What is the relationship between climate change and nationalism?

Explore the intriguing link between climate change and nationalism in the realm of international relations.

This post is by Dr Haro Karkour, Online Tutor for Queen Mary Online's MA in International Relations and MSc in International Public Policy. Haro's research focuses on International Relations (IR) Theory.

In a 2020 paper, Professor Daniele Conversi observed that ‘of all the disciplines and sub-disciplines within the human and social sciences, nationalism studies is among the last to embrace the study of climate change, let alone develop an interest in and a vocabulary on the subject’.

‘This is most surprising’ he added, ‘given that nationalism has proved to be a giant obstacle in the advancement of multilateral climate negotiations, as in the case of COP 15, the UN climate change negotiations held in Copenhagen in December 2009’. Indeed, what is the relationship between climate change and nationalism? 

The relationship between nationalism and peace

The work of the British historian E. H. Carr provides important insights that help explain the relationship between climate change and nationalism in the contemporary international order. Carr’s work highlights a negative relationship between nationalism and peace in the international order; a relationship that is exacerbated by climate change. 

The most important development in the twentieth century according to Carr — as far as international peace is concerned — was the socialisation of nationalism. ‘The primary aim of national policy’ Carr wrote, ‘was no longer merely to maintain order and conduct what was narrowly defined as public business, but to minister the welfare of members of the nation and to enable them to earn their living’.

The social question

The socialisation of nationalism had a profound impact on international peace. It did not only raise the expectations of the individual that their nation would provide employment, but also meant that each nation had to compete with other nations for resources to enable expansion in production. 

The Bretton Woods institutions of the post-1945 order came to address industrial ‘beggar thy neighbour’ policies through international regulation and liquidity offered by the IMF and World Bank. These institutions however became the arming force of neo-liberalism against more radical calls to address the social question globally.

The General Assembly in 1974 presented one such call for the establishment of a New International Economic Order (NIEO). The call included, inter alia, sovereignty of developing countries’ over their natural resources, demands for transfer of technology, debt renegotiation and measures to increase the developing countries’ share in global industrial output. 

The rise of neo-liberalism and the collapse of many socialist regimes in the 1980s meant that the measures of the NIEO were not implemented. Climate cooperation today remains inseparable from the justice claims that these measures came to redress.

Continued 'beggar thy neighbour' policies

Despite this, the international order remains strikingly similar to the one Carr wrote about. If governments in the 1930s engaged in beggar thy neighbour industrial policies to protect jobs at home, today Biden’s Inflation Reduction Act ‘authorised at least $369 billion in subsidies for clean energy projects and products’. The EU’s Net Zero Industry Act came to match the US plan with an EU-wide effort to maintain green jobs on the continent. 

While rich nations subsidise their green industries to protect jobs at home, the World Bank estimates that ‘climate change will push up to 130 million people [with the majority in the Global South] into poverty over the next decade’.

Meanwhile countries such as China, Saudi Arabia and Qatar are attempting to buy or lease large parts of agrarian land in Africa to meet their domestic food requirements.  

In the 1930s, Carr observed that the competition over resources inevitably led to the closure of borders (particularly for those seeking employment) and led to war. Climate change replicates these dynamics today.

Nationalism during a climate crisis

In the wake of hurricane Dorian that devastated the Bahamas in 2019, Mark Levene reports that ‘an unelected but vocal “patriotic” group calling itself Operation Sovereign Bahamas, acted as goad to the Bahamian authorities to clear out Haitian shanty towns . . . and “repatriate” their inhabitants back to Haiti’.

Hurrican Dorian is a reminder that in times of climate crisis nationalism demands more barriers. Furthermore, climigration increases tensions between communities, which may result in conflict. 


The insight gained from reading Carr’s analysis of the international order in the climate age is this: that it situates the climate crisis in a context where the relationship between nationalism and peace is contradictory. This contradiction is exacerbated by climate change and has three consequences: increased competition over resources, border control, and the increased potential for armed conflict. 

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