The truce on US-China trade disputes at the G20 Summit in Buenos Aires has only temporarily put aside the underlying tension and differences of views across the Pacific.
Looking at the world through the lens of national security, there are enemies everywhere. The latest remarkable speech by the head of British MI6 at St Andrew’s University calls for the best and brightest to join the spy service to help defend the nation’s values against what he calls “hybrid threats” – coming from terrorists and enemies of the state using the latest technology.
Of course, the greatest existential threat is total nuclear war. There are five nuclear powers (US, Russia, UK, France and China) but Pakistan, India and North Korea have all conducted nuclear tests. Scientists have argued that even a single open air nuclear detonation through war or accident could generate a large enough radiation cloud to damage the ecology beyond our present comprehension.
This is where arms escalation and climate change will collide into the unthinkable.
The US Government’s Fourth National Climate Assessment, published in November, has reported that climate change is already happening, it will get worse, it will be very costly to deal with, but we can still do something about it.
Californians who have lost their houses to bush fires and Australians witnessing the bleaching of the Great Barrier Reef do not need any reminders that these are caused by climate warming.
In the past, man took natural disasters as an act of God, but this coming climate catastrophe is act of man, since it is man’s excessive consumption and burning of fossil fuels that has driven global warming.
The priorities between defence and climate change can be seen from some simple numbers. According to one study, in the decade to 2014, total US expenditure on climate change amounted to $166 billion – as measured by the dollar’s 2012 valuation. This is just over one quarter of how much the US spent on its defence budget in 2017 ($590 billion).
Since 2014, even the US Defence Department has officially recognised that “climate change is a ‘threat multiplier’, meaning that it exacerbates disasters that later create conflict, such as hurricanes, droughts, crop failures and rising seas that will flood coastlines. The northward migration of Middle Eastern and African refugees to Europe, and Central Americans to the US border, is the result of climate change plus national failure to deal with jobs and domestic security.
Because climate change is global, failure to address its causes will have huge national harm.
So here is the real choice – do we spend more on defence against human enemies, or do we work together to deal with climate change that is becoming inevitable and will harm us all?
The simple answer is that if we ignore climate change and work on arms escalation, then the outcomes will be more disastrous that anyone can expect, because the two negative impacts will mutually worsen each other.
But if we work on climate change cooperatively, but one party gets stronger at the end of the day, won’t that be a disaster for the “losing” nation? This is exactly the dilemma of the cooperate-compete model that some geopolitical analysts recommend. The bottom line is whether the geopolitical rivals can trust and understand each other.
So here’s the real difference between the two camps. China understands that as it grows, it will consume more resources, but plan to ameliorate carbon emission and resource wastage within acceptable bounds. If the Chinese leadership did not understand this, China would never have signed the Paris Climate Accord.
But the fundamental divide between China and the US is whether the state or the market should drive development. East Asia, led by Japan but pursued most vigorously by China, promotes the developmental state (sometimes called state capitalism), which places the state in the driving seat of national growth. The US believes in free market capitalism, which argues that the market should lead, but this has been modified by more and more complex regulation since the 2008 global financial crisis.
Can the invisible hand of the market deal with the growing visible climate change disaster?
Ten years ago, it could be argued that climate change was not the highest priority on the political agenda. But with four of the hottest years recorded in history happening since 2015, there is little doubt that something is needed to avert disaster, with rising risks of higher temperatures literally creating the spark that may set off human and then nuclear conflict.
In his new book, The Sustainable State, Asian thought leader Chandran Nair took a further step from his earlier book, Consumptionomics: Asia’s Role in Reshaping Capitalism and Saving the Planet (2012), to argue that the state may be the only institution capable of leading the effort to deal with climate change.
Will technology save the day? There is little doubt that technology is a wonderful tool to improve energy and resource efficiency, but to use such tools effectively would require key changes in regulation, tax incentives, decisions and mindsets – the role of the state.
Can the private sector deal with climate change alone? The answer is unlikely. If all businesses pay for all their externalities (or costs of carbon emission, resource depletion or social harm), many businesses would not make money. There are too many excuses not to change, because it is not profitable to do so.
Chandran Nair is right – a state (democratic or otherwise) that is willing to address climate change at the national or global level will have a better chance than the existing “business as usual” model.
We all have to make individual choices, some decisions are made for us because we live in either democratic or non-democratic societies. The examples of Brexit and rise of populist politics suggest that decisions via electoral votes are made very slowly or not at all. It is easier to blame foreigners and immigrants for local problems than to blame climate change.
But climate change is happening because of our individual lifestyles – how we consume and use up our natural heritage.
The good news is that with technology and changes in lifestyle we can do something about this. National conflicts, in trade or war, are like fighting over deckchairs when we know a tsunami is arriving.
If we accept that climate change is the real enemy, then doing something together is better than fighting each other. But that is in the realm of human politics. As the cartoonist Walt Kelly famously said: “we have met the enemy and he is us.” Asia news network
Andrew Sheng is a Distinguished Fellow of the Fung Global Institute, a Hong Kong-based global think tank.