November 10, 2010

CNAS, NPR and the Indian Ocean

Last night, CNAS hosted the official launch of Robert Kaplan’s new book, Monsoon: The Indian Ocean and the Future of American Power. As Nate Fick said in his opening remarks, we had a twofer: Robert Kaplan was joined by NPR’s award-winning correspondent Tom Gjelten who moderated the discussion. We will be posting videos, photos and a podcast of the event soon, but I wanted to share a part of last night’s discussion that I think is worth mentioning. 

During the Q/A portion of the event, Tom Gjelten asked Robert Kaplan about climate change; specifically how the rest of the world views the challenges and potential implications of climate change and the lack of American leadership to combat it. Gjelten prefaced his question by wondering aloud about the prospects of the next congress taking up climate and energy legislation given that a number of conservatives (some of them climate change skeptics) won seats in last week’s election.

For Kaplan, Bangladesh seemed to be the most apt example to use to respond to Gjelten’s question. As Kaplan notes in his book, Bangladesh may look small on a map (considering it’s surrounded by India), but if you look at the overall population, it has more people than Russia and a greater Muslim population that Iran. Now consider that most Bangladeshis are living at or below sea level.

Kaplan paints a vivid picture of what this means. Indeed, an interesting observation he makes in his book (and that he made last night) was how precious dry soil is in Bangladesh and how as sea level rise inundates Bangladesh, dry soil for agricultural and domestic use could become more scarce. (Kaplan noted that when people move their homes in Bangladesh, they often take the dry soil with them – that is how scarce it is.) 

But beyond just scarce dry soil, sea level rise as consequence of climate change has the potential to precipitate a significant humanitarian crisis. Kaplan writes in Monsoon:

With 150 million people living packed together at sea level, the lives of many millions in Bangladesh are affected by the slightest climatic variation, let alone by the dramatic threat of global warming.

According to Kaplan, Bangladeshis are acutely aware of climate change and the potential toll it could have across the country. What is more, according to Kaplan, the perception in Bangladesh is that the United States would have to respond to any environmental disaster in Bangladesh. Indeed, he writes:

The U.S. Navy may be destined for a grand power balancing game with China in the Indian and Pacific Oceans, but it is more likely to be deployed on account of an environmental emergency, which is what makes Bangladesh and its problems so urgent.

To bring this theme about U.S. responsibility on climate change full circle, Kaplan said that the United States has a responsibility to lead internationally on climate change, including by making progress domestically on climate and energy legislation. As he noted (and as Christine and I have noted before), the rest of the world is looking for U.S. leadership on climate change – they are not necessarily looking to other emerging powers such as China and India (at least not right now).

And this brings me to my point: before we begin leadership on the international stage, we have to make forward progress at home. And it is something the next congress must consider. I think as negotiators head to Cancun at the end of the month for international climate change negotiations, one of the themes we will see emerge from Cancun is the pressing need for American leadership. What better way to demonstrate that America is ready to assume global leadership than by leading at home first.  If the future of American power is inextricably linked to how we lead on issues such as climate change, then there is a real opportunity for the United States to step up and take charge.