With Great Power Comes Great Responsibility?

Event start date
Event start time

Linna building, Väinö Linna auditorium, address: Kalevantie 5.


Doctoral defence of M.Soc.Sc. Sanna Kopra

With Great Power Comes Great Responsibility? China and the International Practice of Climate Responsibility

The field of science of the dissertation is International Relations.

The opponent is Dr. Cornelia Navari (University of Buckingham, UK). University lecturer Eero Palmujoki acts as the custos.

The language of the dissertation defence is English.

With Great Power Comes Great Responsibility? China and the International Practice of Climate Responsibility

In recent years, there has been much talk about responsibility in world politics in general, and in international climate politics in particular. China’s “rise” has also fuelled the debate on international responsibility as both politicians and academics argue and speculate about whether it will represent a threat or opportunity for the world. Political debate over China’s responsibility has been especially heated in international climate negotiations where China has often been accused of “being irresponsible” and “blocking progress”. China, for its part, has persistently highlighted its developing country status and portrayed itself by presenting an image of a responsible developing country during international climate negotiations. However, “responsibility” is a highly vague concept, and it is not very clear what it means in world politics. What does it mean to be responsible? Who is to judge responsibility in international society? To whom are states responsible and for what? What do states have to do, or refrain from doing, in order to be and be seen as responsible members of international society?

This study problematizes many meanings and dimensions of responsibility in the context of international climate politics from the theoretical perspectives of the English School of International Relations. It argues that responsibility is an intentional social practice in which actors define who is responsible for what and to whom. Like all responsibilities, climate responsibility is constructed in social interaction; it is not given or static but it has evolved in social contexts that occur when states present, debate and apply definitions of responsibility. Due to its rising international status, China is undoubtedly an important participant in any practice of international responsibility, but in the context of climate responsibility, China’s role is especially central both theoretically and empirically. Therefore, this study investigates the generation and evolution of the international practice of climate responsibility and analyses China’s interpretations of and contribution to it. In particular, it studies how China has shaped the evolution of international climate practices and how international climate practices have shaped China’s domestic practices. The approach of the study is twofold: the theoretical discussion portrays a picture of the kind of multidimensional responsibilities states ought to shoulder; the empirical parts look at what kind of climate responsibilities states – China in particular – do shoulder in reality. In addition, the study contributes to the English School’s continuing debate on the definitions and roles of institutions in international society, using the lenses of the so-called “practice turn of social sciences”. It argues that the practice approach can develop conceptualizations of both the primary and the secondary institutions within the English School.

The study concludes that climate responsibility is an emerging primary institution of international society, and that the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, which is the most important secondary institution related to climate governance, functions as a bridging practice between it and the everyday politics of international society. Clearly, climate responsibility remains only an emerging primary institution as there are still wide disputes about its rules and because it clashes with established institutions. A critical question is whether or not climate responsibility will develop as a new “standard of civilization” that defines and validates the practices of “civilized” members of international society – as well as world society – in the future. Crucially, China plays an increasingly important role in this process. Although the referent objects of China’s climate responsibility are chiefly the party-state and the Chinese nation and not humankind or the environment per se, China no longer focuses only on national responsibilities. Thus, it seems that China is increasingly identifying itself as a great power, which by definition comes with great responsibilities.


The dissertation is published in the publication series of Acta Universitatis Tamperensis; 2213, Tampere University Press, Tampere 2016. ISBN  978-952-03-0233-7, ISSN 1455-1616. The dissertation is also published in the e-series Acta Electronica Universitatis Tamperensis; 1713, Tampere University Press 2016. ISBN   978-952-03-0234-4, ISSN 1456-954X.

The dissertation can be ordered at: Juvenes e-bookstore or by e-mail: verkkokauppa@juvenesprint.fi.

Additional information

Sanna Kopra, Puh. 041 506 7780, sanna.kopra@uta.fi