International Politics of Climate Change


Climate change has now grown from a scientific concern to one of the most pressing issues of our time. This course aims to look at the topic from a political viewpoint, and analyze the different mechanisms of cooperation in the fight against climate change. The first part provides an appraisal of climate change as a political issue: it examines how environmental issues, and climate change in particular, became a topic on the international agenda. The second part examines the relationship that exists between science and politics: how does science shape climate policy and negotiations? A specific attention will be devoted to the recent climate controversies and the communication of climate change. The third part addresses the intertwining relationship that exists between international relations and climate change: how does diplomacy influence climate talks, and how does global warming impact upon the relations between states? Finally, a fourth part deals with some pressing geopolitical issues associated with climate change: population displacements and migration, security concerns and climate justice.

In a nutshell, the course provides an introduction of the politics of climate change, and tries to decipher the political mechanisms involved in the fight against global warming. It should be of interest for all students interested in international relations and environmental policies, and environmental diplomacy in particular. No prerequisite nor prior knowledge of the topic is needed.


General remarks and organisation


Textbook (mandatory reading):

Gemenne, F. (2009) Géopolitique du Changement Climatique. Paris : Armand Colin. 

Background readings:

Session 1 – Environment and International Politics

Friday 12 September

How the environment came to be a topic on the political agenda. Genesis of international cooperation in the matter. The first summits and treaties on the environment: Stockholm 1972, Rio 1992. How can past international arrangements help us to understand the mechanisms behind the fight against climate change? A look at the similarities and differences between climate change and other environmental problems, and the strategies developed to mitigate them. 

Session 2 – Geography of emissions

Friday 12 September

Which countries are the world’s leading emitters of greenhouse gas? Why some countries pollute more than others. The measure of emissions. Common but differentiated responsibilities.

Session 3 – Geography of impacts

Friday 12 September

An assessment of the consequences of climate change. Costs of the impacts. The Stern Review. Likeliness of the impacts, and the discounting issue.


Background readings:

  • Hulme, M. Why We Disagree about Climate Change Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009.
  • Oreskes, N. and Conway, E. Merchants of Doubt: How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues from Tobacco Smoke to Global Warming. New York: Bloomsbury, 2010.
  • Zaccai, E., Gemenne, F. and Decroly, J.-M. (Ed.) Controverses climatiques, sciences et politique. Paris : Presses de Sciences Po, 2012.

Session 4 – Climate controversies

Friday 26 September

The IPCC and how the science of climate change is produced. Origins and causes of climate-scepticism. The communication of climate change. Why people are becoming sceptics about climate change, and what can be done about it.


Background readings:

Session 5 – Population Displacements and Migration

Friday 3 October       

The human impacts of climate change. The emerging problem of climate change ‘refugees’. Expected displacements related to climate change. Geography of these migrations. Policy responses and international cooperation. 

Session 6 – Security issues

Friday 3 October

Climate change, democracy and fragile states. Security hotspots. Impacts on infrastructures and energy security. Competition for resources. The Arctic as a laboratory. The new missions of the military and humanitarians.


Background readings: 

  • Adger W.N., Paavola J., Huq S. and Mace M.J. (Eds.) (2006) Fairness in Adaptation to Climate Change. Cambridge (MA) : MIT Press.
  • Luterbacher, U. and Sprinz, D. (Eds.) (2001) International Relations and Global Climate Change. Cambridge (MA): MIT Press.
  • Roberts, J.T. et B. Parks (2006) A Climate of Injustice : Global Inequality, North-South Politics, and Climate Policy, Cambridge (MA) : MIT Press.
  • Stern, N. (2009) The Global Deal. New York : Public Affairs.

Session 7 – International cooperation to fight climate change: The UNFCCC and the Kyoto Protocol

Friday 10 October

Drafting of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change and the Kyoto Protocol. What the Kyoto Protocol has achieved, and how it works. Market-based mechanisms and their shortcomings. The future of the Kyoto Protocol and of carbon markets.

Session 8 – A short history of the negotiations

Friday 10 October

Modeling and forecasting climate change: the role of experts in the decision-making process. Immediate politics and long-term issues. The issue of discounting future costs.

Session 9 – Mitigation

Friday 14 November

 A review of current mitigation policies and targets. Climate models. Setting a price for carbon. Joint implementation and clean development mechanisms. Carbon market. Possible other mechanisms. The balance between mitigation and adaptation.

Session 10 – Adaptation

Friday 14 November

How the focus has turned on adaptation. Adaptation as a coping strategy. Financing adaptation: dedicated funds and clean development mechanisms. The global injustice of climate change.

Session 11 – Justice and Equity

Friday 28 November

Vulnerability of developing countries, responsibility of industrialized countries. Social cost of climate change. Environmental justice and polluter-pay principle. Intergenerational justice. Equity concerns.

Session 12 – What to expect from Paris 2015? A state of play of the negotiations

Friday 28 November

This final session will assess the reasons for the current difficulties in the negotiations, and what it would take for an agreement to be reached at COP21 in Paris at the end of 2015.


 Students will be required to sit a written exam at the end of the semester. This exam will count towards 70% of the final mark.

Students will also asked to document a controversy related to climate change. This controversy assignment will be a collective assignment (groups of 4-5 students), and can deal with any type of controversy: scientific, political, mediatic… It can take different formats (magazine, essay, film, etc.) and will count towards 30% of the mark. More details about this assignment will be provided in class.

Guidelines regarding the controversy assignment

The controversy assignment needs to document a controversy related to climate change, understood broadly: climate policies, science, economics, communication… The concept of controversy itself is understood in a broad sense: any topic that spurs public debate and generate scientific, political, economic, moral or cultural argument can qualify as a controversy. It can take place at the local, national, regional or global levels. It can be as empirical and practical as ‘Are electric cars a good idea?’ or as theoretical and global as ‘Should we go for cap-and-trade or command-and-control?’.

Students therefore enjoy a large degree of freedom regarding the choice of their climate controversy. Once the controversy is chosen, students will be required to document the controversy: what are the key actors? what are the key arguments? what is the context? Students are encouraged to conduct interviews and provide empirical materials to document the controversy.

The format of the assignment is also left to the appreciation of the students, depending on how their controversy could be best documented: a website, a blog, a magazine, a research paper… The length of the assignment is also left to the appreciation of the students, but they need to keep in mind that this assignment will represent 30% of their final grade: substantial work is thus expected.

The evaluation will be conducted on the basis of the following criteria:

  • Originality and pertinence in the choice of the controversy
  • Quality of the documentation materials
  • Presentation of the controversy.

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