Climate change threatens US influence

Security experts say a modern Marshall Plan of aid for the Asia-Pacific region is needed to protect US strategic and economic interests from climate-related challenges.

Two American security experts say the Asia-Pacific region needs massive international aid to tackle its greatest problem − climate change.

And they fear that without a huge outlay on development, diplomacy and defence, the US claim to global leadership may be challenged.

In a report they edited for the Centre for Climate and Security (CCS), Caitlin Werrell and Francesco Femia say the region needs a new version of the Marshall Plan, the visionary scheme that helped to rebuild western Europe after the second world war.

The US contributed $13 billion (worth about $130 bn today) to that Plan, which was an international package of development assistance to help European economies, beginning in 1947 and running for four years.

The CCS report starts with a foreword by the former US Pacific commander, retired admiral Samuel J Locklear III, who says climate change “may prove to be Asia-Pacific’s greatest long-term challenge”, with “potentially catastrophic security implications”.

Political tensions

Werrell and Femia say the US has “a new strategic focus on the Asia-Pacific: a rising China; rapid economic and population growth; the proliferation of nuclear weapons and materials (five of the world’s nuclear powers are in the Indo-Asia-Pacific); increased economic activity and political tensions in the South China Sea; military build-ups (the area has seven of the world’s 10 largest standing militaries); and the opening of previously impassable sea lanes by a melting Arctic”.

They see a clear military imperative for Washington to act. They believe nations in the region may be tempted to “accept the reality of a regionally dominant China, and the economic and political consequences of that reality … More robustly addressing the region’s climate challenges offers the US an opportunity to enhance its regional influence.”

They also recognise a strong humanitarian argument. Some nations in the region, they say, which have traditionally had quite a difficult relationship with Washington, are also very vulnerable to natural disasters.

The UN Office for Disaster Risk Reduction says: “The Asia-Pacific region is the most disaster-prone area of the world and it is also the most seriously affected one. Almost two million people were killed in disasters between 1970 and 2011, representing 75 per cent of all disaster fatalities globally.”

Werrell and Femia say climate change will significantly multiply this vulnerability, leaving the region facing food shortages, water crises, catastrophic flooding, greater frequency and intensity of hydro-meteorological disasters, refugee movements, and increased public health problems.

The post-war Marshall Plan, they say, provided help “tied explicitly to diplomatic, development and defence priorities to maintain a Europe stable and secure enough to resist Soviet aggression … The US requires the modern equivalent of the Marshall Plan for the region to assist nations in addressing climate-related threats, and to complement its current military and economic engagement in the area.”

The authors recognise that some island states could cease to exist – a possibility they say may soon become irreversible fact – and argue that US contributions to climate resilience in the region have been very small.

Trust and goodwill

They see an opportunity for benefits to Washington beyond the military, and say that “meeting the region’s climate needs could provide the opportunity for economic and political stability; build trust and goodwill towards the United States; and serve as a non-threatening way of competing with China for regional influence”.

The authors say the effects of climate change − including sea level rise, rainfall variability and “the potentially destabilising effect of migrating fish stocks in the volatile South China Sea”−  could jeopardise a significant part of US investments, which therefore need protection.

One example they cite is a Thai plant in Bang Pa-In, where a quarter of the world’s “sliders” − an essential component of hard disk drives − are manufactured. “In 2010, that plant was inundated by floods that were the result of wild rainfall variability – increasingly attributed to climate change.”

The good news, they write, is that the foundation for a climate-security plan has already been laid. But the bad news is that it will require political will to build on the foundation so as to address the scale of the threat.

They say: “If the United States wants to be successful in the Asia-Pacific region, it will need to invest in combating the great threat multiplier in the region – climate change.

“A climate-security plan for Asia-Pacific may be the 21st-century equivalent of the Marshall Plan for Europe, and US global leadership may depend on it.” 

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