Saturday, October 27, 2007

Will CO2 be the new nuclear?

The Nobel Peace Price of 2007 went jointly to the IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) and Al Gore, for their work in building and disseminating knowledge on man-made climate change. The rationale for awarding the peace prize for environmental work as explained in Nobel committee's press release is that "large-scale migration and ... greater competition for the earth's resources" (caused by climate change) may lead to "increased danger of violent conflicts and wars, within and between states".

The explanation seems rather inadequate. In a video of a (seemingly staged) interview posted on the Nobel website, the Secretary of the Committee sets out to elaborate on the award, but offers no better connection between global warming and peace than the above press release. Rajendra Pachauri, the longtime head of TERI (Tata Energy Research Institute) in New Delhi and lately chief of the IPCC, lays out a case for action on global warming in a recent editorial in Times of India. He emphasises the importance of a stable climate on global peace but, again, offers little by way of explanation.

Of course, intuitively, we all understand the connection between climate stability and peace but the lack of a well-articulated rationale, especially in support of as prestigious an award as this, comes as a surprise.

I rest the Nobel case at this point. But I would like to use the climate-peace connection to point out a rather startling trend that I have been seeing in American polity lately. This trend, to put in a nutshell, is towards taking an increasingly holier-than-thou attitude towards CO2 emissions and putting the screws on China (and probably India) for environmental excesses. Now, there is nothing new with global environmental inequity, as the 1991 book Global Warming in an Unequal World by Anil Agarwal and Sunita Narayan showed, but what concerns me is my belief America's holier-than-thou attitude is often used as rationale for war.

The first thing that set me thinking in this direction was a rather innocuous discussion on a conservative radio talk-show (which one, I do not remember now). The host was bashing the proposed legislation in the state of California to phase out conventional light bulbs in favor of CFLs. His disagreement was based on the premise that the idea of global warming was hogwash. At one point, a caller dialled the station in support of the host and offered the argument that with China's increasing industrialization and CO2 emissions, changing our light bulbs would be irrelevant so long as we cannot control the damage they do to the environment. The host loved, and approved, the idea. I instantly made a mental note to keep track of this stream of thought. Conservative radio hosts have been the front line of cheerleaders of America's aggressive foreign policy in recent years, and what they think is much more important than it seems.

Reinforcement to my suspicion came by way of a headlining article on China's environment in the influential foreign policy journal Foreign Affairs. The article is titled 'The Great Leap Backward?' and basically dismisses China's recent growth as a colossal environmental disaster while calling for political and economic reforms to correct it. The piece (written by an American) is full of contradictions and ill-explained environmental conclusions, but that is besides the point here. The more interesting question is - why would Foreign Affairs run an headlining article on the environment, when past record reflects a clear editorial stance of considering the environment as an affair that is irrelevant and unrelated to politics or economics?

This indictment of China's environment is everywhere. The New York Times, which impersonates the 'centralism' of current American political thought, ran a series of articles on the "human toll, global impact and political challenge of China's epic pollution crisis"(emphasis mine). Words can paint rather vivid pictures, and the Times does a rather good job. 'Toxic gray shroud', 'catastrophic environmental woes', 'people rarely see the sun', 'children sickened or killed by lead poisoning', and 'oceans no longer sustain marine life' are some of the terms and phrases that this genteel newspaper uses to describe China. This situation has "stark international repercussions", according to the Times but it fails to elaborate in what form. The Independent, a British newspaper, claims that China is "is turning into one of the greatest environmental threats the earth has ever faced".

What is conspicuously missing from the West's critique of China is an introspective look at its own consumerist and industrial underpinnings (all that China is doing is aping it) and at a more practical level, an assessment of its own hand in China's pollution (since a lot of industrial activity in China is towards producing goods for export). It took me a whole lot of googling before I found this study by a couple of British scientists which asks the question 'Who Owns China's Emissions?' and calculates that Chinese exports accounted for 23% of its total CO2 emissions (in 2004).

So what does this have to do with war?

One doesn't have to be a historian to see that America's military activism at home and abroad has followed circles of reason. While the growth of colonial and independent America in the 18th and 19th century was on the back of untrammelled oppression of the rights and liberties of her native people as well as imported slaves, the defence of personal and sovereign liberty was a worthy enough reason for entering into two destructive conflicts in the first half of the 20th century. More recently, millions of dollars and weapons were injected in the nascent Islamist militant movements in Pakistan and Afghanistan to undermine Soviet rule; these very friends now have the so-called global war on terror borne on themselves. As we speak, America, the only state in the world which has used a nuclear device with disastrous results on a foreign civilian population, is putting the screws to Iran to abandon its nuclear program, or else.

Will CO2 become the new nuclear? With its newly-found righteousness manifested through its Prius', its windfarms and its E85 gas stations, the answer seems to be 'yes'. Conceivably, a decade or so down the line, America will be the self-styled keeper and guarantor of clean blue skies, like it is for democracy, liberty, and nuclear non-proliferation now. The sabre-rattling, the chest-beating, the frantic resolutions in the US Congress might be aimed at curbing China's CO2 emissions like they are for curbing Iran's nuclear program today.

In a recent testimony to the US Congress, retired General Gordon Sullivan, a former Army Chief of Staff, presented his study titled 'National Security and the Threat of Climate Change'. He was convinced that the projected climate change "poses a serious threat to America's national security". His recommendation? One of them is that "the U.S. should commit to a stronger national and international role to help stabilize climate changes at levels that will avoid significant disruption to global security and stability". Huh. The US had a chance to don an important role in the environmental arena, a decade back, with the stroke of a pen (remember Kyoto?). Now, it might end up choosing a sword instead.

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