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Eco-Justice Notes
The E-mail Commentary from Eco-Justice Ministries

WMDs and Climate
distributed 2/21/14 - ©2014

I'm glad he said it, but the way John Kerry developed the "weapon of mass destruction" metaphor for climate change has some problems.

Last weekend -- in a speech to students and government officials in Indonesia -- the US Secretary of State said, "In a sense climate change can now be considered another weapon of mass destruction, perhaps the world's most fearsome weapon of mass destruction." He recalled his visit to the Philippines shortly after Typhoon Haiyan, which killed more than 5,000 people and devastated communities, and asserted: "The fact is that climate change, if left unchecked, will wipe out many more communities from the face of the earth."

Mr. Kerry was refreshingly blunt. "We just don't have time to let a few loud interest groups hijack the climate conversation. I'm talking about big companies that like it the way it is, that don't want to change, and spend a lot of money to keep you and me and everybody from doing what we know we need to do. ... We should not allow a tiny minority of shoddy scientists ... and extreme ideologues to compete with scientific fact. The science is unequivocal and those who refuse to believe it are simply burying their heads in the sand."

Yeb Sano, the diplomat from the Philippines who staged a hunger strike at last November's UN climate negotiations, praised the speech. "Secretary John Kerry's message is the kind of tone we want to hear from the U.S. and from every world leader."

Of course, not everyone agreed with Kerry's point. Laura Sheehan, a spokeswoman for the American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity -- some of those big companies he mentioned -- said, "The administration's fanatical rhetoric on climate comes as no surprise; but Secretary Kerry's attempt to equate climate change and weapons of mass destruction was downright preposterous."

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So what about climate change and WMDs? It is a phrase that did a great job of grabbing headlines, it places climate into the realm of national security where it belongs, and there are some fruitful insights from the metaphor on the diplomatic front. But a part of how Secretary Kerry used the image went in the wrong direction.

He developed the analogy in terms of nuclear weapons. "It doesn't keep us safe if the United States secures its nuclear arsenal, while other countries fail to prevent theirs from falling into the hands of terrorists." He was making the important point that all nations need to join in strong action to reduce carbon emissions.

Using nuclear weapons as the model for weapons of mass destruction leads us to look at the historic process of negotiated, gradual disarmament. Members of the nuclear club of nations, holding onto the principle of "mutually assured destruction," agree to whittle down their weapon stockpiles, while keeping enough bombs available to threaten others. It is slow, and nobody is willing to scrap all of their nukes.

But we go in a different direction if we consider chemical weapons as the hallmark WMD. In that case, the nations of the world have simply decided that any use of chemical weapons is immoral and illegitimate. Whether or not some countries have those sorts of killer gasses, other nations have pledged not to use them. When the embattled Syrian regime used gas against its own citizens, the international response was to demand the destruction of Syria's entire stockpile.

If climate change is the "world's most fearsome weapon of mass destruction," and when rising carbon emissions are using that "weapon" against our own people every day, then unilateral disarmament is a morally appropriate response. The situation is very different from nuclear bombs, where we pray that they will never be used. This fearsome weapon of mass destruction is in constant use. It is called "business as usual."

Continuing to use an immoral weapon until others stop using theirs is also immoral. It is a good thing if any country slashes its emissions, no matter what other nations might do. That is what we demand with chemical weapons, and that is what we should be demanding about carbon.

"It doesn't keep us safe if the United States secures its nuclear arsenal, while other countries fail to prevent theirs from falling into the hands of terrorists." But we are safer if the US, or any other country, stops pumping greenhouse gasses into the atmosphere, even if some "terrorist" states continue their carbon pollution. That's the moral principle that emerges if we look at chemical weapons for WMD policies.

The difficulty, as countless rounds of climate negotiations have shown, is that the countries which continue to pollute are perceived to have an economic advantage over those that turn from fossil fuels. And so we see that it is not just big companies and shoddy scientists that are holding up action on decarbonization. Nations -- rich and poor alike -- are unwilling to give up the edge provided by cheap and dirty fuels unless their competitors do, too.

The WMD analogy helps us see other complications. Zoe Carpenter, writing in the Nation, points out that it makes little sense for the US to work hard at reducing carbon emissions at home, and then actively work to increase exports of coal and oil to the rest of the world. "All of that nonproliferation work would be undercut if the US sold weapons-grade uranium to the countries it was asking not to build a bomb. In effect, that is what the United States is doing with fossil fuels."

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It is important to notice that the speech in Indonesia (one of the top 10 carbon polluters in the world) came immediately after Mr. Kerry was in China working on climate negotiations. The two governments have agreed to work together on forging a common platform ahead of the international climate negotiations in Paris at the end of next year.

It is clear that the US Secretary of State recognizes the reality and the threat of climate change. It is wonderful that he is speaking boldly and negotiating effectively with a wide range of countries, and all of those countries must commit to rapid action. But we must go one step farther than the nuclear weapons metaphor can take us. We have to say that significant carbon pollution -- like the use of chemical weapons -- is always immoral and illegitimate. Unilateral action to cut pollution and leave fossil fuels in the ground is the ethical stance.


Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

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