United Nations Secretary- General Ban Ki-moon wrote an opinion column titled
"A Climate Culprit in Darfur" in the June 16 issue of the Washington Post. In
that article he linked the Darfur issue in Africa with climate change and called
for more attention to be paid to environmental issues in that part of the world,
saying they had spurred the bloody conflicts in the Darfur region.
In the past 20 years, Ban wrote, western Sudan and neighboring countries have
been suffering from decreasing rainfall and spreading desertification, which
have brought water and food scarcity to the fore. As a result, violent conflicts
between local farmers and nomads have broken out and escalated. Before we knew
it, the situation in Darfur had developed into an enormous human tragedy. Ban
also noted that environmental issues were partly to blame for internal conflicts
in such impoverished countries as Somalia, Cote d'Ivoire (Ivory Coast) and
There have been examples of human conflicts caused by climate change in other
parts of the world as well.
Since the late 1980s, environmental problems have negatively affected world
politics, and with growing severity. Finally, a multilateral agreement on
international climate control was born in 1997 in the shape of the Kyoto
Protocol. In the ensuing decade, individual nations and the world community at
large have been bickering about climate change and its consequences. More and
more non-government organizations (NGO) have joined the chorus of voices hoping
to raise awareness of the worsening problem and the long-term challenge it
Though there are still groups and individuals in the United States and Europe
that refuse to recognize the science of climate change, the European Union (EU),
the US and the United Nations (UN) have nevertheless come to terms with this
reality. To China, it makes no sense to deny the fundamental facts.
The birth of the world's first atomic bomb can be seen as one of the key
factors influencing world politics since 1945. However, the impact of global
climate change on world politics could prove more significant than the invention
and possible proliferation of nuclear arms. Global warming will continue, while
the complicated politics of climate change will become an issue affecting all
The causes of global climate change include:
The unprecedented expansion of the global economy. Most of the "greenhouse
gases" in the atmosphere today were discharged by developed countries over the
past few centuries. However, toward the end of the last century, some populous
nations, such as China and India, finally joined the global economic system,
which means these countries will soon find themselves in the ranks of major
greenhouse gas-discharging nations. A fact we must remember is that Western
countries and industrialized Asian nations like Japan and the Republic of Korea
have moved many of their factories to developing countries such as China and
India, where cheap labor allows them to manufacture at lower costs than at home.
This globalization of production has resulted in the discharge of much more
waste in poor nations that otherwise would have been released in developed
countries. As a matter of fact, not all of the greenhouse gases released "in
China" or "from China" are really "China's".
Many developing countries, for various reasons, have pursued economic growth
in pure money terms and allowed "development-ism" or "development-first"
philosophy to dictate their decision making processes, resulting in decades, if
not centuries, of neglect or ignorance of environmental problems and
indifference to or an inability to deal with them.
With a population of only one-fifth of China's, the United States is the top
consumer of natural resources and the leading waste producer in the world. It
has benefited the most from economic globalization and developed a production
style and life-style based on indiscriminate and care-free consumption of the
world's resources. This "American" production style and lifestyle have spread to
the rest of the world, thanks to globalization, like a contagious disease,
especially in the non-Western world: Go to any non-Western corner of the world
and one will see copied, cloned or even blown-up versions of the American style.
Global climate change has been accompanied by political conflicts in the
world. In the US, for instance, interest groups such as oil and automobile
conglomerates have done their best to block the adoption of measures to deal
with climate change for years. Within the "Western bloc", the fact that the US
and Europe have been at loggerheads over this issue is no secret.
Similar disputes have also been raging between developed and developing
nations. For example, both the Democrats and Republicans in the US Congress
routinely paint China as the key to solving the problem of global climate change
rather than America itself. But the truth is that China lags far behind the US
in terms of per capita greenhouse gas discharges, though it is second to the
world's largest economy in terms of the total volume of carbon dioxide released
From European Union nations (such as Britain and Germany) to the US
(especially the Democrats) and the G8 group, global climate change has become a
priority in developed countries' internal and international politics, and fierce
disputes have raged. In sharp contrast, this issue has yet to become a priority
in the domestic and foreign policies of many developing countries, including
China and India, where the experience of climate change has been more traumatic
than in Western nations.
Ironically, challenges and tragedies such as Darfur are not all that climate
change has brought, meaning not all the news about climate change is bad. To
some countries (governments), communities and international groups it also
presents lots of opportunities, which is good news. Because the impacts of
climate change on different countries, regions, communities and various interest
groups are different, the politics of climate change is more complicated than
many people think.
This writer has envisioned and predicted some short-term and long-term
impacts or consequences of global climate on world politics:
First of all, as the world's largest and most developed economy, responsible
for the most greenhouse gas discharges on both an absolute and per capita basis,
the US remains at the center of this issue. The progress of negotiations aimed
at preventing climate change from worsening will depend on the attitude,
policies and strategy of the US government and society.
Second, climate change will impact geopolitics and the wellbeing of nations.
Some will find themselves struggling for survival. Deserts expand with no
respect for national borders. Some countries may see their national strength
devoured by an endless sea of sand. The continuing desertification of Mongolia,
already home to one of the biggest deserts in the world, is posing a grave
threat to Northern Asia and especially China. The expanding Sahara Desert in
Africa has already buried many a native kingdom. Darfur is but another tragedy
unfolding in its wake. While landlocked countries endure the onslaught of
deserts, many "maritime nations" are at the mercy of rising sea levels and
The picture in China is just as gloomy, if not more so. With its extremely
vulnerable geological system and worsening environmental ills (nearly 30 percent
of the country's land area has become desert while water pollution is
threatening people's lives), the goal of achieving a peaceful rise is certainly
becoming more difficult for the great nation to attain. It must be noted that
serious pollution has already complicated China's foreign relations.
For some other countries, like Russia and Australia, climate change may help
beef up their national strength. As two major territorial powers, these two
countries could see much of their land become suitable for development thanks to
climate change. Russia will become a new superpower with enormous resources at
To realize this ambition, Moscow is building on its resource advantages,
while the West frets over the prospect of Russia influencing world politics with
its natural resources arsenal.
Third, different countries will adopt different policies, laws and
educational approaches according to their own understanding of climate change,
strategies and control capabilities. Some countries, developed European
countries in particular, should be able to weather the challenges presented by
Mother Nature because they have done their homework and are well prepared. They
may even benefit from climate change at the end of the day. But countries that
have continued to ignore all the warning signs will most likely find themselves
in dire political straits come judgment day.
Fourth, climate change may give nations a reason to regroup. Whether or not
we care to admit it, climate change is a prominent factor in how the nations of
the world today weigh the merits of various new alliances. European countries
are moving closer together these days to deal with climate change, which has, in
its way, strengthened European unity. It has also been behind regional
cooperation in other regions. The G8 Group will probably see more conflicts
among its members over the issue, such as between the US and EU or Russia and
the EU. They will also have to commit to better coordination over climate
change. China will no doubt feel similar effects in its relations with the rest
of the world because of climate change.
The author is a research fellow with the Joint Program on Globalization under
the CRF-Carnegie Endowment for International Peace
(China Daily 07/17/2007 page11)