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Walker's World: From warming to warring

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by Martin Walker
Washington (UPI) Jan 11, 2009
The Copenhagen summit showed that climate change is as much about geopolitics and power as it is about the weather. China's blunt refusal to accept any binding limits on its carbon emissions, despite the agonized pleas of small island governments facing extinction, demonstrated that this new aspect of the game of nations is going to be played as hardball.

And yet, as Cleo Paskal argues in her pioneering new book "Global Warring," China is also powering ahead on every aspect of climate change. While protecting its right to pollute (because it depends heavily on coal as its main homegrown energy source), China is using state subsidies to seize the lead in solar power manufacturing.

The Beijing government is pursuing a ruthless drive to secure exclusive rights to oil and natural gas supplies in Africa, Central Asia and the disputed waters around the Spratly Islands of the South China Sea. It started the new fashion for buying exclusive rights to food from land deals in Africa.

Above all, with dams in Tibet and on its share of the Mekong, China is seeking to grab the lion's share of the water from the vast (but imperiled) Himalayan catchment area, while building a massive canal system to send the water to its arid north, where soil erosion has seen the Gobi desert advance to within 100 miles of Beijing.

But perhaps Paskal's most striking story is the way that China is also seeking to become a major player in the arctic. China has acquired an icebreaker, a seat with observer status on the Arctic Council and its own arctic research base at Svalbard. (China also has two research bases in the Antarctic.)

Strikingly, China is also courting Canada's native peoples (who control vast land rights across the northern territories), inviting over two dozen "First Nationan" chiefs and tribal leaders to China, to be told they were fellow-victims of white imperialism and also genetic brothers since the first Canadian had walked across the Bering Strait from Asia.

"Canadian aboriginals own or control about a third of the Canadian land mass," Chief Calvin Helin, leader of the delegation, explained after the trip, whose purpose was "to tell China that Aboriginal Canada was open for business. And to be greeted and hosted at the level we were is quite unbelievable and quite historic."

Paskal's book is full of such vignettes, illustrating the way that climate change and the intensifying competition for resources is starting to change the nature of power politics. Paskal, a Canadian who is a fellow of London's prestigious Chatham House think tank and a consultant for the U.S. Department of Energy, has been a pioneering scholar of the new terrain where climate change confronts national security, where geopolitics, geoeconomics and global warming all collide. It is not just rivalry for oil and gas supplies and water, but also for fishing rights and undersea mining and mineral rights that may well be up for grabs when some of the lowest-lying Pacific island countries disappear under the rising waves.

The Maldives government, Paskal reveals, has already started talks with India about relocating its population there. But under the confused state of current international law, it is not clear whether a country that loses its land would also have to lose its mineral and other rights.

This matters a great deal to Florida, which could, under some scenarios of rising sea levels, lose Miami and the Keys. Under current law, the United States would then lose a lot more than that, since the "exploitation frontier" between Cuba and the U.S. mainland would then shift to the halfway point between Cuba and the remaining Florida coast. At a stroke, Cuba would gain mineral and other rights over the seas that cover what used to be Key West, and the United States could need Cuban approval to enter the Gulf of Mexico.

"We need to start thinking about the legal and economic implications of these developments now, before we have to start tackling them in the middle of a crisis or a humanitarian emergency," Paskal told a seminar at Washington's Woodrow Wilson center Friday. Among those attending were National Intelligence Council officials and members of the White House interagency task force on implications of climate change.

Paskal sees China and Russia taking these issues more seriously that the United States and Europe, and her book is not just a wakeup call for Western leaders but is also an arresting and original work on climate change, probably the most important book on the environment to be published this year.

"As pressure is put on food, water supplies and national boundaries, famine and war may become more frequent," Paskal concludes. "This instability may make populations more tolerant of autocratic governments, especially nationalistic capitalist ones where the political, economic and military sectors combine to protect existing resources and aggressively try to secure new ones. China and Russia already have a head start on this model."

"Global Warring," by Cleo Paksal, Palgrave Macmillan, $27.

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