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Essay: Evaluating the Realist & Marxist Challenges of Climate Change: A Comparative Critique

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This essay will be a comparative critique of the two articles written by Foster, Bellamy and Clark titled "Ecological imperialism: The curse of capitalism."  and Nordas and Gleditsch ‘Climate Change and Conflict’,

Climate change refers to the shifting in weather patterns as well as temperatures. Over the 20th and 21st century significant upsurge in temperatures have directly affected the atmosphere and oceans. Thus impacting the sea levels and changes in both rainfall and nature. This has consequential effects on the planet long term and short term. Global climate change will eventually lead to “…profound implications for the quality of life of hundreds of millions of people” (Nordas and Gleditsch, 2007) However, the ability to establish a “…comprehensive estimate of the impact of climate on human welfare is exceedingly difficult.” (Richard, 2005). It has taken many years for the public to acknowledge the importance,  as well as have an increasing awareness of the extent of environmental destruction as a result of human activity. Despite outrage and public campaigns, media platforms have shown that climate change is far from the top of many politicians agenda’s. Nonetheless, this essay will analyse and evaluate the  aforementioned articles which have differing theoretical approaches in regards to International Relations. The article "Ecological imperialism: The curse of capitalism."  shows sympathies to the Marxist theory whereas Gleditsch ‘Climate Change and Conflict’, shows similarities to the Realist theory.

The article written by Nordas and Gleditsch begins to the introduce the notion that there can be potential security implications of climate change. The article demonstrates concerns that climate change can possibly lead to conflict. The idea that states are always striving to be the most powerful and so war and conflict is unavoidable if it means that benefits long term outweigh the costs. Especially since all states thrive to achieve their own national interest at the cost of others. In fact, it is a known Realist idea that states are always at war with each other. The reason as to why I am able to infer this, from the writings of Nordas and Gleditsch, is because that broader theoretical approach is rooted in Realistic ideology. The fact that they emphasise the idea that the international system is anarchic and that globally we can never attain the harmony that they frequently refer to. An analogy can be drawn from Darwin’s evolutionary theory; Survival of the fittest. The attempt to create a governmental body for all countries is impossible as we have been presented with many failures in the past. For instance, the Non-Proliferation Treaty. Likewise, when the United States pulled out of the Kyoto Protocol, designed to limit the “…growth in the emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases responsible for global warming.” (Foster, Bellamy and Clark, 2004).

Additionally, the article reveals more important ideas from the Realist theory; in which security is a central matter. Across the globe however, there have been numerous deliberations questioning the securitisation of the environment and if states should be granted this power. Realist writers frequently argue that states should provide their own security and evade relying on others. State insecurity is a major dispute and therefore in this theoretical approach they oppose interdependence, which greatly the contrasts the claims of the Liberalist theory. Research shows that the climate change will lead to a refugee crisis as it is evident today in the gradual rising of migration across the globe. Realist would argue that this could potentially pose as a risk to national security.  The article mentions that in the United Kingdom, in 2007 the impacts of climate change led the British Foreign Secretary to enable environmental issues to be the heart of the security agenda (Nordas and Gleditsch, 2004). Further examples shown in the article reveal that reduced water availability “…may induce conflict”. (Nordas and Gleditsch, 2004). In particular, the report refers to reduced water availability in tropical Africa, which may serve to intensify conflicts between herdsmen and farmers (IPCC, 2001). I further believe Nordas and Gleditsch have a realist approach to climate change is because this idea that conflict is inevitable in certain regions of the world that experience shortages in resources making them less sustainable. Similarly, as a state is only worried for themselves and their own survival the article indicates the example in Canada and the US. Battling over fishing resources. However, these were very small-scale and have not heightened.

Now we begin introducing the next article written by Foster, Bellamy and Clark. Ecological imperialism: The Curse of Capitalism. This article very clearly illustrates and embeds Marxist ideology in to their arguments for causes of climate change. The article begins to explain the ecologically destructive tendencies that capitalism has (Foster, Bellamy and Clark, 2004). The reason as to why I can infer that this particular article has influences from the Marxist approach is due to their negative view of capitalism and their firm belief in the exploitation of those lowest in society. In the case of climate change, Foster, Bellamy and Clark reinforce the notion that ecological destruction occurs as part of the expansion of capitalism itself and thus the economic expansion of the core capitalist states. As these states concentrate on maximising wealth this links hand in hand with the exploitation of not only the people it serves, but also nature.

To briefly divulge into some ideas presented in the article, Ecological imperialism: The Curse of Capitalism, climate change is occuring due to the “…increased concentrations of carbon dioxide and other minor greenhouse gasses”(Foster, Bellamy and Clark, 2004) which in turn is warming the earth. It is recorded that billions of people are suffering daily due to “…air pollution, acid rain, stratospheric ozone depletion.”(Baylis, Smith and Owens, 2017). The idea of ecological debt is being introduced in the article to allow us to understand how Third world countries are in debt to First world countries, in the North. These countries are aware of their underdevelopment and their inability to pay these debt off, so as a result take advantage of their minimal restrictions and laws. These countries “…extract natural resources, have unequal terms of trade; degradation of land and soil for export crops…”(Foster, Bellamy and Clark, 2004) and thus creates unrecognised damage and pollution caused by extractive and other complicated procedures. The “…military interventions maintain global inequalities as the South continues to subsidise the North in terms of labour and natural resources.” (Foster, Bellamy and Clark, 2004).

According to the article, ecological issues date back to the genocide that was “…inflicted on the indigenous population went hand in hand with the seizure of the wealth in the New World.” (Foster, Bellamy and Clark, 2004). Karl Marx himself underlines the importance of acknowledging the forcible exportation of people and soil.  Moreover, humans bypassing laws and legislations that protect the environment serves as a threat to the ecosystem. Yet different countries have different laws therefore what is a crime in one place is not a crime elsewhere. There has been much efforts by Green criminologist and some sociologist who agree with Marxists on this issue that there has been an overstep in boundaries in the definition in their own interest in what is unacceptable environmental harm. The dumping of hazardous waste and disposal of toxic waste is highly profitable yet doing it in a harmless and controlled way is expensive. This creates an insatiable incentive to dump it in Third world countries (South) as these countries lack the laws and regulations required to oversee the disposal of waste. My view aligns with the Marxist belief that human activity notably the incorrect disposal of waste that is a reality in the majority of undeveloped countries is destructive to both wildlife and the inhabitants it houses. Counties in the North also known as First world countries (North), cause a disproportionate amount of emissions due to industries, automobiles, and other lifestyles and are directly “…responsible for climate change.” (Foster, Bellamy and Clark, 2004). The unequal sharing of the world resources is shown through 25 per cent of the world’s population living in the North but consuming 75 percent of global resources. What is significant about the authors’ findings are the correlations have been made between the rise in capitalism and the rise in climate change.

In terms of comparing the two articles, their broader theoretical approach becomes more apparent as they discuss their ideal solutions to climate change. The first article, climate change and conflict, mirrors realist ideologies. They value the role of institutions, enforcing several strategies that states can seek in order to increase national security. Creating international alliances and establishments and diplomacy thereby maximising power. History has proven that this approach can serve to create a legacy in which future generations can learn from. For instance, The Stockholm Conference in 1972, which was solely establish an international framework and promote a more coordinated approach to pollution and other critical environmental problems. This conference marked a turning point in the development of international environmental politics (Baylis, Smith and Owens, 2017).  Historical evidence shows that even with various failures, some effective institutions for managing regimes and developing ideas have helped to prevent further ecological damage and produced widespread awareness. As necessary as these conferences are to create and maintain international dialogue on environmental issues, the proposed actions are not controlling enough to be able to stop powerful states and key actors from bypassing legislations and prevent the continuation of exploitation. Harsher sanctions and repercussions are required as a deterrent and so, my views align with Marxism and their approach to finding a solution. The article; Ecological imperialism: The Curse of Capitalism, explains that the only viable solution to address the environmental destruction on a planetary scale, is to address the relationship between structures of capitalism, inequality and exploitation of the vulnerable and hope that highlighting such will lead to positive awareness and global action. To add further that the “The fundamental curse to be exorcised is capitalism itself” (Foster, Bellamy and Clark, 2004). Perhaps then, the world will stop chasing capital and become more compassionate to humans and nature.

Aspects of both articles lend itself to critique. Some may argue that the Marxist approach to climate change in “"Ecological imperialism: The curse of capitalism.”  is quite far fetched and very pessimistic in implying that environmental destruction is a direct result of deliberate acts of national policy. Rather, unintended side effects of broader socio-economic processes (Baylis, Smith and Owens, 2017). Likewise, the article titled Climate change and conflict, with its realist theories makes no mention of exploitation of people and nature as according to realism, states constantly seek supreme power and dominance and therefore abuse those of a lesser power.

 To conclude, my personal views are not dissimilar to those of Foster, Bellamy and Clark in "Ecological imperialism: The curse of capitalism." In the article they explore how capitalism contributed to the destruction of nature and how states can feel indifferent about bettering their own country at the cost of another as realists would also say. The extraction of natural resources in Africa or Asia for example,and the illegal disposal of harmful waste that is prevalent in these areas and needs to be addressed urgently. Although my personal views mirror Marxist approach both articles have contributed in valid ways to our understanding. Both have also lead to change and will continue to as they share important statistics about climate change.

Global Warming shows no sign of decline with the research showing that by 2050 unprecedented climate change will be experienced globally. In fact, a study found that tropical areas inhabited by low income nations will be affected the most despite their minimal contribution to the ozone depleting gases. (Mora et al, 2013). Therefore, more research in the field of climate change and greater political awareness is necessary in ensuring steps are taken to preserve and maintain the longevity of our environment and ecosystems.

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