Going Cheney on Climate Threat

There’s been a lot of talk in recent years about global warming being a “conflict accelerant” in volatile regions of the world. That discussion, which I’ve explored in articles and various blog posts, (see here and here) is focused on the potential geopolitical ramifications of climate change-related disasters (such as more frequent and severe floods, drought, and storms). But I’ve never heard anyone wonder if global inaction or unwillingness to curb greenhouse gases could conceivably trigger war between countries.

That is the hypothetical raised by a reader on this thread that otherwise takes up the question of whether a clean energy solution to climate change can best be arrived at by an authoritarian or democratic government. Here’s the provocative scenario that dares to be imagined (my emphasis):

China is doing more on the clean energy front and this is unquestionably in part due to its ability to avoid the morass of special interests that infect energy policy politics in democratic countries.  Just because that is so, however, does not mean that we aught to adopt a more autocratic form of governance.

On the other hand, there is ample precedent for curtailing of democratic freedoms in the face of existential threats as already noted up-thread.  Along those lines, here’s a question for you “” at what point, if any, would it be reasonable for other countries to use the threat of force to impose carbon caps on other nation or nations?  Could GHGs ever be construed as a “˜clear and present danger’ that would justify the bombing of coal plants and hummers? 🙂

That question is loaded with dynamite. Anyone want to get close to it and have a go?

27 Responses to “Going Cheney on Climate Threat”

  1. Pascvaks says:

    Is it conceivable?  Yes, wasn’t it just suggested?
    Is it possible?  Yes, With People All Things Are Possible!
    Is it probable?  Let’s give it a 50-50 based on the past 2000 years of history.
    Is it likely?  Not for the near future.  We’re more likely to see Armageddon over the need for oil wells and coal fields than hot air and co2.

  2. Francis says:

    Having listened to a lot of the debates over the Iraq war, both pre- and post – invasion, as best I can tell “just war” theory is the theory that the winner can find an excuse somewhere to justify the death, maiming, destruction, ethnic cleansing and associated horrors that come with warfare.
    No, there’s no just cause for Maldivians to start bombing US coal plants.  But if we incur blowback from our environmental destruction, we really have no one to blame but ourselves.

  3. Menth says:

    We should just do whatever the climate scientists suggest we do. They are smart. If you disagree you are anti-science.
    If a GCM shows that there might be bad weather in the future we should probably bomb things in the present, it’s called the precautionary principle.

  4. Bob says:

    Keith, are you trying to be cute with your “Going Cheney” comment.  How about “Going Hansen” or “Going Gore”- have you ever used those phases Keith?.  Oh, you never heard of anyone express a opinion about going to war about the bogosity of AGW – have you ever heard of trial lawyers Keith? There are already over 100 lawsuits filed, hopefully they will never collect a dime.

  5. Marlowe Johnson says:

    I suspect Ambrose Bierce would share your view on the definition of a ‘just war’.  In the spirit of Bierce let me play devil’s advocate 🙂
    You’re contention that there is NO cause for Maldivians to bomb U.S. coal plants taken to its logical conclusion suggests that there is never any just cause for war.  I suspect that many people would have trouble with this idea.  I would suggest that the salient differences in this case and a more conventional one (e.g. Russian resistance to Germany in WWII) are:
    -immediacy of the threat
    -clear definition of the threat (e.g. tipping points, natural variability vs AGW, historic mal-adaptation vs. adaptation to ‘new’ climate)
    -diffuse culpability (both in time and space)
    IMO this is one of those questions where there really aren’t any ‘anwsers’ only opinions…

  6. It takes a vehement faith in a religion to make a war into a just war.

  7. jeffn says:

    More realistic scenarios where AGW policy could result in violence include:

    1. Environmentalists’ efforts to blame the United States for every negative weather event and crop failure – despite clear evidence to the contrary – results in a steady increase in unhinged anti-western radicalism.
    2. Now that it’s clear that you cannot run industrial countries on windmills, CAGW advocates actually make good on threats to slap tariff’s on Chinese imports because they are from “carbon intensive” industries. Simultaneously, the promise of cash payoffs prove to be empty rhetoric, causing developing nations to take steps to defend their economies. It wouldn’t be the first time a trade war turned into a shooting war.

  8. Artifex says:

    Allow me to take the pacifists path. I feel there is no justification for warfare other direct defense of country and population. You can always find a rationalization to fight and I mightily distrust rationalization. I would rather error on the side of not entering a war than finding some rationalization because it is popular.
    In the case of CO2, what’s wrong with tariffs on US goods and services to pay for the impacts ?  I think such tariffs are generally a poor idea and do more damage to the economy of the imposer in the long run, but hey it is their choice and not the imposition of violence on some third party.

  9. Francis says:

    There are, according to a DOE website, 149 gasoline refineries in the US.  The one that’s just a few miles from my house has no apparent security.  But I suspect that Tom Clancy’s depiction of the destruction of a refinery in Red Storm Rising is not quite complete and it would take a lot more than three guys with machine guns to blow the place to smithereens.
    Launching a small attack against a refinery is terrorism.  Gas prices might go up for a little while, but we’d get over it.  Launching repeated attacks against all 149 is war.  (No terrorist group has the capability of causing a serious dent in this nation’s capacity to refine gasoline; it’d have to be a nation state.)  So the President dials up the Secretary of Defense and we destroy utterly the infrastructure of the state that attacked us.
    So what have you accomplished by military strikes on US refineries?  More war, plus you’ve hardened American opinion even further against taking climate change seriously.  This is the Bin Laden approach to diplomacy with the US; make us mad and we’ll do stupid things.
    No, the moral case for the destruction of America’s coal plants and refineries (assuming such thing exists — which I don’t think it does) could only arise in the context of virtually all the world governments agreeing to move to zero net CO2 emission economies with the US refusing, and then the rest of the world declaring war on the US for its refusal to stop destroying the planet.  If we lost that war, the winners would then claim that the war was just.  Given that I live very near the Port of Long Beach, I’d likely be a casualty, so I’d be unlikely to be able to contribute my opinion.

  10. kdk33 says:

    Could GHGs ever be construed as a “˜clear and present danger’

    A better question might be:  is there any remotely concievably bad thing on earth than cannot be construed as being the result of CO2 emissions.

  11. Marlowe Johnson says:

    Sorry I should have been more specific (or general?)  I was alluding to the case for ‘war’ not isolated acts of terrorism (i.e. one state bombing all of another state’s carbon emitting infrastruture). And not to nitpick, but personally I wouldn’t consider attacking targets that have military value to be a form of terrorism (e.g. bridges, refineries, power plants, etc).  Targets that are meant to inspire terrorism (hence the term) are usually public places such as airports, shopping malls, etc. that don’t have much strategic military value.  Last time I checked there weren’t a lot of crowds at the refinery up the road…
    More to the point, you appear to be making the case against such a war based soley on its likely effectiveness rather than on moral grounds.  On this basis, one should only go to war if victory is guaranteed!

  12. Keith Kloor says:


    Too bad you didn’t appreciate the double meaning of my headline.

  13. Sashka says:

    I was in San-Francisco about 10 years ago when a gang of local greens burned a dealership selling SUVs. I’m sure they felt morally justified. As they would burning refineries if only they had capabilities.

  14. Stu says:

    I don’t know how nations will be able to afford dropping bombs and moving all the fish around at the same time…

  15. Tom Fuller says:

    Of all the evils that afflict manking, the worst is always war. What a pity that every generation has to learn this lesson anew.

    That it can even be discussed as an option for dealing with climate change is deeply dispiriting.

  16. Dave H says:

    I’ve seen that story reported a few times now. This really is the elephant in the room when it comes to adaptation vs mitigation.
    Whenever adaptation is proposed as being more cost effective than mitigation, it takes a very human-centric view, and completely neglects all the other systems we depend on. What happens when a species we require (or indeed, just like having around) is threatened by climate changing faster than they are able to adapt to, lacking as they do our technological prowess? Why, we’ll have to step in and try something like what’s outlined in the article you link to.

  17. Stu says:

    I guess it’s possible it may come to that, even though I’d assume for a large proportion of species, adaption would come freely without any human interference through natural migration efforts… but some may require it. I’m no biologist so I’m unable to talk deeply on this..  but I listen to a lot of talk… and adaption to date imo has mostly been focused very narrowly towards anthropogenic considerations (and cute animals).

  18. The fish story is bizarre. These fish are not killed off during a hot summer followed by a mild winter, nor are they killed off by a mild summer followed by a cold winter. Neither are they killed off by a hot summer followed by a cold winter.
    If fish can survive weather, which these do, then they can survive climate, which is weather over an extended period of time to adapt.

  19. Stu says:

    Simon/Dave H
    Here’s some back story on moving the vendace in the Telegraph… article is a couple of years old now…

  20. Dave H says:

    > I’d assume for a large proportion of species, adaption would come freely without any human interference through natural migration efforts
    You can make that assumption, but this is an area of study, and the results tend to disagree with that viewpoint. Multiple analyses show that migration rates would have to proceed at rates that exceed anything in the modern record – or in some cases in the geological past – just to keep pace, and geographical limitations mean this won’t always be physically possible. As such there are certain to be casualties – a sizeable percentage will be unable to adapt or migrate and current loss of biodiversity is only going to accelerate.
    And again, this is just sticking to the conservative, gradual warming that the consensus produces.

  21. Thanks Stu.
    I’m finding it impossible to find a global warming signal, instrumental in the vendace’s demise in this article. It’s just not there. I can find sewage, agricultural run-off, egg predation, competition from illegally introduced fish species and volume of sedimentation.
    No climate signal anywhere.
    Relocating the vendace to Scotland does come with risks for Scotland, of course. Introducing a non-native species to an area is fraught with unforeseen issues in the food chain, just as it has for the vendace in the Lake District.

  22. Stu says:

    Yes- there’s nothing in that article on climate change at all. It’s possible that this program is being looked at as a model for fish transport in preparation for climate change effects. But the original reason these fish were moved had nothing to do with climate change.
    Dave H –
    How are these results being arrived at? Can you provide some links?

  23. Stu says:

    “Relocating the vendace to Scotland does come with risks for Scotland, of course. Introducing a non-native species to an area is fraught with unforeseen issues in the food chain, just as it has for the vendace in the Lake District.”

    Yeah- being Australian, we’re only too aware of the dangers that can come through introduction of non-natives- as I’m sure anyone who’s flown here and gone through customs can understand 😉

  24. We get the Australian and New Zealand reality TV immigration programmes here! 🙂

  25. Hal Morris says:

    RE: “at what point, if any, would it be reasonable for other countries to use the threat of force to impose carbon caps on other nation or nations?”
    That doesn’t sound at all feasible.  Where is there an example of country A saying to country B “You have to take on this huge project or we will destroy you, unless the project is to hand over Al Quaeda or the guy who just assasinated our Archduke (the latter triggered WWI).
    On the other hand, assuming there is real risk from global warming, as I do, if it gets to the point of being such an emergency that we want to follow some of the suggestions of Super Freakonomics and elsewhere, of actively reengineering the climate, that’s another matter fraught with real international peril.  It is bound to make things worse for somebody, and if that wasn’t true somebody would believe it is making things worse.  We would be changing other nations’ weather in real, observable time, and somebody wouldn’t like it, possibly for religious reasons if nothing else, and the chances are somebody would say “stop it, or we’ll attack the climate-changing project, or attack you somewhere else where you’re more vulnerable”.  Then somebody (say China) would see an opportunity to strenghthen their position in the world — or to test their position in the world (and see if, say, the U.S. blinks), and we’re off the the races.
    That is a believable cassus belli (sp?).  But NOT “Our calculations indicate you’re been screwing up our climate gradually over the last several decades, and we demand that you fall in line with a program that might, over the course of several decades, begin to mitigate the damage”.  No, I just don’t see that appearing in any “Zimmerman Telegram”.

  26. Stu says:

    Simon/Dave H
    Just on the fishies thing again- was compelled to do a bit of research and came across this recent paper on fish migrations due to present climate change effects in the Eastern North Atlantic.
    It’s an interesting paper- Main conclusion seems to be that species richness in these areas is increasing due to climatic factors. In one region- the West of Scotland, the authors also noted a decrease in boreal (cold water) species, but numbers here were found to be positively correlated to fishing practices as well as a temperature increase.

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