By Daniel Garrett
The admiral of the U.S. Pacific Fleet said in an interview last year that he considered climate change the world’s “greatest security threat,” while Secretary of State John Kerry recently compared climate change to a weapon of mass destruction. The threat is real. Despite more than 25 years of explicit warnings from the world’s best climate scientists, the amount of greenhouse gasses (GHG) being pumped into the atmosphere continues to rise. In fact, 60 percent of the total has been emitted since the danger came to light in the late 1980s.
But the response from the United States to the threat of climate change has not matched its rhetoric. U.S. institutions devoted to security threats have been some of the worst offenders. The U.S. military is the world’s largest non-state GHG polluter. And given high-level U.S. government support for shale gas and record levels of coal exports—not to mention its evident reluctance to nix the Keystone XL pipeline—it would seem that the United States is more interested in increasing rather than decreasing the weapon of mass destruction known as climate change.
The security establishment is largely devoted to reacting to the effects of climate change—failed states, resource wars, humanitarian disasters—rather than preemptively addressing the cause. To use an analogy that military planners might understand, the United States is doing little more than treating some of the wounded rather than actually stopping the shooter. The failure of this approach is nowhere more evident than in the Asia-Pacific region, where the United States is attempting to execute its non-existent “pivot.”
East Asia is particularly vulnerable to climate change. It is experiencing longer and more frequent droughts, and agriculturally useful rains are increasingly being replaced by violent weather events, including destructive seasonally displaced downpours. Typhoons of increasing strength, moreover, will track further north and west and as such most of East Asia’s coastal cities are also very vulnerable. The region will also experience increased volcanism, and an increase in the frequency and strength of earthquakes and tidal waves.
The region has long been dependent on importing oil from outside to fuel economic growth. Many countries have put great emphasis on nuclear power to reduce that dependency. But existing nuclear power plants are particularly vulnerable in this age of climate change. They rely on large quantities of water for cooling, so a large percentage of them are located near the ocean and will face increased threat from mega-storms and the tidal waves that result from the increased frequency and magnitude of earthquakes.
In addition to being dependent on energy imports, the countries of East Asia also import a lot of food. Widespread crop failures in some of the world’s most productive regions, such as this season’s drought in California, will become increasingly frequent. Some parts of East Asia are also water-poor. This high level of dependency could sharpen the various divides in the region, with all countries—and the United States—battling over the last bushel of wheat, the last barrel of oil, and the last drop of water. For a while there may be winners and losers. But because the we have not yet confronted the real enemy—climate change coupled with unsustainable resource use—everyone will lose in the final race to the bottom.
The better choice would be regional cooperation in climate change mitigation and developing an innovative, sustainable, and efficient approach to shared food, water, raw materials, and energy resources. A continued emphasis on military security will ensure only insecurity for all.
What Can Be Done?
As all recent reports have warned, the speed at which climate change is taking place means that we must be rapid and innovative in our response. The era of passing the climate buck is over. Because the atmosphere is a global collective commons, one state can no longer be allowed to reduce its carbon emissions by shifting dirty production to another state. Nor can China be completely blamed for assuming the world’s number one GHG polluter ranking: roughly a quarter of its production is for export. It’s our junk they are producing that is fouling everyone’s world.
In East Asia, a mobilization comparable to fight World War II is needed to fight climate change. The goal should be to make as rapid a transition as possible to 100-percent renewables. Given energy costs for the region and the high dependency on uncertain imported sources, such a transition is both strategically and economically desirable. An East Asia Smart Grid (EASG) should be put in place to link all solar, wind, tidal, and geothermal sources.
The looming threat of widespread food insecurity can be countered for example, though the use of vertical farming near Asia’s megacities. Vertical farms make it possible to produce more with less water and greatly reduced land use. When implemented properly, with known waste recycling technologies and renewable energy sources, they can form a largely self-sustaining system invulnerable to weather extremes. They are in a way the climate war equivalent of Cold War nuclear bunkers. Large-scale offshore wind installations can also play a role, and not just in energy production. Properly deployed, they greatly reduce both storm surge and wind intensity, serving as artificial mangrove swamps.
It is time to turn the perception of climate change as a threat into an effective response. This innovative approach requires money for research, development, and implementation. The obvious sources for this money are the military budgets of the rich countries, particularly the United States. If climate change is the greatest threat, then a large portion of the Pentagon’s budget should go toward addressing it. To give one example, half of the U.S carrier fleet should be re-equipped for climate change mitigation, adaptation, and humanitarian assistance activities, perhaps as part of a global humanitarian relief force.
In addressing the climate change threat, much of what the U.S. government—or governments in general—will focus on will be ameliorative at best and reactive at worse. We should be thinking of a much more radical pivot—toward decarbonization, a more equitable distribution of wealth, and the development of economies that emphasize personal and community well-being and the “dematerialization” of tangible commodities. That’s the only Pacific pivot that makes sense in this age of rising temperatures and rising waters.
Daniel Garrett was a foreign service officer at the U.S. Department of State. He is now a senior associate at the Asia Institute. The views expressed herein are solely those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect those of the U.S. Department of State or the U.S. government.