Today's date:
Summer 2008

The Rise of the Rest Warms the Planet

Tokyo — America's post-World War II commitment to universal rules of openness has spread economic gains far and wide, enabling new prosperity on a global scale. It is this American-forged stable world order that has led to what Fareed Zakaria refers to as "the third great powershift" in the last 500 years: the "rise of the rest," which follows on the rise of the West and the rise of the United States as the dominant Western power. It is indeed a remarkable legacy of American hegemony that China, India and others are rising, or arising anew, without the pillage, plunder and war associated with the emergent great power experiences of the past.

Yet, a certain plunder—of nature—has nonetheless taken place during the half-millenia reign of the West, now joined by the rest, which has coincided for half of that era with the global spread of industrialization that is warming the planet to the "tipping point" of climate change. What worries the most far-sighted scientists, such as Stephen Hawking, is that, having become masters of our economic fate, we now risk losing control of the climate as temperature increases become self-sustaining.

"Drought and deforestation are reducing the amount of carbon dioxide recycled into the atmosphere," he eerily warned through his robotic voice device in the recent documentary, The 11th Hour. Then, "warming of the seas may trigger the release of large quantities of C02 trapped on the ocean floor. The melting of the ice sheets will reduce the amount of solar energy reflected back into space and so increase temperatures further. We don't know where it will stop. The worst-case scenario is that Earth would become like its sister planet, Venus, with a temperature of 250 degrees Celsius, and raining sulfuric acid. The human race could not survive in those conditions."

The challenge now is whether the stable international order that gave birth to globalization will also be able to curb all that carbon exhaust which is de-stabilizing the climate. That order is now being tested.

Japan, the first Asian nation to industrialize, is showing the way forward in meeting this challenge. Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda's announcement that Japan would cut carbon emissions by 60 to 80 percent by 2050 set a serious tone for the G-8 summit at Lake Toya, Japan last July. Even though real action was stymied in the lame duck days of the Bush administration, Japan's leadership sent a signal to the world that the rich industrialized countries—whose emissions accumulated the "stock" of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere that are causing global warming—accept their responsibility. This is the precondition required for developing countries like China and India —responsible for massive new "flows" of industrial exhaust—to join any common global program beyond the Kyoto Protocol to stem climate change.

The G-8 "green" summit in Japan came as major economic and geopolitical shifts in the world were underway.

Unlike past oil shocks, this current bout of price increases is here to stay. The long-term demand trend for oil is ever upward because of rapid growth of India, China and the "rising rest" as supply diminishes. Though there will be dips, the price of oil is not likely to go down, only up. And up.

The next American president, whether Barack Obama or John McCain, will embrace the spirit of Kyoto, if not the actual protocol. Both of them have made this clear in their campaigns. Bringing the US into the game will lead ultimately to a global grand bargain in which the main emitters, China as well as the US, agree to curb emissions. In exchange, the rich countries will agree to the transfer of clean technology to the rising "flow" countries.

Japan is uniquely positioned to take advantage of this shift. While the world has been focused on the miracle of Chinese growth, the war in Iraq and terrorism, Japan has been engaging in a quiet revolution. It has become the incubator of the energy-efficient technologies of the future.

Japan is the leading manufacturer and exporter of hybrid cars, most famously the Toyota Prius, which is selling like hotcakes in the US. Honda has developed a hydrogen fuel cell car that is being prepared for mass production. Komatsu has just produced the world's first-ever hybrid heavy machinery, a 20-ton excavator used in construction sites all across Asia.

Japan is responsible for 50 percent of the world's solar power energy production. Japan uses 20 percent less energy to produce a ton of steel than the US; 50 percent less than China. Innovations abound from capturing "ice energy" to more energy-efficient plasma screens. Indeed, the facility that housed the media at the Lake Toya summit was cooled by snow stored in thermal insulation instead of by air conditioning.

Though it has dynamic software and biotech sectors, America has been moving toward a largely financial economy, exemplified by the sub-prime mortgage crisis. Japan, by contrast, has retained the very manufacturing and engineering prowess the world needs to face the daunting challenge of climate change.

This fits Japan's historical profile well. Going back centuries, it has had something of a green identity. As Takeshi Umehara , the great Japanese anthropologist, has noted, the Shinto religion, in which man is not considered apart from nature, emerged from ancient Japan's "civilization of the forest."

In the 17th century, as Jared Diamond points out in his seminal book, Collapse, the Tokugawa shogunate reforested Japan, denuded by development, and saved it from the kind of ecological catastrophe that struck the Mayans. Though one of the most densely populated countries in the world, 70 percent of Japan today is covered by healthy forests.

And, of course, the namesake of the very protocol that is the first global effort to come to grips with climate change is Japan's old capital, Kyoto.

Beneath the surface of Japan's faddish consumer society, the frugal culture of an island nation that must husband limited resources still lives. Today, we realize that the Earth itself is an island. Taking Japan's lead, the whole planet would be wise to adopt that frugal sensibility, living intelligently instead of wastefully.

If that ethos can be integrated into the present international order the "rise of the rest" can be achieved at a price that doesn't undermine the sustainability of global civilization itself.

Nathan Gardels, editor