Its causes will determine how states respond to it
Climate change is real. There is a fair amount of scientific and policy debate on how much, but no reasonable person today can deny the upward trend in average global temperatures. This leads to melting ice-caps, rising sea levels, drying rivers and unusual weather conditions. [See this report on the impacts of climate change]
An important determinant of how states will respond to climate change has to do with how the discourse over its cause is framed. The dominant, and at least the popular view, is that climate change is primarily the result of human activity: atmospheric pollutants—nasty byproducts of human progress—cause global warming. If only human beings stop or reverse the course of environmental damage, it is possible to prevent the disaster from happening. [See this report on the impact of economic growth on climate change]
An alternate view is that rising temperatures are part of a geophysical cycle that has little to do with human activity. It is part of the same cycle that caused the climate to change dramatically in the Middle Ages, the melting ice allowing Vikings to sail across the Atlantic and land in America. They called the landmass they found en route Greenland, not because of some kind of medieval sarcasm, but because, well, it was green with forests when they found it. Newfoundland is frigid today. But the Vikings called it Vinland after the fine wine it produced. Today, like Greenland, Newfoundland is under ice most of the time, and certainly not because of anything the Vikings did. The element of geophysical inevitability underlying this explanation of climate change implies that there is not much that we can do about global warming, other than perhaps, invest in Siberian real estate.
If it comes to be accepted that it is human activity that causes climate change, then states will find it in their interests to co-operate with one another, as their survival becomes contingent on it. Although channeling this into an effective international mechanism will pose an unprecedented challenge, there is still room for optimism as all states will have similar incentives.
But if its all geophysics and human beings can at best buy more time by changing their behaviour, then the game quickly becomes one of ‘every country for itself’. Countries that can afford to prepare for the deluge or the drought—the large ones, and the rich ones, generally—will do so even at the cost of worsening the conditions of those that can’t. In this scenario large-scale international co-operation is impossible, and conflict inevitable. And the world’s poor will suffer the most.
Without even considering their economic priorities, given these uncertainties, states are likely to be cautious about international co-operation on climate change. It is, of course, possible to make a disarming middle-ground argument that the two potential causes are not mutually exclusive, and irresponsible human activity is only accelerating the environmental doomsday. This will allow the world to do something about it until science delivers a definitive verdict.