Climate War: the United States and China

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“Climate change is happening now. It’s not just happening in the Arctic regions, but it’s beginning to show up in our own backyards.”

Americans are now seeing a changing climate across the country, according to Thomas Karl, director of the National Climatic Data Center at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and a principal author of “The United States Global Change Research Report“.

The question now is not if climate change will happen, but how much of a change do we want to allow and how quickly will those changes come?  “Our destiny is really in our hands,” Karl explained. “The size of those impacts is significantly smaller with appropriate controls.”

That’s the catch. We’ve already bought, through burning fossil fuels, more than a 2º F increase in average temperatures across the U.S. over the past 50 years and another 4-11º F increase will happen by the end of the century. How hot it will get depends not only on what actions we take as Americans today to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, but what actions the rest of the world takes.

What would we be doing now if we took climate change seriously?” George Monbiot asked last week in The Guardian. Realistically “we should be spending tens of billions a year to prevent climate breakdown”.

The first, best place to find the money, Monbiot suggested, is within the defense budget.

The last time we faced a crisis on the scale of the global climate crash, the rational solution was to build tanks. Now the rational, least painful solution is to stop building tanks, and use the money to address a real threat.

Transforming our nation’s defense budget from fighting wars to reducing greenhouse gas emissions and switching to renewable energy is the best way to improve America’s national defense and stabilize global security. Using our defense budget this way would not even be stretching its spending purpose.

Climate Change is a National Security Threat

Two years ago, the federally funded Center for Naval Analyses (CNA) released a study prepared by eleven retired three- and four-star flag and general officers from the Army, Navy, Air Force, and Marine Corps to assess the impact of global climate change on key matters of national security.

The report, “National Security and the Threat of Climate Change“, found that “the predicted effects of climate change over the coming decades” will “have the potential to disrupt our way of life and to force changes in the way we keep ourselves safe and secure.”

In the national and international security environment, climate change threatens to add new hostile and stressing factors. On the simplest level, it has the potential to create sustained natural and humanitarian disasters on a scale far beyond those we see today. The consequences will likely foster political instability where societal demands exceed the capacity of governments to cope.

The military minds found that: 1) “Climate change acts as a threat multiplier for instability in some of the most volatile regions of the world”; 2) “Projected climate change will add to tensions even in stable regions of the world”, and 3) “Climate change, national security, and energy dependence are a related set of global challenges.”

They came up with five major recommendations, of which the top two were that “the national security consequences of climate change should be fully integrated into national security and national defense strategies” and that the “U.S. should commit to a stronger national and international role to help stabilize climate change at levels that will avoid significant disruption to global security and stability.”

Last year, the United States spent $607 billion on the military according to the latest annual Yearbook on Armaments, Disarmament, and International Security published by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI). Who are our nation’s potential foes? Who are we afraid of?

Climate Change Demands a War-Time Footing

Last year, Rep. Gregory Meeks (D-NY) wrote an op-ed arguing climate change requires a war-room mentality. “UN Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon was right in comparing the effects of climate change to the effects of war, given the potential level of human and environmental devastation potentially wrought by rising sea levels and increasingly catastrophic weather conditions.” Meeks thinks calling for a “‘war room’ to adequately respond to a rapidly warming planet” is the correct response.

Meeks argued that “under Article 39 of the UN Charter, the Security Council maintains the right to identify threats to international peace and security and to devise means to counter these threats.” And concluded, “a global threat requires global commitment. And that commitment can be best coordinated in the Security Council.”

Looking at which nations hold permanent seats on the Security Council, it is unlikely that the body will act within the next decade to address climate change. Instead, the five permanent members are also the top five military spenders. Still, the U.S. significantly outspends the world on our war machine.

At an estimated $84.9 billion, China spent the second most in 2008, according to SIPRI. Nearly 75 percent of the world’s $1.464 trillion spent last year alone on the military came from the top 10 military spending nations. Most of the nations in the top 15 spenders, the United States counts as friends or allies. Along with China, only Russia, global fifth in military spending at $58.6 billion, has been our adversary within the past 50 years.

The two largest greenhouse gas polluters in the world are China and the United States. A fighting war between China and the United States is highly unlikely, but instead we and the Chinese are engaged in an equally destructive contest. China passed the United States as the leading emitter of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere last year.

A Game of Climatecide Chicken

China is “not going to stop using coal”, according to Jeffrey Sachs, director of the Earth Institute at Columbia University. China holds the west responsible, in part, for their country’s increasing carbon dioxide emissions, “because it does not accept responsibility for the emissions involved in producing goods for foreign markets.”

For the American part, U.S. climate negotiators say we will not demand binding carbon cuts from China. China has called on “the US to cut emissions by 2020 by 40% on 1990 levels.” Todd Stern, the U.S. climate change envoy, acknowledged, “We understand China’s paramount need to grow and develop for its people… our demand is that the development with the available technologies is based on low carbon growth.”

Despite gloomy prognostications about their coal dependence and their climatecide game of chicken negotiating position, China is making their own climate plans. As the U.S. Global Change Research Report outlines the global warming future for America, China would be foolish not to see the threat posed by global climate change to its own country. The more China’s economic growth pumps greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, the greater likelihood of droughts and floods pose to China, threatening the very economic growth they crave.

While China maintains the West, especially the U.S. is responsible for much of their greenhouse gas emissions, President Obama is prioritizing capitalism and global growth over climate change. On Sunday, he shared his reservations about placing “tariffs on imports from countries that did not similarly crack down on greenhouse gas emissions”.

“At a time when the economy worldwide is still deep in recession and we’ve seen a significant drop in global trade, I think we have to be very careful about sending any protectionist signals,” Obama said.

World’s First Green Superpower

Meanwhile, China is pushing to become the world’s first green superpower. China is likely to spend between a suggested $200 billion and $600 billion over the next ten years on “nuclear power plants, solar and wind farms, hydroelectric dams, ‘green transport’, ‘clean coal’ and super efficient electric grids.” Within 11 years, China plans to get 20 percent of its energy needs from renewable sources.

The consequences will be staggering. If the bigger figure proves correct, China will be spending the equivalent of its 2009 military budget on “new energy” for each of the next ten years.

By ignoring this challenge to become a “green superpower”, the U.S. is effectively ignoring the launch of Sputnik in 1957. By not correctly prioritizing our nation’s military expenditures to meet the challenges to our national security posed by climate change, it is as if the Soviets launched their satellite and America just said human-made moons were impossible. Effectively, China has engaged the U.S. in a “green” arms race, but we did not even notice.

Imagine what a difference we could make if the United States spent even half of its military budget, more than $300 billion, for the next ten years seeking energy independence and reducing our nation’s greenhouse gas emissions.

In comparison, the entire Department of Energy requested $24.3 billion for FY2008 and a visit to the DoE website does not even classify climate change as a DoE national security concern, let alone a primary environment concern.

If we are expecting scientists and engineers to help devise a way to remove greenhouse gases from the atmosphere or provide more efficient and safer renewable energy sources, then we’re not putting our money the same place we’re placing our hope.

The Sputnik of Climate Change

We Americans must shift our nation’s wartime footing to fight climate change directly. As former U.S. Army Chief of Staff Gordon Sullivan said in CNA report:

The Cold War was a specter, but climate change is inevitable. If we keep on with business as usual, we will reach a point where some of the worst effects are inevitable.

If we don’t act, this looks more like a high probability/high consequence scenario…

The situation, for much of the Cold War, was stable and the challenge was to keep it stable, to stop the catastrophic event from happening. We spent billions on that strategy.

Climate change is exactly the opposite. We have a catastrophic event that appears to be inevitable. And the challenge is to stabilize things-to stabilize carbon in the atmosphere. Back then, the challenge was to stop a particular action. Now, the challenge is to inspire a particular action. We have to act if we’re to avoid the worst effects.

Americans could have ignored the beep-beep-beep from Sputnik overhead, but instead we raced to the moon. As before, the future of America is in our hands. We can choose to ignore the challenges facing us caused by our changing climate and our dependence on fossil fuels or we can act.

And when we act, we will make things better for future generations of Americans… if not all the people of the world. In this green war, halting and reversing this climatic destruction is our only winning move.

Cross-posted from Daily Kos as part of DK GreenRoots.



    • Viet71 on July 1, 2009 at 6:57 pm

    I work in a professional arena in which there are many layers of expertise (informed by both technical knowledge and expertise).

    At the bottom layer, one finds persons who are consumers of advice handed down from a higher layer.

    At the top layer, one finds a very, very small number of persons who consume very little advice (they have little or no need to be advice consumers).  Anyone below rightly regards the advice of these persons to be worth following.

    The in-between layers consist of persons who are both advice consumers and advice givers.

    An outsider would not know this about my area of work:  Some who are regarded as having high expertise have flawed logic, inadequate knowledge, deficient experience, and lack of good original thinking.

    Which brings me to climate change experts.  I’m pretty sure of one thing:  There are lots of advice consumers, lots of advice givers, almost certainly some flawed thinking, and lots and lots of non-original thinking.

    I don’t like one bit the pollution of thee planet.  On the other hand, I am not prepared to buy just any expert’s conclusions as to what this pollution portends for climate change.

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