Climate change has been correctly identified as a threat multiplier. Yet it has already become a divisive issue internationally before a plan for a low-carbon future has emerged.
Just as the five original nuclear- weapons states helped fashion the 1970 Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty to perpetuate their privileges, states that become wealthy early wish to preserve their prerogatives in a climate-change regime, despite their legacy of environmental damage and continuing high carbon emissions.
This has raised the danger that efforts to lock in the rich nations’ advantages by revising the 1992 Rio bargain and rejiggering the Kyoto Protocol obligations through a new regime could create another global divide between haves and have-nots — an NPT of climate change. In fact, a new bargain is at the heart of the efforts to fashion a 2009 Copenhagen Protocol.
With the Kyoto Protocol’s target of a mere 7 percent reduction in carbon dioxide emissions below 1990 levels falling by the wayside as global emissions continue to grow at over 1 percent a year, the standard excuse being trotted out for failing to meet one’s responsibility is that global warming cannot be slowed unless India and China also agree to cut their emissions.
That China and India serve as a convenient pretext for political foot-dragging is apparent from the widely held belief that the climate crisis impact would be borne largely by the developing world and, therefore, the rich nations ought not to slow their economic growth through major emission cuts at a time when they face a growing challenge from the emerging economies.
An extension of that belief is the contention that global warming would change the relative strategic weight of nations, with those in the colder climes gaining, like Russia, but many others suffering an erosion of security and status.
Such smug beliefs, as U.S. Sen. Joe Lieberman acknowledged at a group discussion two months ago in which this writer was involved, have helped foster resistance in Congress to America slashing its high emissions, accounting for almost a quarter of the world’s total. The recent defeat of the Lieberman- Warner cap-and-trade bill on climate change thus is not a surprise.
Ironically, the desired new global bargain would call upon the vulnerable states on the frontline of climate change to shoulder responsibility with those who would supposedly benefit.
The blunt fact is that there will be no winners from climate change. Not only will its effects be global, climate change is likely to make weather patterns more unpredictable in higher latitudes. Indeed, with the upper reaches of the Arctic already warming twice as fast as the rest of the world, climate change could wreak havoc on agriculture, public health and ecosystems in colder lands, besides helping breed unmanageable viruses.
At a time of greater international divisiveness on core challenges — from disarmament and terrorism to the food crisis and the Doha Round of world trade talks — the world can ill-afford political rancor over the climate crisis, which carries the seeds of exacerbating existing security challenges, without necessarily creating a new category of threats.
While it is easy to exaggerate or underestimate the likely impact of climate change owing to the continuing gaps in scientific knowledge, three broad strategic effects can be visualized on the basis of studies so far.
First, climate change would intensify interstate and intrastate competition over natural resources, making resource conflicts more likely. A new Great Game over water, for example, could unfold, with Asia as the hub, given China’s control over the source of all of Asia’s major rivers except the Ganges. Accelerated melting of glaciers and mountain snows would affect river-water flows, although higher average temperatures are likely to bring more rainfall in the tropics.
Second, higher frequency of extreme weather events (such as hurricanes, flooding and drought) and a rise in ocean levels are likely to spur greater interstate and intrastate migration — especially of the poor and the vulnerable — from the delta and coastal regions to the hinterland.
Such an influx of outsiders would socially swamp inland areas, upsetting the existing fragile ethnic balance and provoking a backlash that strains internal and regional security. It should not be forgotten that many societies are a potent mix of ethnicity, culture and religion.
India, for example, could face a huge refugee influx from the world’s seventh most populous country, Bangladesh, which is already losing land to saltwater incursion. Having been born in blood in 1971, Bangladesh faces extinction from water, with the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) saying that country is set to lose 17 percent of its land and 30 percent of its food production by 2050.
In some cases, the effect of large-scale refugee influx would be to undermine the political stability and internal cohesion of the state. That could even foster or strengthen conditions making the state dysfunctional.
Third, human security will be the main casualty as climate change delivers a major blow to vulnerable economic sectors. Economic and social disparities, already wide in many societies, would intensify. The specter of resource conflicts, failed states, large-scale migrations, growing extremism, and higher frequency and intensity of extreme weather events helps underscore the human-security costs.
Unlike other unconventional challenges, climate change is caused not by hostile forces but by production and consumption patterns. While the reluctance of the rich to accept any diminution in their lifestyle comforts is understandable, there is a need to go beyond symbolic approaches.
The diversion of food for biofuels, for instance, has only helped create a windfall for major farm industries while burdening the world’s poor. Also, buying carbon credits from poor states to exceed one’s own emission targets is environmental grandstanding, at best, and carbon colonialism, at worst.
The hope was that such carbon trading would allow emission cuts to happen where they are the cheapest. But the evidence thus far is that it has done little more than provide a greener reputation to the states promoting the scheme.
A strengthened international regime to combat global warming will have to be anchored in differential responsibility, a concept at the heart of the Climate Change Framework Convention and the Kyoto Protocol, but also embedded in international law through several other agreements — from the Montreal Protocol to the Maastricht Treaty.
A lot can also be done outside a climate change regime. Take energy efficiency, which can help bring a quarter of all gains. The United States belches twice as much carbon dioxide per person as Japan, although the two countries have fairly similar per capita incomes. Or take the case within the U.S.: California has held its per capita energy consumption essentially constant since 1974, while per capita energy use in America as a whole has jumped during the same period by 50 percent.
Furthermore, given that deforestation accounts for as much as 20 percent of the emission problem, carbon storage is as important as carbon cuts. Each hectare of rainforest, for example, stores 500 tons of carbon dioxide. Forest management is thus important to tackle climate change. In fact, to help lessen the impact of climate change, states need to strategically invest in ecological restoration — growing and preserving rainforests, building wetlands and shielding species critical to our ecosystems.
Climate change is not just a matter of science but also a matter of geopolitics. Without improved geopolitics, there can be no real fight against climate change.
Equity in burden-sharing holds the key to a strengthened regime emerging at Copenhagen. The challenge is to devise carbon standards that help protect the material and social benefits of economic growth in the developing world but without damaging prosperity in the developed countries.
If the emerging economies were to assume obligations of the rich states, emission-cut targets would have to be based on objective criteria calibrating a country’s reduction burden both to its historic contributions to the buildup of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere and to its current per capita emissions. But if the privileged kept their present emission rights and tied any carbon cuts to burden-sharing with the underprivileged, it would constitute an NPT variant.
Barahma Chelleney, a professor of strategic studies at the New Delhi-based Center for Policy Research, is the author, among others, of “On the Frontline of Climate Change: International Security Implications.”