A World Systems Analysis of Climate Change

At current, international negotiations for a future agreement to deal with climate change are proving extremely difficult.

One major reason for this is the perceived differences in the climate change mitigation capabilities and responsibilities between developed countries and developing countries.

This is an age old debate. When the UN climate regime formally came into existence in 1992, it was acknowledged that developed countries should do more to mitigate climate change because they were historically responsible for causing it and had better economic and technological capabilities to do so.


They emitted more on a per capita basis (that is, emissions levels relative to their own populations) than developing countries and continue to emit more per person today as well.

With the exception of European countries, these developed nations have largely shirked these responsibilities since then. And since the UN climate talks in Durban in 2012, these states have begun urging their developing country counterparts to begin considering their own mitigation responsibilities due to their massive emissions growth over the last two decades.

China, for instance, has gone from being a middle-of-the-range emitter at the start of the UN climate regime to the world’s biggest emitter today, experiencing a 257 per cent increase in greenhouse emissions over that time.

Other transitioning economies have followed suit; India’s emissions have grown by 180 per cent, Indonesia’s by 194 per cent, Saudi Arabia’s by 159 per cent, South Korea’s by 134 per cent and Brazil’s by 96 per cent.


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Overall, ‘Non-Annex I’ Parties (countries who weren’t obligated to commit to tangible emissions reductions targets by the Kyoto Protocol because they were considered “developing” at the time of its creation) increased their share of global emissions from 33.1 per cent in 1990 to 48.3 per cent (almost half) in 2006. Their economies are still growing, so their emissions are expected to continue skyrocketing as a  result.

So, while developed countries should be held more accountable for having caused climate change in the past, and for contributing more to past and present greenhouse emissions on a per capita basis, developing countries should in theory look to tone down their emissions growth pathways lest they become responsible for having contributed just as much to climate change in the future.

But are these characterisations of developing and developed countries fair? Should one side be held more accountable for having caused climate change? Should both? What should the criteria be?

World Systems Analysis: A fitting criterion for judging states’ climate change mitigation responsibilities

Ultimately, these questions cannot be answered without looking at climate change as being related to global inequality and the global stratification of power and influence.

World Systems Analysis is a multidisciplinary theoretical tool developed by international relations theorist Immanuel Wallerstein in the 1970s. Drawing heavily on Marxism and critical theory, it entails a macro-scale approach to understanding the historical, social and economic roots of the world-system (the structure of international relations) and how phenomena unfold within this system.

According to Wallerstein, the world-system of today (that is, the predominance of capitalism and the sovereign-state system) emerged at the same time as the modern European imperial dominance of the world. As European imperial powers looked to colonise other parts of the world, they were essentially exporting this capitalist/state-based system across the globe and using other nations to procure resources, raw materials and labour to prop up their own economies.

This established an international division of labour, dividing the world into a hierarchy of countries; states would either sit in the core, periphery or semi-periphery of this system.


Core countries are the most developed, and they produce highly skilled labourers and capital-intensive production. Countries in the periphery are more likely to develop the raw materials and labour-intensive production needed to prop up the capital-intensive production in the core. Between these two categories is a buffer zone of countries (the semi-periphery), who are in the process of industrialising and transitioning from a more proletariat-based economy to a more capitalist one.

Once the world was decolonised, newly independent states still found themselves dependent on former colonising states due to their entry into the periphery of this hierarchy.

States can move up and down this system depending on a whole range of factors. For example, if periphery states have globally coveted minerals and low-paid labourers to extract them, companies and businessmen from the core will invest money in infrastructure to exploit these resources and labour. This will generate economic opportunities for this state and ease its transition towards industrialisation.

How does this theory relate to climate change? Well, as the world-system was exported across the world from Europe, so were the methods and technologies needed to power and energise the new economy. As I discussed in my recent post on the Industrial Revolution in England, capitalism grew hand in hand with the progression of new methods of energy production (through coal) and technological innovation.


The industrial capitalist model that was exported across the world was built upon carbon-intensive means of production

So as capitalism was exported around the world, so were these new technologies and methods of energy production. As societies integrated into this new capitalist system, their development relied upon the power generated by coal and, later, oil. This brought rise to the era of what Lewis Mumford (1934) once called “carboniferous capitalism“, because the fossil fuels that powered industrial society came from the carboniferous period in geological history.

Thus, countries that benefited from the system were by extension the countries responsible for creating the carbon emissions that are resulting in climate change.

Those that are most responsible are the ones that benefited from creating and exporting the system across the world in the first place; these include the colonial powers of yesteryear – Britain and the rest of Western Europe – and the dominant hegemon of the twentieth century in whose best interests it was to consolidate and deepen the reaches of this global free market economy: the United States. Incidentally, these are the countries that have emitted the most throughout history.

States in the core have also benefited from the system by achieving accelerated industrialisation at the expense of the countries in the periphery. In this sense, not only did their modernisation occur by exploiting fossil fuels, it also came by coercing periphery nations into exploiting fossil fuels (in order to develop within the system) as well.

However, as Timmons Roberts, Grimes and Manale discovered in their world systems analysis of global carbon emissions, countries in the semi-periphery develop more carbon-intensive economies as they are in the process of industrialising. These are the countries transitioning between the periphery and the core.

This is because members of the core are able to use the most advanced and efficient technologies when producing energy for world and domestic markets, are more democratic (so political organisations pursuing environmental goals are more active and listened to), and have better infrastructure allowing cheaper, more readily available access to energy. Meanwhile, periphery markets rely less on energy production because of lack of infrastructure and investment in energy production ventures, and because their citizens live off subsistence industries which don’t use up energy.

The countries in the semi-periphery are therefore also responsible for causing climate change (though not to the same extent as core countries). They are the transitioning economies like those mentioned earlier in the article that are experiencing massive growth rates in their emissions levels and which will become members of the core in the future. As such, they too are benefiting from this world-system in a very carbon-intensive way.

These are the countries where investment into energy production is pouring in, where infrastructure, technology and work procedures lag behind, decreasing efficiency and production standards, and where states are often more autocratic and so care less for environmental regulations.

Often, the regions of the world least responsible for causing climate change are the most vulnerable to its adverse effects

Often, the regions of the world least responsible for causing climate change are the most vulnerable to its adverse effects

Implications for states’ climate change mitigation expectations

World Systems Analysis is an effective framework for judging countries’ climate change commitments because it combines both historical responsibility and current day emissions levels and mitigation capabilities by virtue of the scope of its analysis. It looks at how the carbon-guzzling world system was put in place and by whom, and who has benefited from this system.

Using the analysis, it becomes clearer that countries’ differentiated responsibilities should fall under a three-tier hierarchy reflecting countries’ positions in this world-system.

Countries judged to be in the core of the system should shoulder most of the burden for their contributions to climate change, both historic and contemporary (Annex A).

States deemed to be in the semi-periphery should also take up mitigation commitments for gaining a competitive advantage over peripheral states in a carbon-intensive way (Annex B).

Meanwhile, nations in the periphery should be assisted, both financially and technologically, to achieve sustainable development in the least carbon-intensive way possible (Annex C).

One response to “A World Systems Analysis of Climate Change

  1. Pingback: Wallerstein’s World Systems Analysis: What it means for the Capitalocene, and the blame game. | Capital Crisis In Nature·

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