Monday, August 31, 2009

The Danger of Overstating the Climate Security Argument

There is a well-informed opinion piece in the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists by Geoff Dabelko of the Environmental Change and Security Program at the Wilson Center.

He makes a good argument against hyperventilating about climate security. However, I think we need to be careful that we look at who the target audience of this opinion piece is. The danger here is not that the planners (both in and out of government) in the security community are going to overstate the links between climate change and security – by and large they don’t want to court controversy. The US security community attempts to plan for every contingency. We should be encouraging them to explore all contingencies, including abrupt, dangerous climate change, even if such low-likelihood events can be politically controversial.

However, we must be careful about using the security argument for political purposes. The danger of overstating the security threats of climate change comes from the politicians and the interest groups who are pushing an agenda. In many ways, they’re just responding to market incentives: the CNA’s 2007 report was well received by the US political community, and brought a lot of publicity and political action, so other groups are trying to emulate that. The most dangerous, however, are the reports with big headline numbers, clear political overtones, but simplistic reasoning (the one I can think of recently is Kofi Annan’s estimate of 300,000 current deaths per year By putting these out in the media, it feeds skepticism among journalists about real, authoritative reports.

When I was working for Senator Hagel, he genuinely was pushing for the NIE on climate change’s security effects in 2007 because he wanted the Pentagon and the intelligence community to seriously look at the threats; however, most other Senators are only looking for another talking point. They wanted to be able to say: “the CIA believes that climate change will harm US security, so that means you must vote for my bill.” I’m not sure how to balance these competing priorities: we want to encourage action in Copenhagen and the Senate, and arguments about national security can be persuasive, but we have to guard against junk science from groups that we might normally think of as allies in this fight.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

China says, that Tibet is warming, and its time to do something about it

The Chinese government seems to be putting greater and greater emphasis on both the effects of climate change and how to mitigate it. Two articles from China Daily within the last week point to the new emphasis that the Chinese government is placing on this issue.

First, an August 18 article about the Tibeten Plateau says that Warming of Plateau is 'threatening all Asia'. The article goes on to detail how much Tibet has warmed, and that Tibet is warmer, on average than it has been for 2,000 years.

"The Qinghai-Tibet Plateau is among the regions worst hit by global warming,"
said Qin Dahe, of the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS). "In turn, this will
have a deleterious effect on the global climate and also the livelihood of Asian
As the source of many of Asia's largest rivers, including the Yellow and Yangtze in China, warming, along with a retreat of the glaciers, poses a significant danger to water supplies throughout East and South Asia.

Secondly, and article, Climate change law to bring teeth to emissions mandates, from today (August 26), reports that the National Peoples' Congress has placed climate change on the legislative agenda. The key phrase in this article is: "China will have "legally binding actions" to fight the illegal emissions." Though the quote is from a leader of an NGO, not from the Chinese government, the fact that anyone in China is talking about 'legally binding' anything regarding climate change is a major change in policy. Does this mean a mandatory cap on emissions? Probably not in the short-term, but perhaps in the longer term.

It is important that these articles come from China Daily, because this newspaper is widely seen as the English-language mouthpiece of the central government. Several articles recently have pointed out that China may be moving ahead of the US on climate action, and these articles show that new focus.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

New York Times Editorial

Following up on the front-page article from August 9, the New York Times has published a new editorial today about 'The Climate and National Security'. It is important that the newspaper of record has published this editorial. However, the editorial lauds the tactic of calling climate change a security threat, as a way to change the minds of wavering Senators.

Getting a strong bill through Congress is an important goal, but that alone won't stop many of the real security effects of cliamte change: the greenhouse gases already in the atmosphere guarantee that we'll see significant warming in the coming decades. Even in a best-case scenario, this will cause droughts, floods, food shortages, and competition over scarce resources. That's why its important to begin to plan for climate-induced threats to security. We shouldn't make a specious arguments for short-term political points. Instead, we should make planning for climate change an important part of defense strategy.

Friday, August 14, 2009

Copenhagen starting points

The most recent round of climate change talks ended Friday in Bonn, Germany with UNFCCC Executive Secretary Yvo de Boer saying "selective progress had been made to consolidate the huge texts on the this rate, we will not make it." A key area of contention is if the climate change treaty will govern intellectual property.

Developing countries demand more adaptation financing funded by the developed world and relaxed intellectual property laws for clean technologies. However, the US has refused to negotiate intellectual property laws at Copenhagen, especially since China fails to consistently enforce patents within its jurisdiction. The Times of India quotes an unamed official saying '
But they [referring to developed countries] want to create business out of the situation and ask us to trust the very markets they are right now propping out of the credit crisis."

These countries fear that developed nations will profit from exporting climate change technologies. Developed nations fear that they will not recoup their investments in renewable energy technology if they're exported to China, a country that will not begin reducing emissions until 2050. Would China be willing to commit to an earlier emissions reduction peak date in exchange for relaxed intellectual property laws? However, even if China agrees, US domestic politics may tie the hands of US negotiators to agree for any technology sharing agreement. A strong agreement will not likely be reached at Copenhagen unless developing countries extract financial or technological help from the developed world.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Signs of International Cooperation

Large emitters are showing greater international cooperation on climate change. The US, Mexico and Canada announced three ways to cooperate on climate change. Yesterday's Shanghai Daily ran an article headlined, ' China,U.S. must "seize the day" in climate change battle' calling for technology transfers and joint r&d funding. India and China now plan to not just study the Himalayan glaciers but to work on solutions. The Business Standard reports:
While the Indian scientists will study the glaciers on the Indian part of the Himalayas, their Chinese counterparts will undertake a similar exercise. Following this, both sides will exchange their findings and try to chalk out a comprehensive solution.
Does this 'comprehensive solution' mean there could an international agreement between China, an upstream country, and India, a downstream country to regulate water flow from the melting Himalayan glaciers? India is strategically vulnerable to China and would benefit from a legal agreement with China on water flow originating from the Himalayas.

Monday, August 10, 2009

NYT: Climate Change is a Threat to US Security

Saturday's front page NYT story on climate security marks the first time this issue has been linked in the media so prominently. Joe Romm from Climate Progress says,
"BUT as serious as this argument is, it’s equally important not to leave people with the impression that one is arguing global warming is mainly going to impact other countries, and not us. The United States will be directly devastated by climate change if we don’t rapidly reverse emissions trends"
Matt Yglesias from the Center for American Progress misses the point when he argues that "I don’t think it makes a ton of sense to look at every possible instance of drought, famine, mass migration, civil conflict, and human tragedy abroad as a “threat” to the United States per se."

The reason why military planners in many countries look at climate change as a security measure is because the international security environment is interconnected. US efforts to fight terrorism in Pakistan and Afghanistan involve economic development rather than just predator drone attacks. Ensuring security from climate change underscores the need to cut emissions and the need for greater adaptation funding. As countries move closer to Copenhagen this December, adaptation financing will be pivotal to ensure nations do not face existential threats to their stability. As evidenced by the NYT, climate change must be looked at not just environmentally but from a security standpoint.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Refugees Risk Sovereignty

At the Pacific Island Forum, Australia's Prime Minister Kevin Rudd was asked if Australia would be prepared to accept climate refugees from neighboring island nation states if climate change raises sea levels to render low lying islands inhospitable. His answer was telling:
‘Let’s be blunt about the order of priorities here. One is a set of actions agreed to by the international community which minimise the impact of coastal inundation as we minimise the impact of climate change but taking the mitigation measures that are outlined in the possible contents of a new framework agreement and the various national actions to be undertaken here in Australia.’'
Rudd sidestepped the question. Refugees represent a threat to a nation's sovereignty because they undermine the control states have over their borders. Territorial integrity is one of the hallmarks of a sovereign nation. For Australia, controlling its borders are easier. It's an island; refugees from neighboring states such as Kiribati would have to arrive by boat with plenty of warning. However, in the Middle East, refugees created by environmental devastation could create security problems. The recently released Arab Development Report 2009 states:
Spreading drought, reduced water levels in rivers, stunted agricultural production and incursion by sea water will force large numbers of people to emigrate, turning millions of people, particularly in the Nile River Delta and coastal areas in the Arab Gulf, into “environmental refugees.” These developments could affect not only human security among communities, but national and regional security as well. Such severe changes may also affect political stability and increase domestic tension.
Already, Syria and Iraq face devastating water shortages. The region contains refugee camps in Palestine, disputed political sovereignty by the Kurds, and a war in Iraq. Refugees fleeing from drought ridden farm land would heighten these border disputes in an area beset with border integrity issues.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Scientific Specifity Needed

According to the today's NYT, the IPCC's next report may be very helpful for policymakers:
"More attention will be devoted to research on the potential for dangerous changes in ocean chemistry as seas absorb billions of tons of carbon dioxide. Another focus will be large-scale artificial methods of countering warming, called geo-engineering.

The panel will also try harder to identify anticipated impacts of climate change on certain regions, and options for fostering resilience in especially vulnerable places like sub-Saharan Africa."

While the IPCC cannot make policy recommendations, outlining the impacts of specific policy options, such as geo-engineering, and providing more detailed climate scenarios would help policy making and persuade the public on the urgency of climate change. Until then, there is only anecdotal evidence of persistent water shortages near Beijing, in Somalialand, in the West Bank, and in Mumbai. Having causal evidence of climate change on specific regions would aid security and development policy.

Monday, August 3, 2009

The Strategic Importance of Water: India-China

India and China have begun discussions to jointly monitor the Himalayan glaciers that supply water to both the Ganges, Indus and Yangtze rivers. This is a promising sign of cooperation and mutual recognition of the importance of water in a region of the world with heightened risk of climate induced conflict. This will be one of the topics bound to come up at the conference in Nepal in a mouth on climate change. On August 28 China and India are both emerging powers who have fought over border disputes, and China, a key ally of Pakistan, supplies Pakistan with advanced military equipment and weaponry.

The terms of proposed cooperation between the two countries extend only to scientific monitoring of glacial melting in the Himalayas. Hopefully, this can broaden into a more comprehensive dialogue between the two countries over water management instead of mere monitoring because many of India's major rivers originate from the Tibetan plateau controlled by China. Brahma Chellaney, one of India's leading strategic thinkers on arms control and climate security, believes:
...China is now pursuing major inter-basin and inter-river water transfer projects on the Tibetan plateau, which threatens to diminish international-river flows into India and other co-riparian states. Before such hydro-engineering projects sow the seeds of water conflict, China ought to build institutionalized, cooperative river-basin arrangements with downstream states.
India's government recognizes its strategic situation and Indian minister Jairam Ramesh's recent trip to Beijing reflects that. Ramesh called China a "countervailing power" in efforts to resist pressure from Western nations for hard emission caps in this December's Copenhagen negotiations. Ramesh also said "India considers China to be its most important ally in the Copenhagen negotiation process." By stressing commonalities between India and China have on climate and trade, India can begin to engage China on a broader set of environmental issues, such as water management because climate change could lead to drought in India.

India and China face enormous population pressures and the demand for water in both countries will grow for the foreseeable future as each develops especially since India's population growth rate is higher than China's. Climate change is altering the balance of power between the two countries by increasing the importance of water, a variable that China controls.