Michael T. Klare – Informed Comment https://www.juancole.com Thoughts on the Middle East, History and Religion Thu, 17 Aug 2023 22:20:46 +0000 en-US hourly 1 https://wordpress.org/?v=5.7.9 Collapse 2.0: What a 2005 Bestseller Tells us about Climate Change and Human Survival https://www.juancole.com/2023/08/collapse-bestseller-survival.html Fri, 18 Aug 2023 04:02:04 +0000 https://www.juancole.com/?p=213910 ( Tomdispatch.com ) – Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed, geographer Jared Diamond focused on past civilizations that confronted severe climate shocks, either adapting and surviving or failing to adapt and disintegrating. Among those were the Puebloan culture of Chaco Canyon, New Mexico, the ancient Mayan civilization of Mesoamerica, and the Viking settlers of Greenland. Such societies, having achieved great success, imploded when their governing elites failed to adopt new survival mechanisms to face radically changing climate conditions.

Bear in mind that, for their time and place, the societies Diamond studied supported large, sophisticated populations. Pueblo Bonito, a six-story structure in Chaco Canyon, contained up to 600 rooms, making it the largest building in North America until the first skyscrapers rose in New York some 800 years later. Mayan civilization is believed to have supported a population of more than 10 million people at its peak between 250 and 900 A.D., while the Norse Greenlanders established a distinctively European society around 1000 A.D. in the middle of a frozen wasteland. Still, in the end, each collapsed utterly and their inhabitants either died of starvation, slaughtered each other, or migrated elsewhere, leaving nothing but ruins behind.

The question today is: Will our own elites perform any better than the rulers of Chaco Canyon, the Mayan heartland, and Viking Greenland?

As Diamond argues, each of those civilizations arose in a period of relatively benign climate conditions, when temperatures were moderate and food and water supplies adequate. In each case, however, the climate shifted wrenchingly, bringing persistent drought or, in Greenland’s case, much colder temperatures. Although no contemporary written records remain to tell us how the ruling elites responded, the archaeological evidence suggests that they persisted in their traditional ways until disintegration became unavoidable.

These historical examples of social disintegration spurred lively discussion among my students when, as a professor at Hampshire College, I regularly assigned Collapse as a required text. Even then, a decade ago, many of them suggested that we were beginning to face severe climate challenges akin to those encountered by earlier societies — and that our contemporary civilization also risked collapse if we failed to take adequate measures to slow global warming and adapt to its inescapable consequences.

But in those discussions (which continued until I retired from teaching in 2018), our analyses seemed entirely theoretical: Yes, contemporary civilization might collapse, but if so, not any time soon. Five years later, it’s increasingly difficult to support such a relatively optimistic outlook. Not only does the collapse of modern industrial civilization appear ever more likely, but the process already seems underway.

Precursors of Collapse

When do we know that a civilization is on the verge of collapse? In his now almost 20-year-old classic, Diamond identified three key indicators or precursors of imminent dissolution: a persistent pattern of environmental change for the worse like long-lasting droughts; signs that existing modes of agriculture or industrial production were aggravating the crisis; and an elite failure to abandon harmful practices and adopt new means of production. At some point, a critical threshold is crossed and collapse invariably follows.

Today, it’s hard to avoid indications that all three of those thresholds are being crossed.

To begin with, on a planetary basis, the environmental impacts of climate change are now unavoidable and worsening by the year. To take just one among innumerable global examples, the drought afflicting the American West has now persisted for more than two decades, leading scientists to label it a “megadrought” exceeding all recorded regional dry spells in breadth and severity. As of August 2021, 99% of the United States west of the Rockies was in drought, something for which there is no modern precedent. The recent record heat waves in the region have only emphasized this grim reality.

The American West’s megadrought has been accompanied by another indicator of abiding environmental change: the steady decline in the volume of the Colorado River, the region’s most important source of water. The Colorado River Basin supplies drinking water to more than 40 million people in the United States and, according to economists at the University of Arizona, it’s crucial to $1.4 trillion of the U.S. economy. All of that is now at severe risk due to increased temperatures and diminished precipitation. The volume of the Colorado is almost 20% below what it was when this century began and, as global temperatures continue to rise, that decline is likely to worsen.

The most recent report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change offers many examples of such negative climate alterations globally (as do the latest headlines). It’s obvious, in fact, that climate change is permanently altering our environment in an ever more disastrous fashion.

It’s also evident that Diamond’s second precursor to collapse, the refusal to alter agricultural and industrial methods of production which only aggravate or — in the case of fossil-fuel consumption — simply cause the crisis, is growing ever more obvious. At the top of any list would be a continuing reliance on oil, coal, and natural gas, the leading sources of the greenhouse gases (GHGs) now overheating our atmosphere and oceans. Despite all the scientific evidence linking fossil-fuel combustion to global warming and the promises of governing elites to reduce the consumption of those fuels — for example, under the Paris Climate Agreement of 2015 — their use continues to grow.

According to a 2022 report produced by the International Energy Agency (IEA), global oil consumption, given current government policies, will rise from 94 million barrels per day in 2021 to an estimated 102 million barrels by 2030 and then remain at or near that level until 2050. Coal consumption, though expected to decline after 2030, is still rising in some areas of the world. The demand for natural gas (only recently found to be dirtier than previously imagined) is projected to exceed 2020 levels in 2050.

The same 2022 IEA report indicates that energy-related emissions of carbon dioxide — the leading component of greenhouse gases — will climb from 19.5 billion metric tons in 2020 to an estimated 21.6 billion tons in 2030 and remain at about that level until 2050. Emissions of methane, another leading GHG component, will continue to rise, thanks to the increased production of natural gas.

Not surprisingly, climate experts now predict that average world temperatures will soon surpass 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit) above the pre-industrial level — the maximum amount they believe the planet can absorb without experiencing irreversible, catastrophic consequences, including the dying out of the Amazon and the melting of the Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets (with an accompanying rise in sea levels of one meter or more).

There are many other ways in which societies are now perpetuating behavior that will endanger the survival of civilization, including the devotion of ever more resources to industrial-scale beef production. That practice consumes vast amounts of land, water, and grains that could be better devoted to less profligate vegetable production. Similarly, many governments continue to facilitate the large-scale production of water-intensive crops through extensive irrigation schemes, despite the evident decline in global water supplies that is already producing widespread shortages of drinking water in places like Iran.

Finally, today’s powerful elites are choosing to perpetuate practices known to accelerate climate change and global devastation. Among the most egregious, the decision of top executives of the ExxonMobil Corporation — the world’s largest and wealthiest privately-owned oil company — to continue pumping oil and gas for endless decades after their scientists warned them about the risks of global warming and affirmed that Exxon’s operations would only amplify them. As early as the 1970s, Exxon’s scientists predicted that the firm’s fossil-fuel products could lead to global warming with “dramatic environmental effects before the year 2050.” Yet, as has been well documented, Exxon officials responded by investing company funds in casting doubt on climate change research, even financing think tanks focused on climate denialism. Had they instead broadcast their scientists’ findings and worked to speed the transition to alternative fuels, the world would be in a far less precarious position today.

Or consider China’s decision, even as it was working to develop alternative energy sources, to increase its combustion of coal — the most carbon-intense of all fossil fuels — in order to keep factories and air conditioners humming during periods of increasingly extreme heat.

All such decisions have ensured that future floods, fires, droughts, heatwaves, you name it, will be more intense and prolonged. In other words, the precursors to civilizational collapse and the disintegration of modern industrial society as we know it — not to speak of the possible deaths of millions of us — are already evident. Worse yet, numerous events this very summer suggest that we are witnessing the first stages of just such a collapse.

The Apocalyptic Summer of ‘23

July 2023 has already been declared the hottest month ever recorded and the entire year is also likely to go down as the hottest ever. Unusually high temperatures globally are responsible for a host of heat-related deaths across the planet. For many of us, the relentless baking will be remembered as the most distinctive feature of the summer of ’23. But other climate impacts offer their own intimations of an approaching Jared Diamond-style collapse. To me, two ongoing events fit that category in a striking fashion.

The fires in Canada: As of August 2nd, months after they first erupted into flame, there were still 225 major uncontrolled wildfires and another 430 under some degree of control but still burning across the country. At one point, the figure was more than 1,000 fires! To date, they have burned some 32.4 million acres of Canadian woodland, or 50,625 square miles — an area the size of the state of Alabama. Such staggering fires, largely attributed to the effects of climate change, have destroyed hundreds of homes and other structures, while sending particle-laden smoke across Canadian and American cities — at one point turning New York’s skies orange. In the process, record amounts of carbon dioxide were dispatched into the atmosphere, only increasing the pace of global warming and its destructive impacts.

Aside from its unprecedented scale, there are aspects of this year’s fire season that suggest a more profound threat to society. To begin with, in fire terms — or more accurately, in climate-change terms — Canada has clearly lost control of its hinterland. As political scientists have long suggested, the very essence of the modern nation-state, its core raison d’être, is maintaining control over its sovereign territory and protecting its citizens. A country unable to do so, like Sudan or Somalia, has long been considered a “failed state.”

By now, Canada has abandoned any hope of controlling a significant percentage of the fires raging in remote areas of the country and is simply allowing them to burn themselves out. Such areas are relatively unpopulated, but they do house numerous indigenous communities whose lands have been destroyed and who have been forced to flee, perhaps permanently. Were this a one-time event, you could certainly say that Canada still remains an intact, functioning society. But given the likelihood that the number and extent of wildfires will only increase in the years ahead as temperatures continue to rise, Canada — hard as it might be to believe — can be said to be on the verge of becoming a failed state.

The floods in China: While American reporting on China tends to focus on economic and military affairs, the most significant news this summer has been the persistence of unusually heavy rainfall in many parts of the country, accompanied by severe flooding. At the beginning of August, Beijing experienced its heaviest rainfall since such phenomena began being measured there more than 140 years ago. In a pattern found to be characteristic of hotter, more humid environments, a storm system lingered over Beijing and the capital region for days on end, pouring 29 inches of rain on the city between July 29th and August 2nd. At least 1.2 million people had to be evacuated from flood-prone areas of surrounding cities, while more than 100,000 acres of crops were damaged or destroyed.

It’s not that unusual for floods and other extreme weather events to bedevil China, causing widespread human suffering. But 2023 has been distinctive both in the amount of rainfall it’s experienced and the record heat that’s gone with it. Even more strikingly, this summer’s climate extremes forced the government to behave in ways that suggest a state at the mercy of a raging climate system.

When flooding threatened Beijing, officials sought to spare the capital from its worst effects by diverting floodwaters to surrounding areas. They were to “resolutely serve as a moat for the capital,” according to Ni Yuefeng, the Communist Party secretary for Hebei province, which borders Beijing on three sides. While that might have spared the capital from severe damage, the diverted water poured into Hebei, causing extensive harm to infrastructure and forcing those 1.2 million people to be relocated. The decision to turn Hebei into a “moat” for the capital suggests a leadership under siege by forces beyond its control. As is true of Canada, China is certain to face even greater climate-related disasters prompting the government to take who knows what extreme measures to prevent widespread chaos and calamity.

These two events strike me as particularly revealing, but there are others that come to mind from this record-breaking summer. For example, the Iranian government’s decision to declare an unprecedented two-day national holiday on August 2nd, involving the closure of all schools, factories, and public offices, in response to record heat and drought. For many Iranians, that “holiday” was nothing but a desperate ploy to disguise the regime’s inability to provide sufficient water and electricity – a failure that’s bound to prove ever more destabilizing in the years to come.

Entering a New World Beyond Imagining

Half a dozen years ago, when I last discussed Jared Diamond’s book with my students, we spoke of the ways civilizational collapse could still be averted through concerted action by the nations and peoples of the world. Little, however, did we imagine anything like the summer of ’23.

It’s true that much has been accomplished in the intervening years. The percentage of electricity provided by renewable sources globally has, for example, risen significantly and the cost of those sources has fallen dramatically. Many nations have also taken significant steps to reduce carbon emissions. Still, global elites continue to pursue strategies that will only amplify climate change, ensuring that, in the years to come, humanity will slide ever closer to worldwide collapse.

When and how we might slip over the brink into catastrophe is impossible to foresee. But as the events of this summer suggest, we are already all too close to the edge of the kind of systemic failure experienced so many centuries ago by the Mayans, the ancient Puebloans, and the Viking Greenlanders. The only difference is that we may have no place else to go. Call it, if you want, Collapse 2.0.

Via ( Tomdispatch.com

AI vs. AI: And Human Extinction as Collateral Damage https://www.juancole.com/2023/07/extinction-collateral-damage.html Wed, 12 Jul 2023 04:02:30 +0000 https://www.juancole.com/?p=213159 ( Tomdispatch.com) – A world in which machines governed by artificial intelligence (AI) systematically replace human beings in most business, industrial, and professional functions is horrifying to imagine. After all, as prominent computer scientists have been warning us, AI-governed systems are prone to critical errors and inexplicable “hallucinations,” resulting in potentially catastrophic outcomes. But there’s an even more dangerous scenario imaginable from the proliferation of super-intelligent machines: the possibility that those nonhuman entities could end up fighting one another, obliterating all human life in the process.

The notion that super-intelligent computers might run amok and slaughter humans has, of course, long been a staple of popular culture. In the prophetic 1983 film “WarGames,” a supercomputer known as WOPR (for War Operation Plan Response and, not surprisingly, pronounced “whopper”) nearly provokes a catastrophic nuclear war between the United States and the Soviet Union before being disabled by a teenage hacker (played by Matthew Broderick). The “Terminator” movie franchise, beginning with the original 1984 film, similarly envisioned a self-aware supercomputer called “Skynet” that, like WOPR, was designed to control U.S. nuclear weapons but chooses instead to wipe out humanity, viewing us as a threat to its existence.

Though once confined to the realm of science fiction, the concept of supercomputers killing humans has now become a distinct possibility in the very real world of the near future. In addition to developing a wide variety of “autonomous,” or robotic combat devices, the major military powers are also rushing to create automated battlefield decision-making systems, or what might be called “robot generals.” In wars in the not-too-distant future, such AI-powered systems could be deployed to deliver combat orders to American soldiers, dictating where, when, and how they kill enemy troops or take fire from their opponents. In some scenarios, robot decision-makers could even end up exercising control over America’s atomic weapons, potentially allowing them to ignite a nuclear war resulting in humanity’s demise.

Now, take a breath for a moment. The installation of an AI-powered command-and-control (C2) system like this may seem a distant possibility. Nevertheless, the U.S. Department of Defense is working hard to develop the required hardware and software in a systematic, increasingly rapid fashion. In its budget submission for 2023, for example, the Air Force requested $231 million to develop the Advanced Battlefield Management System (ABMS), a complex network of sensors and AI-enabled computers designed to collect and interpret data on enemy operations and provide pilots and ground forces with a menu of optimal attack options. As the technology advances, the system will be capable of sending “fire” instructions directly to “shooters,” largely bypassing human control.

“A machine-to-machine data exchange tool that provides options for deterrence, or for on-ramp [a military show-of-force] or early engagement,” was how Will Roper, assistant secretary of the Air Force for acquisition, technology, and logistics, described the ABMS system in a 2020 interview. Suggesting that “we do need to change the name” as the system evolves, Roper added, “I think Skynet is out, as much as I would love doing that as a sci-fi thing. I just don’t think we can go there.”

And while he can’t go there, that’s just where the rest of us may, indeed, be going.

Mind you, that’s only the start. In fact, the Air Force’s ABMS is intended to constitute the nucleus of a larger constellation of sensors and computers that will connect all U.S. combat forces, the Joint All-Domain Command-and-Control System (JADC2, pronounced “Jad-C-two”). “JADC2 intends to enable commanders to make better decisions by collecting data from numerous sensors, processing the data using artificial intelligence algorithms to identify targets, then recommending the optimal weapon… to engage the target,” the Congressional Research Service reported in 2022.

AI and the Nuclear Trigger

Initially, JADC2 will be designed to coordinate combat operations among “conventional” or non-nuclear American forces. Eventually, however, it is expected to link up with the Pentagon’s nuclear command-control-and-communications systems (NC3), potentially giving computers significant control over the use of the American nuclear arsenal. “JADC2 and NC3 are intertwined,” General John E. Hyten, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, indicated in a 2020 interview. As a result, he added in typical Pentagonese, “NC3 has to inform JADC2 and JADC2 has to inform NC3.”

It doesn’t require great imagination to picture a time in the not-too-distant future when a crisis of some sort — say a U.S.-China military clash in the South China Sea or near Taiwan — prompts ever more intense fighting between opposing air and naval forces. Imagine then the JADC2 ordering the intense bombardment of enemy bases and command systems in China itself, triggering reciprocal attacks on U.S. facilities and a lightning decision by JADC2 to retaliate with tactical nuclear weapons, igniting a long-feared nuclear holocaust.

The possibility that nightmare scenarios of this sort could result in the accidental or unintended onset of nuclear war has long troubled analysts in the arms control community. But the growing automation of military C2 systems has generated anxiety not just among them but among senior national security officials as well.

As early as 2019, when I questioned Lieutenant General Jack Shanahan, then director of the Pentagon’s Joint Artificial Intelligence Center, about such a risky possibility, he responded, “You will find no stronger proponent of integration of AI capabilities writ large into the Department of Defense, but there is one area where I pause, and it has to do with nuclear command and control.” This “is the ultimate human decision that needs to be made” and so “we have to be very careful.” Given the technology’s “immaturity,” he added, we need “a lot of time to test and evaluate [before applying AI to NC3].”

In the years since, despite such warnings, the Pentagon has been racing ahead with the development of automated C2 systems. In its budget submission for 2024, the Department of Defense requested $1.4 billion for the JADC2 in order “to transform warfighting capability by delivering information advantage at the speed of relevance across all domains and partners.” Uh-oh! And then, it requested another $1.8 billion for other kinds of military-related AI research.

Pentagon officials acknowledge that it will be some time before robot generals will be commanding vast numbers of U.S. troops (and autonomous weapons) in battle, but they have already launched several projects intended to test and perfect just such linkages. One example is the Army’s Project Convergence, involving a series of field exercises designed to validate ABMS and JADC2 component systems. In a test held in August 2020 at the Yuma Proving Ground in Arizona, for example, the Army used a variety of air- and ground-based sensors to track simulated enemy forces and then process that data using AI-enabled computers at Joint Base Lewis McChord in Washington state. Those computers, in turn, issued fire instructions to ground-based artillery at Yuma. “This entire sequence was supposedly accomplished within 20 seconds,” the Congressional Research Service later reported.

Less is known about the Navy’s AI equivalent, “Project Overmatch,” as many aspects of its programming have been kept secret. According to Admiral Michael Gilday, chief of naval operations, Overmatch is intended “to enable a Navy that swarms the sea, delivering synchronized lethal and nonlethal effects from near-and-far, every axis, and every domain.” Little else has been revealed about the project.

“Flash Wars” and Human Extinction

Despite all the secrecy surrounding these projects, you can think of ABMS, JADC2, Convergence, and Overmatch as building blocks for a future Skynet-like mega-network of super-computers designed to command all U.S. forces, including its nuclear ones, in armed combat. The more the Pentagon moves in that direction, the closer we’ll come to a time when AI possesses life-or-death power over all American soldiers along with opposing forces and any civilians caught in the crossfire.

Such a prospect should be ample cause for concern. To start with, consider the risk of errors and miscalculations by the algorithms at the heart of such systems. As top computer scientists have warned us, those algorithms are capable of remarkably inexplicable mistakes and, to use the AI term of the moment, “hallucinations” — that is, seemingly reasonable results that are entirely illusionary. Under the circumstances, it’s not hard to imagine such computers “hallucinating” an imminent enemy attack and launching a war that might otherwise have been avoided.

And that’s not the worst of the dangers to consider. After all, there’s the obvious likelihood that America’s adversaries will similarly equip their forces with robot generals. In other words, future wars are likely to be fought by one set of AI systems against another, both linked to nuclear weaponry, with entirely unpredictable — but potentially catastrophic — results.

Not much is known (from public sources at least) about Russian and Chinese efforts to automate their military command-and-control systems, but both countries are thought to be developing networks comparable to the Pentagon’s JADC2. As early as 2014, in fact, Russia inaugurated a National Defense Control Center (NDCC) in Moscow, a centralized command post for assessing global threats and initiating whatever military action is deemed necessary, whether of a non-nuclear or nuclear nature. Like JADC2, the NDCC is designed to collect information on enemy moves from multiple sources and provide senior officers with guidance on possible responses.

China is said to be pursuing an even more elaborate, if similar, enterprise under the rubric of “Multi-Domain Precision Warfare” (MDPW). According to the Pentagon’s 2022 report on Chinese military developments, its military, the People’s Liberation Army, is being trained and equipped to use AI-enabled sensors and computer networks to “rapidly identify key vulnerabilities in the U.S. operational system and then combine joint forces across domains to launch precision strikes against those vulnerabilities.”

Picture, then, a future war between the U.S. and Russia or China (or both) in which the JADC2 commands all U.S. forces, while Russia’s NDCC and China’s MDPW command those countries’ forces. Consider, as well, that all three systems are likely to experience errors and hallucinations. How safe will humans be when robot generals decide that it’s time to “win” the war by nuking their enemies?

If this strikes you as an outlandish scenario, think again, at least according to the leadership of the National Security Commission on Artificial Intelligence, a congressionally mandated enterprise that was chaired by Eric Schmidt, former head of Google, and Robert Work, former deputy secretary of defense. “While the Commission believes that properly designed, tested, and utilized AI-enabled and autonomous weapon systems will bring substantial military and even humanitarian benefit, the unchecked global use of such systems potentially risks unintended conflict escalation and crisis instability,” it affirmed in its Final Report. Such dangers could arise, it stated, “because of challenging and untested complexities of interaction between AI-enabled and autonomous weapon systems on the battlefield” — when, that is, AI fights AI.

Though this may seem an extreme scenario, it’s entirely possible that opposing AI systems could trigger a catastrophic “flash war” — the military equivalent of a “flash crash” on Wall Street, when huge transactions by super-sophisticated trading algorithms spark panic selling before human operators can restore order. In the infamous “Flash Crash” of May 6, 2010, computer-driven trading precipitated a 10% fall in the stock market’s value. According to Paul Scharre of the Center for a New American Security, who first studied the phenomenon, “the military equivalent of such crises” on Wall Street would arise when the automated command systems of opposing forces “become trapped in a cascade of escalating engagements.” In such a situation, he noted, “autonomous weapons could lead to accidental death and destruction at catastrophic scales in an instant.”

At present, there are virtually no measures in place to prevent a future catastrophe of this sort or even talks among the major powers to devise such measures. Yet, as the National Security Commission on Artificial Intelligence noted, such crisis-control measures are urgently needed to integrate “automated escalation tripwires” into such systems “that would prevent the automated escalation of conflict.” Otherwise, some catastrophic version of World War III seems all too possible. Given the dangerous immaturity of such technology and the reluctance of Beijing, Moscow, and Washington to impose any restraints on the weaponization of AI, the day when machines could choose to annihilate us might arrive far sooner than we imagine and the extinction of humanity could be the collateral damage of such a future war.

Via Tomdispatch.com

Goodbye to the American Century: China India and the Emerging New World Order https://www.juancole.com/2023/05/goodbye-american-emerging.html Sat, 20 May 2023 04:02:21 +0000 https://www.juancole.com/?p=212093 ( Tomdispatch.com) – Not so long ago, political analysts were speaking of the “G-2” — that is, of a potential working alliance between the United States and China aimed at managing global problems for their mutual benefit. Such a collaborative twosome was seen as potentially even more powerful than the G-7 group of leading Western economies. As former Undersecretary of the Treasury C. Fred Bergsten, who originally imagined such a partnership, wrote in 2008, “The basic idea would be to develop a G-2 between the United States and China to steer the global governance process.”

That notion would become the basis for the Obama administration’s initial outreach to China, though it would lose its appeal in Washington as tensions with Beijing continued to rise over Taiwan and other issues. Still, if the war in Ukraine teaches us anything, it should be that, whatever the desires of America’s leaders, they will have little choice (other than war) but to share global governance responsibilities with China and, in a new twist on geopolitics, with India, too. After all, that rising nuclear-armed nation is now the most populous on the planet and will soon possess the third-largest economy as well. In other words, if global disaster is to be averted, whether Americans like it or not, this country will have little choice but to begin planning for an emerging G-3.

Two questions come to mind immediately: Why the G-3, and why is its emergence likely to be such an inevitable outcome of the war in Ukraine?

Starting with the second of those critical questions, the G-3 lies in our future exactly because neither the United States nor Russia has proven capable of achieving what its leaders might consider a satisfactory outcome to that war. On Moscow’s side, the possibility of wiping out Ukraine as a functioning state has proven a remarkable failure; on Washington’s, the utter defeat of Russia and the demise of Vladimir Putin appears highly unlikely. 

Amid the seemingly never-ending catastrophe of the war in Ukraine, it’s become increasingly evident that China and India are likely to shape its final resolution. Russia can’t keep fighting without the support of those two countries, thanks to their refusal to abide by harsh Western sanctions, their continuing trade with Moscow, and their massive purchases of Russian fossil-fuel reserves. In addition, neither of those countries wants the war to escalate or drag on for much longer, given the harm it’s doing to the prospects of global growth. For the Chinese, in particular, it’s been generating friction with crucial trading partners in Europe who resent Beijing’s continuing ties to Moscow. For their own reasons, therefore, the leaders of those two countries are likely to put increasing pressure on both Moscow and Kyiv to seek a negotiated outcome that will, it goes without saying, satisfy neither side.

At the same time, while the war in Ukraine has exposed the startling weakness of Russia’s previously vaunted military, it has also revealed in a striking fashion the limits of American power. After all, when the war began in February 2022, President Joe Biden was confident that most of the world would join the U.S. and Europe in isolating Moscow by, among other things, halting purchases of Russian energy supplies and imposing tough sanctions on that country. For him, this was still the American Century. “The United States is not doing this alone,” he declared at the time. “For months, we’ve been building a coalition of partners representing well more than half of the global economy… We will limit Russia’s ability to do business in dollars, euros, pounds, and yen to be part of the global economy.”

As it happens, we seem to have entered a new yet-to-be-defined epoch characterized by diminishing U.S. global clout. After all, despite determined efforts by Washington and its NATO allies to limit Russia’s access to the global economy, Moscow has largely succeeded in keeping itself afloat, even while financing its ever more expensive military disaster in Ukraine. Thanks for this go significantly to China and India, which have continued to buy enormous quantities of Russian oil and natural gas (even if at steeply discounted prices).

No less significantly, Washington has largely failed to persuade most of the global South, including key rising powers like Brazil, India, and South Africa, to embrace President Biden’s view of the Ukraine war as an “existential” struggle between liberal democratic states and illiberal autocratic ones. As he put it in a speech delivered a year ago in Warsaw, “We [have] emerged anew in the great battle for freedom, a battle between democracy and autocracy, between liberty and repression, between a rules-based order and one governed by brute force.”

But outside Europe, such ringing statements have largely fallen on deaf ears, as non-Western leaders have emphasized their own national needs and decried the West’s hypocrisy when it comes to defending the global “rules” it claims to honor. In particular, they have complained about the way such sanctions imposed on Russia have raised food and fertilizer prices in their own countries, harming millions of their citizens.

“I would still like to see a more rules-based world,” S. Jaishankar, India’s foreign minister, typically told Roger Cohen of the New York Times. “But when people start pressing you in the name of a rules-based order to give up, to compromise on what are very deep interests, at that stage I’m afraid it’s important to contest that and, if necessary, to call it out.”

Little as Washington has attended to such perspectives, count on one thing: post-Ukraine, we will find ourselves in a new world order. After the expected Ukrainian spring/summer offensive, which is unlikely to dislodge all Russian troops from the lands they’ve seized since last February, India and China will almost certainly be nudging both countries toward a peace settlement aimed more at restoring the flow of global trade than upholding fundamental principles of any sort.

Indeed, the Chinese peace plan for the war, though ignored or reviled by most Western analysts, may end up proving the most effective blueprint for a settlement, with its vague call for respecting the sovereignty of all states and its emphasis on eliminating sanctions, restoring global supply lines, and freeing up the Russian and Ukrainian grain trade. Indeed, however reluctantly, even Secretary of State Antony Blinken has conceded that it might provide a template for a future settlement.

Why the G-3?

While the outcome of the Ukraine war still remains in doubt, count on one thing: the emergence of China and India as major actors in its resolution will help define the future world order — one in which the United States will have to share global governance responsibilities with China and India, the world’s two other major power nodes. Europe isn’t qualified to play such a role because of its internal divisions and dependence on U.S. military power; Russia isn’t because of the decline of its military and economic strength. The G-3 countries, however, possess some basic characteristics that set them apart from all other powers and are only likely to become more pronounced in the future.

Let’s start with population. In 2022, China, India, and the United States had the world’s largest, second-largest, and third-largest populations, jointly accounting for an estimated 3.2 billion people, or approximately 40% of all people on the planet. While India is expected to overtake China as the world’s most populous nation this year, those three countries are still likely to remain atop the population heap in 2050, hosting an estimated 3.4 billion people by then. Of course, no one knows how major famines, pandemics, or climate disasters may affect such numbers, but those populations do confer enormous advantages when it comes to production, consumption, and even, if necessary, war-fighting.

Next, consider economic clout. The U.S. and China have long had the world’s number one and two economies, with India in sixth place and rising, if still behind Japan, Germany, and the United Kingdom. It is, however, expected to overtake the UK this year and, in some projections, will reach number three by 2030. Together, the G-3 will then account for a greater share of global economic activity than the next 20 countries combined, including all the European economies and Japan. Consider that a form of power no one will be able to ignore.

The U.S. and China are widely assumed to possess the world’s two largest and most powerful militaries, with Russia still claiming the third spot, though its military has been severely diminished thanks to the war in Ukraine and isn’t likely to regain its prewar strength for years, if ever. India’s military is large indeed, with an estimated 1.4 million men and women in uniform (compared to China’s two million, Russia’s less than a million, and America’s 1.4 million), but it’s not as well equipped with advanced weaponry as the other three. The Indians are, however, spending billions of dollars on the acquisition of advanced combat systems from Europe, Russia, and the United States. As its share of global wealth increases, count on New Delhi to invest ever more money in the “modernization” of its armed forces.

There is one other area where China, India, and the U.S. lead the world in numbers: in their emissions of carbon dioxide and other climate-altering greenhouse gases. With all three continuing to rely on fossil fuels for a large share of their energy consumption, China, India, and the U.S. are expected to top the list of the world’s leading carbon-emitters for decades to come. According to the International Energy Agency (IEA), the G-3 will account for an estimated 42% of global carbon emissions by 2050 — more than Africa, Europe, Latin America, and the Middle East combined.

The G-3 in Practice

Total up all those factors and it’s obvious that China, India, and the United States are likely to dominate any future world order. Sadly, that doesn’t mean they’re destined to cooperate — far from it. Competition and conflict will undoubtedly remain an enduring characteristic of their relationships, with the ties between any two of them constantly waxing and waning. (Think of the revolving alliances and antagonisms between Eastasia, Eurasia, and Oceana in George Orwell’s prophetic dystopian novel 1984.) But of one thing we can be certain: no major global problem, whether it be climate change, economic catastrophe, another lethal pandemic, or a Ukraine-style war, will be solved if those three powers can’t figure out some form of cooperation, however informal.  

There was at least one previous moment of three-way concordance. In November 2014, in the leadup to the Paris Climate Summit of the next year, President Barack Obama forged a working alliance with President Xi Jinping of China aimed at achieving a successful outcome and then incorporated Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi into their joint effort. His meetings with Xi and Modi at the start of the Paris summit were, according to then-White House Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes, meant to “send a strong message to the world about their strong commitment to climate change.” Many analysts believe that the 2015 summit would never have succeeded had it not been for the combined leadership of Obama, Xi, and Modi.

Needless to say, that budding partnership was upended when Donald Trump entered the White House and terminated U.S. adherence to that agreement. All too sadly, in the years that followed, Washington’s cooperation with Beijing and New Delhi on climate change largely ceased, while American disputes with China over trade, Taiwan, and the South China Sea only grew more heated. Today, the leaders of the world’s top two economies are barely speaking and their armed forces appear poised for a violent clash at almost any moment. They also remain at odds over Ukraine, with Washington demanding that Beijing sever economic ties with Russia and the Chinese insisting on the legitimacy of their “ironclad” alliance with Moscow.

Again, all too sadly, such antagonisms are more likely to prove the norm in U.S.-China relations than that brief outburst of cooperation in 2014-2015. And while India has grown closer to the United States in recent years — in large part to balance China’s growing economic and military might — its leaders are loathe to become overly dependent on any foreign power, however closely aligned they might be in political terms. The prognosis, then, is for continued brittle and often tense relations among the G-3 countries.

Nonetheless, those three nations will have little choice but to deal with one another in some fashion when it comes to the major global problems confronting all of them. Climate change is certainly among the most pressing: if global carbon emissions continue to rise in accordance with the IEA’s current projections, world temperatures could soar to far more than 2.0 Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) above the pre-industrial era, the target cap set by the Paris Climate Agreement. That, in turn, will ensure a calamitous new reality for all three countries (as well as the rest of the world), including extreme coastal inundation, widespread desertification, and profound water scarcity. None of them can avoid such an outcome alone. Only by working in concert to reduce global emissions might they avert what is otherwise likely to be climate catastrophe for themselves and the planet.

The same is true of any other major global challenge, including future severe economic crises, pandemic outbreaks, major regional conflicts, and the further proliferation of nuclear weapons. However uncomfortable the leaders of China, India, and the United States might be when it comes to collaborating with their counterparts, they will have little choice if they are to escape an increasingly calamitous future. Like it or not, they will have to embrace some form of G-3 collaboration, however little acknowledged it may be at first. In time, as they come to recognize their mutual interdependence, they might even find themselves collaborating in a more formal, amicable manner — to the benefit of all the inhabitants of planet Earth.

Via Tomdispatch.com

Weaponizing ChatGPT? The Pentagon Girds for Mid-Century Wars https://www.juancole.com/2023/04/weaponizing-chatgpt-pentagon.html Mon, 17 Apr 2023 04:02:37 +0000 https://www.juancole.com/?p=211396 ( Tomdispatch.com )- Why is the Pentagon budget so high?

On March 13th, the Biden administration unveiled its $842 billion military budget request for 2024, the largest ask (in today’s dollars) since the peaks of the Afghan and Iraq wars. And mind you, that’s before the hawks in Congress get their hands on it. Last year, they added $35 billion to the administration’s request and, this year, their add-on is likely to prove at least that big. Given that American forces aren’t even officially at war right now (if you don’t count those engaged in counter-terror operations in Africa and elsewhere), what explains so much military spending?

The answer offered by senior Pentagon officials and echoed in mainstream Washington media coverage is that this country faces a growing risk of war with Russia or China (or both of them at once) and that the lesson of the ongoing conflict in Ukraine is the need to stockpile vast numbers of bombs, missiles, and other munitions. “Pentagon, Juggling Russia, China, Seeks Billions for Long-Range Weapons” was a typical headline in the Washington Post about that 2024 budget request. Military leaders are overwhelmingly focused on a potential future conflict with either or both of those powers and are convinced that a lot more money should be spent now to prepare for such an outcome, which means buying extra tanks, ships, and planes, along with all the bombs, shells, and missiles they carry.

Even a quick look at the briefing materials for that future budget confirms such an assessment. Many of the billions of dollars being tacked onto it are intended to procure exactly the items you would expect to use in a war with those powers in the late 2020s or 2030s. Aside from personnel costs and operating expenses, the largest share of the proposed budget — $170 billion or 20% — is allocated for purchasing just such hardware.

But while preparations for such wars in the near future drive a significant part of that increase, a surprising share of it — $145 billion, or 17% — is aimed at possible conflicts in the 2040s and 2050s. Believing that our “strategic competition” with China is likely to persist for decades to come and that a conflict with that country could erupt at any moment along that future trajectory, the Pentagon is requesting its largest allocation ever for what’s called “research, development, test, and evaluation” (RDT&E), or the process of converting the latest scientific discoveries into weapons of war.

To put this in perspective, that $145 billion is more than any other country except what China spends on defense in toto and constitutes approximately half of China’s full military budget. So what’s that staggering sum of money, itself only a modest part of this country’s military budget, intended for?

Some of it, especially the “T&E” part, is designed for futuristic upgrades of existing weapons systems. For example, the B-52 bomber — at 70, the oldest model still flying — is being retrofitted to carry experimental AGM-183A Air-Launched Rapid Response Weapons (ARRWs), or advanced hypersonic missiles. But much of that sum, especially the “R&D” part, is aimed at developing weapons that may not see battlefield use until decades in the future, if ever. Spending on such systems is still only in the millions or low billions, but it will certainly balloon into the tens or hundreds of billions of dollars in the years to come, ensuring that future Pentagon budgets soar into the trillions.

Weaponizing Emerging Technologies

Driving the Pentagon’s increased focus on future weapons development is the assumption that China and Russia will remain major adversaries for decades to come and that future wars with those, or other major powers, could largely be decided by the mastery of artificial intelligence (AI) along with other emerging technologies. Those would include robotics, hypersonics (projectiles that fly at more than five times the speed of sound), and quantum computing. As the Pentagon’s 2024 budget request put it:

“An increasing array of fast-evolving technologies and innovative applications of existing technology complicates the [Defense] Department’s ability to maintain an edge in combat credibility and deterrence. Newer capabilities such as counterspace weapons, hypersonic weapons, new and emerging payload and delivery systems… all create a heightened potential… for shifts in perceived deterrence of U.S. military power.”

To ensure that this country can overpower Chinese and/or Russian forces in any conceivable encounter, top officials insist, Washington must focus on investing in a major way in the advanced technologies likely to dominate future battlefields. Accordingly, $17.8 billion of that $145 billion RDT&E budget will be directly dedicated to military-related science and technology development. Those funds, the Pentagon explains, will be used to accelerate the weaponization of artificial intelligence and speed the growth of other emerging technologies, especially robotics, autonomous (or “unmanned”) weapons systems, and hypersonic missiles.

Artificial intelligence (AI) is of particular interest to the Department of Defense, given its wide range of potential military uses, including target identification and assessment, enhanced weapons navigation and targeting systems, and computer-assisted battlefield decision-making. Although there’s no total figure for AI research and development offered in the unclassified version of the 2024 budget, certain individual programs are highlighted. One of these is the Joint All-Domain Command-and-Control system (JADC2), an AI-enabled matrix of sensors, computers, and communications devices intended to collect and process data on enemy movements and convey that information at lightning speed to combat forces in every “domain” (air, sea, ground, and space). At $1.3 billion, JADC2 may not be “the biggest number in the budget,” said Under Secretary of Defense Michael J. McCord, but it constitutes “a very central organizing concept of how we’re trying to link information together.”

AI is also essential for the development of — and yes, nothing seems to lack an acronym in Pentagon documents — autonomous weapons systems, or unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), unmanned ground vehicles (UGVs), and unmanned surface vessels (USVs). Such devices — far more bluntly called “killer robots” by their critics — typically combine a mobile platform of some sort (plane, tank, or ship), an onboard “kill mechanism” (gun or missile), and an ability to identify and attack targets with minimal human oversight. Believing that the future battlefield will become ever more lethal, Pentagon officials aim to replace as many of its crewed platforms as possible — think ships, planes, and artillery — with advanced UAVs, UGVs, and USVs.

The 2024 budget request doesn’t include a total dollar figure for research on future unmanned weapons systems but count on one thing: it will come to many billions of dollars. The budget does indicate that $2.2 billion is being sought for the early procurement of MQ-4 and MQ-25 unmanned aerial vehicles, and such figures are guaranteed to swell as experimental robotic systems move into large-scale production. Another $200 million was requested to design a large USV, essentially a crewless frigate or destroyer. Once prototype vessels of this type have been built and tested, the Navy plans to order dozens, perhaps hundreds of them, instantly creating a $100 billion-plus market for a naval force lacking the usual human crew.

Another area receiving extensive Pentagon attention is hypersonics, because such projectiles will fly so fast and maneuver with such skill (while skimming atop the atmosphere’s outer layer) that they should be essentially impossible to track and intercept. Both China and Russia already possess rudimentary weapons of this type, with Russia reportedly firing some of its hypersonic Kinzhal missiles into Ukraine in recent months.

As the Pentagon put it in its budget request:

“Hypersonic systems expand our ability to hold distant targets at risk, dramatically shorten the timeline to strike a target, and their maneuverability increases survivability and unpredictability. The Department will accelerate fielding of transformational capability enabled by air, land, and sea-based hypersonic strike weapon systems to overcome the challenges to our future battlefield domain dominance.”

Another 14% of the RDT&E request, or about $2.5 billion, is earmarked for research in even more experimental fields like quantum computing and advanced microelectronics. “The Department’s science and technology investments are underpinned by early-stage basic research,” the Pentagon explains. “Payoff for this research may not be evident for years, but it is critical to ensuring our enduring technological advantage in the decades ahead.” As in the case of AI, autonomous weapons, and hypersonics, these relatively small amounts (by Pentagon standards) will balloon in the years ahead as initial discoveries are applied to functioning weapons systems and procured in ever larger quantities.

Harnessing American Tech Talent for Long-Term War Planning

There’s one consequence of such an investment in RDT&E that’s almost too obvious to mention. If you think the Pentagon budget is sky high now, just wait! Future spending, as today’s laboratory concepts are converted into actual combat systems, is likely to stagger the imagination. And that’s just one of the significant consequences of such a path to permanent military superiority. To ensure that the United States continues to dominate research in the emerging technologies most applicable to future weaponry, the Pentagon will seek to harness an ever-increasing share of this country’s scientific and technological resources for military-oriented work.

This, in turn, will mean capturing an ever-larger part of the government’s net R&D budget at the expense of other national priorities. In 2022, for example, federal funding for non-military R&D (including the National Science Foundation, the National Institutes of Health, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) represented only about 33% of R&D spending. If the 2024 military budget goes through at the level requested (or higher), that figure for non-military spending will drop to 31%, a trend only likely to strengthen in the future as more and more resources are devoted to war preparation, leaving an ever-diminishing share of taxpayer funding for research on vital concerns like cancer prevention and treatment, pandemic response, and climate change adaptation.

No less worrisome, ever more scientists and engineers will undoubtedly be encouraged — not to say, prodded — to devote their careers to military research rather than work in more peaceable fields. While many scientists struggle for grants to support their work, the Department of Defense (DoD) offers bundles of money to those who choose to study military-related topics. Typically enough, the 2024 request includes $347 million for what the military is now calling the University Research Initiative, most of which will be used to finance the formation of “teams of researchers across disciplines and across geographic boundaries to focus on DoD-specific hard science problems.” Another $200 million is being allocated to the Joint University Microelectronics Program by the Defense Advanced Projects Research Agency, the Pentagon’s R&D outfit, while $100 million is being provided to the University Consortium for Applied Hypersonics by the Pentagon’s Joint Hypersonics Transition Office. With so much money flowing into such programs and the share devoted to other fields of study shrinking, it’s hardly surprising that scientists and graduate students at major universities are being drawn into the Pentagon’s research networks.

In fact, it’s also seeking to expand its talent pool by providing additional funding to historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs). In January, for example, Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin announced that Howard University in Washington, D.C., had been chosen as the first such school to serve as a university-affiliated research center by the Department of Defense, in which capacity it will soon be involved in work on autonomous weapons systems. This will, of course, provide badly needed money to scientists and engineers at that school and other HBCUs that may have been starved of such funding in the past. But it also begs the question: Why shouldn’t Howard receive similar amounts to study problems of greater relevance to the Black community like sickle-cell anemia and endemic poverty?

Endless Arms Races vs. Genuine Security

In devoting all those billions of dollars to research on next-generation weaponry, the Pentagon’s rationale is straightforward: spend now to ensure U.S. military superiority in the 2040s, 2050s, and beyond. But however persuasive this conceit may seem — even with all those mammoth sums of money pouring in — things rarely work out so neatly. Any major investment of this sort by one country is bound to trigger countermoves from its rivals, ensuring that any early technological advantage will soon be overcome in some fashion, even as the planet is turned into ever more of an armed camp.

The Pentagon’s development of precision-guided munitions, for example, provided American forces with an enormous military advantage during the Persian Gulf Wars of 1991 and 2003, but also prompted China, Iran, Russia, and other countries to begin developing similar weaponry, quickly diminishing that advantage. Likewise, China and Russia were the first to deploy combat-ready hypersonic weapons, but in response, the U.S. will be fielding a far greater array of them in a few years’ time.

Chinese and Russian advances in deploying hypersonics also led the U.S. to invest in developing — yes, you guessed it! — anti-hypersonic hypersonics, launching yet one more arms race on planet Earth, while boosting the Pentagon budget by additional billions. Given all this, I’m sure you won’t be surprised to learn that the 2024 Pentagon budget request includes $209 million for the development of a hypersonic interceptor, only the first installment in costly development and procurement programs in the years to come in Washington, Beijing, and Moscow.

If you want to bet on anything, then here’s a surefire way to go: the Pentagon’s drive to achieve dominance in the development and deployment of advanced weaponry will lead not to supremacy but to another endless cycle of high-tech arms races that, in turn, will consume an ever-increasing share of this country’s wealth and scientific talent, while providing negligible improvements in national security. Rather than spending so much on future weaponry, we should all be thinking about enhanced arms control measures, global climate cooperation, and greater investment in non-military R&D.

If only…

Via Tomdispatch.com )

Is War with China Inevitable? https://www.juancole.com/2023/03/with-china-inevitable.html Wed, 15 Mar 2023 04:02:05 +0000 https://www.juancole.com/?p=210677 ( Tomdispatch.com) – Is China really on the verge of invading the island of Taiwan, as so many top American officials seem to believe? If the answer is “yes” and the U.S. intervenes on Taiwan’s side — as President Biden has sworn it would — we could find ourselves in a major-power conflict, possibly even a nuclear one, in the not-too-distant future. Even if confined to Asia and fought with conventional weaponry alone — no sure thing — such a conflict would still result in human and economic damage on a far greater scale than observed in Ukraine today.  

But what if the answer is “no,” which seems at least as likely? Wouldn’t that pave the way for the U.S. to work with its friends and allies, no less than with China itself, to reduce tensions in the region and possibly open a space for the launching of peaceful negotiations between Taiwan and the mainland? If nothing else, it would eliminate the need to boost the Pentagon budget by many billions of dollars annually, as now advocated by China hawks in Congress.

How that question is answered has enormous implications for us all. Yet, among policymakers in Washington, it isn’t even up for discussion. Instead, they seem to be competing with each another to identify the year in which the purported Chinese invasion will occur and war will break out between our countries.

Is It 2035, 2027, or 2025?

All high-level predictions of an imminent Chinese invasion of Taiwan rest on the assumption that Chinese leaders will never allow that island to become fully independent and so will respond to any move in that direction with a full-scale military assault. In justifying such claims, American officials regularly point to the ongoing modernization of China’s military, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), and warnings by top Chinese officials that they will crush any effort by “separatist elements” in Taiwan to impede unification. In line with that mode of thinking, only one question remains: Exactly when will the Chinese leadership consider the PLA ready to invade Taiwan and overpower any U.S. forces sent to the island’s relief?

Until 2021, U.S. military officials tended to place that pivotal moment far in the future, citing the vast distance the PLA needed to go to duplicate the technological advantages of U.S. forces. Pentagon analysts most often forecast 2035 for this achievement, the date set by President Xi Jinping for China to “basically complete the modernization of national defense and the military.”

This assessment, however, changed dramatically in late 2021 when the Department of Defense published its annual report on the military power of the People’s Republic of China (PRC). That document highlighted a significant alteration in China’s strategic planning: whereas its leaders once viewed 2035 as the year in which the PLA would become a fully modern fighting force, they now sought to reach that key threshold in 2027, by accelerating the “intelligentization” of their forces (that is, their use of artificial intelligence and other advanced technologies). If realized, the Pentagon report suggested, that “new milestone for modernization in 2027… would provide Beijing with more credible military options in a Taiwan contingency.”

Still, some Pentagon officials suggested that the PLA was unlikely to achieve full “intelligentization” by then, casting doubt on its ability to overpower the U.S. in a hypothetical battle for Taiwan. That, however, hasn’t stopped Republicans from using the prediction to generate alarm in Congress and seek additional funds for weaponry geared toward a future war with China.

As Representative Mike Gallagher (R-WI) put it in 2022, when he was still a minority member of the House Armed Services Committee, “China’s just throwing so much money into military modernization and has already sped up its timeline to 2027 for when it wants the PLA to have the capability to seize Taiwan, that we need to act with a sense of urgency to tackle that threat because that is something unlike anything we’ve seen in modern history.” And note that he is now the chairman of the new China-bashing House Select Committee on China.

A potential 2027 invasion remained common wisdom in U.S. policy circles until this January, when the head of the Air Force Mobility Command, General Michael Minihan, told his troops that he suspected the correct date for a future war with China was 2025, setting off another panic attack in Washington. “I hope I am wrong,” he wrote to the 50,000 Air Force personnel under his command. “My gut tells me we will fight in 2025. Xi secured his third term and set his war council in October 2022. Taiwan’s presidential elections are in 2024 and will offer Xi a reason. The United States’ presidential elections are in 2024 and will offer Xi a distracted America. Xi’s team, reason, and opportunity are all aligned for 2025.”

Though his prediction was derided by some analysts who doubted the PRC’s capacity to overpower the U.S. by that date, Minihan received strong backing from China hawks in Congress. “I hope he’s wrong as well, but I think he’s right, though, unfortunately,” said Representative Michael McCaul (R-TX), chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, in an interview on Fox News Sunday.

At this point, official Washington continues to obsess over the date of the presumptive Chinese invasion, with some figures now suggesting 2024. Strangely enough, however, nowhere in official circles is there a single prominent figure asking the most basic question of all: Does China actually have any serious intention of invading Taiwan or are we manufacturing a crisis over nothing?

China’s Invasion Calculus

To answer that question means investigating Beijing’s calculus when it comes to the relative benefits and perils of mounting such an invasion.

To start off: China’s top leadership has repeatedly stated that it’s prepared to employ force as a last resort to ensure Taiwan’s unification with the mainland. President Xi and his top lieutenants repeat this mantra in every major address they make. “Taiwan is China’s Taiwan,” Xi characteristically told the 20th National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) last October. “We will continue to strive for peaceful reunification with the greatest sincerity and the utmost effort, but we will never promise to renounce the use of force and we reserve the option of taking all measures necessary.”

In addition, vigorous efforts have gone into enhancing the PLA’s capacity to invade that island, located 100 miles across the Taiwan Strait from the Chinese mainland. The PLA has substantially expanded its naval arm, the PLA Navy (PLAN), and especially its amphibious assault component. The PLAN, in turn, has conducted numerous amphibious exercises up and down the Chinese coast, many suggesting practice for a possible invasion of Taiwan. According to the Pentagon’s 2022 report on Chinese military power, such maneuvers have increased in recent years, with 20 of them conducted in 2021 alone.

Exercises like these certainly indicate that Chinese leaders are building the capacity to undertake an invasion, should they deem it necessary. But issuing threats and acquiring military capabilities do not necessarily signify intent to take action. The CCP’s top leaders are survivors of ruthless intraparty struggles and know how to calculate risks and benefits. However strongly they may feel about Taiwan, they are not inclined to order an invasion that could result in China’s defeat and their own disgrace, imprisonment, or death.

Weighing the Risks

Even under the best of circumstances, an amphibious assault on Taiwan would prove exceedingly difficult and dangerous. Transporting tens of thousands of PLA troops across 100 miles of water while under constant attack by Taiwanese and (probably) U.S. forces and depositing them on heavily defended beachheads could easily result in disaster. As Russia discovered in Ukraine, conducting a large-scale assault against spirited resistance can prove extremely difficult — even when invading by land. And keep in mind that the PLA hasn’t engaged in significant armed combat since 1979, when it lost a war with Vietnam (though it has had some border skirmishes with India in recent years). Even if it managed to secure a beachhead in Taiwan, its forces would undoubtedly lose dozens of ships, hundreds of planes, and many thousands of troops — with no assurance of securing control over Taipei or other major cities.

Just such an outcome emerged in multiple war games conducted in 2022 by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a Washington-based think tank. Those simulations, performed by figures with “a variety of senior governmental, think tank, and military backgrounds,” always began with a PLA amphibious assault on Taiwan accompanied by air and missile attacks on critical government infrastructure. But “the Chinese invasion quickly founders,” a CSIS summary suggests. “Despite massive Chinese bombardment, Taiwanese ground forces stream to the beachhead, where the invaders struggle to build up supplies and move inland. Meanwhile, U.S. submarines, bombers, and fighter/attack aircraft, often reinforced by Japan Self-Defense Forces, rapidly cripple the Chinese amphibious fleet. China’s strikes on Japanese bases and U.S. surface ships cannot change the result: Taiwan remains autonomous.”

Those like General Minihan who predict an imminent Chinese invasion usually neglect to mention such hardcore assessments, but other military analysts have been less reticent. Buried deep in the Pentagon’s 2022 report on Chinese military power, for example, is the following: “An attempt to invade Taiwan would likely strain PRC’s armed forces and invite international intervention. Combined with inevitable force attrition… these factors make an amphibious invasion of Taiwan a significant political and military risk for Xi Jinping and the Chinese Communist Party.”

Surely Xi’s generals and admirals have conducted similar war games and reached comparable conclusions. Chinese leaders are also painfully aware of the sanctions imposed by the U.S. and its allies on Russia in response to its invasion of Ukraine and recognize that an invasion of Taiwan would automatically result in similar penalties. Add in the potential damage to Chinese infrastructure from U.S. bombers and the country’s economic prospects could be crushed for years to come — a likely death sentence for the Chinese Communist Party. Why, then, even think about an invasion?

There’s No Hurry

Add in one other factor. China’s leaders seem to have concluded that time is on their side — that the Taiwanese people will, eventually, voluntarily decide to unite with the mainland. This approach is spelled out in Beijing’s recent white paper, “The Taiwan Question and China’s Reunification in the New Era,” released last August by the Taiwan Affairs Office of the PRC’s State Council. As China grows increasingly prosperous, the paper argues, the Taiwanese — especially young Taiwanese — will see ever greater benefits from unification, diminishing the appeal of independence, or “separatism.”

“China’s development and progress, and in particular the steady increases in its economic power, technological strength, and national defense capabilities, are an effective curb against separatist activities,” the paper states. “As more and more compatriots from Taiwan, especially young people, pursue their studies, start businesses, seek jobs, or go to live on the mainland… the economic ties and personal bonds between the people on both sides run deeper… leading cross-Straits relations towards reunification.”

And keep in mind that this is not a short-term proposition but a strategy that will take years — even decades — to achieve success. Nevertheless, most of that white paper’s content is devoted not to military threats — the only parts of the paper to receive coverage in the West — but to bolstering bilateral trade and increasing China’s economic appeal to young Taiwanese. “Following the path of socialism with Chinese characteristics, the mainland has improved its governance and maintained long-term economic growth,” it asserts. “As a result, the overall strength and international influence of the mainland will continue to increase, and its influence over and appeal to Taiwan society will keep growing.”

In such a take-it-slow approach surely lies a recognition that military action against Taiwan could prove a disaster for China. But whatever the reasoning behind such planning, it appears that Chinese leaders are prepared to invest massive resources in persuading the Taiwanese that reunification is in their best interests. Whether or not such a strategy will succeed is unknown. It’s certainly possible that a Taiwanese preference for political autonomy will outweigh any interest in mainland business opportunities, but with Beijing banking so heavily on the future in this manner, a military assault seems far less likely. And that’s something you won’t hear these days in an ever more belligerent Washington.

Considering the Alternatives

It’s difficult for outsiders — let alone most Chinese — to know what goes on in Beijing’s closed-door CCP leadership councils and, of all state secrets, that leadership’s calculations about a possible invasion of Taiwan are probably the most guarded. It’s certainly possible, in other words, that Xi and his top lieutenants are prepared to invade at the earliest sign of a drive towards independence by Taiwan’s leaders, as many U.S. officials claim. But there’s no evidence in the public realm to sustain such an assessment and all practical military analysis suggests that such an endeavor would prove suicidal. In other words — though you’d never know it in today’s frenzied Washington environment — concluding that an invasion is not likely under current circumstances is all too reasonable.

In the belief that Beijing is prepared to mount an invasion, the United States is already providing Taiwan with billions of dollars‘ worth of advanced weaponry, while bolstering its own capacity to defeat China in any potential conflict. Sadly, such planning for a future Pacific war is likely to consume an ever-increasing share of taxpayer dollars, result in ever more military training and planning in the Pacific, and as Rep. Gallagher and Republican House Speaker Kevin McCarthy suggested recently, ever more belligerent attitudes toward China. Given the reasonable probability that Chinese leaders have decided against an invasion, at least in the immediate future, doesn’t it make sense to consider alternative policies that will cost all of us less and make all of us safer?  

Imagine, in fact, adopting a less antagonistic stance towards Beijing and seeking negotiated solutions to some of the issues dividing us, including China’s militarization of contested islands in the South China Sea and its provocative air and sea maneuvers around Taiwan. Reduced tensions in the Western Pacific might, in turn, make it possible to avoid massive increases in the Pentagon budget, thereby permitting increased spending on domestic priorities like health, education, and climate action.

If only…

Via Tomdispatch.com

Climate Change will Supersede Everything: The Pentagon’s Massive Intelligence Failure on China https://www.juancole.com/2023/01/supersede-everything-intelligence.html Mon, 23 Jan 2023 05:02:10 +0000 https://www.juancole.com/?p=209621 ( Tomdispatch.com) – Given the secrecy typically accorded to the military and the inclination of government officials to skew data to satisfy the preferences of those in power, intelligence failures are anything but unusual in this country’s security affairs. In 2003, for instance, President George W. Bush invaded Iraq based on claims — later found to be baseless — that its leader, Saddam Hussein, was developing or already possessed weapons of mass destruction. Similarly, the instant collapse of the Afghan government in August 2021, when the U.S. completed the withdrawal of its forces from that country, came as a shock only because of wildly optimistic intelligence estimates of that government’s strength. Now, the Department of Defense has delivered another massive intelligence failure, this time on China’s future threat to American security.

The Pentagon is required by law to provide Congress and the public with an annual report on “military and security developments involving the People’s Republic of China,” or PRC, over the next 20 years. The 2022 version, 196 pages of detailed information published last November 29th, focused on its current and future military threat to the United States. In two decades, so we’re assured, China’s military — the People’s Liberation Army, or PLA — will be superbly equipped to counter Washington should a conflict arise over Taiwan or navigation rights in the South China Sea. But here’s the shocking thing: in those nearly 200 pages of analysis, there wasn’t a single word — not one — devoted to China’s role in what will pose the most pressing threat to our security in the years to come: runaway climate change.

At a time when California has just been battered in a singular fashion by punishing winds and massive rainstorms delivered by a moisture-laden “atmospheric river” flowing over large parts of the state while much of the rest of the country has suffered from severe, often lethal floods, tornadoes, or snowstorms, it should be self-evident that climate change constitutes a vital threat to our security. But those storms, along with the rapacious wildfires and relentless heatwaves experienced in recent summers — not to speak of a 1,200-year record megadrought in the Southwest — represent a mere prelude to what we can expect in the decades to come. By 2042, the nightly news — already saturated with storm-related disasters — could be devoted almost exclusively to such events.

All true, you might say, but what does China have to do with any of this? Why should climate change be included in a Department of Defense report on security developments in relation to the People’s Republic?

There are three reasons why it should not only have been included but given extensive coverage. First, China is now and will remain the world’s leading emitter of climate-altering carbon emissions, with the United States — though historically the greatest emitter — staying in second place. So, any effort to slow the pace of global warming and truly enhance this country’s “security” must involve a strong drive by Beijing to reduce its emissions as well as cooperation in energy decarbonization between the two greatest emitters on this planet. Second, China itself will be subjected to extreme climate-change harm in the years to come, which will severely limit the PRC’s ability to carry out ambitious military plans of the sort described in the 2022 Pentagon report. Finally, by 2042, count on one thing: the American and Chinese armed forces will be devoting most of their resources and attention to disaster relief and recovery, diminishing both their motives and their capacity to go to war with one another.

China’s Outsized Role in the Climate-Change Equation

Global warming, scientists tell us, is caused by the accumulation of “anthropogenic” (human-produced) greenhouse gases (GHGs) in the atmosphere that trap the reflected light from the sun’s radiation. Most of those GHGs are carbon and methane emitted during the production and combustion of fossil fuels (oil, coal, and natural gas); additional GHGs are released through agricultural and industrial processes, especially steel and cement production. To prevent global warming from exceeding 1.5 degrees Celsius above the pre-industrial era — the largest increase scientists believe the planet can absorb without catastrophic outcomes — such emissions will have to be sharply reduced.

Historically speaking, the United States and the European Union (EU) countries have been the largest GHG emitters, responsible for 25% and 22% of cumulative CO2 emissions, respectively. But those countries, and other advanced industrial nations like Canada and Japan, have been taking significant steps to reduce their emissions, including phasing out the use of coal in electricity generation and providing incentives for the purchase of electric vehicles. As a result, their net CO2 emissions have diminished in recent years and are expected to decline further in the decades to come (though they will need to do yet more to keep us below that 1.5-degree warming limit).

China, a relative latecomer to the industrial era, is historically responsible for “only” 13% of cumulative global CO2 emissions. However, in its drive to accelerate its economic growth in recent decades, it has vastly increased its reliance on coal to generate electricity, resulting in ever-greater CO2 emissions. China now accounts for an astonishing 56% of total world coal consumption, which, in turn, largely explains its current dominance among the major carbon emitters. According to the 2022 edition of the International Energy Agency’s World Energy Outlook, the PRC was responsible for 33% of global CO2 emissions in 2021, compared with 15% for the U.S. and 11% for the EU.

Like most other countries, China has pledged to abide by the Paris Climate Agreement of 2015 and undertake the decarbonization of its economy as part of a worldwide drive to keep global warming within some bounds. As part of that agreement, however, China identified itself as a “developing” country with the option of increasing its fossil-fuel use for 15 years or so before achieving a peak in CO2 emissions in 2030. Barring some surprising set of developments then, the PRC will undoubtedly remain the world’s leading source of CO2 emissions for years to come, suffusing the atmosphere with colossal amounts of carbon dioxide and undergirding a continuing rise in global temperatures.   

Yes, the United States, Japan, and the EU countries should indeed do more to reduce their emissions, but they’re already on a downward trajectory and an even more rapid decline will not be enough to offset China’s colossal CO2 output. Put differently, those Chinese emissions — estimated by the IEA at 12 billion metric tons annually — represent at least as great a threat to U.S. security as the multitude of tanks, planes, ships, and missiles enumerated in the Pentagon’s 2022 report on security developments in the PRC. That means they will require the close attention of American policymakers if we are to escape the most severe impacts of climate change.

China’s Vulnerability to Climate Change

Along with detailed information on China’s outsized contribution to the greenhouse effect, any thorough report on security developments involving the PRC should have included an assessment of that country’s vulnerability to climate change. It should have laid out just how global warming might, in the future, affect its ability to marshal resources for a demanding, high-cost military competition with the United States.

In the coming decades, like the U.S. and other continental-scale countries, China will suffer severely from the multiple impacts of rising world temperatures, including extreme storm damage, prolonged droughts and heatwaves, catastrophic flooding, and rising seas. Worse yet, the PRC has several distinctive features that will leave it especially vulnerable to global warming, including a heavily-populated eastern seaboard exposed to rising sea levels and increasingly powerful typhoons; a vast interior, parts of which, already significantly dry, will be prone to full-scale desertification; and a vital river system that relies on unpredictable rainfall and increasingly imperiled glacial runoff. As warming advances and China experiences an ever-increasing climate assault, its social, economic, and political institutions, including the ruling Chinese Communist Party (CCP), will be severely tested.

According to a recent study from the Center for Climate and Security, “China’s Climate Security Vulnerabilities,” the threats to its vital institutions will take two major forms: hits to its critical infrastructure like port facilities, military bases, transportation hubs, and low-lying urban centers along China’s heavily populated coastline; and the danger of growing internal instability arising from ever-increasing economic dislocation, food scarcity, and governmental incapacitation.

China’s coastline already suffers heavy flooding during severe storms and significant parts of it could be entirely underwater by the second half of this century, requiring the possible relocation of hundreds of millions of people and the reconstruction of billions of dollars’ worth of vital facilities. Such tasks will surely require the full attention of Chinese authorities as well as the extensive homebound commitment of military resources, leaving little capacity for foreign adventures. Why, you might wonder, is there not a single sentence about this in the Pentagon’s assessment of future Chinese capabilities?

Even more worrisome, from Beijing’s perspective, is the possible effect of climate change on the country’s internal stability. “Climate change impacts are likely to threaten China’s economic growth, its food and water security, and its efforts at poverty eradication,” the climate center’s study suggests (but the Pentagon report doesn’t mention). Such developments will, in turn, “likely increase the country’s vulnerability to political instability, as climate change undermines the government’s ability to meet its citizens’ demands.”

Of particular concern, the report suggests, is global warming’s dire threat to food security. China, it notes, must feed approximately 20% of the world’s population while occupying only 12% of its arable land, much of which is vulnerable to drought, flooding, extreme heat, and other disastrous climate impacts. As food and water supplies dwindle, Beijing could face popular unrest, even revolt, in food-scarce areas of the country, especially if the government fails to respond adequately. This, no doubt, will compel the CCP to deploy its armed forces nationwide to maintain order, leaving ever fewer of them available for other military purposes — another possibility absent from the Pentagon’s assessment.

Of course, in the years to come, the U.S., too, will feel the ever more severe impacts of climate change and may itself no longer be in a position to fight wars in distant lands — a consideration also completely absent from the Pentagon report.

The Prospects for Climate Cooperation

Along with gauging China’s military capabilities, that annual report is required by law to consider “United States-China engagement and cooperation on security matters… including through United States-China military-to-military contacts.” And indeed, the 2022 version does note that Washington interprets such “engagement” as involving joint efforts to avert accidental or inadvertent conflict by participating in high-level Pentagon-PLA crisis-management arrangements, including what’s known as the Crisis Communications Working Group. “Recurring exchanges [like these],” the report affirms, “serve as regularized mechanisms for dialogue to advance priorities related to crisis prevention and management.”

Any effort aimed at preventing conflict between the two countries is certainly a worthy endeavor. But the report also assumes that such military friction is now inevitable and the most that can be hoped for is to prevent World War III from being ignited. However, given all we’ve already learned about the climate threat to both China and the United States, isn’t it time to move beyond mere conflict avoidance to more collaborative efforts, military and otherwise, aimed at reducing our mutual climate vulnerabilities?

At the moment, sadly enough, such relations sound far-fetched indeed.  But it shouldn’t be so. After all, the Department of Defense has already designated climate change a vital threat to national security and has indeed called for cooperative efforts between American forces and those of other countries in overcoming climate-related dangers. “We will elevate climate as a national security priority,” Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin declared in March 2021, “integrating climate considerations into the Department’s policies, strategies, and partner engagements.”

The Pentagon provided further information on such “partner engagements” in a 2021 report on the military’s vulnerabilities to climate change. “There are many ways for the Department to integrate climate considerations into international partner engagements,” that report affirmed, “including supporting interagency diplomacy and development initiatives in partner nations [and] sharing best practices.” One such effort, it noted, is the Pacific Environmental Security Partnership, a network of climate specialists from that region who meet annually at the Pentagon-sponsored Pacific Environmental Security Forum.

At present, China is not among the nations involved in that or other Pentagon-sponsored climate initiatives. Yet, as both countries experience increasingly severe impacts from rising global temperatures and their militaries are forced to devote ever more time and resources to disaster relief, information-sharing on climate-response “best practices” will make so much more sense than girding for war over Taiwan or small uninhabited islands in the East and South China Seas (some of which will be completely underwater by century’s end). Indeed, the Pentagon and the PLA are more alike in facing the climate challenge than most of the world’s military forces and so it should be in both countries’ mutual interests to promote cooperation in the ultimate critical area for any country in this era of ours.

Consider it a form of twenty-first-century madness, then, that a Pentagon report on the U.S. and China can’t even conceive of such a possibility. Given China’s increasingly significant role in world affairs, Congress should require an annual Pentagon report on all relevant military and security developments involving the PRC. Count on one thing: in the future, one devoted exclusively to analyzing what still passes for “military” developments and lacking any discussion of climate change will seem like an all-too-grim joke. The world deserves better going forward if we are to survive the coming climate onslaught.

Via Tomdispatch.com

What If the U.S. and China Really Cooperated on Climate Change? Imagining a Necessary Future https://www.juancole.com/2022/11/cooperated-imagining-necessary.html Mon, 28 Nov 2022 05:02:58 +0000 https://www.juancole.com/?p=208426 ( Tomdispatch.com) – As President Biden and his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping arrived on the resort island of Bali, Indonesia, for their November 14th “summit,” relations between their two countries were on a hair-raising downward spiral, with tensions over Taiwan nearing the boiling point. Diplomats hoped, at best, for a modest reduction in tensions, which, to the relief of many, did occur. No policy breakthroughs were expected, however, and none were achieved. In one vital area, though, there was at least a glimmer of hope: the planet’s two largest greenhouse-gas emitters agreed to resume their languishing negotiations on joint efforts to overcome the climate crisis.

These talks have been an on-again, off-again proposition since President Barack Obama initiated them before the Paris climate summit of December 2015, at which delegates were to vote on a landmark measure to prevent global temperatures from rising more than 1.5 degrees Celsius (the maximum amount scientists believe this planet can absorb without catastrophic consequences). The U.S.-Chinese consultations continued after the adoption of the Paris climate accord, but were suspended in 2017 by that climate-change-denying president Donald Trump. They were relaunched by President Biden in 2021, only to be suspended again by an angry Chinese leadership in retaliation for House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s August 2nd visit to Taiwan, viewed in Beijing as a show of support for pro-independence forces on that island. But thanks to Biden’s intense lobbying in Bali, President Xi agreed to turn the interactive switch back on.

Behind that modest gesture there lies a far more momentous question: What if the two countries moved beyond simply talking and started working together to champion the radical lowering of global carbon emissions? What miracles might then be envisioned? To help find answers to that momentous question means revisiting the recent history of the U.S.-Chinese climate collaboration.

The Promise of Collaboration

In November 2014, based on extensive diplomatic groundwork, Presidents Obama and Xi met in Beijing and signed a statement pledging joint action to ensure the success of the forthcoming Paris summit. “The United States of America and the People’s Republic of China have a critical role to play in combating global climate change,” they affirmed. “The seriousness of the challenge calls upon the two sides to work constructively together for the common good.”

Obama then ordered Secretary of State John Kerry to collaborate with Chinese officials in persuading other attendees at that summit — officially, the 21st Conference of the Parties of the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change, or COP21 — to agree on a firm commitment to honor the 1.5-degree limit. That joint effort, many observers believe, was instrumental in persuading reluctant participants like India and Russia to sign the Paris climate agreement.

“With our historic joint announcement with China last year,” Obama declared at that summit’s concluding session, “we showed it was possible to bridge the old divides… that had stymied global progress for so long. That accomplishment encouraged dozens and dozens of other nations to set their own ambitious climate targets.”

Buy the Book

Obama also pointed out that any significant global progress along that path was dependent on continued cooperation between the two countries. “No nation, not even one as powerful as ours, can solve this challenge alone.”

Trump and the Perils of Non-Cooperation

That era of cooperation didn’t last long. Donald Trump, an ardent fan of fossil fuels, made no secret of his aversion to the Paris climate accord. He signaled his intent to exit from the agreement soon after taking office. “It is time to put Youngstown, Ohio; Detroit, Michigan; and Pittsburgh, PA, along with many, many other locations within our great country, before Paris, France,” he said ominously in 2017 when announcing his decision.

With the U.S. absent from the scene, progress in implementing the Paris Agreement slowed to a crawl. Many countries that had been pressed by the U.S. and China to agree to ambitious emissions-reduction schedules began to opt out of those commitments in sync with Trump’s America. China, too, the greatest greenhouse gas emitter of this moment and the leading user of that dirtiest of fossil fuels, coal, felt far less pressure to honor its commitment, even on a rapidly heating planet.

No one knows what would have happened had Trump not been elected and those U.S.-China talks not been suspended, but in the absence of such collaboration, there was a steady rise in carbon emissions and temperatures across the planet. According to CO.2.Earth, emissions grew from 35.5 billion metric tons in 2016 to 36.4 billion tons in 2021, a 2.5% increase. Since such emissions are the leading contributor to the greenhouse-gas effect responsible for global warming, it should be no surprise that the past seven years have also proven the hottest on record, with much of the world experiencing record-breaking heatwaves, forest fires, droughts, and crop failures. We can be fairly certain, moreover, that in the absence of renewed U.S.-China climate cooperation, such disasters will become ever more frequent and severe.

On Again, Off Again

Overcoming this fearsome trend was one of Joe Biden’s principal campaign promises and, against strong Republican opposition, he has indeed endeavored to undo at least some of the damage wrought by Trump. It was symbolic indeed that he rejoined the Paris climate accord on his first day in office and ordered his cabinet to accelerate the government’s transition to clean energy. In August, he achieved a significant breakthrough when Congress approved the Inflation Reduction Act of 2022, which provides $369 billion in loans, grants, and tax credits for green-energy initiatives.

Biden also sought to reinvigorate Washington’s global-warming diplomacy and the stalled talks with China, naming John Kerry as his special envoy for climate action. Kerry, in turn, reestablished ties with his Chinese colleagues from his time as secretary of state. At last year’s COP26 gathering in Glasgow, Scotland, he persuaded them to join the U.S. in approving the “Glasgow Declaration,” a commitment to step up efforts to mitigate climate change.

However, in so many ways, Joe Biden and his foreign policy team are still caught up in the Cold War era and his administration has generally taken a far more antagonistic approach to China than Obama. Not surprisingly, then, the progress Kerry achieved with his Chinese counterparts at Glasgow largely evaporated as tensions over Taiwan only grew more heated. Biden was, for instance, the first president in memory to claim — four times — that U.S. military forces would defend that island in a crisis, were it to be attacked by China, essentially tossing aside Washington’s longstanding position of “strategic ambiguity” on the Taiwan question. In response, China’s leaders became ever more strident in claiming that the island belonged to them.

When Nancy Pelosi made that Taiwan visit in early August, the Chinese responded by firing ballistic missiles into the waters around the island and, in a fit of anger, terminated those bilateral climate-change talks. Now, thanks to Biden’s entreaties in Bali, the door seems again open for the two countries to collaborate on limiting global greenhouse gas emissions. At a moment of ever more devastating evidence of planetary heating, from a megadrought in the U.S. to “extreme heat” in China, the question is: What might any meaningful new collaborative effort involve?

Reasserting the Climate’s Centrality

In 2015, few of those in power doubted the overarching threat posed by climate change or the need to bring international diplomacy to bear to help overcome it. In Paris, Obama declared that “the growing threat of climate change could define the contours of this century more dramatically than any other.” What should give us hope, he continued, “is the fact that our nations share a sense of urgency about this challenge and a growing realization that it is within our power to do something about it.”

Since then, all too sadly, other challenges, including the growth of Cold War-style tensions with China, the Covid-19 pandemic, and Russia’s brutal invasion of Ukraine, have come to “define the contours” of this century. In 2022, even as the results of the overheating of the planet become ever more obvious, few world leaders would contend that “it is within our power” to overcome the climate peril. So, the first (and perhaps most valuable) outcome of any renewed U.S.-China climate cooperation might simply be to place climate change at the top of the world’s agenda again and provide evidence that the major powers, working together, can successfully tackle the issue.

Such an effort might, for instance, start with a Washington-Beijing “climate summit,” presided over by presidents Biden and Xi and attended by high-level delegations from around the world. American and Chinese scientists could offer the latest bad news on the likely future trajectory of global warming, while identifying real-world goals to significantly reduce fossil-fuel use. This might, in turn, lead to the formation of multilateral working groups, hosted by U.S. and Chinese agencies and institutions, to meet regularly and implement the most promising strategies for halting the onrushing disaster.

Following the example set by Obama and Xi at COP21 in Paris, Biden and Xi would agree to play a pivotal role in the next Conference of the Parties, COP28, scheduled for December 2023 in the United Arab Emirates. Following the inconclusive outcome of COP27, recently convened at Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt, strong leadership will be required to ensure something significantly better at COP28. Among the goals those two leaders would need to pursue, the top priority should be the full implementation of the 2015 Paris accord with its commitment to a 1.5-degree maximum temperature increase, followed by a far greater effort by the wealthy nations to assist developing countries suffering from its effects.

There’s no way, however, that China and the U.S. will be able to exert a significant international influence on climate efforts if both countries — the former the leading emitter of greenhouse gasses at this moment and the latter the historic leader — don’t take far greater initiatives to lower their carbon emissions and shift to renewable sources of energy. The Inflation Reduction Act will indeed allow the White House to advance many new initiatives in this direction, while China is moving more swiftly than any other country to install added supplies of wind and solar energy. Nevertheless, both countries continue to rely on fossil fuels for a substantial share of their energy — China, for instance, remains the greatest user of coal, burning more of it than the rest of the world combined — and so both will need to agree on even more aggressive moves to reduce their carbon emissions if they hope to persuade other nations to do the same.

The Sino-American Fund for Clean Energy Transitions

In a better world, next on my list of possible outcomes from a reinvigorated U.S.-Chinese relationship would be joint efforts to help finance the global transition from fossil fuels to renewable energy. Although the cost of deploying renewables, especially wind and solar energy, has fallen dramatically in recent years, it remains substantial even for wealthy countries. For many developing nations, it remains an unaffordable option. This emerged as a major issue at COP27 in Egypt, where representatives from the Global South complained that the wealthy countries largely responsible for the overheating of the planet weren’t doing faintly enough (or, in many cases, anything), despite prior promises, to help them shoulder the costs of the increasingly devastating effects of climate change and the future greening of their countries.

Many of these complaints revolved around the Green Climate Fund, established at COP16 in Cancún. The developed countries agreed to provide $100 billion annually to that fund by 2020 to help developing nations bear the costs of transitioning to renewable energy. Although that amount is now widely viewed as wildly insufficient for such a transition — “all of the evidence suggests that we need trillions, not billions,” observed Baysa Naran, a manager at the research center Climate Policy Initiative — the Fund has never even come close to hitting that $100 billion target, leaving many in the Global South bitter as, with unprecedented flooding and staggering heat waves, climate change strikes home ever more horrifically there.

When the U.S. and China were working on the climate together at COP26 in Glasgow, filling the Green Climate Fund appeared genuinely imaginable. In their Glasgow Declaration of November 2021, John Kerry and his Chinese counterpart, Xie Zhenhua, affirmed that “both countries recognize the importance of the commitment made by developed countries to the goal of mobilizing jointly $100b per year by 2020 and annually through 2025 to address the needs of developing countries [and] stress the importance of meeting that goal as soon as possible.”

Sadly enough, all too little came of that affirmation in the months that followed, as U.S.-China relations turned ever more antagonistic. Now, in the wake of Biden’s meeting with Xi and the resumption of their talks on climate change, it’s at least possible to imagine intensified bilateral efforts to advance that $100 billion objective — and even go far beyond it (though we can expect fierce resistance from the new Republican majority in the House of Representatives).

As my contribution to such thinking, let me suggest the formation of a Sino-American Fund for Green Energy Transitions — a grant- and loan-making institution jointly underwritten by the two countries with the primary purpose of financing renewable energy projects in the developing world. Decisions on such funding would be made by a board of directors, half from each country, with staff work performed by professionals drawn from around the world. The aim: to supplement the Green Climate Fund with additional hundreds of billions of dollars annually and so speed the global energy transition.

The Pathway to Peace and Survival

The leaders of the U.S. and China both recognize that global warming poses an extraordinary threat to the survival of their nations and that colossal efforts will be needed in the coming years to minimize the climate peril, while preparing for its most severe effects. “The climate crisis is the existential challenge of our time,” the Biden administration’s October 2022 National Security Strategy (NSS) states. “Without immediate global action to reduce emissions, scientists tell us we will soon exceed 1.5 degrees of warming, locking in further extreme heat and weather, rising sea levels, and catastrophic biodiversity loss.”

Despite that all-too-on-target assessment, the NSS portrays competition from China as an even greater threat to U.S. security — without citing any of the same sort of perilous outcomes — and proposes a massive mobilization of the nation’s economic, technological, and military resources to ensure American dominance of the Asia-Pacific region for decades to come. That strategy will, of course, require trillions of dollars in military expenditures, ensuring insufficient funding to tackle the climate crisis and exposing this country to an ever-increasing risk of war — possibly even a nuclear one — with China.

Given such dangers, perhaps the best outcome of renewed U.S.-China climate cooperation, or green diplomacy, might be increasing trust between the leaders of those two countries, allowing for a reduction in tensions and military expenditures. Indeed, such an approach constitutes the only practical strategy for saving us from the catastrophic consequences of both a U.S.-China conflict and unconstrained climate change.

Copyright 2022 Michael T. Klare

Via Tomdispatch.com

The World’s Other Nuclear Flashpoint: Mounting Tensions Over Taiwan https://www.juancole.com/2022/10/flashpoint-mounting-tensions.html Wed, 12 Oct 2022 04:02:15 +0000 https://www.juancole.com/?p=207539 ( Tomdispatch.com ) – Thanks to Vladimir Putin’s recent implicit threat to employ nuclear weapons if the U.S. and its NATO allies continue to arm Ukraine — “This is not a bluff,” he insisted on September 21st — the perils in the Russo-Ukrainian conflict once again hit the headlines. And it’s entirely possible, as ever more powerful U.S. weapons pour into Ukraine and Russian forces suffer yet more defeats, that the Russian president might indeed believe that the season for threats is ending and only the detonation of a nuclear weapon will convince the Western powers to back off. If so, the war in Ukraine could prove historic in the worst sense imaginable — the first conflict since World War II to lead to nuclear devastation.

But hold on! As it happens, Ukraine isn’t the only place on the planet where a nuclear conflagration could erupt in the near future. Sad to say, around the island of Taiwan — where U.S. and Chinese forces are engaging in ever more provocative military maneuvers — there is also an increasing risk that such moves by both sides could lead to nuclear escalation.

While neither American nor Chinese officials have explicitly threatened to use such weaponry, both sides have highlighted possible extreme outcomes there. When Joe Biden last spoke with Xi Jinping by telephone on July 29th, the Chinese president warned him against allowing House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to visit the island (which she nonetheless did, four days later) or offering any further encouragement to “Taiwan independence forces” there. “Those who play with fire will perish by it,” he assured the American president, an ambiguous warning to be sure, but one that nevertheless left open the possible use of nuclear weapons.

As if to underscore that point, on September 4th, the day after Pelosi met with senior Taiwanese officials in Taipei, China fired 11 Dongfeng-15 (DF-15) ballistic missiles into the waters around that island. Many Western observers believe that the barrage was meant as a demonstration of Beijing’s ability to attack any U.S. naval vessels that might come to Taiwan’s aid in the event of a Chinese blockade or invasion of the island. And the DF-15, with a range of 600 miles, is believed capable of delivering not only a conventional payload, but also a nuclear one.

In the days that followed, China also sent nuclear-capable H-6 heavy bombers across the median line in the Taiwan Strait, a previously respected informal boundary between China and that island. Worse yet, state-owned media displayed images of Dongfeng-17 (DF-17) hypersonic ballistic missiles, also believed capable of carrying nuclear weapons, being moved into positions off Taiwan.

Buy the Book

Washington has not overtly deployed nuclear-capable weaponry in such a brazen fashion near Chinese territory, but it certainly has sent aircraft carriers and guided-missile warships into the area, signaling its ability to launch attacks on the mainland should a war break out. While Pelosi was in Taiwan, for example, the Navy deployed the carrier USS Ronald Reagan with its flotilla of escort vessels in nearby waters. Military officials in both countries are all too aware that should such ships ever attack Chinese territory, those DF-15s and DF-17s would be let loose against them — and, if armed with nuclear warheads, would likely provoke a U.S. nuclear response.

The implicit message on both sides: a nuclear war might be possible. And although — unlike with Putin’s comments — the American media hasn’t highlighted the way Taiwan might trigger such a conflagration, the potential is all too ominously there.

“One China” and “Strategic Ambiguity”

In reality, there’s nothing new about the risk of nuclear war over Taiwan. In both the Taiwan Strait crises of 1954-1955 and 1958, the United States threatened to attack a then-nonnuclear China with such weaponry if it didn’t stop shelling the Taiwanese-controlled islands of Kinmen (Quemoy) and Mazu (Matsu), located off that country’s coast. At the time, Washington had no formal relations with the communist regime on the mainland and recognized the Republic of China (ROC) — as Taiwan calls itself — as the government of all China. In the end, however, U.S. leaders found it advantageous to recognize the People’s Republic of China (PRC) in place of the ROC and the risk of a nuclear conflict declined precipitously — until recently.

Credit the new, increasingly perilous situation to Washington’s changing views of Taiwan’s strategic value to America’s dominant position in the Pacific as it faces the challenge of China’s emergence as a great power. When the U.S. officially recognized the PRC in 1978, it severed its formal diplomatic and military relationship with the ROC, while “acknowledg[ing] the Chinese position that there is but one China and [that] Taiwan is part of China.” That stance — what came to be known as the “One China” policy — has, in fact, underwritten peaceful relations between the two countries (and Taiwan’s autonomy) ever since, by allowing Chinese leaders to believe that the island would, in time, join the mainland.

Taiwan’s safety and autonomy has also been preserved over the years by another key feature of U.S. policy, known as “strategic ambiguity.” It originated with the Taiwan Relations Act of 1979, a measure passed in the wake of the U.S. decision to recognize the PRC as the legal government of all China. Under the act, still in effect, the U.S. is empowered to supply Taiwan with “defensive” arms, while maintaining only semi-official ties with its leadership. It also says that Washington would view any Chinese attempt to alter Taiwan’s status through violent means as a matter “of grave concern,” but without explicitly stating that the U.S. will come to Taiwan’s aid if that were to occur. Such official ambiguity helped keep the peace, in part by offering Taiwan’s leadership no guarantee that Washington would back them if they declared independence and China invaded, while giving the leaders of the People’s Republic no assurance that Washington would remain on the sidelines if they did.

Since 1980, both Democratic and Republican administrations have relied on such strategic ambiguity and the One China policy to guide their peaceful relations with the PRC. Over the years, there have been periods of spiking tensions between Washington and Beijing, with Taiwan’s status a persistent irritant, but never a fundamental breach in relations. And that — consider the irony, if you will — has allowed Taiwan to develop into a modern, prosperous quasi-state, while escaping involvement in a major-power confrontation (in part because it just didn’t figure prominently enough in U.S. strategic thinking).

From 1980 to 2001, America’s top foreign-policy officials were largely focused on defeating the Soviet Union, dealing with the end of the Cold War, and expanding global trade opportunities. Then, from September 11, 2001, to 2018, their attention was diverted to the Global War on Terror. In the early years of the Trump administration, however, senior military officials began switching their focus from the War on Terror to what they termed “great-power competition,” arguing that facing off against “near-peer” adversaries, namely China and Russia, should be the dominant theme in military planning. And only then did Taiwan acquire a different significance.

The Pentagon’s new strategic outlook was first spelled out in the National Defense Strategy of February 2018 in this way: “The central challenge to U.S. prosperity and security is the reemergence of long-term, strategic competition” with China and Russia. (And yes, the emphasis was in the original.) China, in particular, was identified as a vital threat to Washington’s continued global dominance. “As China continues its economic and military ascendance,” the document asserted, “it will continue to pursue a military modernization program that seeks Indo-Pacific regional hegemony in the near-term and displacement of the United States to achieve global preeminence in the future.”

An ominous “new Cold War” era had begun.

Taiwan’s Strategic Significance Rises

To prevent China from achieving that most feared of all results, “Indo-Pacific regional hegemony,” Pentagon leaders devised a multipronged strategy, combining an enhanced U.S. military presence in the region with beefed-up, ever more militarized ties with America’s allies there. As that 2018 National Defense Strategy put it, “We will strengthen our alliances and partnerships in the Indo-Pacific to a networked security architecture capable of deterring aggression, maintaining stability, and ensuring free access to common domains.” Initially, that “networked security architecture” was only to involve long-term allies like Australia, Japan, South Korea, and the Philippines. Soon enough, however, Taiwan came to be viewed as a crucial part of such an architecture.

To grasp what this meant, imagine a map of the Western Pacific. In seeking to “contain” China, Washington was relying on a chain of island and peninsular allies stretching from South Korea and Japan to the Philippines and Australia. Japan’s southernmost islands, including Okinawa — the site of major American military bases (and a vigorous local anti-base movement) — do reach all the way into the Philippine Sea. Still, there remains a wide gap between them and Luzon, the northernmost Philippine island. Smack in the middle of that gap lies… yep, you guessed it, Taiwan.

In the view of the top American military and foreign policy officials, for the United States to successfully prevent China from becoming a major regional power, it would have to bottle up that country’s naval forces within what they began calling “the first island chain” — the string of nations stretching from Japan to the Philippines and Indonesia. For China to thrive, as they saw it, that nation’s navy would have to be able to send its ships past that line of islands and reach deep into the Pacific. You won’t be surprised to learn, then, that solidifying U.S. defenses along that very chain became a top Pentagon priority — and, in that context, Taiwan has, ominously enough, come to be viewed as a crucial piece in the strategic puzzle.

Last December, Assistant Secretary of Defense for Indo-Pacific Security Affairs Ely Ratner summed up the Pentagon’s new way of thinking about the island’s geopolitical role when he appeared before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee last December. “Taiwan,” he said, “is located at a critical node within the first island chain, anchoring a network of U.S. allies and partners that is critical to the region’s security and critical to the defense of vital U.S. interests in the Indo-Pacific.”

This new perception of Taiwan’s “critical” significance has led senior policymakers in Washington to reconsider the basics, including their commitment to a One China policy and to strategic ambiguity. While still claiming that One China remains White House policy, President Biden has repeatedly insisted all too unambiguously that the U.S. has an obligation to defend Taiwan if attacked. When asked recently on Sixty Minutes whether “U.S. forces…would defend Taiwan in the event of a Chinese invasion,” Biden said, without hesitation, “Yes.” The administration has also upgraded its diplomatic ties with the island and promised it billions of dollars’ worth of arms transfers and other forms of military assistance. In essence, such moves constitute a de facto abandonment of “One China” and its replacement with a “one China, one Taiwan” policy.

Not surprisingly, the Chinese authorities have reacted to such comments and the moves accompanying them with increasing apprehension and anger. As seen from Beijing, they represent the full-scale repudiation of multiple statements acknowledging Taiwan’s indivisible ties to the mainland, as well as a potential military threat of the first order should that island become a formal U.S. ally. For President Xi and his associates, this is simply intolerable.

“The repeated attempts by the Taiwan authorities to look for U.S. support for their independence agenda as well as the intention of some Americans to use Taiwan to contain China” are deeply troubling, President Xi told Biden during their telephone call in November 2021. “Such moves are extremely dangerous, just like playing with fire. Whoever plays with fire will get burned.”

Since then, Chinese officials have steadily escalated their rhetoric, threatening war in ever more explicit terms. “If the Taiwanese authorities, emboldened by the United States, keep going down the road for independence,” Qin Gang, China’s ambassador to the U.S., typically told NPR in January 2022, “it most likely will involve China and the United States, the two big countries, in military conflict.”

To demonstrate its seriousness, China has begun conducting regular air and naval exercises in the air- and sea-space surrounding Taiwan. Such maneuvers usually involve the deployment of five or six warships and a dozen or more warplanes, as well as ever greater displays of firepower, clearly with the intention of intimidating the Taiwanese leadership. On August 5th, for example, the Chinese deployed 13 warships and 68 warplanes in areas around Taiwan and two days later, 14 ships and 66 planes.

Each time, the Taiwanese scramble their own aircraft and deploy coastal defense vessels in response. Accordingly, as China’s maneuvers grow in size and frequency, the risk of an accidental or unintended clash becomes ever more likely. The increasingly frequent deployment of U.S. warships to nearby waters only adds to this explosive mix. Every time an American naval vessel is sent through the Taiwan Strait — something that occurs almost once a month now — China scrambles its own air and sea defenses, producing a comparable risk of unintended violence.

This was true, for example, when the guided-missile cruisers USS Antietam and USS Chancellorsville sailed through that strait on August 28th. According to Zhao Lijian, a spokesperson for the foreign ministry, China’s military “conducted security tracking and monitoring of the U.S. warships’ passage during their whole course and had all movements of the U.S. warships under control.”

No Barriers to Escalation?

If it weren’t for the seemingly never-ending war in Ukraine, the dangers of all of this might be far more apparent and deemed far more newsworthy. Unfortunately, at this point, there are no indications that either Beijing or Washington is prepared to scale back its provocative military maneuvers around Taiwan. That means an accidental or unintended clash could occur at any time, possibly triggering a full-scale conflict.

Imagine, then, what a decision by Taiwan to declare full independence or by the Biden administration to abandon the One China policy could mean. China would undoubtedly respond aggressively, perhaps with a naval blockade of the island or even a full-scale invasion. Given the increasingly evident lack of interest among the key parties in compromise, a violent outcome appears ever more likely.

However such a conflict erupts, it may prove difficult to contain the fighting at a “conventional” level. After all, both sides are wary of another war of attrition like the one unfolding in Ukraine and have instead shaped their military forces for rapid, firepower-intensive combat aimed at securing a decisive victory quickly. For Beijing, this could mean firing hundreds of ballistic missiles at U.S. ships and air bases in the region with the aim of eliminating any American capacity to attack its territory. For Washington, it might mean launching missiles at China’s key ports, air bases, radar stations, and command centers. In either case, the results could prove catastrophic. For the U.S., the loss of its carriers and other warships; for China, the loss of its very capacity to make war. Would leaders of the losing side accept such a situation without resorting to nuclear weapons? No one can say for sure, but the temptation to escalate would undoubtedly be great.

Unfortunately, at the moment, there are no U.S.-China negotiations under way to resolve the Taiwan question, to prevent unintended clashes in the Taiwan Strait, or to reduce the risk of nuclear escalation. In fact, China quite publicly cut off all discussion of bilateral issues, ranging from military affairs to climate change, in the wake of Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan. So, it’s essential, despite the present focus on escalation risks in Ukraine, to recognize that avoiding a war over Taiwan is no less important — especially given the danger that such a conflict could prove of even greater destructiveness. That’s why it’s so critical that Washington and Beijing put aside their differences long enough to initiate talks focused on preventing such a catastrophe.

Copyright 2022 Michael Klare

The Enduring Tyranny of Oil: War, Inflation, and Soaring World Temperatures https://www.juancole.com/2022/07/enduring-inflation-temperatures.html Wed, 27 Jul 2022 04:08:10 +0000 https://www.juancole.com/?p=206009 ( Tomdispatch.com ) – It may seem hard to believe, but only 15 years ago many of us were talking confidently about “peak oil” — the moment of maximum global oil output after which, with world reserves dwindling, its use would begin an irreversible decline. Then along came hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, and the very notion of peak oil largely vanished. Instead, some analysts began speaking of “peak oil demand” — a moment, not so far away, when electric vehicle (EV) ownership would be so widespread that the need for petroleum would largely disappear, even if there was still plenty of it to frack or drill. However, in 2020, EVs made up less than 1% of the global light-vehicle fleet and are only expected to reach 20% of the total by 2040. So peak-oil demand remains a distant mirage, leaving us deeply beholden to the tyranny of petroleum, with all its perilous consequences.

For some perspective on this, recall that, in those pre-fracking days at the start of the century, many experts were convinced that world petroleum output would hit a daily peak of perhaps 90 million barrels in 2010, dropping to 70 or 80 million barrels by the end of that decade. In other words, we would have little choice but to begin converting our transportation systems to electricity, pronto. That would have caused a lot of disruption at first, but by now we would be well on our way to a green-energy future, with far less carbon emissions and a slowing pace of global warming.

Now, compare those hopeful scenarios to the latest data from the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA). At the moment, world oil production is hovering at around 100 million barrels daily and is projected to reach 109 million barrels by 2030, 117 million by 2040, and a jaw-dropping 126 million by 2050. So much, in other words, for “peak oil” and a swift transition to green energy.

Why global oil consumption is expected to hit such heights remains a complex tale. Foremost among the key factors, however, has certainly been the introduction of fracking technology, permitting the exploitation of mammoth shale reserves once considered inaccessible. On the demand side, there was (and remains) a worldwide preference — spearheaded by American consumers — for large, gas-guzzling SUVs and pickup trucks. In the developing world, it’s accompanied by an ever-expanding market for diesel-powered trucks and buses. Then there’s the global growth in air travel, sharply increasing the demand for jet fuel. Add to that the relentless efforts by the oil industry itself to deny climate-change science and obstruct global efforts to curb fossil-fuel consumption.

The question now facing us is this: What are the consequences of such a worrisome equation for our future, beginning with the environment?

More Oil Use = More Carbon Emissions = Rising World Temperatures

We all know — at least, those of us who believe in science — that carbon-dioxide emissions are the leading source of the greenhouse gases (GHGs) responsible for global warming and the combustion of fossil fuels is responsible for the lion’s share of those CO2 emissions. Scientists have also warned us that, without a sharp and immediate decline in such combustion — aimed at keeping global warming from exceeding 1.5 degrees Celsius above the pre-industrial era — genuinely catastrophic consequences will ensue. Those will include the complete desertification of the American West (already experiencing the worst drought in 1,200 years) and the flooding of major coastal cities, including New York, Boston, Miami, and Los Angeles.

Now consider this: in 2020, oil accounted for more global energy consumption than any other source — approximately 30% — and the EIA projects that, on our present course, it will remain the world’s number-one source of energy, possibly until as late as 2050. Because it’s such a carbon-intensive fuel (though less so than coal), oil was responsible for 34% of global carbon emissions in 2020 and that share is projected to rise to 37% by 2040. At that point, oil combustion will be responsible for the release of 14.7 million metric tons of heat-trapping GHGs into the atmosphere, ensuring even higher average world temperatures.

With CO2 emissions from oil use continuing to rise, there’s zero chance of staying within that 1.5 degrees Celsius limit or of preventing the catastrophic warming of this planet, with all it portends. Think of it this way: the stunning heatwaves experienced so far this year from China to India, Europe to the Horn of Africa, and this country to Brazil are only a mild foretaste of our future.

Oil and the War in Ukraine

Nor are heat waves the only perilous consequence of our still growing reliance on petroleum. Because of its vital role in transportation, industry, and agriculture, oil has always possessed immense geopolitical significance. There have, in fact, been scores of wars and internal conflicts over its ownership — and the colossal revenues it generates. The roots of every recent conflict in the Middle East, for example, can be traced back to such disputes. Despite much speculation about how peak-oil-demand scenarios could theoretically end all that, petroleum continues to shape world political and military affairs in a critical fashion.

Buy the Book

To appreciate its enduring influence, just consider the multiple connections between oil and the ongoing war in Ukraine.

To begin with, it’s unlikely that Vladimir Putin would have ever been in a position to order the invasion of another well-armed country if Russia weren’t one of the planet’s top oil producers. Following the implosion of the Soviet Union in 1991, what remained of the Red Army was in shambles, barely capable of crushing an ethnic insurgency in Chechnya. However, after becoming Russia’s president in 2000, Vladimir Putin imposed state control over much of the nation’s oil and gas industry and used the proceeds from energy exports to finance the rehabilitation and modernization of that military. According to the Energy Information Administration, revenue from oil and natural gas production provided, on average, 43% of the Russian government’s total annual revenue between 2011 and 2020. In other words, it allowed Putin’s forces to build up the vast stocks of the guns, tanks, and missiles that it’s been using so mercilessly in Ukraine.

No less important, after his military’s failure to take Kyiv, the Ukrainian capital, Putin would certainly have lacked the ability to continue the fight without the cash he receives every day from foreign oil sales. Although Russian petroleum exports have declined somewhat due to Western sanctions imposed after the war began, Moscow has been able to find clients in Asia — notably China and India — willing to buy up its excess crude oil once destined for Europe. Even if Russia is selling that oil at discounted prices, the undiscounted price has risen so sharply since the war began — with Brent crude, the industry standard, soaring from $80 a barrel in early February to $128 a barrel in March — that Russia is making more money now than when its invasion began. Indeed, economists at the Helsinki-based Center for Research on Energy and Clean Air have determined that, during the first 100 days of the war, Russia earned approximately $60 billion from its oil exports — more than enough to pay for its ongoing military operations in Ukraine.

To further punish Moscow, the 27 members of the European Union (EU) have agreed to ban all tanker-delivered Russian oil by the end of 2022 and cease its pipeline imports by the end of 2023 (a concession to Viktor Orbán of Hungary, which gets most of its crude oil via a Russian pipeline). This, in turn, would eliminate the monthly $23 billion that EU countries have been spending on those imports, but could, in the process, drive global prices higher yet, an obvious boon to Moscow. Unless China, India, and other non-Western buyers can be persuaded (or somehow compelled) to eliminate Russian imports, oil will continue to finance the war against Ukraine.

Oil, Ukraine, and the Global Inflationary Tsunami

The connections between oil and the war in Ukraine don’t end there. In fact, the two have combined to produce a global crisis unlike any in recent history. Because humanity has become so thoroughly reliant on petroleum products, any significant rise in the price of oil ripples through the global economy, affecting nearly every aspect of industry and commerce. Naturally, transportation takes the biggest hit, with all forms of it — from daily commuting to airline travel — becoming ever more costly. And because we’re so thoroughly dependent on oil-powered machines to grow our crops, any increase in the price of oil also automatically translates into increased food costs — a devastating phenomenon now occurring worldwide, with dire consequences for poor and working people.

The price data tell it all: From 2015 to 2021, Brent crude averaged around $50 to $60 a barrel, helping to spur automobile purchases while keeping inflation rates low. Prices started rising a year ago, driven by growing geopolitical tensions, including sanctions on Iran and Venezuela, as well as internal unrest in Libya and Nigeria — all major oil producers. Nevertheless, the price of crude only reached $75 per barrel as 2021 ended. Once the Ukraine crisis kicked in early this year, however, the price shot up rapidly, reaching $100 per barrel on February 14th and finally stabilizing (if such a word can even be used under the circumstances) at the current rate of approximately $115. This huge price spike, a doubling of the 2015 to 2021 average, has substantially increased travel, food, and shipping costs, only compounding the supply-chain problems sparked by the Covid-19 pandemic and fueling an inflation tsunami.

An inflationary tide of this sort can only cause distress and hardship, particularly for less affluent populations across the planet, leading to widespread unrest and public protest. For many, such hardships have only been compounded by Russia’s blockade of Ukrainian grain exports, which has contributed significantly to rising food prices and increasing starvation in already troubled parts of the world. In Sri Lanka, for instance, anger over high food and fuel prices combined with disdain for the country’s inept governing elite sparked weeks of mass protests that culminated in the flight and resignation of that country’s president. Angry protests against high fuel and food prices have swept through other countries as well. Ecuador’s capital, Quito, was paralyzed for a week in late June by just such an upheaval, leaving at least three people dead and nearly 100 wounded.

In the United States, distress over rising food and fuel prices is widely seen as a major liability for President Joe Biden and the Democrats as the 2022 congressional elections approach. The Republicans clearly intend to exploit public anger over soaring inflation and gas prices in their campaigns. In response, Biden, who promised while running for president to make climate change a major White House priority, has recently been scouring the planet for additional sources of petroleum in a desperate drive to lower prices at the gas pump. At home, he released 180 million barrels of oil from the national strategic petroleum reserve, a vast underground reservoir created after the “oil shocks” of the 1970s to provide a cushion against a time like this, and lifted environmental regulations prohibiting the summer use of an ethanol-based blend known as E15, which contributes to smog during warmer months. Abroad, he’s sought to renew contacts with the previously pariah regime of Venezuela’s President Nicolás Maduro, once a major oil exporter to the United States. In March, two senior White House officials met with Maduro in what was widely viewed as an attempt to restore those exports.

In the most controversial expression of this drive, in July the president traveled to Saudi Arabia — the world’s leading oil exporter — to meet its de facto leader, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. MBS, as he’s known, was viewed by many, including analysts at the Central Intelligence Agency (and Biden himself), as the person ultimately responsible for the October 2018 murder in Turkey of Jamal Khashoggi, a U.S.-based Saudi dissident and Washington Post columnist.

The president insisted that his principal motives for meeting MBS were to bolster regional defenses against Iran and counter Russian and Chinese influence in the Middle East. “This trip is about once again positioning America in this region for the future,” he told reporters in the Saudi city of Jeddah on July 15th. “We are not going to leave a vacuum in the Middle East for Russia or China to fill.”

But most independent analysts suggest that his primary objective was to secure a Saudi promise to substantially increase that country’s daily oil output — a move they only acceded to after Biden agreed to meet MBS, terminating his pariah status in Washington. According to press accounts, the Saudis did indeed agree to boost their rate of production, but also promised to delay announcing the increase for several weeks to avoid embarrassing Biden.

Ending the Enduring Tyranny of Oil

It’s telling that the “climate” president was so willing to meet the Saudi leader to obtain the short-term political benefit of lower gas prices before American voters go to the polls this November. In truth, though, oil still plays a far deeper role in White House calculations. Although the United States no longer relies on Middle Eastern oil imports for a large share of its own energy needs, many of its allies — as well as China — do. In other words, from a geopolitical perspective, control of the Middle East remains no less important than it did in 1990 when President George H.W. Bush launched Operation Desert Storm, this country’s first Persian Gulf war, or in 2003, when his son, President George W. Bush, invaded Iraq.

Indeed, the government’s own projections suggest that, if anything, by 2050 (yes, that distant year again!), Middle Eastern members of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries, or OPEC, could actually command a larger share of global crude oil production than they do now. This helps explain Biden’s comments about not leaving a vacuum in the Middle East “for Russia or China to fill.” The same line of reasoning is bound to shape U.S. policy towards other oil-producing areas, including in West Africa, Latin America, and the offshore regions of Asia.

It doesn’t take much imagination to suggest, then, that oil is likely to play a crucial role in American foreign and domestic policies for years to come, despite the hopes of so many of us that declining petroleum demand would foster a green-energy transition. No doubt Joe Biden had every intention of moving us in that direction when he assumed office, but it’s clear that — thank you, Joe Manchin! — he’s been overpowered by the tyranny of oil. Worse yet, those who do the bidding of the fossil-fuel industry, including virtually every Republican in Congress, are determined to perpetuate that tyranny at whatever cost to the planet and its inhabitants.

Overcoming such a global phalanx of oil-industry defenders will require far more political muscle than the environmental camp has yet been able to muster. To save the planet from an all-too-literal hell on earth and protect the lives of billions of its inhabitants — including every child alive today or to be born in the years to come — petroleum tyranny must be resisted with the same ferocity that anti-abortion forces have employed in their campaign to protect (or so they claim) unborn fetuses. We must, like them, work tirelessly to elect like-minded politicians and advance our legislative agenda. Only by fighting to reduce carbon emissions today can we be sure that our children and grandchildren will live in an unscorched, habitable planet.

Copyright 2022 Michael T. Klare

Via Tomdispatch.com