Presidential administrations usually end with sepia retrospectives and long, adulatory lists of accomplishments. The present administration is unlikely to end this way, but it will certainly go out with many “what if” epitaphs. Near the top of my “what if” list is, “What if this administration had taken the threat of global climate change seriously and acted as though our future depended on cutting emissions and cooperating on adaptation?”
From July 27-30, 2008, my organization, the Center for a New American Security, led a consortium of 10 scientific, private, and public policy organizations in an experiment to answer this particular “what if.” The experiment, a climate change “war game,” tested what a change in U.S. position might mean in 2015, when the effects of climate change will likely be more apparent and the global need to act will be more urgent. The participants were scientists, national security strategists, scholars, and members of the business community from China, Europe, India, and the Americas. The variety was intentional: We hoped to leverage a range of expertise and see how these different communities would interact to solve problems.
Climate change may seem a strange subject for a war game, but one of our primary goals was to highlight the ways in which global climate change is, in fact, a national security issue. In our view, climate change is highly likely to provoke conflict—within states, along borders as populations move, and, down the line, possibly between states. Also, the way the military calculates risk and engages in long-term planning lends itself to planning for the climate change that is already locked in (and gives strategic urgency to cutting emissions and preventing future climate change).
The players were asked to confront a near-term future in 2015, in which greenhouse gas emissions have continued to grow and the pattern of volatile and severe weather events has continued. The context of the game was an emergency ad-hoc meeting of the world’s top greenhouse gas emitters in 2015—China, the European Union, India, and the United States—to consider future projections (unlike most war games, the projections were real; Oak Ridge National Laboratory analyzed regional-level Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change data from the A1FI series specifically for the game). The “UN Secretary-General” challenged the top emitters to come up with an agreement to deal with increased migration resulting from climate change; resource scarcity; disaster relief; and drastic emissions cuts.
Although the players did reach an agreement, which is an interesting artifact in itself, that was not really the point. The primary objective was to see how the teams interacted and whether we gained any insight into our current situation. While we’re still processing all of our findings, I certainly came away with an interesting answer to that “what if” question. If the United States had been forward-leaning on climate change these past eight years, taking action at home and proposing change internationally, it would have made a difference, but only to a point. As important as American leadership will be on this issue, it is Chinese leadership—or followership—that will be decisive. And it is going to be very, very difficult—perhaps impossible—for China to lead, at least under current circumstances. The tremendous growth of China’s economy has lifted hundreds of millions of people out of poverty, but there are hundreds of millions more still to be lifted. The stark reality is that China will be fueling that economic growth with coal, oil, and natural gas—just as the United States did in the 20th century—unless and until there is a viable alternative.
If the next administration hopes to head off the worst effects of global climate change, it will not only have to find a way to cut greenhouse gas emissions at home, it may well have to make it possible for China to do so, too.
Sharon Burke is a national security expert at the Center for a New American Security, where she focuses on energy, climate change, and the Middle East.
Photo: The U.S., EU, and Chinese simulation teams in negotiations. Courtesy of Sharon Burke.