect the others to do so as well. If one or more of them defects, all are left worse off.

To make matters worse, cooperation to reduce greenhouse gas emissions also has to overcome the human tendency to discount the future and other issues of intergenerational equity. Getting people to sacrifice now in order to benefit future generations is a tough sell, and getting incumbent politicians to take positions that might cost them reelection is even harder. There are also cross-national equity issues: Developing countries such as India rightfully resent the United States, Canada, Germany, and other advanced industrial nations telling them to cut emissions today, given that the former burnt fossil fuels with abandon during their own rise to industrialized wealth.

Realists from Thucydides to John Mearsheimer have highlighted the tragic nature of international politics—major powers seem doomed to compete and fight even when they might prefer not to—but with climate change, the tragedy will not be confined to the strongest or richest. On the contrary, poorer countries will suffer most, even if they contributed least to the problem itself. That’s another irony that realists would recognize: Justice is a scarce commodity among states. Didn’t somebody once say that “the strong do what they can, and the weak suffer what they must”?

And let’s not lose sight of the worst-case scenario here, a set of events the IPCC says “cannot be ruled out.” If warming greatly exceeds 1.5 or 2 degrees, then all bets are off. Ice sheets will disappear completely; major ocean currents may shift dramatically; sea level rise could drown dozens of coastal cities; absent large-scale migration, as much as 30 percent of the human population may experience mean annual temperatures of 29 degrees Celsius (84 degrees Fahrenheit) or more; and areas of the planet that are now home to millions of people may experience wet-bulb temperatures (a measure that combines heat and humidity) in excess of 35 degrees Celsius (95 degrees Fahrenheit). Because the human body cannot cool itself in those conditions, people in these regions will have to move or die. If this is our future, then realism suggests that the international system will become even more Hobbesian, with states taking increasingly extreme measures to preserve whatever they can. Even liberal democracies are capable of fearsome savagery if they think their survival is on the line.

So, does realism also counsel girding our loins and preparing for a Mad Max future? I don’t think so. The law of gravity doesn’t make it impossible for an airplane to fly—you just have to take it into account—and the competitive impulses that realism highlights can also be overcome if the power of these impulses is recognized and the need to overcome them is apparent.

What is to be done? If this problem were easy to fix, it would have been solved already, so I have no miracle solutions to offer. But here are a few thoughts to consider.

First, galvanizing global action will require continued and effective efforts to educate people as to what is happening to our planet and why it is happening and to explain what needs to take place to avoid disaster. As with COVID-19, there will still be a chorus of head-in-the-sand politicians, hired hacks working for the fossil fuel industry, and conspiracy theorists sowing disinformation. I am optimistic because climate change denialism has been steadily losing ground—especially among younger people—and being smart on climate is becoming a political advantage rather than a liability.

Changing public attitudes is the best way to exploit politicians’ own self-interest: Around the world, more leaders need to realize being bad on climate is a good way to lose an election (in a democracy) or face a popular uprising (in an authoritarian state). The cultural issues that conservatives and populists routinely exploit to gain support are pretty trivial when compared with climate change, but we can’t expect politicians to focus on what is vital unless they know a well-informed public will punish them for ignoring it.

Realism also counsels telling people the truth about what it will take to address these issues and not trying to fool them into thinking that fixing it will be entirely cost-free. A Green New Deal may create good jobs for some, but the effort to mitigate and adapt to climate change will inevitably require each of us to change how we live. Some of these adjustments will be inconvenient or even painful, especially for poorer societies and for people whose livelihoods are presently based on the burning of fossil fuels. Just as globalization got oversold and eventually faced a powerful backlash, pretending that solving this problem is cost-free risks provoking a counterproductive reaction that could undermine the entire effort.

At the global level, realism suggests that efforts to stop or reverse global warming must rely not on idealistic appeals to our shared humanity but rather on the narrow interests of each nation-state. As Anatol Lieven argues in an important book on this topic, humans remain highly tribal—that impulse is what nationalism is all about—and few if any governments are going to make big sacrifices for the sake of people in other countries. But they will make those sacrifices if they recognize that failing to do so will leave their own country a lot worse off.

So, even if you’re a rich country well above sea level in a more-or-less temperate zone (for the moment) and you don’t want millions of climate refugees on your doorstep looking for a safe haven, then you might want to get serious about curbing greenhouse gas emissions, even if it costs you a bit of economic growth. If you’re a trading state that depends on exporting to other thriving economies and importing food from agricultural zones, you might want to make sure that your trading partners are still in a position to do business. And so forth.

Finally, realism sees international politics primarily in terms of the great powers: It is their actions that shape most of what happens on the planet (though, of course, not all). It is the major powers that have done and are doing most of the damage to the atmosphere, and solving the problem depends more on their actions than on whatever Bolivia or Burundi or Brunei decide to do. This situation suggests that all-inclusive climate summits involving the entire U.N. membership list are less important than minilateral forums like the G-7 or G-20. Therein lies a sliver of hope: Reaching agreement among the top 5, 10, or even 20 greenhouse gas emitters won’t be easy, but trying to get the entire U.N. General Assembly to reach a meaningful consensus is improbable.

Realism is a pessimistic take on world affairs, and the challenge of addressing global warming provides ample reason for gloom. Even so, I take some comfort in the growing awareness of the seriousness of the problem, the bold initiatives that some countries are beginning, and the political problems that prominent climate deniers like Donald Trump, Jair Bolsonaro, and Recep Tayyip Erdogan have experienced in recent years. I only hope it’s not too late.

Stephen M. Walt is a columnist at Foreign Policy and the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.

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