The entire domestic and international strategy of the Biden administration is based on the idea that the US can simultaneously prioritize limiting climate change and competing with China. The problem is that this assumption misinterprets the relative levels of threat China and climate change both present to the US and its allies, and exaggerates and misapplies limited US resources.
Climate change is already doing more damage to the US than anything China is doing or could do. If we fail to adequately limit climate change, the harm it causes will be irreversible and deadly. Unfortunately, all the evidence from this year’s UN Climate Change Conference (COP26) indicates that we shall go on failing to address climate change effectively.
THE IMAGINED THREAT OF CHINA
The Chinese military threat to US global dominance does not really extend beyond East Asia; and even there, it is a great deal less than what most US analysis has stated. This is because the US position in East Asia and the Indian Ocean rests on alliances, partnerships, and military bases that China cannot remove or destroy without full-scale war and the likelihood of nuclear annihilation. Furthermore, neither Japan, South Korea, nor Australia are going to abandon their alliances with the US and expel US forces under Chinese pressure — and to believe that they would is to misunderstand the whole of these countries’ histories. Nor is India going to submit to Chinese domination. Nor can US bases in Guam, Diego Garcia, Bahrain, and Qatar be removed by China short of war. By standing pat, the US will retain an important role in East Asia and the Indian Ocean, simply because key states in the region want it to do so.
The days of unilateral US hegemony in East Asia are long over — though whether or not it ever existed is questionable. After all, the US failed to prevent the Chinese Revolution, was fought to a draw in Korea, and defeated in Vietnam. Today and for all foreseeable time, it must be obvious that China will play a leading role in the region alongside the US, which is dictated by China’s principal role in the regional economy, something the US cannot overthrow short of a catastrophic war that would also shatter America.
Climate change is already doing more damage to the US than anything China is doing or could do. If we fail to adequately limit climate change, the harm it causes will be irreversible and deadly.
Chinese occupation of reefs and sandbanks in the South China Sea are illegal under international law (so are Vietnam’s claims in the region by the way) but they are not a threat to global trade. Any Chinese-imposed blockade in this region would be matched by a far more devastating US, Indian, and Japanese blockade of seaborne trade to China. As for China’s threats to Taiwan, they are indeed dangerous, but the US response can only be what it has been for the past two generations: Categorical opposition to a Taiwanese declaration of independence coupled with strong warnings to China about the immense price China would pay if it tried to retake Taiwan by force.
Elsewhere in the world, China’s ambitions have been far more restrained than most US and Indian analysis would have it. The only Chinese military base in the Indian Ocean is a small repair and refueling facility in Djibouti, alongside bigger US and French facilities there. The US has three major bases and numerous smaller ones in the region, quite apart from its partnership with India, which by virtue of geography dominates the Indian Ocean sea lanes. In other words, with the possible exception of Taiwan, real Chinese rivalry with the US is either economic — and should be met by US domestic reform and investment — or limited and negotiable.
THE REAL CHALLENGE OF CLIMATE CHANGE
Unlike the threat from China, the challenge of climate change is potentially unlimited — and non-negotiable. If anyone ever tried to negotiate with a hurricane or wildfire, it does not appear that they survived to give lectures on the subject. As far as the US is concerned, these challenges comes in three forms, each of which exceeds anything that China would wish to do or could do, without catastrophic damage to itself.
The first is direct physical damage to the US homeland and its citizens, in the form of life-threatening heatwaves, wildfires, and floods. More than half of the largest wildfires in California’s history have occurred in the last four years. Hundreds of people have died as a result of these fires and the heatwaves that helped to cause them. Weather disasters in the US over the past five years have caused economic losses on average of $140 billion per year, more than four times the figure for the 1990s. By the second half of this century, it is likely that it will be the US Army Corps of Engineers, not the Navy or the Strategic Air Command, that will be seen as the most important branch of the US armed services. If we fail to limit climate change, this damage will get disastrously worse, grievously harming the lives and incomes of tens of millions of Americans — and what after all is “national security” for if it does not protect the actual lives and interests of actual citizens?
The second challenge of climate change to the US and its key allies is an increase in migration due to the impact of climate change. There are already reports of the “great climate migration” where a new kind of refugee has emerged: A person not necessarily fleeing war, violence, and political unrest, but fleeing a natural disaster like earthquakes, floods, and water shortages. While America’s wealth and relatively advantageous geographical and climatic position mean that it will be able to survive the physical effects of climate change, that will not be the case for societies in South Asia, the Middle East, Western Africa, and Central America. The US is already dealing with Hondurans fleeing hurricanes and arriving at its southern border.
Moreover, climate change can greatly worsen other problems. Many developing countries — including ones with huge populations, like India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Nigeria — are much closer to the brink of disaster in terms of temperatures and water shortages. They also suffer from weak and corrupt governments; high population growth; and deep social, ethnic, and religious tensions. It is probably because of these factors that they realize the significance of the kind of threat climate change poses to them and the world. In fact, the most vulnerable countries are leading the global response to climate change during the ongoing COP26. As the Pentagon has warned, unchecked climate change in the regions will feed into and multiply all these problems. In turn, we know from the experience of the past decade how migration increases chauvinist extremism and political polarization in Western democracies; indeed, the evidence is before our eyes in the damage that the crisis on the Mexican border is doing to the Biden administration.
Finally, there is the unquantifiable but real possibility that beyond a certain level, a rise in temperatures will cause “tipping points” like the melting of the Arctic ice caps and the vast release of methane from the permafrost. This will then lead to “feedback loops” whereby climate change will escape from human control altogether: A three degree rise in temperatures will lead to a four degree rise, that will cause a five degree rise, and so on. If this happens in the space of a few decades — as appears from the geological evidence to have happened on occasions in the past — every existing state will be destroyed, including both the US and China. As repeated scientific reports have emphasized, the current increase in greenhouse gases in the atmosphere is unprecedented in terms of speed. We simply cannot say for sure how rapidly the climate will warm as a result; but even a relatively small possibility that it will do so fast enough to destroy civilization ought to be sufficient to spur radical action.
HOW THE BIDEN ADMINISTRATION SHOULD STEP UP
These are threats to the US that dwarf anything that China could or would do. To build national resilience against climate change, the Biden administration should vastly increase US aid to vulnerable countries. While Biden pledged to double US climate change aid, there is still a great deal to be done.
Domestically, the US needs to make the economic and infrastructural changes necessary to limit US emissions. The Biden administration’s infrastructure bill is a good start to these efforts — if Congress ever passes the climate change elements. However, it is still woefully small compared to US military spending. This is especially true in the area of research and development, which is absolutely critical to creating the new technologies that will be necessary radically to reduce carbon emissions. The Pentagon’s budget request for spending on research and development in fiscal year 2022 is $112 billion, up from $106 billion this year. The Pentagon stated explicitly that this increase is necessary to compete with China. Yet, this is almost three times the total for all forms of research into climate change, renewable energy, and energy conservation requested by the Biden administration for fiscal year 2022 and the years to come.
Finally, for the US to assume global leadership in efforts to combat climate change will require the concentrated resources of the country, backed by the national will and sense of national danger that Americans felt during World War II and the first years of the Cold War. At COP26, Biden sought to make a cheap propaganda point by condemning the leaders of China and Russia for not turning up. Biden did turn up, but thanks to resistance from senators in his own party as well as the Republicans, he turned up empty-handed. To overcome this resistance on the part of American politicians and much of the population, the administration needs to generate a real public sense of vast national danger to the US from climate change — an effort that would be entirely justified because this danger really does exist, and was experienced by many Americans this past year in the form of wildfires, high temperatures, unprecedented cold waves, and floods.
The Biden administration has certainly prioritized climate change, but without effective policies and implementation, the prioritization is meaningless. COP26 may be looking like fluff, but the lesson is clear: When it comes to tackling climate change, being late will be disastrous. The Biden administration needs to step up and battle it with all of its resources. It’s still not too late.
Anatol Lieven is a senior fellow of the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft and author of Climate Change and the Nation State: The Case for Nationalism in a Warming World (Oxford University Press 2021).This article is based on his Quincy policy brief “Climate Change: The Greatest Security Threat to the United States,” published in October 2021).