Proponents argue that climate change is such an existential threat that it should be prioritized and dwarf everything else. Stewart Patrick made this case in the latest issue of Foreign Affairs: “The natural world obeys no sovereign boundaries, and neither does the worsening ecological crisis. It is time to take bold steps to overcome the disconnect between an international system divided into 195 independent countries. … It is time to govern the world as if the earth mattered. What the world needs is a paradigm shift in U.S. foreign policy.”
Over the weekend Anne-Marie Slaughter made a similar case in the New York Times: “What difference does it make whether the United States ‘beats China’ if our cities are underwater, the Gulf Stream stops warming northern Europe and the United States, and hundreds of millions of climate refugees are on the move? If we destroy the biodiversity on the planet? If millions more people die from serial pandemics?”
So what is to be done? Both authors suggest a new kind of statecraft that prioritizes these systemic threats over traditional great power politics. Patrick calls for a “new planetary politics.” Cheekily calling her approach “globalism,” Slaughter concludes, “Bolder thinking is required, thinking that shifts away from states, whether great powers or lesser powers, democracies or autocracies. It is time to put people first.”
As someone who has been thinking and teaching about the end of the world for a spell now, I can sympathize with this approach. There are a lot of ways that the sixth extinction can happen, but climate change seems like the one with the greatest likelihood of happening. It makes sense, on an existential level, to prioritize that above all else.
Both authors also make some suggestions that are doable. Patrick urges the United States to follow the lead of more than 85 countries and adopt a “natural capital account” rubric to properly price damage to our biosphere. Slaughter advocates for prestige competitions as a means of goading China and other climate laggards into more concerted action. Such prestige competitions can lead to a considerable expenditure of resources.
Such a rethink would have massive implications for international relations and the allocation of national security resources. Both writers are suggesting an unusual doctrine of preemption. Patrick argues that traditional sovereignty norms would have to fall by the wayside if, say, one national leader was copacetic with destroying its rainforest. Slaughter tacks in a different direction, urging an end to traditional geopolitics.
Climate change is the most serious existential threat to our way of life — but does not mean it is the only threat. A lot is happening in the world, and some of those things can lead to short-term outcomes that are far worse than climate change.
Just because something is difficult doesn’t mean it is not worth doing. But it is hard to look at a divided country and a national security infrastructure geared toward state-based threats and believe that there can be a sustainable reallocation of resources to combat these kind of systemic threats (there is also the difficulty of repurposing military means to solve a nonmilitary problem).
Taken to its logical extreme, this grand strategy would not just ignore sovereign borders. It would also push aside any pesky legal constraints on domestic action, like a certain senator from West Virginia vetoing steps to replace coal with alternative energy. That way lies untrammeled executive power.
Patrick and Slaughter are trying to start a conversation. Maybe securitizing global warming will change some minds in the national security space. Before the United States can pursue a grand strategy abroad, however, there needs to be a stronger consensus at home that something must be done. And as Krebs, Schweller and I noted last year, that conversation will be fantastically difficult.