Not waiting to act until it’s too late: the foreign policy and climate change imperative

June 19, 2014

Henry Kissinger

Commentary

In a column Wednesday, David Ignatius referred to Henry Kissinger’s model of statecraft from his 1957 book, A World Restored. The model had nothing to do with climate change, but viewed from within that framework, it hits the mark on how to move ahead.

To quote Kissinger from 1957: “Nations learn only by experience they ‘know’ only when it’s too late to act”. Then and now this dynamic is self-evident. By way of example, consider the failure to address known vulnerabilities/threats of New Orleans to flooding only after Hurricane Katrina (among many others).

It’s for this reason among several others, Vox’s Ezra Klein writes the U.S. is destined to fail on climate change.

“The structure of the problem doesn’t mesh well with the strengths of the American political system,” Klein says. “Major policy changes tends to happen in American politics when the pain of inaction dwarfs the pain of action at that moment.”

But Kissinger challenges policy leaders to be more ambitious, to think outside the box of the present:  “…statesmen must act ‘as if’ their intuition were already experience, as if their aspirations were truth”.

There is science-based consensus we are witnessing the impacts of climate change now and that it will continue in some manner with consequential impacts to society. However, there is less certainty (but more than intuition) on its longer (more than 30 years into the future) term evolution under varying scenarios.  Personally and with good reason, I do not believe any existing model is able to reliably provide guidance on the range and probabilities of all possibilities.

These uncertainties have been used as a weapon by opponents to action, but – in reality – statesmen have a responsibility to act in their face to lower the risk of unwelcome consequences.

Opposition to change can be strident. With reference to addressing the chaotic and violent divisions in the Middle East, Ignatius lays out a path forward but with modest expectations: “…an action plan could probably do no more than establish cease-fire lines, aid refugees and empower Sunni moderates against the toxic power of the al-Qaeda offshoot known as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria,” he writes.

Applied to climate change, a beginning step might be to draw cease fire lines between the large majority of science/political/populace “believers” and the politically-motivated minority who refuse to even consider evidence climate change is a threat. But let’s face it, that’s not likely.

What then? In the Middle East, Ignatius says the aim of his action plan would be to exclude the extremists, not enfranchise them.  In others words, ignore the opposition and proceed with allies in any way possible to confront the problem.

We should move forward on climate change in this way.

There is no guarantee this approach will meaningfully mitigate the  problem, but it can serve as motivation by example for other countries to get on board – at least in the spirit of not reliving the numerous historical precedents for not acting before it’s too late.

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Jason Samenow · June 19, 2014