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A Cold War Over Warming


What happens if global efforts to set and abide by strong carbon emissions cuts fail?

The standard answer to a question like this is that "we all suffer." While that's probably true, it misses the point -- we may all suffer, but we don't all suffer equally. Some nations will be hit harder by storms or droughts than others; some nations will have the resources and technologies to adapt better than others. And therein lies the potential for what may end up as a nasty tool of international competition.

There is, I believe, a non-zero chance that an extended period of climate instability could induce a state that believes itself to be better able to adapt to global warming to slow its efforts to decarbonize in order to gain a lead over its more vulnerable rivals.

Hear me out.

We know that while carbon emissions may come from particular locations, the effects of carbon in the atmosphere are global. If only China, or only the US (or Europe, or Japan) cut carbon emissions to zero, the net result would be at best a delay of the onset of significant climate effects. This is one reason why climate negotiations are such a mess -- we don't just have to change our own systems, we have to make sure that (essentially) everybody else is changing their systems, too. No one nation can cut carbon emissions enough to stop global warming by itself. As a result, we could have a situation where we still get bad climate impacts -- that is, climate agreements have effectively failed -- even if some or most of the treaty signatories have met their commitments.

In such a scenario, there's no doubt we'd see widespread calls to decarbonize as swiftly as possible -- but "as swiftly as possible" may itself be problematic, if the effects of climate disaster hit the world's economy hard (as it likely would).

This is the kind of scenario that would push some people to call for geoengineering, and while I do think that would end up being considered, it's not the focus of this essay.

It's very likely that one of the political impacts of climate problems would be to increase tensions between nations. This would come about due to people assigning blame (rightly or wrongly), competition over resources such as arable land, and just the defensiveness and hostility that seems to inevitably happen when a powerful state comes under significant pressure. Even countries that have had historically close relations (such as the US and western Europe, or the US and post-WWII Japan) could see wedges driven between them; countries that have had a more complicated history could see a level of hostility unmatched in recent years.

Just imagine, for a moment, how China would act if it had cause to believe that American or Russian intransigence over carbon reduction was a leading trigger of global warming-induced problems such as droughts and massive dust storms? Or how America would act if they felt they had cause to blame the Chinese or Russians? It's unlikely that this would be enough to bring about a shooting war; at the very least, nuclear deterrence would still apply. But it would definitely lead to angry rivals trying to undermine each other.

In this scenario, the leadership of a powerful state might come to believe that:

  • The effects of decarbonization would be slow and diffuse, but
  • Said powerful state was well-suited to engage in adaptation projects, while
  • The rival(s) of said powerful state were more vulnerable to the impacts of anthropogenic global warming, so that
  • The rival(s) would be weakened relative to said powerful state if the effects of global warming persisted and said powerful state adapted.

    In short, a powerful state believing itself better-able to adapt to or withstand the effects of global warming might see a persistent advantage to its rivals being hurt by global warming, and slow its decarbonization accordingly.

    If all of that sounds ludicrous to you, you've probably forgotten about (or never lived through) the Cold War between the US and the Soviet Union. This kind of thinking wouldn't be new. The US feared that a Soviet nuclear first strike would sufficiently degrade the potential US response that, in combination with widespread bomb shelters and other civil defense mechanisms, the Soviets could "ride out" retaliation (making the Soviets more willing to launch a first strike). This fear led the US to embrace a "launch on warning" posture, meaning that the US declared that it would launch an attack on the USSR upon receiving alerts that a Soviet attack was starting.

    It doesn't matter whether or not the fears were justified -- simply recognizing the possibility resulted in altered behavior.

    How, then, would the recognition of the possibility of the strategic use of differential climate adaptation change international behavior? What could we as citizens do to prevent this kind of action?

    More troublingly, how could we tell if something like that was happening already?

    The irony in all of this? Geoengineering may start to look like the less politically-fraught alternative.

  • Comments

    Russia may be the only major power that has an incentive to slow its own decarbonization. It may already have begun to play this card if the suspicions about who hijacked the East Anglia climate emails is true.

    By the way, I went to the recent conference on geoengineering at MIT and will publish my notes soon. I'll send you the raw notes if you're interested.

    A more extreme scenario; If some nations remain intransigent if the face of catastrophic climate change, would it be strategic to declare war on their carbon infrastructure-for example targeting coal plants. Probably unlikely given that all the major military powers are the worst emmiters. You'd have to be the worst, last hold out, but perhaps we might see emissions driven sanctions in the future.

    I think the lag between actions and consequences is large enough that this is unlikely to be a factor. It's not as if the previous year's emissions from the US can be immediately blamed for some particular catastrophe in China.

    Also, as per-capita emissions in China & India rise to a level comparable with the US & Europe (which won't take long at this rate) I think we will see a compelling counterargument: that the collective decision to grow to population levels and densities that are so high in those countries in the 20th century was as much responsible for the problem as the intense per-capita use of the developed world that was spread over a smaller & less dense population.

    I'm not so much endorsing that idea myself (although I think there is a certain truth to it) as saying that blaming the US for high per-capita emissions is going to be tough when the absolute size of China & India's emissions will be so large in 10-20 years. The "historical debt" of the developed world is to-date CO2 emissions during industrialization. The "historical debt" of China & Inda, though, is the way their populations ballooned during the 20th century.

    The policy could be summed up as 'I'm all right, Jack! (screw you!)'

    I agree with Jacob, though: MAD is not a good analogy because of the time-scale ('blowing your smoke stacks on warning' suggests a child throwing a tantrum... which would be apt)

    It's not as if the previous year's emissions from the US can be immediately blamed for some particular catastrophe in China.

    Scientifically? No. Politically? Yes -- and almost certain to happen.

    I'm looking at this situation from the perspective of international politics (theory and history), as well as my own limited experience arguing with people from China and India about global warming and responsibility for action. You're absolutely right that continuing to blame the US and Europe for AGW at a point when both absolute and per-capita emissions in China & India far outstrip those of the West in the not-too-distant future would be scientifically untenable. But if China and/or India sees a possible advantage to be gained by dragging their feet, what's scientifically accurate will have little bearing on what's politically palatable.

    For whatever it's worth, I don't actually see India and China as taking up the strategic advantage by differential adaptation posture -- it already looks pretty clear that they will have quite a bit to lose with continued climate disruption. Russia, conversely, is coming close to doing this already. And, to be frank, I wouldn't be surprised to see this emerge as a quiet strategic argument among the American Exceptionalist types.

    I'm certainly not advocating it (and I don't get the impression that you think that I am), nor am I saying that it's inevitable, but it did strike me as being sufficiently plausible and resonant with historical patterns that it was worth calling out.

    It's a mutant form of the 'bad for the economy' arguments that still do the rounds.

    I can see how the attitude would develop. I don't see that it could ever become effective.

    Why Russia, in particular?

    Teach your children from the cradle:
    'Nummish* thinking is a no-no!'

    *nummish (adj.): indicating that everyone necessarily loses. An amalgamation of negative-sum.

    Russia stands to benefit the most from climate change, with warmer climate in both its European and Asian territories, access to new resources in the arctic, and easier northern sea travel. It also relies heavily on fossil fuels export.
    China and India don't want to stop their growth, but they also are among the countries who would suffer a lot from climatic change. However, they both also recognize the potential benefit from developing green energy tech.
    The US has only little to fear from climatic change, and is generally complacent and unwilling to help in collective efforts.
    The EU has only a little to fear, but is the only one (with Japan) really acting. It has a leadership problem though.
    Brazil is an interesting player, with both green tech involvement and the Amazonian forest.

    For these reasons and others all the effort to create climate treaties is wasted.

    Geoengineering is the only practical thing to do in the short run. In the long run (50+ years) technology will obviate carbon issues.

    Russia presumably because it has massive fossil fuel reserves, and could for instance arbitrage carbon by burning coal and selling electricity to areas with carbon taxes, or by embedding carbon in other goods, for instance in the production of concrete, steel, aluminum, and so on. It could also host energy-intensive operations for multinationals. Provided there were a sufficient number of countries willing to trade with them it would be hard to do much about it.

    I don't see any country as likely to resist carbon emissions reductions if & when severe symptoms arise, though. I also think major reductions are almost certain to be multilateral and near-universal if they're going to happen at all. But then, I also don't see the likelihood of military tension building over climate emissions when the only countries where it really matters are all nuclear powers. The US, Russia, China, and India cannot make credible direct military threats to one another, and proxy threats can't possibly do anything about climate emissions since they can't touch the industrial sources inside a country.

    That doesn't mean no tensions at all will arise, for instance they are certainly going to happen in the near future over carbon tariffs, but I just can't see military conflict seeming a credible option for anyone. An attack on the home territory of any of the major countries is likely to lead to nuclear war - this is a good thing, please note! - and no government is going to risk losing entire cities in pursuit of emissions reductions.


    It is certainly possible, especially as climate disruption starts to increase, and if there were a clearer scientific consensus on who the winners and losers will be.

    I agree with you that even if there is little scientific support for blaming a particular country, it could certainly have legs politically, especially if it dovetails with existing tensions and fears. Geopolitical or economic tensions between the US, China and Russia could easily devolve into accusations of climate villainy.

    To me, the likeliest scenario involves trade wars involving carbon emissions. The reason is that it could serve the interests of politically powerful industries. It is easy to imagine, say, the steel industry and its trade unions in the US or Europe saying, "If you make us clean up, then you must protect our industry (and jobs) from 'dirty' steel from China/India/Russia etc."

    Since cap-and-trade schemes in Europe, and those proposed in the US, are already weighted in favor of powerful domestic industries (chiefly coal), it isn't hard to imagine that carbon tariffs could be seen as a useful tool for both environmentalists, trade unions, and industry.

    This is not to say that carbon tariffs are necessarily bad policy, if they truly level the economic playing field and encourage irresponsible countries to clean up their act. It's that policies, good or bad, that serve powerful economic and political interests have historically been the likeliest to advance.

    What if russia (or canada) decided carbonization would be the way to go - increase emissions (and close borders, let foreigners figure out a solution for themselves), say by setting fire to inextractible coal deposits. Imagine the outside - canada torches its own noncommercial coal deposits and when outsiders ask "please stop that!!" they respond "why? we stand to benefit immensely from global warming!"

    Climate change is an extremely complex topic. In all cases where any person doesn't have a clue what to think, they listen to experts - i.e. scientists, doctors, theologians etc.

    What if, by accident, all specialists lost their objectivity - i.e. belonger either to side A to side B, and had their message be contaminated by the ideological talking points (and sponsors) of their tribe. What would this do for the capacity of the single citizen to make educated decisions and deliver a correct vote?

    You will almost certainly see climate based 'false flag' terrorism very soon.

    If swarthy middle easterners are seen to be behind an attack on coal infrastructure, those initially blamed might not be the actial perpetrators. The potential for strikes against the US and China is significant. Likewise, sooner rather than later activists will look to target the mother of all carbon emissions - the big oil production infrastructures in the middle east.

    In game theory it seems there is a balance between "best economic outcome" for a country and best "social responsibility outcome". With the economic argument being dominant. Who isn't playing the game - through its corporations and its citizens - even if unknowingly?

    Are there any balancing factors in that North Atlantic coastlines are predicted to be the worst hit earliest, and the _relative_ cost is much higher in developed countries (poorer countries appear to have less to lose financially in total terms but probably more to lose in people terms) and influential corporations tend to be global.

    Any ideas how black swans affect the outcome? Presumably including regional starvation scenarios? But also including non-GW black swans.

    I'm not sure I'd file this one for the Future. I'd bet all the money in the world, if there was absolute transparency, this has been ongoing for some time now - an example:


    When does something that's already occurring in 'secret' or outside of public understanding, move from the future to the present? Or past even? That's a serious question. As an example, I'm sure many technologies that we'd consider "of the future" are probably already in the here and now.

    My fear - shared with George Monblot and Mark Lynas - is that Big Alberta Oil(using the Canadian federal government as its proxy/firewall in defiance of much of the rest of Canada) and mainland China may in fact be already playing the "we're all right, Jack!" card.

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