Today's date:
Winter 2008

Why Not Preempt Global Warming?

Fall 2002

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 statesman, Nelson Mandela, felt compelled to remark that " America is a threat to world peace." What changed?

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 United States 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 calculation, 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.