October 22, 2012

In a Foreign Policy Debate, Attention Should be Given to Climate Change

Tonight is the third and final presidential debate, and it will focus exclusively on foreign policy. Viewers can expect to see significant attention given to Afghanistan, China, Iran and Libya. CNAS published a “National Security Guide to the 2012 Presidential Election” earlier this month that lays out some of the key decision points on a range of issues, such as the defense budget, cyber security and Afghanistan.

One issue that has received very little attention in the debates so far is climate change, which is disappointing when one considers that some of the most important decisions regarding U.S. policy on climate change will need to be made in the next administration in order to avoid potential climate tipping points that scientists say could “lead to increasingly rapid and irreversible destruction of the global environment.” Indeed, the International Energy Agency has already warned that – even with the recent global recession – global carbon emissions continue to rise, pushing the world closer to irreversible damage to the environment. The IEA added last year that unless serious efforts are taken in the next five years to curb global greenhouse gas emissions the world may be unable to avoid “dangerous climate change” and its attendant consequences, including more frequent and severe drought like the kind witnessed today in the American midwest.  

But policymakers don’t need to wait five years or more to see how climate change may take its toll on U.S. security and foreign policy interests. One need only look to the Arctic – which recorded record low sea ice this summer – to see where climate change is already complicating U.S. foreign policy. The opening of the Arctic is placing increased pressure on U.S. policymakers to assess U.S. interests in the region and to navigate potential international challenges that could manifest from increased activity in the High North.

Beyond the Arctic, climate change may be complicating U.S. interests in the South China Sea by exacerbating tensions in the region. In a January 2012 CNAS report, I wrote about a few of these challenges:      

For instance, droughts in China offer a stark example of how broader climate trends may undermine the nation’s ability to diversify energy resources and invigorate its efforts to seek fossil fuels in the South China Sea. Although China generated approximately 16 percent of its electricity from hydroelectric dams in 2009 and plans to nearly double its hydroelectric capacity by 2020, China’s hydroelectric power is projected to decline by 30 to 40 percent in the last quarter of 2011 because of a prolonged drought in parts of the country. However, this recent decline is not a unique event; in recent years, drought has reduced hydroelectric output even as China has been expanding its hydroelectric capacity. Scientific models suggest that climate change is likely to exacerbate drought in East and Southeast Asia by affecting precipitation trends. Thus, these conditions are likely to get worse, undermining China’s ability to generate renewable electricity from hydroelectric power and potentially reinforcing its demand for fossil fuels, including resources in the South China Sea.


Although data remains limited, current evidence suggests that climate change will also affect fish migration in ways that could exacerbate competition in the South China Sea. According to a recent U.N. study, warming ocean waters will drive fish species poleward (north, in the South China Sea). As warm-water species move north, cold-water fish species are likely to decline. Such changes in migration are likely to increase fishing in contested areas of the South China Sea, which may increase the number of confrontations involving fishing trawlers and worsen tensions between China and its South China Sea neighbors.

In a debate that will focus exclusively on foreign policy, there should be some attention given to climate change, not only because it is already complicating U.S. security and foreign policy interests, but because by its very nature climate change is almost exclusively a foreign policy challenge. There are important domestic policy dimensions to be sure. Despite the major shift in U.S. energy production from shale gas and oil, U.S. policymakers will need to avoid doubling down on fossil fuels at the expense of investments in clean energy technologies like advanced biofuels. But the United States alone won’t be able to address the global climate challenge. The issue will require a concerted international effort to reign in greenhouse gas emissions in both developed and developing countries; from the United States and Japan to China, India and Brazil.

As international leaders meet in Seoul today and tomorrow for a preparatory meeting ahead of the UN Conference of Parties 18 meeting in Doha, Qatar at the end of November, the question that should be on everyone’s mind is this: will the next U.S. administration marshal serious leadership in support of global action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions? 

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