Environmental Issues

Key Concepts

environmental crisis
global commons

Syllabus Outline

Knowledge of the nature and development of the global environmental crisis, especially linked to the issue of climate change, and an awareness of competing views about how these issues can best be tackled.

Scheme of Work

Environmental Crisis — knowledge of the nature and development of the global environmental crisis, and climate change in particular; awareness of the environment debate, including the view that recent global warming is caused by increased solar activity and not by carbon dioxide emissions which arise from pollution.

The Global Commons — the ‘tragedy of the commons’ shows how communities over-exploit shared environmental resources; the depletion of common resources will occur as long as people are self-serving, and unilateral acts of restraint such as reducing CO2 emissions are insufficient to tackle the problem.

Sustainability — awareness of competing views on how best to tackle the environment problem.

Content Explanation and Advice

The Environment as a Political Issue

Rise of environmental politics – environmental degradation as a by-product of industrialisation; 'resource problems' (energy depletion; population growth, shrinking rain forests etc); 'sink problems' (pollution of air and water; carbon dioxide emissions; acid rain, etc); growth of environmental activism from 1960s onwards (environmental or 'green' movement; environmental NGOs – Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth, etc); 1970s-80s concerns about resource depletion; since 1990s growing concerns about climate change/global warming.

Approaches to the Environment

‘Tragedy of the commons’ - threat to 'global commons' (tension between private good and collective good, between national interest and global well-being); global commons despoiled (water, forests, energy resources, the atmosphere, animals, etc); 'free rider' problem (how to persuade private bodies/states to address public / global problems?).

Reformist / modernist ecology – balance between modernization (economic growth; industrialization, etc) and ecology ('modernist ecology'); ‘shallow’ / humanist / anthropocentric ecologism; sustainable development (future generations entitled to at least the same living standards as present generation; 'weak' sustainability (technology and human capital compensates for natural capital); reliance of markets ('green capitalism', etc) and human ingenuity (science, technology and innovation).

Radical ecology – environmental degradation stems from deeper, structural problems; problem of “industrialism” (large-scale production, the accumulation of capital, relentless growth; modernization is the problem); capitalism underpins industrialism (“green capitalism”: a contradiction in terms, etc.); need to reject consumerist and materialist values (source of “growthism” and block to serious environmental politics; “strong” sustainability (social ecology, deep ecology).

Climate Change

Cause of climate change – debate about the existence of global warming, but much reduced since about 2004-05 (growing scientific consensus); 'debate about the causes of climate change (anthropocentric or non-anthropocentric?); the ‘greenhouse effect' (existence in the atmosphere of GHGs (carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide) that absorb and emit infrared radiation from the ground, trapping-in heat from the sun), etc.

Progress of international cooperation on climate change – 1988 establishment of IPCC; 1992 Rio 'Earth Summit' (endorses 'sustainable development' and establishes UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC); 1997 Kyoto Protocol and its implications (strengths and weaknesses of Kyoto; legally binding targets for develop countries; developed 'cap and trade' approach; necessary basis for further action, etc vs unambitious targets; developing states no included (China and India); USA remained outside; loopholes in emissions trading process, etc; 2009 Copenhagen conference and its implications (strengths and weaknesses of Copenhagen; developing countries and USA part of the process, etc vs absence of legally-binding national targets and global targets, weak commitments, etc); obstacles to effective international cooperation (state interest vs collective good; differences between developed world and developing world; changing balance of global power (rise of China); economic 'costs' of tacking climate change, global financial crisis, etc.)

“Solutions” to climate change – reformist solutions (modest GHG emission targets, allowing for economic growth; 'green' technology to create a carbon-neutral economy; market solutions ('green' consumerism; 'green' taxes; emissions trading, etc.); ‘adaptation’ strategies rather than ‘mitigation’ strategies, etc); radical solutions (tougher commitment to ‘mitigation’ (substantial and legally-binding cuts in GHG emissions); restructuring of economy (greatly increased government intervention); tackling consumerism and materialism (steady-state economy, etc.)