Journal Article

Climate change, social theory, and justice

Date Published

May 24, 2010


Bradley C. Parks, J. Timmons Roberts



Parks, B.C., Roberts, J.T. (2010). Climate Change, Social Theory and Justice. Theory, Culture & Society, 27(2), 134-166. doi:10.1177/0263276409359018


This article seeks to answer why North-South climate negotiations have gone on for decades without producing any substantial results. To address this question, we revisit and seek to integrate insights from several disparate theories, including structuralism (new and old), world systems theory, rational choice institutionalism, and social constructivism. We argue that the lack of convergence on climate grew almost inevitably from our starkly unequal world, which has created and perpetuated highly divergent ways of thinking (worldviews and causal beliefs) and promoted particularistic notions of fairness (principled beliefs). We attempt to integrate structural insights about global inequality with the micro-motives of rational choice institutionalism. The structuralist insight that 'unchecked inequality undermines cooperation' suggests climate negotiations must be broadened to include a range of seemingly unrelated development issues such as trade, investment, debt, and intellectual property rights agreements. We conclude by reviewing the work of some 'norm entrepreneurs' bringing justice issues into climate negotiations and explore how these insights might influence 'burden sharing' discussions in the post-Kyoto world, where development is constrained by climate change.

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