Climate change is reshaping global politics

By Pang Zhongying (China Daily)
Updated: 2007-07-17 07:01

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 Burkina Faso.

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 poses.

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 individual lives.

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 every year.

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 torrential rain.

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 its disposal.

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)

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