President Biden calls the “existential threat of our times” climate change Indeed, he says that this is our “most serious national security threat,” and that climate change has become the “center” for his policy for national security.
In addition, the Interim National Security Strategic Guidance states: “We’d miss the last opportunity of avoiding the worst effects of climate change on our people’s health, economy, security and our planet if we don’t act now.”
The key question: Is using such militarily provocative language the right approach to solving the world’s climate change dilemma?
How far is it that the U.S. President is prepared to “prevent the most terrible consequences of climate change on our people’s health?” Are the U.S. thinking in terms of militarized response to climate change using rhetoric which has been reserved for adversaries against whom the USA should be willing to wage war?
How can this approach be implemented? For example, take account of the evidence that air pollution is directly connected to climate change. This is deadly, too: Time states that 1,8 million people in the world, including some 155 000 Americans, are killed by air pollution each year.
There are many sources of this fatal phenomenon, but China appears to be the main one on the planet. So is China our “enemy” of climate change?
China is the world’s largest polluter, according to reports from Phys.org. Its hazardous emissions of greenhouse gases are “twice the United States.”
In 2020, more than 80 per cent of the newly announced coal energy projects were opened by China, three quarters of the global coal power plants. All this damages Americans physically. This is the position of one source:
Because of [the westerlies], the pollutants from China have caused a 65% increase in the Western Ozone – or, as it’s also referred to, smog. One study shows that 29% of the particulates in smog in San Francisco come directly from China’s coal plants.
So what country is most responsible for the “greatest risk” to US national security, seems to us to know, and we know that the life of Americans is already under threat from that country (and, likely, those of our allies).
Could—or should—this killer smog become a casus belli? Put another way, doesn’t the use war rhetoric suggest the US might consider it as such?
Is that the reading we want, or does the warlike language the Administration employs raise the risk of misinterpretation and miscalculation? Is it really impossible to imagine a shooting war erupting when America says climate change is an “existential threat” so dangerous it is the “center” of its national security policy?
China may not be the only opponent if it does. Russia is the fourth biggest polluter in the world, but in addition, oil and gas “relate to more than 60% of export in Russia and supply over 30 percent of Russia’s GDP.”
It would appear that, despite its obvious negative effects on climate change, Russia has little incentive to see the world turn from the fossil fuels which are so important for its economy.
Moreover, despite the fact that Russia itself might be affected by climate change negatively, it is also one of the countries which would benefit from the resulting global warming .The New York Times Magazine published an article (“How Russia Wins the Climate Crisis”) last December, which stated that “[c]limate change and its huge human migration are transforming agriculture and restoring world order—no country will gain more than Russia.” In this article:
[Russia’s] crop production is expected to be boosted by warming temperatures over the coming decades even as farm yields in the United States, Europe and India are all forecast to decrease. And whether by accident or cunning strategy or, most likely, some combination of the two, the steps its leaders have steadily taken — planting flags in the Arctic and propping up domestic grain production among them — have increasingly positioned Russia to regain its superpower mantle in a warmer world.
The melting of arctic ice is also a result of climate change. While for many countries this will be disastrous, others, notably Russia, might benefit. Such advantages may be considerable.
Experts say the Arctic “holds an estimated 22% of Earth’s oil and natural gas resources.” In addition, as “Arctic ice melts, sea routes will stay navigable for longer periods, which could drastically change international trade and shipping.”
Unsurprisingly, “Russia has launched an ambitious plan to remilitarize the Arctic.” In fact, just a few weeks ago CNN reported “Satellite images show huge Russian military buildup in the Arctic.” The Center for Strategic & International Studies describes the scope of Russia’s actions:
Russia’s military posture in the Arctic emphasizes air and maritime early warning and defense, highlighted by the reopening of 50 previously closed Soviet-era military posts. This includes the refurbishment of 13 air bases,10 radar stations, 20 border outposts, and 10 integrated emergency rescue stations. Russian special forces units are also part of an Arctic Brigade and have deployed to the region for exercises and training.
Most worrisome, Russia has tested new Arctic-based military capabilities such as hypersonic cruise missiles and nuclear-powered undersea drones. Senior U.S. military leaders have expressed growing concern about the prevalence of these Russian cruise missiles in the Arctic and their “avenue of approach” to the United States.
China, a “close-Arctic” nation, also sees benefit from the melting-up of climate change in the Arctic. In a Foreign Policy article in 2018—Chinese Cash Ready In on Melting Arctic—Chinese policy white paper ‘Polar Silk Road Viewer Views,’ a valuable route for trade that only made the loss of ice packets possible.
There is no doubt also that China has an interest in the Arctic oil and mineral riches, the exploitation of which is possible with climate change. Moreover, the access to minerals in Greenland is viable through climate change. Accordingly, on 9 April the Wall Street Journal noted that China “would like to build a massive rare earth mine.”Greenland’s government was also investigating loans from China for the construction of a major airport, according to the article, “the Pentagon was alarming that the Chinese government could claim a strategy for air strips from the US East Side if Greenland did not pay for the loans a few hours by flight.”
A militarized response?
I don’t think President Biden plans to use military force to solve the climate crisis at this time. However, if the President of the US declares this threat to not just “the greatest threat to national security,” but also to the very existence of America, it would seem quite understandable to strategize on how to affirmatively eliminate this threat, both our and others rhetoric. This is how the military addresses threats.
Hard-hitting?? Harvard professor Stephen M. Walt discussed in a 2019 Foreign Policy article the use of military forces “There is only time before major power attempt to stop climate change by any means necessary.
The question, therefore, is how far would the international community be willing to go in order to prevent, halt, or reverse actions that might cause immense and irreparable harm to the environment on which all humans depend? It might seem far-fetched to imagine states threatening military action to prevent this today, but it becomes more likely if worst-case estimates of our climate future turn out to be correct.
There are other serious environmental intervention discussions (see, e.g., here). Professor Robyn Eckersley of the University of Melbourne provides a particularly sophisticated analysis. She recognizes that while “very good reasons for approaching the use of military force in order to protect the environment are very prudent,” it is also supported by arguments. She says: And she says:
First of all, although most ecological problems cannot be addressed by any military action, ecological challenges and risks remain in the nature of serious and imminent environmental emergencies and need military or paramilitary reactions to them if they are to be avoided or minimized.
Second, exploring the use of military force to protect environment makes the link between new environmental standards and the fundamental political and legal norm for non-intervention with its core self-determination useful. In this context, a more thorough analysis is possible. Such an investigation gives a significant assessment of the extent of sovereignty ‘g
Are there precedents of any kind? Perhaps. In 1982 the United States reportedly “slipped out…failed software” to the Russians, causing a Siberian malware-controlled natural gas pipeline to explode. It was intended at the time to “disrupt the supply of Soviet gas, Western hard currency revenues and Russian domestic economies.”
But suppose today someone thought that a cyber operation similarly destructive was a good way to stop the flow of the fossil-destroying fuel? How could Russia respond?
Also, is it really unimaginable that when a nation considers the rhetoric of the United States, climate change also considers it a “existential threat” and decides to take military action to “avert the worst consequences for the health of the people of climate change?”
How could they? How could they do that? Experts tell us that a lot of actors can launch electric infrastructure cyber attacks. Thus a scenario cannot be conceived in which a cyber capable country attacks a charcoal power grid of another nation, claiming that the pollution-accelerating deadly climate change was a legitimate act, and that this was a legitimate means of forceding that target country to take a safer ‘green energy’
What about stopping or reversing climate change tinkering with weather? Yes, the United States and many other nations are parties to the Convention on Military Prohibition or any Other Environmental Change Technology. Would the operation be blocked?Maybe not. Maybe not. How difficult would it be to frame a climate change, if the climate change is a ‘existential threat’ to national security, not like a ‘hostile use,’ but as a peaceful one aiming to alleviate the effects of harmful climate change. But what could the reaction of those nations that perceive that climate change benefits??
The point here is that words have consequences, and the militarized U.S. climate change language can prompt action with unintended and highly unwanted consequences.