The real en­emy in cli­mate change fight

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Last week’s truce on US-China trade dis­putes at the G20 Sum­mit in Buenos Aires has only tem­po­rar­ily put aside the un­der­ly­ing ten­sion and dif­fer­ences of views across the Pa­cific.

Look­ing at the world from the lens of na­tional se­cu­rity, there are en­e­mies ev­ery­where. The lat­est re­mark­able speech by the head of Bri­tish MI6 to his alma mater, St. An­drew’s Univer­sity, calls for the best and bright­est to join the spy ser­vice to help de­fend the na­tion’s val­ues against what he calls “hy­brid threats” – com­ing from ter­ror­ists and en­e­mies of the state us­ing the lat­est tech­nol­ogy.

Of course, the most ex­is­ten­tial threat is to­tal nu­clear war. There are five nu­clear pow­ers (US, Rus­sia, UK, France and China) but Pak­istan, In­dia and North Korea have con­ducted nu­clear tests. Sci­en­tists have ar­gued that even a sin­gle open air nu­clear det­o­na­tion through war or ac­ci­dent could gen­er­ate enough ra­di­a­tion cloud that would dam­age the ecol­ogy be­yond our present com­pre­hen­sion.

This is where arms es­ca­la­tion and cli­mate change will col­lide into the un­think­able.

The US Gov­ern­ment’s Fourth Na­tional Cli­mate As­sess­ment, pub­lished in Novem­ber has re­ported that cli­mate change is al­ready hap­pen­ing, it will get worse, it will be very costly to deal with, but we can still do some­thing about it. Cal­i­for­ni­ans who have just lost their houses to bush fires and Aus­tralians wit­ness­ing the bleach­ing of the Great Bar­rier Reef do not need any re­minders that these are caused by cli­mate warm­ing.

In the past, man took nat­u­ral dis­as­ters as Act of God, but this com­ing cli­mate catas­tro­phe is Act of Man, since it is Man’s ex­ces­sive con­sump­tion and burn­ing of fos­sil fu­els that has driven global warm­ing.

The pri­or­i­ties be­tween de­fense and cli­mate change can be seen from some sim­ple num­bers. Ac­cord­ing to one study, in the decade to 2014, to­tal US ex­pen­di­ture on cli­mate change amounted to $166 bil­lion in 2012 dol­lars. This is just over one quar­ter of how much the US spent on its de­fense bud­get (US$590 bil­lion) in one year (2017).

But wait a minute.

Since 2014, even the US De­fense Depart­ment has of­fi­cially rec­og­nized that “cli­mate change is a ‘threat mul­ti­plier’, mean­ing that it ex­ac­er­bates dis­as­ters that later cre­ate con­flict, such as hur­ri­canes, droughts, crop fail­ures and ris­ing seas that will flood coast­lines. The north­ward mi­gra­tion of Mid­dle East and North Africa refugees to Europe and Cen­tral Amer­i­cans to the US border is the re­sult of cli­mate change plus na­tional fail­ure to deal with jobs and do­mes­tic se­cu­rity.

Be­cause cli­mate change is global, fail­ure to ad­dress its causes will have huge na­tional harm.

So here is the real choice – do we spend more on de­fense against hu­man en­e­mies, or do we work to­gether to deal with cli­mate change that is be­com­ing in­evitable and will harm us all?

The sim­ple an­swer is that if we ig­nore cli­mate change and work on arms es­ca­la­tion, then the out­comes will be more dis­as­trous that any­one can ex­pect, be­cause the two neg­a­tive im­pacts will mu­tu­ally worsen each other.

But if we work on cli­mate change co­op­er­a­tively, but one party gets stronger at the end of the day, won’t that be a dis­as­ter for the “los­ing” na­tion? This is ex­actly the dilemma of the co­op­er­ate+com­pete model that some geopo­lit­i­cal an­a­lysts rec­om­mend. The bot­tom line is whether the geopo­lit­i­cal ri­vals can trust and un­der­stand each other.

So here’s the real dif­fer­ence be­tween the two camps. The Chi­nese un­der­stand that as China grows, she will con­sume more re­sources, but plan to ame­lio­rate car­bon emis­sion and re­source wastage within ac­cept­able bounds. If the Chi­nese lead­er­ship did not un­der­stand this, China would never have signed the Paris Cli­mate Ac­cord.

But the fun­da­men­tal di­vide be­tween China and the US is whether the state or the mar­ket should drive de­vel­op­ment. East Asia, led by Ja­pan but pur­sued most vig­or­ously by China, pro­motes the de­vel­op­men­tal state (some­times called state cap­i­tal­ism), which places the state in the driv­ing seat of na­tional growth. The US be­lieves in free mar­ket cap­i­tal­ism, which ar­gues that the mar­ket should lead, but this has been mod­i­fied by more and more com­plex reg­u­la­tion since the 2008 global fi­nan­cial cri­sis.

Can the in­vis­i­ble hand of the mar­ket deal with the grow­ing vis­i­ble cli­mate change dis­as­ter?

Ten years ago, it could be ar­gued that cli­mate change was not the high­est pri­or­ity on the po­lit­i­cal agenda. But with four of the hottest years recorded in his­tory hap­pen­ing since 2015, there is lit­tle doubt that some­thing needs to avert dis­as­ter, with ris­ing risks that higher tem­per­a­tures lit­er­ally cre­at­ing the spark that may set off hu­man and then nu­clear con­flict.

In his new book, “

Asian thought leader Chan­dran Nair took a fur­ther step from his ear­lier book, There is lit­tle doubt that tech­nol­ogy is a won­der­ful tool to im­prove en­ergy and re­source ef­fi­ciency, but to use such tools ef­fec­tively would re­quire key changes in reg­u­la­tion, tax in­cen­tives, de­ci­sions and mind­sets – the role of the state.

Can the pri­vate sec­tor deal with cli­mate change alone? The an­swer is un­likely. If all busi­nesses pay for all their ex­ter­nal­i­ties (or costs of car­bon emis­sion, re­source de­ple­tion or so­cial harm), many busi­nesses would not make money. There are too many ex­cuses not to change, be­cause it is not prof­itable to do so.

Chan­dran Nair is right – a state (demo­cratic or other­wise) that is will­ing to ad­dress cli­mate change at the na­tional or global level will have a bet­ter chance than the ex­ist­ing “busi­ness as usual” model.

We all have to make in­di­vid­ual choices, some de­ci­sions are made for us be­cause we live in ei­ther demo­cratic or non-demo­cratic so­ci­eties. The ex­am­ples of Brexit and rise of pop­ulist pol­i­tics sug­gest that de­ci­sions via elec­toral votes are made very slowly or not at all. It is eas­ier to blame for­eign­ers and im­mi­grants for lo­cal problems than to blame cli­mate change.

But cli­mate change is hap­pen­ing be­cause of our in­di­vid­ual life­styles – how we con­sume and use up our nat­u­ral her­itage.

The good news is that with tech­nol­ogy and changes in lifestyle we can do some­thing about this. Na­tional con­flicts, in trade or war, are like fight­ing over deckchairs when we know a tsunami is ar­riv­ing.

If we ac­cept that cli­mate change is the real en­emy, then do­ing some­thing to­gether is bet­ter than fight­ing each other. But that is in the realm of hu­man pol­i­tics. As the car­toon­ist Walt Kelly fa­mously said, “we have met the en­emy and he is us.” — ANN

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