Climate change as national interest

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While the theoretical possibility of a global pandemic was well recognised, and the world had also recently seen major disease outbreaks such as SARS and Ebola, the coronavirus pandemic seems to have caught everyone off guard. Covid-19 has demonstrated to us the suddenness with which an unprecedented global crisis can alter our lives. Yet, there is an even bigger global threat brewing which is still not getting the attention it deserves. This other crisis with the potential to cause bigger and more longstanding adverse impacts on our lives is the threat of climate change.

Climate change has the potential to cause havoc on the economy, on the lives of ordinary people, and on our natural environment, and unless more drastic steps are taken by those in power, the already emerging adverse impacts of climate change will become much worse.

A few years ago, the US Department of Defense termed climate change a “threat multiplier”, pointing out how climate change and its impacts can aggravate pre-existing frictions within and across countries. Consider, for instance, the fear of increased conflict between water-sharing countries like Bangladesh, India and Pakistan, which can become untenable due to the Himalayan glacial melt.

Climate change is already causing massive internal and cross-border migrations, which can worsen as droughts and flood conditions become more frequent and severe. In the restive Indian state of Assam, the resentment against ‘Bengali’ migrants (who fled the 1971 war) has long been a source of contention, and the increased flow of Bengali climate refugees could stoke further tensions.

Yet, security analysts and strategists in most parts of the world are still neglecting climate change as they continue to primarily focus on traditional and ultimately less serious threats. Such antiquated strategic thinking is neglecting the potential of climate change to threaten the very survival of many nation states in their current form.

Given this scenario, it was interesting to see Anatol Lieven’s (author of Pakistan: A Hard Country ) new book, Climate Change and the Nation State: A Realist Case. In it, he has redefined the idea of contending with climate change through nationalism.

Lieven argues that nationalism is a very important and potent force to legitimise the hard steps that need to be taken to limit climate change and contend with the effects of needed policies.

On the other hand, he is also critical of the unsustainability of rampant market capitalism and shortsightedness of our economists who discount the future of future generations in favour of unbridled growth.

While Lieven recognises that the left understands the seriousness of the emergency, he thinks that leftists lack a vision for social transformation needed to contend with the implied challenges. He does not place much faith in environmentalists either, dismissing their utopian political views, and their advancement of divisive cultural agendas. He also dismisses support for open borders as empty cosmopolitanism which he thinks is unrealistic to achieve. Lieven points out how an ineffectual “rainbow coalition” of varied minorities has antagonised the white, male working class in powerful Western countries.

Instead, Lieven supports plans for a ‘Green New Deal’ in the US and Europe. His analysis is not confined to what Western countries need to do alone. For instance, he recently commented how it is unwise for Pakistan to focus on polluting oil and gas projects to meet its energy needs instead of investing in green technologies.

Lieven’s skepticism of the left and civil society is not flawless. Conversely, the faith he places in the restitutive power of Western democracy may also be rose-tinted. However, he does provide an alternative narrative which aims to harness realpolitik compulsions, and the idea of nationalism itself, to address climate threats instead of focusing on narrowly defined national interests, which have caused significant global disparities and instability.

Published in The Express Tribune, September 5th, 2020.

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