Monday, February 16, 2009

US-China Environmental Cooperation as a Security Issue

Last week, CGS was summoned to coffee by a friend who works within China's environmental protection bureaucracy. The government, said friend confessed, is very worried about the intersection of the economic crisis, political discontent, and its environmental policy goals. Officials, according to this source, are increasingly concerned both that economic considerations might imperil China's transition to a low-carbon economy (低碳经济), and that public discontent over pollution and other environmental issues may translate into protests or worse.

They should be, and said friend's warning provides an impetus to explain why US-China environmental cooperation should be seen not only as an ecological, energy, or economic issue, but also as one bearing on the most hard-core realist conceptions of security. (Full disclosure: CGS has often described the field of environmental security as a little dubious).

The most obvious segue from China's environmental situation to security is via energy. China is the world's third-largest oil importer (see US Department of Energy Country Brief), with much of it passing along vulnerable sea routes through the Indian Ocean and the Straits of Malacca. China presently lacks the capacity to protect these crucial sea lanes, and thus is vulnerable to disruptions in oil production and transport in South, Southwest, and Southeast Asia. The Brookings Report, referenced in yesterday's post, notes that if China were to expand deployment of renewable and low-carbon energy sources, its energy security would be enhanced, probably also lowering tensions with other major oil consumers such as the United States and India in areas like Africa and Central Asia.

But the most serious security threat to arise from China's environmental situation comes from water scarcity. Most of the major river systems that feed and water China, India, and Southeast Asia depend on meltwater from the Himalayan region. Climate change is endangering this vital source of water for 60% of the human population. Himalayan glaciers, which provide some 70% of the flow of major Asian rivers, are melting at an extremely rapid rate; one study predicts that the Himalayan-Hindu Kush region will "run out of water" during the dry season (Barnett, T.P., et al. “Potential impacts of a warming climate on water availability in snow-dominated regions.” Nature. 438 (2005): 303-308).

Recent news reports from the present drought in northern China provide some indication of what might occur should this nightmare scenario transpire: "Highest Level of Emergency for Drought Declared" (see China Daily) and "2/3 of China's cities short of water" (see Renminribao, in Chinese only). The present dought, of course, cannot be conclusively tied to climate change, and is exacerbated by wasteful water use in China's northern regions. But as climate change accelerate, we can expect things to get worse.

The security implications for a China, India, and Southeast Asia short of water are obvious. Besides destabilizing massive and volatile populations, such a situation would interrupt economic growth in the very regions economists agree are central to global recovery. In a time when the head of America's Central Intelligence Agency identified unemployment as the primary threat to American security (see New York Times), it's frightening to contemplate a similar situation compounded by thirst for the majority of the human population.

US-China environmental cooperation, then, isn't just an ecological concern. It's not only good for economic growth or mutual understanding. It's also essential for the security of both nations. Combined, these rationales amount not only to a compelling case for investing heavily in US-China environmental cooperation, but a clear imperative. The world must figure out how to grow sustainably without poisioning its environmental commons, and especially its atmosphere. The United States and China must lead the way, otherwise we will all soon be living nastier, more brutal, and shorter lives- a Hobbesian security threat if ever there were one.

1 comment:

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