Coping Strategically With Climate Change

Treat Climate Change As Matter of Security


Brahma Chellaney

Covert magazine, October 1-14, 2008


Unlike other unconventional challenges the world faces, climate change is caused not by hostile forces but by our production and consumption patterns. For long, global warming had not been taken seriously, and even the few who did see its threat potential, viewed the matter as simply an environmental or economic issue. Today the silver lining is the ongoing attitudinal shift one sees in countries — from the United States and Australia, to China and Brazil. A prerequisite to any policy shift is an attitudinal shift. In the coming years, we will, hopefully, see policy shifting both at the national and international levels to help promote climate security.


Of course, without a change in U.S. policy, no international counteraction plan can emerge. Given President George W. Bush’s history of obstructionism on this issue despite a grudging admission by him of the human-induced causes of global warming, a more forward-looking U.S. approach would have to await a change of administration in Washington. In the developing world, the attitudinal shift is mirrored in the decision by a number of states to go in for energy-efficiency measures and climate-friendly technologies. The national action plans unveiled by China and India reflect this attitudinal shift. Limiting the scale of the climate problem is paramount. But as history testifies, action does not begin until a widely recognized crisis dawns on the world. And when that happens, it is the political ideas already around that get embraced. So now is a good time to begun formulating practicable proposals to combat climate change.


Fortunately, there is now greater clarity in the world on what needs to be controlled in order to protect the climate. The science of climate change is better developed, although it remains young, with some issues still unsettled. The economics of combating climate change is also now better understood, with the cost-benefit ratio clearly in favour of undertaking counteraction now. It is the politics that continues to lag behind, even as carbon emissions continue to grow 1.8 per cent annually. If the concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere were to be capped by 2030 at 400 parts per million so that the average temperature does not rise beyond 2 degrees Celsius, then concerted global action cannot be put off indefinitely.


Climate policy alone, however, will not solve the climate crisis. Unless we address energy issues, we cannot effectively combat climate change. Today, four-fifths of the world’s energy comes from fossil fuels — coal, oil, natural gas. Given that nearly two-thirds of the greenhouse-gas emissions are due to the way we produce and use energy, we need to focus more on alternate energy policies. This imperative is also being underlined by the manner interstate competition over energy resources is noticeably influencing strategic thinking and military planning. Until we can either replace fossil fuels with cost-effective renewables or other alternative technologies or find practical ways to capture C0² emissions, the world would remain wedded to the fossil-fuel age.


While the reluctance of the rich countries 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 Clean Development Mechanism (CDM), set up under the 1997 Kyoto Protocol, has accomplished little more than re-jigger emission rights between the developed and developing worlds.


            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. The global market in carbon trading now is nearing $40 billion. The bulk of the carbon trading involves the sale of allowances under the European Union’s emissions trading scheme.


To deal with its strategic implications, climate change needs to be embraced as a national security issue — but not in the way the Pentagon has toyed with the development of weather-modification technologies for military applications. Countries, especially in the developing world, ought to start seriously looking at ways they can innovate and get along in a climate change-driven paradigm. It will become imperative to build greater institutional and organizational capacity, along with efficient water management, early warning systems and new farm varieties.


Brahma Chellaney is Professor of Strategic Studies at the Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi.

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