Why Not Preempt Global Warming?
In September 2001, the usually critical French newspaper,
Le Monde, exemplified the global mood of sympathy with victims of the
terror attacks in America with the headline, "We are all Americans."
Only a year later the most respected living statesmen, Nelson Mandela,
felt compelled to remark that "America is a threat to world peace."
What changed in the year after 9-11 was the Bush administration's extension
of the war on terror from al-Qaeda and the Taliban to a broader "axis
of evil," including a call for regime change in Iraq-all justified
by a new doctrine arrogating to the US the right of "preemptive"
or anticipatory self-defense against threats it alone defined.
Though preemption against hostile states developing weapons of mass destruction
that might be used by terrorists is eminently sensible, the strong unilateralist
tenor of the new American approach was coupled with a pointed rejection
of the Kyoto Protocol and the establishment of an International Criminal
Court. Though a legitimate case can be made about the flaws of either
treaty, the administration seemed to go out of its way, in particular,
to not only reject any action on climate change, but to diminish the threat
of global warming itself.
Suddenly, it seemed as if the sole superpower had defected from the process
of defining the new rules that would govern globalization, which it had
largely spawned after the end of the Cold War. It would act in its own
interest from now on, and that was that.
Not quite. The phantom "international community" so easily discarded
in the Bush calculations, has turned out to be real, materializing before
our eyes to check the new American posture. In the end, any military action
against Iraq to make the world safe from terrorism had to be legtimated
by the only global institution available, the United Nations.
Thus, paradoxically, by pushing for preemptive military action in the
name of national self-defense, the US has forced a new post-Westphalian
definition of the limits of sovereignty when facing the new cross-border
threats of the 21st century. And those threats include not only terrorism,
but climate change as well.
To be sure, the European embrace of international law without the backdrop
of military might is dangerously naive in a world where Islamic militants
so hate the West they will crash planes into buildings and slash off the
heads of journalists; a world where states sympathetic to the terrorist
agenda are pursuing weapons of mass destruction. Not to act preemptively
against this threat is to acquiesce in its realization. As the bumper
sticker says, "if you are not alarmed, you're not paying attention."
To be consistent, however, the US must also join the Europeans and others
in applying the same logic to global warming. Like future terrorist acts,
we can't be absolutely certain what will happen, but all the signs are
there. There is a lot of "chatter" that scientists are picking
up. Rather than wait until it is too late-when floods, droughts, rising
sea levels, melted glaciers and new diseases abound-why not take the wise
course and preempt that possibility by acting now to curb carbon emissions,
just as we are acting now to keep nuclear weapons out of the hands of
terrorists? Like military preemption in the war on terror, the responsible
thing to do is try to prevent the worst from happening even if all the
evidence is not in. We know enough to know that if we ignore the issue,
it is at our own peril.
What Nelson Mandela and others worry about is the sole superpower going
its own way in a demonstrably interdependent world without taking into
account the interests of others. Joining the effort to preempt climate
change would take the US a long way toward refuting this worry, also buying
good will if it does have to act unilaterally in the fight against anti-American
terrorism. In a mirror image of the Le Monde headline, the new US posture
would say, in effect, "Americans also belong to the world."
Whether the Bush administration comes to this view or not, its new preemptive
doctrine has already galvanized the international community, inadvertently
providing a rule book and a logic for multilateral action on other cross-border
threats, including climate change.
Nathan Gardels, editor, NPQ
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