Power, realism, and the ideal of human emancipation in a climate of change

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45 Scopus citations


Most attempts to formalize climate politics have focused on the reform of current governance regimes, including norms, rules, regulations, political will, and decision-making procedures. Emphasis on reform entails a realist political approach, which only accounts for those incremental changes in power that can be objectively justified in terms of solving practical problems. This paper argues that political realism implicitly supports developmentalist logics of perpetual material growth which are precisely at the root of global environmental problems. Therefore, climate researchers have to move beyond this tradition of political thought, and engage in 'critical theories' and idealist approaches that question contemporary power relations. A few scholars have drawn on critical theory, historical materialism, Foucault, and Gramsci to explore power and human emancipation in the context of global environmental politics. These scholars identify hegemonic structures as essential causes of climate change. Accordingly, current power relations need to be fundamentally challenged, not only whenever extreme poverty averts the basic exercise of adaptive capacities, but, more broadly, whenever modernity and globalization set societies on unsustainable paths. This entails, on the one hand, redefining climate change as an opportunity to transform the structures under which modernity and global capitalism take place. On the other hand, it calls for reinterpreting adaptation within a broader project of universal emancipation from the structures that constrain our essential freedom and, with that, hinder effective and just societal responses to the challenges of climate change.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)781-785
Number of pages5
JournalWiley Interdisciplinary Reviews: Climate Change
Issue number6
StatePublished - 2010
Externally publishedYes

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Global and Planetary Change
  • Geography, Planning and Development
  • Atmospheric Science


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