Wednesday, September 4, 2019

Climate Intervention - How Far Will Governments Go?

Updated March 2021

The concept of global climate change is proving to be one of the most divisive issues in recent memory (outside of America's growing political polarization).  A 2019 article entitled "Who Will Save the Amazon (and How)?" by Stephen M. Walt on the Foreign Policy website provides us with a very interesting scenario of how the world's major powers may intervene to stop climate change by means that most of us have not considered.

Let's look at some background to set the stage for this posting.  At a 2019 G7 meeting, the leaders of some of the world's most influential nations agreed to donate funds to help Brazil fight the massive fire situation in the Amazon.  As you can see on these graphics from NASA, the number of fires then burning in the Brazilian Amazon were at higher levels than in the past decade:

1.) Number of fires:

2.) Intensity of fires:

Here is a map from the MODIS instrument on NASA's Terra satellite which shows the incidence of fires in the Amazonian region of South America:

Shortly after the G7 leaders (other than Donald Trump) made their pledge to assist Brazil, Brazil's President Jair Bolsonaro rejected the offer and then stated that he was ready to discuss the issue if French President Emmanuel Macron removed his insults against him.

With this background, let's take a look at the 2019 article by Stephen Walt that appeared on the Foreign Policy website.  Here are the opening sentences which outline a potential scenario:

"Aug. 5, 2025: In a televised address to the nation, U.S. President Gavin Newsom announced that he had given Brazil a one-week ultimatum to cease destructive deforestation activities in the Amazon rainforest. If Brazil did not comply, the president warned, he would order a naval blockade of Brazilian ports and airstrikes against critical Brazilian infrastructure. The president’s decision came in the aftermath of a new United Nations report cataloging the catastrophic global effects of continued rainforest destruction, which warned of a critical “tipping point” that, if reached, would trigger a rapid acceleration of global warming."

The author notes that the scenario is "far-fetched" but then goes on to ask if nations have the right or obligation to intervene in a foreign nation in order to prevent it from causing catastrophic harm to the environment.  He also poses this question specifically about Brazil:

"What should (or must) the international community do to prevent a misguided Brazilian president (or political leaders in other countries) from taking actions that could harm all of us?"

The author continues with a discussion of state sovereignty, how it is a critical element of the current world order but that the rights of sovereignty have been chipped away over the years, an issue that is becoming clearly apparent in the current global reality where the United States government attempts to inflict its will on other nations by imposing sanctions against certain pariah nations which are to be heeded by all other nations.

Let's go back to the concept of state sovereignty and the environment.  In a 2010 paper, Lorraine Elliot looks at the possibility of using the United Nations as an "enforcer" when it comes to threats of environmental degradation.  In a 2015 paper entitled "Coercing Climate Change" by Bruce Gilley and David Kinsella, the authors state the following:

"The seriousness of the threat from climate change, and the elusiveness of cooperative solutions, predictably raises questions about the use of force to prevent it. International environmental politics has not been immune to the broader post-Cold War shift towards intervention to deal with domestic governance failures. The notion of ‘green militarisation’ has been raised in the context of a variety of environmental challenges, especially conservation.  The use of military surveillance technologies, such as drones and remote-sensing equipment, to identify environmental threats has led naturally to thinking in terms of militarised responses.   Some analysts argue that coercion is likely to be used mainly for short-term adaptation rather than long-term mitigation, and thus it is better to focus on cooperative approaches centred on risk, rather than coercive approaches centred on security.  But coercion could be a viable mitigation measure as well, an effective tool to reduce emissions by raising the short-term costs.

Scholars have given some attention to the ethics of the use of coercion to arrest climate change. Robyn Eckersley, for instance, argues that the protection of the environment is a matter of common concern that should trump states’ rights in extreme cases.  However, this would be limited to non-military intervention, in the form of trade sanctions, ‘green conditionality’ attached to loans, or ‘ecological peacekeeping’ forces requested by host nations." (my bold)

This begs the question; how far will governments be willing to go before they take action to prevent environmental crises?  The only thing working in the favour of a nation like Brazil remaining free of state-sanctioned actions for its environmental record is the fact that the United States, a nation that regularly uses sanctions to punish other nations, is a major source of global greenhouse gas emissions as shown here:

But then again, when it comes to Washington, it seems that it is always a case of the pot calling the kettle black.

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