Tag: environment

Road to nowhere?

Roads. Who can be against them, right? They allow us to get from A-to-B. And as anyone who has been to a place where there were no roads can attest, their absence is a real impediment to the modern political economy. The construction of roads is thus a central feature of the international development agenda. The World Bank publishes analysis of road investment by developing countries. The World Trade Organization claims ~30% of all overseas development aid ($25-$30 billion) is spent on trade related development—central to which is road construction and maintenance. Continue reading


Ungated Reviews Exchange on Michael Levi’s The Power Surge

International Politics Reviews is a new reviews journal bundled by Palgrave with International Politics. Michael J. Williams of Royal Holloway is the editor, and I’m an associate editor. I recently curated a recent roundtable exchange on Michael Levi’s book The Power Surge: Energy, Opportunity, and the Battle for America’s Future with contributions by me, Jesse Jenkins, Emily Meierding, regular Guest Duck Johannes Urpelainen, and a response from CFR’s Levi himself. Palgrave has granted us ungated access to the reviews (right here), which will be up for several months. I wanted to continue the conversation here on the Duck, and my fellow contributors may also weigh in. Continue reading


Will China meet its energy-related targets under its 12th five year plan?

Did you see the photos like the one above out of Shanghai? For the first time ever, Shanghai’s air pollution, like Beijing’s before it, exceeded the scale for particulate matter. For the past seven days, the air quality has been so bad that schools and flights were cancelled, cars were forced off the roads, industries were shut down (Though a marathon last Monday went on as planned. Runners complained that their lungs hurt. Go figure!).

This post follows up my previous one a couple of weeks ago on whether China can gets its air quality problems under control. That was essentially the text for my contribution to the first half of a webinar sponsored by the outstanding ChinaFAQS, an initiative sponsored by the World Resources Institute to provide U.S. policymakers on the latest state of play in China, energy, and the environment. This post is a revised version of  the second set of remarks I made and deals with whether or not China is meeting its energy-related commitments under its 12th five year plan. Continue reading


Can China Get a Handle on Pollution? What Does that Mean for Climate Change?

In the northern city of Harbin, China, air quality was so bad ten days ago that concentrations of particulate matter reportedly reached 1000 micrograms per cubic meter at their peak, exceeding the World Health Organization’s daily safe levels by a factor of 40 and shrouding the city in a fog so dense that commuters had trouble finding their way and a numbers of schools were forced to close. As China’s pollution has reached intolerable levels, the air quality problem may pose an opportunity for China to address not only its dirty air but also its greenhouse gas emissions, as actions to reduce air pollution may produce co-benefits for climate change.

China’s awful pollution situation and whether action to address climate change were the main subjects of discussion for a number of scholars and practitioners last Friday in a Webinar hosted by ChinaFAQs*. I was fortunate to be among the presenters, and though the event itself was subject to Chatham House rules, I’m making the first of my two contributions to the event available as a blog post (the second will follow shortly).

I’ve written on China, climate change, and energy in the past for CNAS and RFF. For me, this Webinar was timely, as I have just started a year long MA class on sectoral greenhouse gas emissions reductions strategies by the major economies. Our class has a group blog which we hope is a great resource for those interested in the domestic implementation challenges of climate change policies by the world’s major emitters. In the comments that follow, I take up the issue of whether China can get its act together on air pollution and what this might mean for climate change.

Continue reading


Advancing Global Environmental Governance

93552865-environmental-pollution[Note: This is a guest post by Peter M. Haas of the University of Massachusetts at Amherst]

Transboundary and global environmental threats require collection action.  Concretely, this means developing forms of governance that apply common rules, norms and decision making procedures.  Ideally, such governance should be resilient in the sense that it is able to persist over time and respond quickly and accurately to new threats.

Yet the record of international environmental governance is mixed, at best. According to a recent UNEP overview of global environmental governance, some regimes have effectively addressed the problems at hand, many haven’t, and we still don’t know about the effectiveness of a surprisingly large number of regimes. 

A recent collective project on international environmental governance (here and here) raises the questions of what configurations of actors can constructively promote better environmental management.

This post reports on some of the findings. Continue reading


Get the Lead Out?

Lead bullets

Yesterday, Dan Drezner’s “one post about American gun violence” explicitly linked the post-Newtown debate about gun violence to Kevin Drum’s interesting and provocative Mother Jones article on the disturbing relationship between lead (Pb) in the environment and criminal violence. “If the White House is smart, they will take, verbatim, Kevin Drum’s suggested policy proposals for eliminating lead from our nation’s homes and topsoil.”

Like many of us at the Duck, Drezner is an IR scholar who frequently blogs about foreign policy. However, as a group, we are somewhat hesitant about entering into debates about domestic political issues that are remote from our primary areas of expertise. In this case, however, Drezner quite laudably attempts to find seemingly reasonable common ground between the anti-gun left and the gun lobby. Specifically, he plausibly asserts that a wide array of interest and identity groups should support a proposal to reduce lead in the environment: Continue reading


Is Rio + 20 Going to be a Waste of Time?

This was the tone of an op-ed I pitched regarding the Rio+20 environmental summit. Below the fold, I offer a slightly more nuanced argument …

Rio+20, the twentieth anniversary of the 1992 Earth Summit, kicks off the formal part of the negotiations tomorrow as leaders of 130 countries arrive to take part. It strikes me as a misguided nostalgia tour and will probably achieve even less than the tenth anniversary that took place in South Africa. Environmental indicators continue to deteriorate but sending 50,000 people to Rio (40,000 of them environmentalists) is a waste of time and energy (literally as Joe Biden would say).

How the times have changed. In 1992, President George H.W. Bush, facing a tough reelection, made an appearance in Rio to shore up his green credentials. This time, President Obama won’t be going. Nor should he. Not much will happen there. We a new approach to conserve the resources of the planet both at home and abroad. 
Here at home we need to convince Republicans that environmental protection is a conservative value. Internationally, we need to persuade countries in Asia that is in their interest to pollute less and be more efficient in their use of energy. Environmental protection will save lives and money.
Why am I so pessimistic? As I’ve argued elsewhere, mega-conferences do not appear to be great venues for collective problem-solving. In common vernacular, it akin to too many cooks in the kitchen. In political science speak, it’s too many actors with too diverse preferences shackled by consensus-based rules. As David Bosco argues on The Multilateralist:

But the low expectations also reflect a broader dynamic: what might be called “big-bang multilateralism”–in which the world’s nearly 200 sovereign states attempt to hammer out complex agreements–is mired in a losing streak.

Pessimists of Rio+20 are focusing on the lack of agreement on a negotiating text, with developing countries fighting a losing battle for more pledges of assistance at a time when the entire European project is under threat. That negotiating text, which will be a non-binding agreement in any case, covers a raft of issues, including whether a “green economy,” whatever that is should serve as the roadmap for the future. Perhaps the most problematic issue is that developed and developing countries do not see eye to eye about what kind of meeting this is. Developed countries want this to be an environmental meeting, but developing countries want to focus on issues related to poverty. As Todd Stern, the U.S. climate negotiator and leader of the U.S. delegation to Rio, said:

Let me also remind you that sustainable development is not at all just about the environment, and this conference is not an environmental conference. This conference is a development conference.

Among the contentious issues is the fate of the United Nations Environment Programme, based in Nairobi. It is a low stature organization within the UN system, and advocates from France in particular are seeking to elevate its status from program to a specialized agency, more like the World Health Organization. The idea would be to make UNEP more politically and financially independent. Given the WHO’s current budgetary woes, it is highly problematic as a model. Moreover, as Adil Najam argued in Global Governance a decade ago, in the absence of political agreement on the environment, the organizational status of UNEP is akin to “merely rearranging the organization of chairs on our planetary Titanic.”

Nature issued a pre-Rio report card on how the world has fared on three core environmental problems, climate change, biodiversity, and desertification. The results are dispiriting, an F for stabilizing greenhouse gas emissions, an F for reducing biodiversity loss, and an F for reversing desertification and land degradation.


While CFR’s Stewart Patrick agrees that the era of “grand multilateral treaty-making is over,” he is more sanguine the Rio may exceed expectations. A number of analysts have suggested that a novel feature of the meeting, of states and other actors registering a “cloud” of commitments, may in time yield significant results. As Patrick concludes:

If this seems a depressing scene-setter, the Rio summit is not fated for failure. It may yet exceed expectations with a low-key approach focused less on the painstaking negotiation of treaties than on generating practical national commitments to advance sustainable development.

Echoing these sentiments was the late Nobel laureate Elinor Ostrum who in a final op-ed before her death praised the actions of cities and other actors to build sustainability from the ground up: “we are seeing a heterogeneous collection of cities interacting in a way that could have far-reaching influence on how Earth’s entire life-support system evolves.” I tend to agree with Thomas Lovejoy that these patchwork of commitments may not be nearly enough: “The best one can hope for is a sort of mosaic approach, which by definition won’t be sufficient.”
I think thematic meetings, organized around non-binding commitments on a particular issue, are likely to be more successful than catch-all meetings like this one. 
Despite my pessimism, if nothing else, Rio+20 may have at least one positive benefit. With world media focused on the host country, on May 25th Brazil’s President Dilma Rousseff vetoed key clauses of a land law that would have opened up the Amazon to deforestation. 
The Road Ahead
Looking ahead, the environmental community needs to rethink how to approach these issues. In the United States, the challenge is clearly about making the environment a bipartisan issue again. Democrats own the issue and that is bad for the environment.
Internationally, advocates for environmental protection need to be more creative. David Victor and Leslie Coben wrote a piece some years ago that suggested there was a herd mentality among environmentalists who tended to embrace legally binding international commitments as the only way forward. While that has started to change, faith in piecemeal bottoms-up efforts seems to me like small ball. In between are more ambitious efforts like what Simon Zadek proposed — green unilateralism by the major actors. 

Rather than seeking to contain this unilateralism, world leaders should leverage it in pursuit of global public goods. Such a strategy’s success depends on three factors: a focus on a small number of big-ticket national and regional actions, adequate policy leverage over these actions, and international coalitions to steer them along a legitimate path.

This is an agenda I can finally get excited about. 

What to Do? The Climate Security Policy Conundrum

This is re-posted from e-IR. I hesitated to write anything about climate and security until I had read all (or damn near all 17 articles) of the recent special issue of the Journal of Peace Research.

My initial mandate for this post was to talk about the significance of climate and security for militaries, and as part of a project funded by the U.S. Department of Defense, I obviously should have something to say about that. My reaction, however, was that to conceive of climate and security as purely or primarily a military problem would reinforce a narrow understanding of the issue and potential solutions.[1]
Is Climate Security the Military’s Problem?
If climate security becomes a military problem, then a whole host of other interventions, mostly by civilian agencies involved in development, adaptation, and disaster preparedness, have failed. Thinking about climate and security in terms of the military runs the risk of framing the issue in terms of how to get the Pentagon interested in this problem (here I’m echoing Dan Deudney’s concerns from the 1990s on securitizing the environment). This tends to reinforce the emphasis on conflict or terrorism when other potential security outcomes may be as, if not more significant and proximate threats (here I’m thinking of complex emergencies wrought by climate-related disasters).

When militaries are interested in this issue with the hope of doing something, they have to recognize their limitations and core competencies. The extension of militaries in to the international development sphere is problematic, as the challenging experience of reconstruction in Iraq and Afghanistan attest. International development supported by foreign donors is fraught in any case, and militaries are recent entries in to this arena.

They don’t have more than a half century of experience making mistakes in development so may think about these issues in primarily technocratic terms, drilling a well here or building a dam there when these are but a piece of an overall problem that includes challenges of country ownership and cultural sensitivities. Obviously, some militaries have more experience than others, and the U.S. government surely learned a lot in Afghanistan and Iraq. That said, just because some militaries, particularly the Department of Defense, are better resourced than their civilian counterparts doesn’t necessarily mean that they are (or even can be) well-suited to doing the development piece of the climate security agenda.

So What Next?
There are some things that militaries can and should do. First and foremost, militaries have to prepare for potential existential threats to the nation and its way of life. As I’ve written before (see here, here), there are some albeit limited ways that climate change poses a direct threat to the United States (to military bases, critical infrastructure, coastal populations, and possibly the Arctic). There are also indirect threats to a country’s overseas interests. Here, one has to have a clear sense of its strategic interests and where the vulnerable areas are. For the latter, militaries are reliant on intelligence assessments like those provided by the National Intelligence Council (including their 2008 report and their 2012 report on water security) and need to consider climate security impacts in their operations as the U.S. Department of Defense 2010 Quadrennial Defense Review does.

(As an aside, our work on climate and security in Africa has sought to inform the Pentagon’s understanding of potential trouble spots by identifying the vulnerable places and the overlap with U.S. strategic interests. And, in an upcoming workshop, our project is seeking to help the combatant command for Africa think through these issues.)

Beyond intelligence gathering and strategic assessments, militaries have ample experience with disaster response and military-to-military disaster response training. This is all well and good. The challenge becomes when the military would like to be proactive and think about conflict and disaster prevention and preparedness and de-escalation of tensions.

Many of these tasks may involve diplomacy and development, specialties of other agencies like the State Department and USAID. The combatant command for Africa (AFRICOM) was initially designed to try to bring the diverse expertise of the U.S. military together with the State Department and other elements of U.S. national power. Indeed, one of its two principal deputies was to be a State Department career diplomat. The experience thus far suggests that the venture to integrate diplomacy and development into a strategic military command is extremely challenging.

What’s an answer, if not the answer?

In light of these concerns, what is to be done? Here, I would say two things (1) “Answers” to the extent we have them must be context-specific and (2) Look before you leap.

Let’s say you think that issues related to river basins are likely to be a problem in a world of climate change with decreased water flows and increased demand. What is to be done? Well, the answers may vary greatly. The Nile River Basin has a very different set of issues than the Zambezi. For example, Zimbabwe and Zambia share a river border along the Zambezi, giving them roughly equal leverage. The Nile which snakes from Uganda to Egypt has upstream/downstream issues associated with geography and history. Upstream countries like Ethiopia ostensibly possess more bargaining leverage by virtue of their ability to divert water and cut off downstream access. In practice, however, Egypt and Sudan have rights to 80% of the Nile’s water dating back to a 1929 colonial era treaty. Upstream countries like Ethiopia with rising ambitions and needs are seeking to challenge this imbalance, which has triggered some bellicose rhetoric on the part of Egypt at a moment of political turmoil and transition.

Would insertion of the U.S. military, let alone the broader U.S. policy establishment, be helpful to ensure that this process ends amicably? Probably not. Even if U.S. engagement were useful, context matters a lot, and the policy community would be wise to take the time to assess the full picture before trying to wade in.

Look Before You Leap
To the extent that there are generalizable lessons about climate and security, the policy community, including but not limited to the military establishment, would benefit from a richer understanding of the academic literature on the topic.

One of the biggest potential errors is to blithely accept the simple premise that “climate change will cause conflict” and then move on to think about what to do about it. In fact, the literature on the topic is much more mixed and nuanced. While the policy community frequently notes that climate on its own won’t cause conflict (see the QDR statement for example), that it is a threat multiplier, the operating assumption is often that climate change will exacerbate water scarcity and that will trigger conflicts.

In fact, much of the quantitative academic literature disputes the notion that water scarcity causes conflict. While I think he goes too far, Nils Petter Gleditsch in the introduction to a recent special issue of the Journal of Peace Research concludes from this body of evidence, “On the whole, however, it seems fair to say that so far there is not yet much evidence for climate change as an important driver of conflict.”

Far stronger evidence suggests that conflict onset is more likely triggered by periods of higher rainfall not lower rainfall (see my CCAPS colleagues Hendrix and Salehyan’s piece in the same issue of JPR as well as my other CCAPS colleague Clionadh Raleigh’s piece with Dominic Kniveton, as well as Adano et. al’s piece and Thiesen’s paper in that same issue). Moreover, no longer are we talking about civil wars and organized rebellions but when we talk about conflicts associated with heavy rainfall, we’re really talking about violent events that require less organization like protests, riots, strikes, and cattle raids like those captured in the new Social Conflict in Africa Database (SCAD) and the Armed Conflict and Location Event Database (ACLED).

As I said, I think Gleditsch goes too far in dismissing the connections between climate and conflict. Even a reading of the pieces in the special issue does not seem to warrant the strength of the claims he makes. I agree with Solomon Hsiang who wrote on his blog, “My first reaction was a second wave of surprise at his conclusions, since most of the empirical papers in the issue seem to actually find a link between climatological parameters and conflict, although I haven’t carefully kept score yet.”

Coming back to the topic of river basins, if one were to uncritically accept the scarcity-conflict nexus, then one might be inclined to think that we were on the verge of series of water wars. However, as Aaron Wolf’s work suggests, most issues of international rivers have historically been resolved peacefully. Indeed, as the Tir and Stinnett piece in the JPR issue finds, one of the reasons river basin water issues have not generally degenerated into conflict is because of transboundary river agreements.

Explaining the Disconnect between Policymakers and Academia
So, if the policy community is starting to accept the connection between climate and conflict, but the academic commnunity hasn’t found much thus far, how can we explain the disconnect? The field of climate and security is relatively new and is especially difficult to study since we’re trying to understand the effects of a problem that has for the most part yet to occur. Most studies (the Devitt and Tol JPR piece is a notable exception) look to the past as a historical analogue, drawing on a period in the world’s climate that may be unlike what we’re ultimately going to see in the next century.

In terms of past patterns of climate indicators, we’re reliant on patchy data and problematic definitions of core concepts like drought. The rainfall data that many of us use relied on rain gauge measures until the launching of satellites in the late 1990s. As Brad Lyon has noted, coverage of rain gauges over parts of the world like the Democratic Republic of Congo declined dramatically throughout the latter half of the 20th century. Data sources for the same region often show widely divergent rainfall trends.

In terms of future projections of climate change, existing climate models still leave a lot to be desired. Most of them lack adequate spatial resolution to get at regional and national effects (see Biasutti and Paeth). These are the challenges just in terms of past and future physical exposure.

Trying to trace these through to the social and political realm is as if not more difficult. Most of the articles that have emerged in this field have appeared in the last five years. The mechanisms and causal chains between climate effects in the physical realm to security outcomes are only hazily understood. The scholars in the JPR special issue are pushing the frontier of knowledge forward.

Take, for example, the disputed connection between disasters and conflict. Two important studies by Brancati and Nel and Righarts found an association between certain kinds of disasters (earthquakes and rapid-onset disasters respectively) and conflict. The JPR special issue has two articles on disasters and conflict by Slettebak and Bergholt/Lujala that dispute these findings with respect to climate-related disasters. Both conclude that there is no direct correlation between climate-related disasters and the onset of conflict. Slettebak notes that the Brancati paper looked at conflict incidence rather than onset. If we are interested in how new conflicts start, onset is a better indicator. From his analysis of climate-related disasters, Slettebak concludes that they actually make civil wars less likely on the basis that desperate people tend to cooperate more.

Bergholt/Lujala find similar results of no direct relationship between swift-onset climate-related disasters (thus excluding drought) and conflict. They then seek to ascertain whether there might be an indirect effect on conflict through economic growth, the logic being that disasters might negatively effect economic growth, which could, in turn, contribute to a greater likelihood of conflict. While they find that disasters do have a negative effect on economic growth, they do not find an effect on conflict through growth. They also challenge the conventional wisdom from Fearon and Laitin among other heavyweights in the field that declining economic conditions contribute to conflict.

As my colleague Todd Smith has noted, the indicator of disasters they use — the population affected by a disaster — is not a physical measure exogenous to social conditions and governance but actually reflects an outcome measure of vulnerability in its own right. While flawed, this move to examine the indirect effects of climate-related indicators on conflict outcomes is a step in the right direction.

This is exactly the approach taked by the Koubi et al. paper in the JPR special issue that looks at rainfall variability and the indirect effect on conflict onset via economic growth. Here, they find weak support for the links between climate variables and civil conflict in non-democratic countries, but a finding nonetheless. Because these are the first studies of this kind in a field that has focused on the direct effects on climate indicators and conflict, I expect that the evidence will get better as we have improved data sources, more refined methods, and new channels of influence on security outcomes via migration and food prices. 

Conclusions: Policies Matter
In sum, we still have a lot to learn about how climate change will manifest as security problems. Government actors, including militaries, are approaching this issue increasingly with a desire to do something to address the problem. While it is always easy for an academic to recommend further study, understanding the nature of the challenges we face is an essential first step to effective and efficient expenditure of scarce resources. Preparing for a threat that may not materialize or may manifest in a different manner than was thought could lead to the careless diversion of funds for unproductive purposes.

Outside interventions themselves may make the problem worse rather than better. Policies intended to anticipate future scarcities rather than the scarcities themselves may exacerbate tensions and lead to conflict as Asian investors’ efforts to lease agriculture land in Africa have shown. The Benjaminsen piece in the JPR special issue provides a cautionary tale. A Canadian funded dam rehabilitation project intended to deal with the resource constraints of pastoralists and semi-pastoralist communities in the Sahel ended up becoming the focal point for conflict between two communities. As we think about how to address the complex problems of climate and security, outside actors, militaries in particular, need to ensure that their interventions, based on good intentions or hastily put together policy prescriptions, don’t make things worse.

This is not a recipe to do nothing. Far from it. One of the dominant themes of this entire literature is that physical exposure is not destiny. Governance and political dynamics are as, if not more, important in explaining whether or not environmental shocks, scarcity, and abundance lead to conflict. Moreover, as the literature on river basins shows (including De Stefano et. al’s masterful study in the JPRspecial issue), institutions can also mitigate and diminish threats posed by scarcity. As practitioners move forward in plans to address this looming threat, they can profit from an openness to new information and humility about what we do know. That shouldn’t paralyze us from taking steps that shore up resilience to diverse threats, whether or not they manifest in violence, but to tread carefully.
[1] I am entirely ignoring the issue of climate mitigation by militaries which are major users of energy. Sharon Burke’s office of Operational Energy in the U.S. Department of Defense has done admirable work to try to lessen the energy footprint of the U.S. military, in part driven by climate concerns but more importantly to leaven the battlefield costs both financial and human in trying to get fuel to troops in dangerous circumstances.


Walmart still isn’t green

Luftverschmutzung in Liaoning China
Photo credit: lhgszch on Flickr.

Back in December 2009, I wrote a post for the Duck called “Wal-mart Isn’t Green.” Jared Diamond had written a provocative op-ed about various green business initiatives for the NY Times and Steve Walt had blogged about it too.

I recently thought about that exchange because the December issue of The Atlantic included an interesting article by the Asia Society’s Orville Schell called “How Walmart Is Changing China.” Much of the article considers burgeoning environmental initiatives involving Walmart and China:

The world’s biggest corporation and the world’s most populous nation have launched a bold experiment in consumer behavior and environmental stewardship: to set green standards for 20,000 suppliers making several hundred thousand items sold to billions of shoppers worldwide. …one thing is already clear: how Walmart and China interact with each other over the next decade will be critical to the fate of the planet’s environment.

Schell mentions three very ambitious green goals Walmart has established for itself:

1. To be supplied 100 percent by renewable energy.
2. To create zero waste.
3. To sell products that sustain our resources and environment.

I’d encourage everyone to read the piece to get a feel for the scope of the problem and for interesting discussion of the various initiatives underway.

I’m primarily interested in the article’s conclusion. Will this work?

On the final page, Schell finally comes to the question that has been nagging at me for some years — as my 2009 blog post accusing Walmart of “greenwashing” made clear:

However smart, prescient, and successful Walmart’s sustainability efforts actually turn out to be, just how “sustainable” is the whole bloody global-retail proposition that lies at the heart of the company’s amazing progress?

For the first cut at an answer, Schell quotes Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Edward Humes, who recently wrote a book about Walmart’s environmentalism:

“When I started, I didn’t imagine I would be convinced that Walmart was green. And actually, they are not green, but they are a lot better than they were. And the efforts they are making are influencing not only their suppliers, but other businesses as well. Now Walmart is acting something like a private regulator. Nonetheless, the nature of their outsourced business model is not, ultimately, sustainable.”

And Schell’s final thoughts about both China and Walmart are certainly pessimistic:

In fact, one could say the same thing about China, which—after so many decades of defiant proletarian opposition to capitalism, consumerism, and American imperialism—has embraced the American-style market and is ardently following the Walmart path to prosperity. Indeed, allowing, even encouraging, people to consume as much as they want, or can, has become one of the Chinese Communist Party’s key strategies for political legitimacy and social stability. Party leaders may label their version of development “scientific” or “sustainable,” but it’s still development. The bitter reality is that even if unrestrained consumerism becomes less environmentally destructive per unit of production than it was in the past, it is still unsustainable in the long run. So even as this most innovative of corporate and statist green strategies may represent an environmental breakthrough and good business for Walmart, and good politics for the Chinese government, it may nonetheless end up being very bad business for humankind.

In the long-run, consumers and businesses alike must figure out ways to operate sustainably. I suspect the phrase “global supply chain” isn’t going to fit into that plan very well given the inherently large volume of energy and other resource usage associated with moving and consuming products around the world, including food.


Climate Change and the Axis of Fear

A few years back, when global warming was near the top of the national and global agendas, a surprising new activist suddenly took the field: the  Pentagon.  In 2009, it called climate change a “threat” to national security.  In 2010, it lauded the climate with its ultimate recognition, inclusion in the Quadrennial Defense Review.  All of this was uncritically conveyed by journalists on the Pentagon and environmental beats.

Recently, the first effort to test whether climate change in fact has security implications was published by the Journal of Peace Research.  Its bottom line:  

“Only limited support for viewing climate change as an important influence on armed conflict. However, framing the climate issue as a security problem could possibly influence the perceptions of the actors and contribute to a self-fulfilling prophecy.”

Of course, the climate changesecurity nexus was always speculative  Yet that did not stop the military from jumping on the warming wagon as yet another way of justifying its bloated budgets. More interestingly, at the time, environmentalists widely saluted the Pentagon’s entry into the climate wars.  Here is Sierra Club President Carl Pope in a 2010 press release, complete with hyperlink to the Quadrennial Defense Review:

“In another reminder of the national security and international implications of climate change, the Pentagon’s Quadrennial Defense Review highlights the risks posed by climate change for the first time ever.  While the Pentagon’s report considers the longer-term risks of climate change, we can’t escape the fact that each and every day we continue to send $1 billion a day overseas to buy oil–much of it from hostile nations.  It’s time we started spending that money to create jobs here at home.”

Who can blame the Sierra Club?  With a heavy-weight institution taking a stand on global warming, environmental fears could be stoked and perhaps even legitimated.  After all, if even the military is taking part, who could deny the pressing need for action?  With the Pentagon on board, new research dollars would also flow, making this move a boon for academics and government contractors as well.  

I don’t claim that global warming is invented.  But I do worry about the threat inflation being used to justify actions against climate change and about the strategic alliances, tacit or otherwise, environmentalists strike to achieve their goals.  The Pentagon is no friend of the environment, as anyone who’s watched the grindingly slow clean-ups of numerous, highly-polluted military bases well knows.  Lending activist legitimation to the defense establishment is likely to be a net-negative for environmental quality.  

Of course, for better or worse, real action on climate change is no longer imminent in the US or most other countries.  A broader lesson remains, however:  The axis of fear is endemic to our politics.  It is the strategy of choice for true believers on all sides of all issues as they seek to sell their causes to the public.  In the incessant competition to draw attention and support, the temptation to inflate threats is ever-present and difficult to resist.  

Alliances of convenience are the order of the day, and the Pentagon, with its oversize booty, is consort of preference even for those who should know better.  So we have environmentalists bedding down with the big boys with their big guns over global warming.  And now we have human rights activists lusting after the big boys with their little drones, notwithstanding the weapons’ mounting toll in lives and liberties at home and abroad.  The Pentagon, always eager for new conquests, similarly keeps its insatiable eye out for anyone hustling the cutting edge of terror, literally and figuratively.  

In all this, the new climate change research offers a breath of rationality.  Now, if only we could fight the axes of fear that pervade any number of other issues:  cyber warfare, hot zone diseases, and most of all terrorism.  All are similarly ripe for careful analysis of actual “threat” levels and concerted efforts to question the politicians, journalists, bureaucrats, and activists who hype them.


New Zealand’s Oil Spill and the myth of its ‘100% Pure’ image

With the rugby world cup semi-final only a few days away, it would take something like a broken ship dumping tons of oil and chemicals onto the country’s beaches to get the country to talk anything besides the All Blacks… Wait… New Zealand is all about environmental protection, green energy, clean air (and funny guys like Jemaine Clement from Flight of the Concords) isn’t it? I mean, what is a ship with oil even doing near this environmental mecca?

Given that the country prides itself on its green and clean image, and given that there is an election in a month, you would think this would be a major story here. Yet, a week after a cargo ship loaded with oil and other toxic materials hit a reef off the cost of the North Island, most Kiwis are remain more fired up about the upcoming match between the All Blacks and the Australian Wallabies. No one seems to mind that the ship may break at any moment, or that it is dumping oil at a rate five times higher than originally projected. It took nearly a week before its major newspaper, the Dominion Post, featured the story on its cover (not a huge surprise considering that it recently featured a cover with two birds that collided mid-air and today is covering the story of a family that got lost in a corn maze in Massacusetts, of course). The gallons of oil dumping into the ocean and the apathetic media and public in New Zealand seems at odds with its lucrative 100% Pure tourism campaign.

Perhaps this is Peter Jackson’s fault with the Lord of the Rings, or perhaps its just because the country is do damn far from everywhere else that few people actual get to check the place out and see if the reality lives up to the hype/myth. Having lived here for almost two and a half years now I can say with confidence that there are three myths associated with New Zealand that are just fallacy.

1. New Zealand is not 100% Pure
2. Kiwis are just like Canadians and New Zealand is just like Canada
3. New Zealand is a feminist country, with progressive policies related to women.

The first myth is the most important for the moment. The myth here is that New Zealand is not only clean and pure- it is cleaner and more pure than most other places in the world.
By contrast to the stunning images of mountain ranges and untouched native bush and forest, an unfortunate reality is that New Zealand has increasingly relied on farming- especially diary farming- as a primary industry. This isn’t the kind of farming that involves a few dozen cattle crazing on pristine grass- it is a massive industrial, clear cutting, dirty industry.

Greenpeace New Zealand has directly attacked the 100% Pure campaign, focusing on the growing dairy industry in the country and its environmental impacts. 49% of emissions come from the agricultural sector- the growth of the sector has resulted in massive deforestation of native forest, the use of fertilizers and chemicals in the soil, and industries burn coal to process dairy milk powder for exportation- Fonterra (the largest dairy producer) alone burns 450,000 tonnes of coal per year. This combined with the gasses that the cattle themselves emit contributes to a massive environmental problem for a small country. Also, although NZ does use a great deal of wind power, there is evidence that wider environmental policies are relatively weak with WWF New Zealand recently criticizing the local Emissions Trading Scheme for making “further extensions of the loopholes in an already weakened and flawed scheme.”

As for the last two myths- I’ll leave those for now because as a Canadian living in Kiwi-land I’m not exactly objective. Sorry New Zealand. You are truly amazing- beautiful, slow, and isolated- but like many countries, your myths are preventing you from dealing with reality. When the rugby world cup hangover subsides the country will have to wake up and face a serious environmental disaster washing up on the North Shores.



E-waste in China
Photo Source: Greenpeace

Demanufacturing is the process of disassembling, recycling, remanufacturing, or refurbishing outdated industrial and consumer products, particularly electronics (i.e. e-waste management, asset recovery, or urban mining) but also including activities such as shipbreaking, automobile shredding, devulcanization of rubber tires, etc. The tail end of the capitalist industrial production process was traditionally relegated to developing countries in Asia, Latin America, and Africa as part of a broader ruthless and neo-racist practice of relocating polluting industries and processes in the periphery and semi-periphery. But demanufacturing firms are beginning to emerge in advanced industrial countries as a mechanism to ensure data security for e-waste, comply with environmental legislation/emerging global norms and conventions on toxic waste, make landfills more “efficient”, as well as to generate employment and profit from the re-use of lucrative materials.

The problem of e-waste is obviously created by the failure of capitalist industrial production processes to incentivize green designs and to “internalize” post-consumption. While there have been some voluntary and state-led initiatives to push industries to design green by using the concept of Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) for the End-of-Life (EOL) stage of a product, the manufacturing industry in sectors like telecommunications and personal computing seem to have increasingly moved toward planned obsolescence with narrower and narrower time horizons (i.e. the iFad syndrome). Nevertheless, even if green design is still a dream in some sectors, the tide is turning toward more responsible demanufacturing in most of the world with a few exceptions. Only Afghanistan, Haiti, and the United States have yet to ratify the 1992 Basel Convention on the Transboundary Movements of Hazardous Wastes and their Disposal. The US, Canada, and Japan still object to particular provisions of the convention which restrict the export of toxic materials from developed to less developed countries. The US also continues to use prison labor to demanufacture e-waste in order to avoid more restrictive labor protections afforded to the general workforce. Canada has ratified the Basel Convention but it uses dubious tactics to comply. (Canada’s questionable behavior on this issue is actually not too surprising — as those of us who live near mega-landfills in the US know — our friends to the north are more than willing to export their sludge to the US in order to make their own country appear “green” while harming their neighbor’s environment.) The domestic environmental lobby in the US, Canada, and Japan will need to be energized on this issue to compel adherence to the international convention. Meanwhile, the EU has moved toward the adoption of a complete ban on the export of toxic materials to developing countries.

While preventing the export of toxic e-waste to LDCs is laudable given the enormous health and environmental impacts and the incapacity of many of those states to enforce environmental regulations, there is still a need to share best industry practices, technology, and equipment in the demanufacturing sector with LDCs as they attempt to deal with their own share of e-waste. India, for example, generates approximately 800,000 tons of e-waste per year. Otherwise, the environmental movement against e-waste becomes little more than an attempt to use legislation to create/protect a new industry in the OECD countries without regard for a comprehensive global solution. The Preamble and Articles 10 and 14 of the Basel Convention do recognize the need for establishing regional and sub-regional technology transfer centers for the management and minimization of hazardous waste, but the obligation is completely voluntary on signatory countries.

Fulfilling the voluntary obligation to share technology on waste management will be rather difficult since demanufacturing is emerging as a competitive for-profit industry in OECD countries. One solution may be to encourage FDI in this sector as some Japanese demanufacturers, with assistance from the Japanese Environment Ministry, are already trying to break into the emerging market recycling sector. Unfortunately, while some countries may welcome FDI in demanufacturing others will feel domestic pressure to limit competition. UN agencies (e.g. UNESCAP’s Asia Pacific Center for Transfer of Technology) may be able to facilitate some technology transfer. Ultimately, however, I think non-governmental organizations and Western research universities — which are already established sites of international technology and norm transfer — will need to play a pivotal role in creating and disseminating techniques and norms. Thus, the first step is to introduce the concepts associated with demanufacturing in the university curriculum from economics and international relations to chemistry and biology…


Too many bodies? Communicating the population question

The question of human over-population of our planet seems to resurface every few decades, driven by fears that there are too many people to feed, clothe and shelter, or that the sheer volume of human beings working, travelling and polluting is causing environmental damage. But the persuasiveness of such claims is weakened empirically and normatively. In terms of facts, it does not help the over-population claimants that every time the population question is raised, humanity seems to deal with the problem. People do find food, clothing and shelter. And in terms of values, the notion of limiting or reducing the number of human beings appears a slippery slope to calls for coercion and perhaps eugenics in the name of ‘the greater good’. But in 2010 the question is being asked again.

At Royal Holloway last night, Professor Diana Coole presented early analyses from her new three year project, Too many bodies? The politics and ethics of the world population question. She is interested in why the question is re-emerging now and why it is in developed countries that calls are loudest for something to be done, according to her analysis of media and policy documents. Size of world population seems to have causal links to the development of climate change, water and food security, managing waste, and preserving diversity. The Royal Society’s working group People on the Planet raises this explicitly, as did the Stern Report – though neither recommended any proposals to intervene in human population numbers. As Coole argued, the tools we have for managing demography – fertility, mortality and migration – are all political minefields. Governments quietly manage birthrates through tax and welfare regimes and campaigns on family planning, but few policymakers in liberal democracies would explicitly institute a one-child or two-child policy for families.
It is interesting that Coole, a critical theorist in the continental tradition, should be asking why the population question remains a taboo. Materiality, vital matter, the non-human and post-human futures have all been on the critical theory agenda recently, in IR and more broadly. People are not the only things that matter. This scholarly focus parallels public-political claims for ‘sustainability’ in which the maintenance of ecosystems are considered more pressing than the continuation of humanity and certainly more pressing than economic growth. Might it be that a new strategic narrative will be formed and brought to bear on policy, a ‘smaller, better humanity’ narrative? Population projection statistics are ambiguous and can easily be used to support Malthusian stories. And Coole’s project may unpick the factual and normative discourses that silence talk of the population question, so that the better-smaller narrative — if that is what is being formulated — can be heard.

(Cross-posted from https://newpolcom.rhul.ac.uk/npcu-blog/)


Wal-mart Isn’t Green

Monday, Steve Walt posted about the environment, drawing reader attention to several corporate efforts to make themselves greener. When I read those kinds of items, I always suspect “greenwashing.”

Actually, to be fair, Walt noted that Jared Diamond wrote about these business initiatives in the NY Times. This one caught my eye:

Walmart is working to reduce its energy expenditures because energy (e.g., fuel for delivery trucks) is expensive;

Environmentalists frequently point out that Wal-mart’s alleged energy savings are designed only to save the company money. Consumers (more and more all the time) have to drive great distances to get to Wal-mart and thus more than make up for whatever conservation the company achieves.

Moreover, as I noted in mid-October, Wal-mart has essentially outsourced serious environmental costs to China. The company’s world buying headquarters is in Shenzhen, an industrial city of more than 10 million people that is part of a “special economic zone” in China. As a result of lax environmental standards, the United Nations Environment Programme reported in 2007 that Shenzhen is heading for ecological disaster.

Wal-mart’s business practices (including its low prices) have serious adverse ecological consequences that cannot be readily countered with corporate cost-cutting measures that also happen to save energy.


Desertification between the rivers

The Iraqi people have suffered tremendously this decade — and are apparently suffering even more this summer. The LA Times is reporting today that Iraq’s latest calamity is an “environmental catastrophe.”

Decades of war and mismanagement, compounded by two years of drought, are wreaking havoc on Iraq’s ecosystem, drying up riverbeds and marshes, turning arable land into desert, killing trees and plants, and generally transforming what was once the region’s most fertile area into a wasteland.

Falling agricultural production means that Iraq, once a food exporter, will this year have to import nearly 80% of its food, spending money that is urgently needed for reconstruction projects.

“We’re talking about something that’s making the breadbasket of Iraq look like the Dust Bowl of Oklahoma in the early part of the 20th century,” said Adam L. Silverman, a social scientist with the U.S. military who served south of Baghdad in 2008.

While most Americans probably think of Iraq as a desert, much of Iraq was previously known as Mesopotamia, which literally means “land between the rivers.”

Indeed, the Iraqi area between the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers used to feed much of the Middle East. No more.

[Iraq’s] Agriculture Ministry estimates that 90% of the land is either desert or suffering from severe desertification, and that the remaining arable land is being eroded at the rate of 5% a year, said Fadhil Faraji, director-general of the ministry’s Department for Combating Desertification.

Some of the environmental damage to Iraq was the fault of Saddam Hussein, and much of the damage has accrued over a 10 to 20 year period. That doesn’t make the damage to Iraq’s marshes, for example, any less devastating:

“We’re talking about an area about the size of Lake Ontario that has been reduced to about a tenth of its original size,” says Dr. [Barry] Warner [of University of Waterloo]. “So, if you can imagine Lake Ontario disappearing, that’s essentially what has happened to the marshes in southern Iraq.”

Nor does this history of mismanagement relieve the U.S. of its responsibilities here.

In IR, much of the research on ecology and security has focused on the possibility that “environmental scarcities” contribute to the outbreak of violent conflict. It would appear as if additional research should focus on the environmental harm of war itself — and the difficulty of making critical green choices in a war context.


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