Carbon Disarmament

I never much liked the idea of arms control. During the Cold War, we managed our nuclear arsenals rather than reduced them. We treated our nukes like huge, dangerous animals. We restricted their movements but gave them ample care and feeding. Until recently, getting rid of the animals altogether was not part of the political agenda. After all, our leaders believed that these beasts were useful. They scared away the covetous neighbors.

We have a similar approach to our production of carbon emissions, which are quickly raising the temperature of our planetary home. We get excited about a few new windmills, the latest type of electric car, a more energy-efficient refrigerator. But this is just tinkering around the edges. Our leaders are willing to control our fossil fuel economy but not to embark on a serious program to disarm it. After all, we believe that our huge, carbon-belching beasts — the coal-fired plants, the SUVs — are useful. They keep our economies strong. As long as we maintain our carbon control approach we will be, literally, cooked.

The latest sobering study, from the UN Environment Program, argues that even if the international community enacts every climate policy proposed at this point — an optimistic scenario that includes “U.S. cuts that would reduce domestic emissions 73 percent from 2005 levels by 2050, along with the European Union’s pledge to reduce its emissions 80 percent from 1990 levels by 2050″ — global temperatures will rise 6.3 degrees Fahrenheit by the end of this century. That’s nearly twice the temperature hike that scientists predict will spell irreversible climate chaos.

World leaders are starting to realize the urgency of this situation. In the lead-up to the Copenhagen meeting in December, which will ideally produce a much stronger follow-up to the Kyoto Protocol, we’ve begun to see the inklings of a reverse carbon race. The new Japanese Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama has kicked things off at the recent UN summit by pledging reductions of 25% from 1990 levels by 2020. China, a much larger emitter of greenhouse gases, promised that renewable energy sources will account for 15% of its total energy output by 2020. The tiny island nation of Maldives trumped everybody by vowing to go carbon neutral by 2020. (That is, if it’s still above water a decade from now.)

The United States hasn’t yet participated in this latest virtuous circle of carbon reductions. “The new prime minister of Japan and President Hu of China both put pretty impressive commitments on the table, and pretty concrete commitments,” Jim Leape, director general of the World Wildlife Fund International, commented after the recent UN conclave. “And we didn’t see that kind of concreteness from President Obama.”

Will Obama give a climate change speech that rivals his commitment to nuclear disarmament in Prague? “I have the impression that the people now in charge really care. They are very professional. I am slightly disappointed, however, that this administration is so underprepared. The administration needed much longer than expected to formulate policies and to understand how the political dynamics in the UN climate talks have changed and progressed since Kyoto,” says Sascha Müller-Kraenner, the Europe coordinator of The Nature Conservancy, in an interview with Foreign Policy In Focus (FPIF) contributor Paul Hockenos. “My concern now is that the Obama administration, with all the other issues on the table such as health care reform and Afghanistan, is losing its focus precisely when things are becoming serious.”

One institution in the United States certainly sees global warming as a serious threat: the Pentagon. “The military has begun studying, and taking seriously, the scenarios of climate-induced water and food shortages precipitating violent conflicts on a global scale,” writes FPIF research fellow Miriam Pemberton in Want Climate Security? Raise National Security Specter. “The message embedded none too deeply in these studies: Unless these scenarios can be changed, our forces will be overwhelmed. Either stem rising global temperatures, or prepare to grow the military. A lot.”

Despite the end of the Cold War and Obama’s commitment to nuclear disarmament, the Doomsday Clock of The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists has remained at an uncomfortable five minutes from midnight for the last two years — that’s two minutes closer to Armageddon than when the clock debuted in 1947. The problem with climate change is that its urgency is measured in years rather than minutes. This gives us the illusion that we can control the problem, much as we tried to control nuclear weapons for the latter half of the 20th century.

But our carbon-based economies are nearly out-of-control, as even the Pentagon acknowledges. President Obama must travel to a place threatened by the rising tide — New Orleans, Dhaka, Kiribati — and commit the United States to leading the reverse carbon race. Global warming deserves its own Prague. The time for carbon disarmament is now.

Global Economic Priorities

After the UN meeting last week, the leaders of the top 20 industrialized countries of the world rushed over to Pittsburgh to figure out what to do about the global economy. The G20′s signal accomplishment? Issuing a statement that identifies the G20 as “the premiere forum for our international economic cooperation.”

FPIF columnist Walden Bello is not so sure. “After three summits have produced only broad policy statements of a voluntary nature, the G20 is not a credible policymaking body to address the global economic crisis,” he writes in G20: Form, Not Substance. “There certainly is little in the way of political will to make the hard decisions that will turn around the downturn or mitigate its impact, whether in the form of massive aid to poor countries, bigger amounts and greater coordination of stimulus spending in the major capitalist countries, greater representation in the International Monetary Fund for developing countries, or tighter regulation of reckless financial institutions.”

The G20 has emerged, however, as a premiere forum for protesting the excesses of globalization. At a public forum in Pittsburgh co-sponsored by The Nation and the Institute for Policy Studies, Joseph Stiglitz said that 20 countries are not enough. “Having 20 nations is better than eight or nine,” he said, “but there’s still about 170 others who aren’t being represented. It’s important that the voices of the poorest nations are heard.” Check out this exclusive interview with Stiglitz before the event.

FPIF contributed to the G20 protests in two ways. FPIF co-director Emira Woods shared the stage with Stiglitz. “What the G20 powers do,” she explained, “is prevent the poor countries from acting in their own interests and determining their own future.”

And we also distributed a two-page flyer on how much the G20 spends on military budgets and military exports. We wanted to remind world leaders of where they could get some of the funds they’re desperately looking for to repair the global economy.

Oil, Iraq, and Gaza

A new report on human rights violations during the Gaza War by respected jurist Richard Goldstone, who’s both Jewish and Zionist, has charged both Israel and Palestinian armed groups with war crimes. Israel, as might be expected, has dismissed the report. The U.S. response hasn’t been much better.

“Susan Rice, Obama’s envoy to the UN, said in the immediate aftermath of the report’s publication that the United States had ‘very serious concerns about many of the recommendations’ and pointed out a ‘very serious concern with the mandate that was given by the Human Rights Council prior to our joining the Council, which we viewed as unbalanced, one-sided and basically unacceptable,’” writes FPIF senior analyst Ian Williams in The Goldstone Report. “In fact, Goldstone refused to accept the position until he was assured that its mandate included looking into possible crimes committed by all parties in the conflict.”

War figures prominently in the recent book IraqiGirl, a collection of blog posts by a young Iraqi, reviewed by FPIF policy outreach director Erik Leaver. “The daily trauma of war is illuminated in nearly every blog post,” Leaver observes. “Hadiya writes, ‘At the beginning of the war, when we heard an explosion we called all the family to make sure that they are fine. But now because the explosions don’t stop all day, we stopped calling each other.’”

Finally, FPIF contributor Adam Green looks at the wave of nationalization taking place in the oil sector in Latin America. “For environmentalists who want to see a reduction in oil production and use, these changes might be of little comfort,” he writes in Oil Nationalism in Latin America. “Major U.S. oil companies will suffer, but Latin American companies will simply pick up the slack. Despite global warming, it’s not so easy to do away with the oil complex. Oil revenues underpin massive public spending programs in Brazil and Venezuela, and neither country is prepared to leave the precious resource in the ground (or under the sea). So, environmentalists and social justice advocates square off, as these countries seek a fairer deal for their resources.”

John Feffer is co-director of Foreign Policy In Focus.