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Twelve Simple Propositions: Climate Change and the Asia Pivot

A meaningful “Asia Pivot” would meaningfully address the greatest security threat to that region and the whole planet: climate change.

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“The moral of this story: people in power and bureaucrats seem exceptionally obtuse when it comes to recognizing that the world has changed and the old rules no longer apply.”
Rebecca Solnit

Words and Deeds or the Paucity Thereof

1. Climate change is the greatest challenge that humanity has faced. Climate phase change (abrupt climate change) is an existential threat that will render most the Earth uninhabitable. All signs point to this phase change as either already initiated or soon to be initiated.

2. Although most nations, including the United States and China, have varying levels of commitment to climate change mitigation and adaptation, they are about as meaningful as providing every passenger on the Titanic with a rubber ducky. Even if these commitments are met in full and on time – they are insufficient for preventing catastrophic climate change.

3. It would take an act of phenomenal legerdemain to conceal the fact that climate change – or rather the failure to act on climate change when it was still largely preventable – is the greatest security failure in human history. Despite more than 25 years of explicit warnings from the world’s best climate scientists, the amount of greenhouse gases (GHG) being pumped into the atmosphere continues to rise. In fact, 60 percent of the total has been dumped there since the danger was known.

4. The Asia Pivot is largely empty rhetoric (having engaged in a considerable amount of that myself, I do not mean to suggest that empty rhetoric is without its value as a means of attempting to orient the mind in a different direction at least for a while). Although the admiral of the US Pacific Fleet said in an interview last year that “Climate change was his greatest security threat,” and the secretary of state recently compared climate change to a weapon of mass destruction, a reading of the Quadrennial Defense Review shows a security establishment largely devoted to being able to react to the effects of climate change (failed states, resource wars, humanitarian disasters) rather than pre-emptively attack the cause. The United States, in other words – and using a battlefield analogy – is planning a defense that is little better than hoping to be able to treat some of the wounded, rather than actually trying to stop the shooter (climate change). This is perhaps not completely surprising given that the US military is the world’s largest (non-nation state) GHG polluter. Given, moreover, high-level US support for shale gas and record levels of coal exports (not to mention Keystone XL), even the secretary of state’s words, if interpreted in the light of deeds, would indicate that the United States supports an even-more-destructive level of a “climate change weapon of mass destruction.”

What Would a Real Asia Pivot That Fully Recognized the Fact That Climate Change is the Central Threat Look Like?

5. There are three main components to any strategy for combating climate change at the mitigation level: radical decarbonization, a radical shift to ways of more equitable sharing existing wealth/resources and a radical shift to economies that emphasize personal and community well-being and the “dematerialization” of tangible commodities.

6. In terms of East Asia, a World War II-level industrialization effort to make a rapid transition to 100 percent renewables is feasible and, given energy costs for the region and the high dependency on uncertain imported sources, strategically and economically desirable. An East Asia Smart Grid linking all solar, wind, tidal and geothermal sources etc. must be implemented as soon as possible to provide the stable base load that a widely distributed smart renewable energy grid can provide.

7. Numerous studies show that the support system provided by natural systems can no longer tolerate the dominant economic system (short-term-profit-driven neoliberal capitalism). At a minimum, if something like TPP or an East Asian Common Market comes into being, complete supply chain carbon costs for all products, processes and services must be taken out of the realm of negative externalities and those costs fully incorporated. State A cannot be allowed to reduce its carbon emissions by shifting dirty production to State B. The atmosphere is a collective global commons.

8. In terms of adaptation to climate change already programmed into the system, the countries of East Asia, which are highly non-self-sufficient in terms of food, must realize that widespread crop failures in some of the world’s most productive regions (drought in California, for example) will become increasingly frequent in the short term, and consequently, they must strategically rethink this issue. Vertical farming near Asia’s megacities is one feasible defense.

9. In terms of adaptation to climate change already programmed into the system, the countries of East Asia must realize that typhoons of increasing strength will track farther north and west and consequently most of East Asia’s coastal cities are very vulnerable. Large-scale offshore wind installations can greatly reduce both storm surge and wind intensity (playing the artificially equivalent role of mangrove swamps), and of course can also play a major role in total energy supply.

10. In terms of adaptation to climate change already programmed into the system, the countries of East Asia must realize that, in addition to widespread species extinction, climate change phase changes also may be typified by widespread geomorphological effects including increased volcanism and an increase in the frequency and strength of earthquakes, tidal waves, etc. Issues of maintaining complex technologies in the midst of social collapse aside, existing nuclear power plants, because of their dependence on large quantities of water for cooling and the power to pump the water and the large percentage of them located, as a result, near the ocean, are particularly vulnerable to the sorts of disruptions now occurring with increased frequency: mega-storms, droughts and mega-droughts. To this list must be added the probability of an increase both in frequency and magnitude of earthquakes (and of course tidal waves) as a result of the climate-change-driven component of increased geomorphological activity. So, because time is short and political will is fractured, a triage list must be drawn up of what critical infrastructure needs to be preserved (information infrastructures?) and what systems need to be rapidly decommissioned as difficult to protect during the climate chaos (nuclear power plants?).

11. To the extent the US government and DOD can become effectively involved in propositions 5 through 10, the Asia Pivot will become meaningful in so far as it actually focuses on the major threat, climate change. To that end, roughly half of the DOD’s budget should be devoted to implementing the above (propositions 5-10) necessary strategic pre-emptory defenses in the United States itself. Of the remaining budget, half may remain in traditional security venues, but the remaining half should be devoted in its entirety to creative, innovative, in-depth peacemaking activities that address the root cause and not the symptom. Moreover, because climate-related disaster frequency and amplitude can be expected to increase enough to overwhelm the response ability of any one state, half of the US carrier fleet, for example, should be re-equipped for climate-change mitigation, adaptation and humanitarian assistance activities – perhaps as part of a global humanitarian relief force.

12. Because the US government is largely captured by the very corporations that are causing the climate disruption; and because proposition 11 is unlikely to be implemented in the short term; and because US foreign policy since World War II largely can be summed up by the fact that it tried to overthrow 50 foreign governments, interfered in the elections of 30 countries, tried to assassinate more than 50 foreign leaders, bombed more than 30 countries, and tried to suppress populist or nationalist movements in 30 countries, mostly to try and ensure access to resources for US corporations and/or market access for US corporations, then it follows that maintaining a healthy suspicion of US activities in the region might be considered reasonable, and, moreover, that support must be given to any nongovernmental organization in particular working to achieve any of the three components of Proposition 5: radical decarbonization, a radical shift to ways of more equitable sharing of existing resources and a radical shift to economies that emphasize personal and community well-being and the “dematerialization” of tangible commodities.

DISCLAIMER: Daniel Garrett was a foreign service officer at the US Department of State. The views expressed herein are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the US Department of State or the US government.

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