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Opinion Why we need a ‘long telegram’ about the climate crisis — not conflict with China or Russia

President Biden at the COP26 Climate Change Conference in Glasgow, Scotland, on Nov. 2. (Brendan Smialowski/AFP via Getty Images)
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President Biden has repeatedly and rightly called climate change an “existential threat.” The White House, the Pentagon and the intelligence community have all issued reports detailing climate change’s “threat multiplier,” which will worsen food and water scarcity, spread diseases, destabilize countries, and exacerbate mass migration. Most Americans increasingly understand that the threat is critical — and getting worse.

Yet, despite some progress, the United Nations climate summit in Glasgow, Scotland — which U.S. special climate envoy John F. Kerry dubbed the world’s “last best hope” to avoid disaster — will end this week in disappointment. With China and Russia absent and refusing to accelerate their plans on greenhouse gas emission reductions, the goal of preventing temperature rises beyond 1.5 degrees Celsius becomes ever more fanciful. That condemns the world to deadlier heat waves, more destructive floods, more frequent wildfires and more cataclysmic weather.

To his credit, Biden has insisted that climate be one of the security priorities of his administration, and his Build Back Better plan — even in its reduced state — contains the government’s largest climate investment ever. And yet, the administration has not begun the necessary rethinking — and reprioritizing — needed to address our most pressing national security challenge.

The Biden White House’s first priority, as the Council on Foreign Relations’s Richard Haass noted, has been gearing up for the emerging great-power faceoff with China and Russia. In fact, as the Quincy Institute’s Anatol Lieven writes in an important new report, climate change has already wreaked greater destruction, economic disruption, loss of life and property on Americans than anything threatened by China and Russia could do short of a major war.

In December, for example, Biden will convene his Summit for Democracy, gathering democratic countries to take on the threat to democracy posed by the spread of authoritarianism. But surely any response to authoritarianism would focus on climate-caused dislocation, which already displaced an average of more than 21 million people each year between 2008 and 2016. An estimated 143 million people from vulnerable countries in sub-Saharan Africa, South Asia and Latin America will be forced to move by the middle of the century. That will undoubtedly test the resilience of democracies in those regions. And while most of this movement is likely to be internal, the flood of immigrants to Europe and the United States already has strengthened xenophobic sentiment — a boon to would-be authoritarians in those regions.

To help meet the security threats of climate change, the United States obviously needs to accelerate its own plans to reduce carbon emissions. But more is required. One reform would be a massive reorientation of federal spending toward research and development on alternative energy and on new technologies to bolster resilience. As Adam Tooze points out, citing the American Association for the Advancement of Science, spending on military research and development reached $73 billion in 2020 — 20 times the government’s spending on energy research. Even if Biden’s Build Back Better plan passes, military research and development will still be 10 times larger than spending on energy research.

A second major initiative should be to focus U.S. aid programs much more on supplying aid and help with adaptation and resilience to vulnerable countries — particularly Mexico and in Central America — to save lives and limit economic calamities. Lieven suggests that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers should be “established as the most important and best-funded section of the armed forces.”

A third major area of rethinking has to address the emerging face-off with China. Biden has embraced President Donald Trump’s elevation of the great-power rivalry with Beijing. But the two countries were responsible for more than 40 percent of the world’s total fossil-fuel consumption last year. The Biden administration argues that it can ratchet up pressure on China even while cooperating on climate concerns. Beijing, however, has made it clear that climate cannot be an “oasis” of cooperation in a desert of tensions. Michael Klare, defense correspondent for the Nation, concludes that “if the planet’s two ‘great’ powers refuse to cooperate in a meaningful way in tackling the climate threat, we’re done for.”

The priority for the safety of Americans — and for the rest of the world — is that the two countries join in leading the world to address the growing climate crisis. Chinese human rights abuses are deplorable; its continued economic piracy deeply troubling; its growing menace in the South China Sea foreboding. But none of these come close to the imperative of cooperating on climate.

George Kennan’s famous “long telegram” outlined the strategy of containment at the start of the Cold War with Russia. The establishment Atlantic Council think tank has issued a new version — a “longer telegram” — to outline a confrontation with China. What’s needed, however, is a long telegram to lay out the strategy for engaging China and Russia in facing the real and growing climate threat. If we don’t find a way to join in addressing it, the basic duty of the state — to defend the security of its citizens — will have been forfeited.