Climate change is global, but we need to get real— and grasp that the most practical way to save the world will often be one country at a timeby Anatol Lieven / April 1, 2020 / Leave a comment
It wasn’t really much of an epiphany. I was reading yet another think tank report about the threat posed by China’s fortification of sandbanks in the South China Sea—a move to expand Beijing’s military reach far beyond its home waters, which has provided much of the basis for suggestions of a “New Cold War” between China and the US, and inspired massive redeployment of US warships and aircraft to East Asia. Suddenly, my mind just brought together the word “sandbank” with the words “climate change” and “sea level rise,” and—behold!—I realised that there is a high probability that 100 years from now, historians will consider these so-called “islands” an utterly baffling preoccupation because they will all be under water.
And yet such is the gulf between military and scientific elites—between the intellectual worlds of international relations security studies and that of climate analysis—that this obvious prospect is one that appears to have eluded almost everybody else working on this subject.
The obsession of US security elites with South China Sea sandbanks will one day seem irrational to the point of wilful lunacy. But history teaches us that security establishments can and do get it exactly this wrong. Consider Fashoda, a village in South Sudan otherwise known as Kodok. In 1898, when a French expeditionary force reached Fashoda just as the British arrived from the north, Britain and France came close to war over which empire should control southern Sudan. Two great nations, which for much of the succeeding half-century would be allies in fights for survival together, almost became mortal enemies, and for what? Only a few years later, the question of southern Sudan was all but forgotten, in the wake of the rise of Germany.
Today, the idea of great power competition over a small town on the banks of the Nile seems utterly crazy. As indeed will today’s great powers’ readiness to be distracted by passing rivalries from the reality of climate change as, by a mile, today’s pre-eminent national security threat. The vital interests of the US (and many other western nations) are threatened by ecological changes that if not checked will—even in the medium term—flood its coastal cities, ruin much of its agriculture, -and produce new and disruptive mass movements of migrants. In the longer term, these changes could potentially destroy…