Michael Klare

Climate change supersedes everything

Michael Klare: The Pentagon's Version of the World Is Not the World

Maybe since Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida met with Joe Biden in the midst of his growing document brouhaha, you noticed, at least in passing, the news that the Japanese military budget is about to rise in a truly significant fashion. But my guess is you didn’t notice that the U.S. Marines’ 12th Artillery Regiment, presently stationed on the island of Okinawa (the site of a fierce World War II battle between the U.S. and Japan), is also going to be upgraded in a fashion that should be considered newsworthy. It’s going to become the future 12th Marine Littoral Regiment and, as Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin described it, “We will equip this new formation with advanced intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance, as well as anti-ship and transportation capabilities that are relevant to the current and future threat environments. These posture updates adhere to the basic tenets of the 2012 realignment plan, and they will strengthen our Alliance’s ability to maintain regional peace and stability.”

And yes, that is English, even if it does need to be translated. As Reuters reported, the new regiment and at least two others like it to be stationed in the Pacific region will be “dumping most of their cannon artillery and heavy armor in favor of smaller ‘dispersed’ forces equipped with missiles and drones that can operate in contested areas.” In other words, the 12th Artillery Regiment will become a “more rapidly mobile unit,” armed with anti-ship missiles, that will, as a Biden administration fact sheet put it, “bolster deterrence and provide a stand-in force that is able to defend Japan and quickly respond to contingencies.”

As it happens, a further translation for the rest of us is still necessary and, to the best of my understanding, it might go something like this: with the agreement of Japan, the United States is continuing to upgrade its forces in the Pacific in preparation for a possible future conflict with China over the island of Taiwan. In other words, just what the world truly needs at this perilous moment, a further heightening of the increasingly edgy stand-off between Washington and Beijing.

As if there weren’t enough crises right now, including the drowning of California! In that context, let TomDispatch regular Michael Klare, author of All Hell Breaking Loose: The Pentagon’s Perspective on Climate Change and a founder of the Committee for a Sane U.S.-China Policy, put Washington’s (and the Pentagon’s) all-too-militarized and limited worldview in the context of the actual planet we’re living on. Tom

Climate Change Will Supersede Everything: The Pentagon's Massive Intelligence Failure on China

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.

Green diplomacy: What if the United States and China cooperated on climate change?

Michael Klare, Can (Green) Diplomacy Save Us?

Once upon a time, the American government was into scientific problem-solving in a big way. I’m thinking of the World War II years when that government invested upwards of $2 billion (no small sum then) to gather together the greatest available scientific minds to develop a war-ending weapon, the atomic bomb. The Manhattan Project, as it came to be called, would employ more than 120,000 people and create that devastating weapon that would obliterate two Japanese cities and, to this day, leaves our world up for grabs.

Still, on a planet where, from flooding to megadrought, melting ice to rising sea levels, everything seems increasingly up for grabs, I sometimes wonder why, more than three-quarters of a century later, the country that created the atomic bomb (and is still willing to invest trillions of dollars in “modernizing” its nuclear arsenal) can no longer imagine a Manhattan Project to mitigate the overheating of this planet? It’s true that the United Nations regularly convenes top scientists at its Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change to assess “the state of scientific, technical and socio-economic knowledge on climate change, its impacts and future risks, and options for reducing the rate at which climate change is taking place.” And they do produce increasingly horrifying reports on what a disaster the fossil-fuelization of our planet is proving to be.

Despite that, neither this country, nor any other (as far as I know), has been willing to invest big time to come up with breakthrough ways of mitigating climate change in a world where greenhouse gas emissions only continue to rise. Consider it a sorry tale indeed that there is no twenty-first-century Manhattan Project in this country or, for that matter, anywhere else on Earth.

Today, TomDispatch regular Michael Klare takes a tiny bit of genuine good news — the U.S. and China, the globe’s two greatest carbon emitters, are again at least talking about climate change — and tries to imagine where those two governments could actually go if they truly decided to cooperate. All I would add to his thoughts is this: Isn’t it time to establish a Manhattan-Shanghai Project to find new ways to save this planet rather than blowing it to smithereens or overheating it beyond repair? Tom

What If the U.S. and China Really Cooperated on Climate Change? Imagining a Necessary Future

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.”

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.

Taiwan: The world's other nuclear flashpoint

Michael Klare, As Ukraine Burns, the U.S. and China Play with Fire in Asia

I hope you were suitably cheered up when, on a recent trip to Asia, Vice President Kamala Harris assured American troops in Japan that, in response to China’s “disturbing behavior” in the East China and South China Seas and its “provocations across the Taiwan Strait,” Washington would never look away. After all, as she put it, “peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait is an essential feature of a free and open Indo-Pacific.” Because of that, as she reassured those troops, “we will continue to fly, sail, and operate, undaunted and unafraid, wherever and whenever international law allows” — including in that very strait! That was exactly what two U.S. Navy guided-missile cruisers did as August ended in order, as White House National Security Council spokesman John Kirby put it then, to send a “very clear message, very consistent message” to the People’s Republic of China.

Not only that, Washington will also continue to strengthen “unofficial ties” with the Republic of China (that’s the island of Taiwan)! And in all of this, Harris was just following in the footsteps of President Joe Biden who had only recently insisted once again that U.S. troops, possibly even those she was addressing, would indeed be sent to defend Taiwan from any attack by mainland China. So much for “strategic ambiguity,” once the term for this country’s policy in relation to Taiwan and mainland China.

Now, just to put this in context, let me bring up something truly strange: As it happens — who knows why? — the East China and South China Seas were never known as the East U.S. and South U.S. Seas, nor was the Taiwan Strait ever called the Strait of Los Angeles. How truly strange, don’t you think? And while I’m at it, let me just ask you a question: How would you feel if Chinese guided-missile cruisers were, in fact, regularly sailing along the west coast of our country? I know one thing for sure: Joe Biden, Kamala Harris, and the rest of official Washington, not to speak of the top brass in the U.S. military, would go — not to put too weak a descriptor on it — completely bonkers were such a thing to happen and count on this: we would instantly be all too literally up in arms.

Mind you, it’s not that I’m in any way in favor of China attacking Taiwan, but neither do I think that, as TomDispatch regular Michael Klare, who has long followed this country’s ever-developing (and enveloping) policies in the Indo-Pacific region, makes chillingly clear today, this country should be ever more up in arms, so to speak, when it comes to Taiwan and China. Tom

The World’s Other Nuclear Flashpoint – Mounting Tensions Over Taiwan

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.

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.

Oil is winning its war on us

Michael Klare, Oil Rules the World

Heat, heat, heat. It’s a world of firsts, of records that no one could ever have wished for. From my own childhood, I remember the A.A. Milne poem that began:

They’re changing the Guard at Buckingham Palace —
Christopher Robin went down with Alice.
Alice is marrying one of the guard.
A soldier’s life is terribly hard,
Says Alice.

That was written in 1924. Today, with Great Britain breaking historic heat records and the changing of the guard at Buckingham Palace “curtailed” thanks to blazing temperatures, it would have to be rewritten as: “A soldier’s life is terribly hot, says Alice.”

Yes, Britain just hit an all-time heat record — and we’re talking about a country that’s kept such records for at least a century and a half — when the thermometer reached 40.2 degrees Celsius, or 104 degrees Fahrenheit, at London’s Heathrow Airport. Records have been falling in a similarly sweltering fashion across a (quite literally) blazing Europe. But Central Asia is once again baking, too, and don’t forget this country, where summer heat records across a drought-stricken West and Midwest are being surpassed daily, even as unprecedented fires have been burning from New Mexico to Alaska. Meanwhile, in the world’s oceans, plankton are dying at a startling rate, thanks to the burning of fossil fuels.

The Washington Post recently published a set of heat maps of parts of this planet. They’re stunning to look at in a moment when Joe Biden, who ran for president on a climate-change-abating platform, traveled to Saudi Arabia to get that Kingdom to pump yet more oil into our world. As TomDispatch regular Michael Klare suggests today, the Earth isn’t just sweltering. We’re burning it up, thanks to the major fossil-fuel companies that, having known about global warming and its dangers since at least the 1980s, spent decades funding climate denialism and are now quite literally blazing their own paths through our world, making untold fortunes as the war in Ukraine continues to drive global gas prices up.

When we use the word “tyrant,” we normally mean a singularly autocratic ruler. But Klare is right. The true tyrants of planet Earth in this century aren’t either Vladimir Putin or any of his kith and kin. They’re the CEOs of the major oil companies who remain all too ready to burn our futures (record profits!) to ashes for their own passing well-being. So, as the summer heat rises on a planet setting heat records daily, take a moment to consider with Klare who the real tyrants of planet Earth are (and don’t say I never told you so myself). Tom

The Enduring Tyranny of Oil: War, Inflation, Geopolitical Rivalry, and Soaring World Temperatures

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.

'Kiss Planet Earth goodbye': How Russia's in Ukraine is wrecking our last chance to combat climate change

Michael Klare, Saying Goodbye to Planet Earth?

The signs are everywhere. If you happen to live in the United States, parts of the Southwest and West are broiling in a megadrought the likes of which hasn’t been experienced in at least 1,200 years; water is increasingly scarce; and fires are flaring months early and in a staggering fashion, with acres burned already significantly above the normal yearly average. Consider it nothing short of historic in the grimmest imaginable sense. If you live on the East coast, on the other hand, it’s just possible that your house may float away as some are already beginning to do on North Carolina’s Outer Banks; while, in case you hadn’t noticed, losses of global wetlands are indeed significantly on the rise across the planet.

Should you happen to live in Iraq, however, it’s probably the repeated disastrous dust storms that are on your mind. After all, there used to be only a couple a year. Now, there are 20 or so annually. In India and Pakistan, on the other hand, unprecedented spring temperatures, rising repeatedly to 120 degrees Fahrenheit in both countries (and the electricity shortages accompanying them) undoubtedly caught your attention. Meanwhile, in Russian Siberia, the permafrost is thawing more rapidly, releasing greenhouse gasses into the atmosphere at an ever-increasing rate. In Australia, on the other hand, marine heatwaves have caused widespread mass bleachings of coral reefs, with the fourth of them in the last seven years taking place this spring. In South Africa, it’s extreme rainfall and the resulting record spring flooding, now twice as likely to occur as in the past, that’s devastating.

Okay, I’ll stop there for now. Sadly, all of this (and so much more) is just the beginning on a planet that’s overheating all too quickly. Worse yet, as TomDispatch regular Michael Klare, author of All Hell Breaking Loose: The Pentagon’s Perspective on Climate Change, makes clear today, the war in Ukraine is the last thing on Earth (so to speak) that we need right now. For reasons he explains vividly, it seems to ensure the worst when it comes to climate change on a planet where humanity is already at war with nature and it’s starting to strike back in a big way. Tom

The Ukraine War’s Collateral Damage – The Health of an Overheating World Is at Stake

The war in Ukraine has already caused massive death and destruction, with more undoubtedly to come as the fighting intensifies in the country’s east and south. Many thousands of soldiers and civilians have already been killed or wounded, some 13 million Ukrainians have been forced from their homes, and an estimated one-third of the country’s infrastructure has been destroyed. Worse yet, that war’s brutal consequences have in no way been limited to Ukraine and Russia: hunger and food insecurity are increasing across Africa, Asia, and the Middle East as grain deliveries from two of the world’s leading wheat producers have been severed. People are also suffering globally from another harsh consequence of that war: soaring fuel prices. And yet even those manifestations of the war’s “collateral damage” don’t come close to encompassing what could be the greatest casualty of all: planet Earth itself.

Any major war will, of course, inflict immense harm on the environment and Ukraine’s no exception. Although far from over, the fighting there has already resulted in widespread habitat and farmland destruction, while attacks on fuel-storage facilities (crucial targets for both sides) and the wartime consumption of fossil fuels have already released colossal amounts of carbon into the atmosphere. But however detrimental they may be, those should be thought of as relatively minor injuries when compared to the long-term catastrophic damage sure to be caused by the collapse of global efforts to slow the pace of global warming.

Mind you, even before Russia invaded Ukraine, the possibility of preventing the world’s temperature from rising more than 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit) above its pre-industrial average seemed to be slipping away. After all, as a recent study by the U.N.’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) made clear, without a dramatic reduction in carbon emissions, global temperatures are likely to exceed that target long before this century ends — with terrifying consequences. “In concrete terms,” as U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres pointed out when releasing the report, “this means major cities underwater, unprecedented heat waves, terrifying storms, widespread water shortages, and the extinction of one million species of plants and animals.”

Nonetheless, before the Russian invasion, environmental policymakers still believed it might be possible to avoid that ghastly fate. Such success, however, would require significant cooperation among the major powers — and now, due to the war in Ukraine, that appears unattainable, possibly for years to come.

Geopolitics Leaves Climate Action in the Dust

Sadly, geopolitical rivalry, not cooperation, is now the order of the day. Thanks to Russia’s invasion and the harsh reaction it’s provoked in Washington and other Western capitals, “great-power competition” (as the Pentagon calls it) has overtaken all other considerations. Not only has diplomatic engagement between Washington, Moscow, and Beijing essentially ground to a halt, making international cooperation on climate change (or any other global concern) nearly impossible, but an all-too-militarized competition has been launched that’s unlikely to abate for years to come.

As President Biden declared in Poland on March 26th: “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.” This will not be a short-term struggle, he assured his NATO allies. “We must commit now to be in this fight for the long haul. We must remain unified today and tomorrow and the day after and for the years and decades to come.”

Decades to come! And mind you, similar expressions of abiding ideological and geopolitical enmity can be heard from Presidents Vladimir Putin of Russia and Xi Jinping of China. “We are a different country,” Putin said in his May 9th Victory Day speech. “Russia has a different character. We will never give up our love for our Motherland, our faith, and traditional values.” Similarly, Xi has reaffirmed China’s determination to pursue its own path in world affairs and warned Washington against exploiting the Ukraine conflict for its geopolitical advantage.

If asked, Biden, Putin, Xi, and high-ranking officials everywhere would undoubtedly insist that addressing climate change remains an important concern. But let’s face it, their number-one priority is now to mobilize their societies for a long-term struggle against their geopolitical rivals. And rest assured, that will prove to be an all-consuming endeavor, with digressions for other matters — climate being at the top of any list — postponed for the foreseeable future.

Take, for instance, the $773 billion budget request that the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) submitted this April for fiscal year (FY) 2023. Look over its proposed expenditures and you’ll get a pretty good idea of the Pentagon’s priorities and, by extension, those of the Biden administration.

According to the DoD’s budget documents, $56.5 billion is being sought for new combat aircraft, $41 billion for new ships, $34 billion for the “modernization” of America’s nuclear arsenal, $25 billion for missile defense, $20 billion for artillery and armored vehicles, and $135 billion for “combat readiness” and training activities. Oh yes, and $3 billion is being sought to address the effects of climate change on the U.S. military.

Under the circumstances, it’s striking that the Pentagon’s budget request even acknowledges the risk of global warming, given the lack of attention it was accorded in the past. Nonetheless, that paltry financial contribution to climate action — mainly meant to deal with the destructive impact of future severe storms on this country’s military bases — is already being overshadowed by preparations for a possible conflict with China and/or Russia. As the Pentagon put it all too directly: “The President’s Budget request for FY 2023 reflects DoD’s clear focus on deterring and, if necessary, denying potential People’s Republic of China (PRC) and Russian aggression against Allies and partners.”

Such language, in fact, is used to justify virtually every item in the budget, including all those planes, ships, guns, bombs, and missiles. Similar terms are also used to describe the missions U.S. forces are being trained to perform. A discussion of Army planning puts it this way, for example: “The Army’s Modernization Strategy enables American land power dominance to meet the demands of great power competition and great power conflict, as demonstrated by evolving threats in the Indo-Pacific and European theaters.”

Such passages reveal the dominant mindset of this moment. From the perspective of American leaders and their military strategists — as well, undoubtedly, as those in Russia and China — meeting the demands of “great power competition and great power conflict” is the defining task of our moment and will remain so, in President Biden’s words, “for the years and decades to come.” In such an environment, climate change, as the key peril of our moment, functionally recedes or simply disappears from all such agendas.

The Suspension of International Dialogue and Cooperation

Slowing the pace of climate change requires action at many levels but can only succeed if all nations agree to work together in reducing carbon emissions. Setting and meeting international targets for such reductions could ensure that progress in any one country is matched elsewhere. This was, of course, the guiding principle of the Paris Climate Summit of December 2015, which resulted in a pledge by 196 countries to take concrete steps to limit warming to a maximum of 1.5 degrees Celsius.

Every year since then, the signers of the Paris Climate Agreement have met to review their (supposed) progress in adopting concrete measures aimed at achieving that objective. The most recent meeting — officially, the 26th Conference of the Parties (COP 26) of the International Framework Convention on Climate Change — was convened last November in Glasgow, Scotland, attracting massive media attention. Although COP 26 achieved no major breakthroughs, its summit declaration did at least call on participating states to “phase down” their use of coal and take other steps aimed at curbing fossil fuels.

Many attendees at the Glasgow event expressed the hope that the next meeting, scheduled for this November in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt, would codify numerous proposals discussed at COP 26 for reducing fossil-fuel consumption. Sadly, however, it’s no longer conceivable that China, Russia, the U.S., and the countries of the European Union (EU) will be able to work in any faintly harmonious fashion toward that goal. Russia has already demonstrated its disinclination to talk with the West on such vital matters by sabotaging negotiations aimed at restoring the nuclear agreement with Iran. Given increasingly hostile relations between Beijing and Washington, don’t count on those two countries, the world’s leading emitters of carbon, to cooperate on anything significant either.

In short, such international cooperation, never overwhelming to begin with, now appears to have reached a dead-end, which means that efforts to keep warming from exceeding 1.5 degrees Celsius are almost certain to fail. Indeed, given the current state of great-power relations, the fallback limit of 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) is likely to be overtaken all too soon with calamitous results when it comes to increasing drought, desertification, intensifying storms, ever-more devastating fires, and other nightmarish outcomes.

Breaking with Russia: Fossil Fuels Forever

As an example of where we’re headed in this Ukraine war moment, consider Europe’s drive to eliminate its reliance on Russian fossil-fuel imports. Although the EU countries have indeed made far more ambitious plans than the other major powers to reduce their reliance on fossil fuels over the coming decades, they remain highly reliant on oil, coal, and natural gas for a large share of their energy needs. Moreover, much of their supply of those fuels is imported, especially from Russia. Astonishingly, in 2020 that country supplied approximately 43% percent of the EU’s natural gas imports, 29% percent of its oil, and 54% of its coal. Now, thanks to the Russian invasion, the EU is seeking to reduce those percentages to zero. “We must become independent from Russian oil, coal, and gas,” declared Ursula von der Leyen, president of the EU’s executive arm. “We simply cannot rely on a supplier who explicitly threatens us.”

In consonance with such an approach, the EU announced plans to “make Europe independent from Russian fossil fuels well before 2030.” And those plans do indeed involve increased reliance on renewable sources of energy, especially wind and solar power. Such efforts, however, will take significant time to implement and, until then, Europe is anxiously seeking increased oil and gas deliveries from other countries to offset a severe energy shortage (and soaring fuel prices). That reality, in turn, has prompted potential suppliers to invest yet more funds in increased oil and gas output — moves likely to result in a greater, not lesser, long-term commitment to fossil-fuel production and consumption.

This is especially true in the case of European gas imports. Natural gas, the least carbon-intensive of the fossil fuels, has become popular in Europe as a substitute for coal in electricity generation. Its use, however, does result in significant carbon emissions and its extraction often also leads to substantial releases of methane, another dangerous greenhouse gas. Europe currently relies on natural gas for approximately 25% of its net energy consumption and now, committed as it is to eliminate Russian gas by 2030, its countries are desperate to find alternative suppliers. In practice, this will mean increased imports of liquefied natural gas (LNG). Because many key gas producers — notably Australia, Nigeria, Qatar, and the United States — lie too far from Europe to deliver it via pipelines, they will have to ship it as LNG. This, in turn, will require the construction of costly new LNG export facilities abroad and import facilities in Europe, committing both sides ever more firmly to a long-term reliance on gas production.

Thanks to a March 25th agreement between the EU and the United States, for example, this country will be supplying 50 billion cubic meters of LNG to Europe annually by 2030 (about double the amount shipped in 2020). To do so, 10 or more new LNG export facilities will have to be constructed in the U.S. and a similar number of import terminals in Europe. Such projects will cumulatively cost hundreds of billions of dollars, while ensuring that natural gas continues to play a prominent role in European energy consumption (and U.S. energy extraction), potentially for decades to come.

Kissing Earth Goodbye

All this — and it’s just the tip of the melting iceberg — leads to one conclusion: the world’s ruling elites have chosen to place their geopolitical rivalries above all other critical concerns, including planetary salvation. As a result, global warming is indeed likely to surpass 2 degrees Celsius sometime during this century. It’s a given that almost unimaginable calamities will ensue, including the inundation of major cities, monstrous wildfires, and the collapse of agriculture in many parts of the world.

This means, of course, that those of us who still view global warming as the crucial priority face the most difficult of challenges. Yes, we can continue our protests and lobbying in support of vigorous climate-change action, knowing that our efforts will fall on remarkably deaf ears in Washington, Beijing, Moscow, and major European capitals or we can begin to contest the very idea that great-power competition itself should be accorded such a priority on a planet in such mortal danger. Yes, countering Russia’s aggression in Ukraine is important, as is deterring similar moves by China in the Indo-Pacific region or our own country globally. However, if planetary meltdown is to be avoided, such considerations can’t be allowed to overshadow the ultimate danger faced by powers both big and small, as well as the rest of us. To have any chance of success in limiting global warming to tolerable levels, the climate-action movement will somehow have to overturn an elite consensus on the importance of geopolitical competition — or else.

Or else, that is, we can kiss Planet Earth goodbye.

Hubris of clashing global powers puts the world in 'genuine danger'

On a recent trip to Europe as part of his administration’s response to the invasion of Ukraine, Joe Biden visited a convention center in Poland. It was serving as a base for troops from the U.S. Army’s 82nd Airborne Division. After sharing a pizza with several of those soldiers, he gave them a little pep talk, suggesting that they “are the finest fighting force in the world and that’s not hyperbole.” In doing so, he put himself on a rather crowded presidential stage in this century. If anything, he was less effusive about the glories of the American military than either George W. Bush (“the greatest force for human liberation the world has ever known”) or Barack Obama (“the finest fighting force that the world has ever known”), since he restricted himself to the present moment. Only Donald Trump begged to differ slightly, claiming instead that he would oversee “one of the greatest military build-ups in American history.”

One thing is for sure. When it comes to that military and its achievements, presidents tend to react hyperbolically. And in this, they’re in good (or do I mean bad?) company. After all, those “finest” soldiers of our time in Poland face — at least theoretically — an enemy military that Russian President Vladimir Putin clearly considered the finest around. (He, in fact, seems to have mistaken the present Russian military for the Red Army of the Soviet era).

Today, TomDispatch regular Michael Klare, author most recently of All Hell Breaking Loose: The Pentagon’s Perspective on Climate Change, offers a little history of just how Russian leaders have assessed what they’ve termed “the correlation of forces” in their military campaigns since World War II. Putin is, in fact, just the latest Russian leader who has proved incapable of imagining how a populace defending its homes and homeland could hold off a more powerful military force. It’s striking that, in deciding to invade Ukraine, he seems not to have remembered the Afghan War of the 1980s — you know, the one that preceded the disastrous American version of the same — even though blowback from it left both the Red Army and the Soviet Union in shambles.

As it happens, Joe Biden is hardly the first American president to similarly misevaluate the abilities of the world’s “finest fighting force.” After all, since World War II, that force has had only a single brief winning war, the first Persian Gulf War of 1991 that, in retrospect, was but an introduction to a hell on Earth for this country in Iraq. Otherwise, the American military, supported financially in a fashion that might be unparalleled in modern history — our “defense” budget is now larger than that of the next 11 countries combined and still rising dramatically — has either been unable to win (the Korean War, the Global War on Terror) or has simply lost (Vietnam, Afghanistan) all the significant conflicts it’s engaged in since World War II. Given the financial resources put into the U.S. military-industrial complex in those years, perhaps that should be considered a record for the ages. With that in mind, let Michael Klare take you through the Russian version of the same. Tom

Understanding “The Correlation of Forces”

In Western military circles, it’s common to refer to the “balance of forces” — the lineup of tanks, planes, ships, missiles, and battle formations on the opposing sides of any conflict. If one has twice as many combat assets as its opponent and the leadership abilities on each side are approximately equal, it should win. Based on this reasoning, most Western analysts assumed that the Russian army — with a seemingly overwhelming advantage in numbers and equipment — would quickly overpower Ukrainian forces. Of course, things haven’t exactly turned out that way. The Ukrainian military has, in fact, fought the Russians to a near-standstill. The reasons for that will undoubtedly be debated among military theorists for years to come. When they do so, they might begin with Moscow’s surprising failure to pay attention to a different military equation — the “correlation of forces” — originally developed in the former Soviet Union.

That notion differs from the “balance of forces” by placing greater weight on intangible factors. It stipulates that the weaker of two belligerents, measured in conventional terms, can still prevail over the stronger if its military possesses higher morale, stronger support at home, and the backing of important allies. Such a calculation, if conducted in early February, would have concluded that Ukraine’s prospects were nowhere near as bad as either Russian or Western analysts generally assumed, while Russia’s were far worse. And that should remind us of just how crucial an understanding of the correlation of forces is in such situations, if gross miscalculations and tragedies are to be avoided.

The Concept in Practice Before Ukraine

The notion of the correlation of forces has a long history in military and strategic thinking. Something like it, for example, can be found in the epilogue to Leo Tolstoy’s epic novel, War and Peace. Writing about Napoleon’s disastrous invasion of Russia in 1812, Tolstoy observed that wars are won not by the superior generalship of charismatic leaders but through the fighting spirit of common soldiers taking up arms against a loathsome enemy.

Such a perspective would later be incorporated into the military doctrine of the Russian Bolsheviks, who sought to calculate not only troop and equipment strength, but also the degree of class consciousness and support from the masses on each side of any potential conflict. Following the 1917 revolution in the midst of World War I, Russian leader Vladimir Lenin argued, for example, against a continuing war with Germany because the correlation of forces wasn’t yet right for the waging of “revolutionary war” against the capitalist states (as urged by his compatriot Leon Trotsky). “Summing up the arguments in favor of an immediate revolutionary war,” Lenin said, “it must be concluded that such a policy would perhaps respond to the needs of mankind to strive for the beautiful, the spectacular, and the striking, but that it would be totally disregarding the objective correlation of class forces and material factors at the present stage of the socialist revolution already begun.”

For Bolsheviks of his era, the correlation of forces was a “scientific” concept, based on an assessment of both material factors (numbers of troops and guns on each side) and qualitative factors (the degree of class consciousness involved). In 1918, for example, Lenin observed that “the poor peasantry in Russia… is not in a position immediately and at the present moment to begin a serious revolutionary war. To ignore this objective correlation of class forces on the present question would be a fatal blunder.” Hence, in March 1918, the Russians made a separate peace with the German-led Central Powers, ceding much territory to them and ending their country’s role in the world war.

As the Bolshevik Party became an institutionalized dictatorship under Joseph Stalin, the correlation-of-forces concept grew into an article of faith based on a belief in the ultimate victory of socialism over capitalism. During the Khrushchev and Brezhnev eras of the 1960s and 1970s, Soviet leaders regularly claimed that world capitalism was in irreversible decline and the socialist camp, augmented by revolutionary regimes in the “Third World,” was destined to achieve global supremacy.

Such optimism prevailed until the late 1970s, when the socialist tide in the Third World began to recede. Most significant in this regard was a revolt against the communist government in Afghanistan. When the Soviet-backed People’s Democratic Party in Kabul came under attack by Islamic insurgents, or mujahideen, Soviet forces invaded and occupied the country. Despite sending ever larger troop contingents there and employing heavy firepower against the mujahideen and their local supporters, the Red Army was finally forced to limp home in defeat in 1989, only to see the Soviet Union itself implode not long after.

For U.S. strategists, the Soviet decision to intervene and, despite endless losses, persevere was proof that the Russian leaders had ignored the correlation of forces, a vulnerability to be exploited by Washington. In the 1980s, under President Ronald Reagan, it became U.S. policy to arm and assist anticommunist insurgents globally with the aim of toppling pro-Soviet regimes — a strategy sometimes called the Reagan Doctrine. Huge quantities of munitions were given to the mujahideen and rebels like the Contras in Nicaragua, usually via secret channels set up by the Central Intelligence Agency. While not always successful, these efforts generally bedeviled the Soviet leadership. As Secretary of State George Shultz wrote gleefully in 1985, while the U.S. defeat in Vietnam had led the Soviets to believe “that what they called the global ‘correlation of forces’ was shifting in their favor,” now, thanks to U.S. efforts in Afghanistan and elsewhere, “we have reason to be confident that ‘the correlation of forces’ is shifting back in our favor.”

And yes, the Soviet failure in Afghanistan did indeed reflect an inability to properly weigh the correlation of all the factors involved — the degree to which the mujahideen’s morale outmatched that of the Soviets, the relative support for war among the Soviet and Afghan populations, and the role of outside help provided by the CIA. But the lessons hardly ended there. Washington never considered the implications of arming Arab volunteers under the command of Osama bin Laden or allowing him to create an international jihadist enterprise, “the base” (al-Qaeda), which later turned on the U.S., leading to the 9/11 terror attacks and a disastrous 20-year “global war on terror” that consumed trillions of dollars and debilitated the U.S. military without eliminating the threat of terrorism. American leaders also failed to calculate the correlation of forces when undertaking their own war in Afghanistan, ignoring the factors that led to the Soviet defeat, and so suffering the very same fate 32 years later.

Putin’s Ukraine Miscalculations

Much has already been said about Russian President Vladimir Putin’s miscalculations regarding Ukraine. They all began, however, with his failure to properly assess the correlation of forces involved in the conflict to come and that, eerily enough, resulted from Putin’s misreading of the meaning of the U.S. exit from Afghanistan.

Like many in Washington — especially in the neoconservative wing of the Republican Party — Putin and his close advisers viewed the sudden American withdrawal as a conspicuous sign of U.S. weakness and, in particular, of disarray within the Western alliance. American power was in full retreat, they believed, and the NATO powers irrevocably divided. “Today, we are witnessing the collapse of America’s foreign policy,” said Vyacheslav Volodin, the speaker of the Russian State Duma. Other senior officials echoed his view.

This left Putin and his inner circle convinced that Russia could act with relative impunity in Ukraine, a radical misreading of the global situation. In fact, along with top U.S. military leaders, the Biden White House was eager to exit Afghanistan. They wanted to focus instead on what were seen as far more important priorities, especially the reinvigoration of U.S. alliances in Asia and Europe to better contain China and Russia. “The United States should not, and will not, engage in ‘forever wars’ that have cost thousands of lives and trillions of dollars,” the administration affirmed in its Interim National Security Strategic Guidance of May 2021. Instead, the U.S. would position itself “to deter our adversaries and defend our interests… [and] our presence will be most robust in the Indo-Pacific and Europe.”

As a result, Moscow has faced the exact opposite of what Putin’s advisers undoubtedly anticipated: not a weak, divided West, but a newly energized U.S.-NATO alliance determined to assist Ukrainian forces with vital (if limited) arms supplies, while isolating Russia in the world arena. More troops are now being deployed to Poland and other “front-line” states facing Russia, putting its long-term security at even greater risk. And perhaps most damaging to Moscow’s geopolitical calculations, Germany has discarded its pacifist stance, fully embracing NATO and approving an enormous increase in military spending.

But Putin’s greatest miscalculations came with respect to the comparative fighting capabilities of his military forces and Ukraine’s. He and his advisers evidently believed that they were sending the monstrous Red Army of Soviet days into Ukraine, not the far weaker Russian military of 2022. Even more egregious, they seem to have believed that Ukrainian soldiers would either welcome the Russian invaders with open arms or put up only token resistance before surrendering. Credit this delusion, at least in part, to the Russian president’s unyielding belief that the Ukrainians were really Russians at heart and so would naturally welcome their own “liberation.”

We know this, first of all, because many of the troops sent into Ukraine — given only enough food, fuel, and ammunition for a few days of combat — were not prepared to fight a protracted conflict. Unsurprisingly, they have suffered from strikingly low morale. The opposite has been true of the Ukrainian forces who, after all, are defending their homes and their country, and have been able to exploit enemy weaknesses such as long and sluggish supply trains to inflict heavy losses.

We also know that Putin’s top intelligence officials fed him inaccurate information about the political and military situation in Ukraine, contributing to his belief that the defending forces would surrender after just a few days of combat. He subsequently arrested some of those officials, including Sergey Beseda, head of the foreign intelligence branch of the FSB (the successor to the KGB). Although they were charged with the embezzlement of state funds, the real reason for their arrest, claims Vladimir Osechkin, an exiled Russian human rights activist, was providing the Russian president with “unreliable, incomplete, and partially false information about the political situation in Ukraine.”

As Russia’s leaders are rediscovering, just two decades after the Soviet debacle in Afghanistan, a failure to properly assess the correlation of forces when engaging in battle with supposedly weaker foes on their home turf can lead to disastrous outcomes.

China’s Faulty Assessments

Historically speaking, the Chinese Communist Party leadership has been careful indeed to gauge the correlation of forces when facing foreign adversaries. They provided considerable military assistance, for example, to the North Vietnamese during the Vietnam War, but not so much as to be viewed by Washington as an active belligerent requiring counterattack. Similarly, despite their claims to the island of Taiwan, they have so far avoided any direct move to seize it by force and risk a full-scale encounter with potentially superior U.S. forces.

Based on this record, it’s surprising that, so far as we know, the Chinese leadership failed to generate an accurate assessment of either Putin’s plans for Ukraine or the likelihood of an intense struggle for control of that country. China’s leaders have, in fact, long enjoyed cordial relations with their Ukrainian counterparts and their intelligence services surely provided Beijing with reliable information on that country’s combat capabilities. So, it’s striking that they were caught so off-guard by the invasion and fierce Ukrainian resistance.

Likewise, they should have been able to draw the same conclusions as their Western counterparts from satellite data showing the massive Russian military buildup on Ukraine’s borders. Yet when presented with intelligence by the Biden administration evidently indicating that Putin intended to launch a full-scale invasion, the top leaders simply regurgitated Moscow’s assertions that this was pure propaganda. As a result, China didn’t even evacuate thousands of its own nationals from Ukraine when the U.S. and other Western nations did so, leaving them in place as the war broke out. And even then, the Chinese claimed Russia was only conducting a minor police operation in that country’s Donbas region, making them appear out of touch with on-the-ground realities.

China also seems to have seriously underestimated the ferocity of the U.S. and European reaction to the Russian assault. Although no one truly knows what occurred in high-level policy discussions among them, it’s likely that they, too, had misread the meaning of the American exit from Afghanistan and, like the Russians, assumed it indicated Washington’s retreat from global engagement. “If the U.S. cannot even secure a victory in a rivalry with small countries, how much better could it do in a major power game with China?” asked the state-owned Global Times in August 2021. “The Taliban’s stunningly swift takeover of Afghanistan has shown the world that U.S. competence in dominating major power games is crumbling.”

This miscalculation — so evident in Washington’s muscular response to the Russian invasion and its military buildup in the Indo-Pacific region — has put China’s leaders in an awkward position, as the Biden administration steps up pressure on Beijing to deny material aid to Russia and not allow the use of Chinese banks as conduits for Russian firms seeking to evade Western sanctions. During a teleconference on March 18th, President Biden reportedly warned President Xi Jinping of “the implications and consequences” for China if it “provides material support to Russia.” Presumably, this could involve the imposition of “secondary sanctions” on Chinese firms accused of acting as agents for Russian companies or agencies. The fact that Biden felt able to issue such ultimatums to the Chinese leader reflects a potentially dangerous new-found sense of political clout in Washington based on Russia’s apparent defenselessness in the face of Western-imposed sanctions.

Avoiding American Overreach

Today, the global correlation of forces looks positive indeed for the United States and that, in a strange sense, should worry us all. Its major allies have rallied to its side in response to Russian aggression or, on the other side of the planet, fears of China’s rise. And the outlook for Washington’s principal adversaries seems less than auspicious. Even if Vladimir Putin were to emerge from the present war with a larger slice of Ukrainian territory, he will certainly be presiding over a distinctly diminished Russia. Already a shaky petro-state before the invasion began, it is now largely cut off from the Western world and condemned to perpetual backwardness.

With Russia already diminished, China may experience a similar fate, having placed such high expectations on a major partnership with a faltering country. Under such circumstances, it will be tempting for the Biden administration to further exploit this unique moment by seeking even greater advantage over its rivals by, for instance, supporting “regime change” in Moscow or the further encirclement of China. President Biden’s March 26th comment about Putin — “this man cannot remain in power” — certainly suggested a hankering for just such a future. (The White House did later attempt to walk his words back, claiming that he only meant Putin “cannot be allowed to exercise power over his neighbors.”) As for China, recent all-too-ominous comments by senior Pentagon officials to the effect that Taiwan is “critical to the defense of vital U.S. interests in the Indo-Pacific” suggest an inclination to abandon America’s “one China” policy and formally recognize Taiwan as an independent state, bringing it under U.S. military protection.

In the coming months, we can expect far more discussion about the merits of such moves. Washington pundits and politicians, still dreaming of the U.S. as the unparalleled power on planet Earth, will undoubtedly be arguing that this moment is the very one when the U.S. could truly smite its adversaries. Such overreach — involving fresh adventures that would exceed American capacities and lead to new disasters — is a genuine danger.

Seeking regime change in Russia (or anywhere else, for that matter) is certain to alienate many foreign governments now supportive of Washington’s leadership. Likewise, a precipitous move to pull Taiwan into America’s military orbit could trigger a U.S.-China war neither side wants, with catastrophic consequences. The correlation of forces may now seem to be in America’s favor, but if there’s one thing to be learned from the present moment, it’s just how fickle such calculations can prove to be and how easily the global situation can turn against us if we behave capriciously.

Imagine, then, a world in which all three “great” powers have misconstrued the correlation of forces they may encounter. As top Russian officials continue to speak of the use of nuclear weapons, anyone should be anxious about a future of ultimate overreach that will correlate with nothing good whatsoever.

'As depressing as it gets': why a new Cold War may be the best-case scenario as the global order withers

When was the last time you remember Russian President Vladimir Putin directly threatening Finland and Sweden (should they ever join NATO) or putting his own nuclear forces into “special combat readiness,” aka high alert? And if that didn’t creep you out, well, think again. Since Putin made the surprising decision to order his military to invade Ukraine, we’ve been living in a geopolitical world not just on edge, but suddenly turned upside down. Everywhere, politics is being affected as right-wing Putin admirers, from Italy to the United States, including of course one Donald Trump, have had to begin walking back their overweening admiration for the Russian autocrat, lest they suffer political damage at home as the battlefronts in Ukraine grow fiercer.

How all this will play out politically, no one yet knows. Perhaps Joe Biden, too, stands to take a hit — think of those grimly rising prices at the gas pump. Up for grabs is the future of domestic politics, whether in this country, Europe, or even for that matter Russia. There, antiwar crowds took to the streets, while popular actors and musicians denounced the invasion and even a rubber-stamp Russian parliamentarian tweeted his disapproval of Putin’s action. (“I was voting for peace and not for war, and not for Kyiv to be bombed.”) And that was just a hint of where events were heading, which was distinctly downhill.

As for those who stand to gain? You can count on one group, at least. The global versions of our own military-industrial complex are likely to be the true — and possibly only — winners from Putin’s decision to invade Ukraine. Consider it a sign of the times that Germany, long hesitant to invest too much in its military, is now planning a “major increase” in what’s called “defense spending” everywhere. In the U.S., “a growing chorus of pundits and policy analysts” is already advocating that yet more money go into the staggering U.S. “defense” budget and count on political support for that across the aisle in Washington. (What else is new?)

Now, with all of that and so much more in mind, step back for a moment with TomDispatch regular Michael Klare, author most recently of All Hell Breaking Loose: The Pentagon’s Perspective on Climate Change, and consider the geopolitics of Planet Earth. Your future is in its grip. Tom

Would a “Cold” War Be the Best News Around?

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has been widely described as the beginning of a new cold war, much like the old one in both its cast of characters and ideological nature. “In the contest between democracy and autocracy, between sovereignty and subjugation, make no mistake — freedom will prevail,” President Biden asserted in a televised address to the nation the day Russian tanks rolled into Ukraine. But while Russia and the West disagree on many issues of principle, this is not a replay of the Cold War. It’s an all-too-geopolitical twenty-first-century struggle for advantage on a highly contested global chessboard. If comparisons are in order, think of this moment as more akin to the situation Europe confronted prior to World War I than in the aftermath of World War II.

Geopolitics — the relentless struggle for control over foreign lands, ports, cities, mines, railroads, oil fields, and other sources of material and military might — has governed the behavior of major powers for centuries. Think of Gibraltar, Pearl Harbor, the diamond mines of Africa, or the oil fields of the Middle East. Aspiring world powers, from the Roman Empire on, have always proceeded from the assumption that acquiring control over as many such places as possible — by force if necessary — was the surest path to greatness.

During the Cold War, it was considered uncouth in governing circles to openly express such blatantly utilitarian motives. Instead, both sides fabricated lofty ideological explanations for their intense rivalry. Even then, though, geopolitical considerations all too often prevailed. For example, the Truman Doctrine, that early exemplar of Cold War ideological ferocity, was devised to justify Washington’s efforts to resist Soviet incursions in the Middle East, then a major source of oil for Europe (and of revenue for American oil firms).

Today, ideological appeals are still deployed by top officials to justify predatory military moves, but it’s becoming ever more difficult to disguise the geopolitical intent of so much international behavior. Russia’s assault on Ukraine is the most ruthless and conspicuous recent example, but hardly the only one. For years now, Washington has sought to counter China’s rise by bolstering U.S. military strength in the western Pacific, prompting a variety of countermoves by Beijing. Other major powers, including India and Turkey, have also sought to extend their geopolitical reach. Not surprisingly, the risk of wars on such a global chessboard is likely to grow, which means understanding contemporary geopolitics becomes ever more important. Let’s begin with Russia and its quest for military advantage.

Fighting for Position in the European Battlespace

Yes, Russian President Vladimir Putin has justified his invasion in ideological terms by claiming that Ukraine was an artificial state unjustly detached from Russia. He’s also denigrated the Ukrainian government as infiltrated by neo-Nazis still seeking to undo the Soviet Union’s victory in World War II. These considerations seem to have grown more pervasive in Putin’s mind as he assembled forces for an attack on Ukraine. Nevertheless, these should be viewed as an accumulation of grievances overlaying an all too hardcore set of geopolitical calculations.

From Putin’s perspective, the origins of the Ukrainian conflict date back to the immediate post-Cold War years, when NATO, taking advantage of Russia’s weakness at the time, relentlessly expanded eastward. In 1999, three former Soviet-allied states, Hungary, Poland, and the Czech Republic, all previously members of the Warsaw Pact (Moscow’s version of NATO), were incorporated into the alliance; in 2004, Bulgaria, Romania, and Slovakia were added, along with three former actual republics of the Soviet Union (Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania). For NATO, this staggering enlargement moved its own front lines of defense ever farther from its industrial heartlands along the Atlantic and Mediterranean coasts. Meanwhile, Russia’s front lines shrank hundreds of miles closer to its borders, putting its own heartland at greater risk and generating deep anxiety among senior officials in Moscow, who began speaking out against what they saw as encirclement by hostile forces.

“I think it is obvious that NATO expansion does not have any relation with the modernization of the Alliance itself or with ensuring security in Europe,” Putin declared at a Munich Security Conference in 2007. “On the contrary, it represents a serious provocation that reduces the level of mutual trust. And we have the right to ask: against whom is this expansion intended?”

It was, however, NATO’s 2008 decision to offer membership to Georgia and Ukraine, two former Soviet republics, that thoroughly inflamed Moscow’s security anxieties. After all, Ukraine shares a 600-mile border with Russia, overlooking a large swath of its industrial heartland. Should it ever actually join NATO, Russian strategists feared, the West could deploy powerful weapons, including ballistic missiles, right on its border.

“The West has explored the territory of Ukraine as a future theater, future battlefield, that is aimed against Russia,” Putin declared in a fire-breathing address on February 21st, just before Russian tanks crossed the Ukrainian border. “If Ukraine was to join NATO it would serve as a direct threat to the security of Russia.”

For Putin and his top security aides, the invasion was primarily intended to preclude such a future possibility, while moving Russia’s front lines farther from its own vulnerable heartland and thereby enhancing its strategic advantage in the European battlespace. As it happens, they seem to have underestimated the strength of the forces arrayed against them — both the determination of ordinary Ukrainians to repel the Russian military and the West’s unity in imposing harsh economic sanctions — and so are likely to emerge from the fighting in a worse position. But any geopolitical foray of this magnitude entails such draconian risks.

Mackinder, Mahan, and U.S. Strategy

Washington, too, has been guided by cold-blooded geopolitical considerations over the past century-plus and, like Russia, has often faced resistance as a result. As a major trading nation with a significant dependence on access to foreign markets and raw materials, the U.S. has long sought control over strategic islands globally, including Cuba, Hawaii, and the Philippines, using force when needed to secure them. That quest continues to this day, with the Biden administration seeking to preserve or expand U.S. access to bases in Okinawa, Singapore, and Australia.

In such endeavors, U.S. strategists have been influenced by two major strands of geopolitical thinking. One, informed by the English geographer Sir Halford Mackinder (1861-1947), held that the combined Eurasian continent possessed such a large share of global wealth, resources, and population that any nation capable of controlling that space would functionally control the world. From that followed the argument that “island states” like Great Britain and, metaphorically speaking, the United States, had to maintain a significant presence on the margins of Eurasia, intervening if necessary to prevent any single Eurasian power from gaining control over all the others.

The American naval officer Alfred Thayer Mahan (1840-1914) similarly held that, in a globalizing world where access to international commerce was essential to national survival, “control of the seas” was even more critical than control of Eurasia’s margins. An ardent student of British naval history, Mahan, who served as president of the Naval War College in Newport, Rhode Island, from 1886 to 1893, concluded that, like Britain, his country must possess a powerful navy and a range of overseas bases to advance its status as a preeminent global trading power.

From 1900 on, the United States has pursued both geopolitical strategies, though on opposite sides of Eurasia. With respect to Europe, it has largely hewed to Mackinder’s approach. During World War I, despite widespread domestic misgivings, President Woodrow Wilson was persuaded to intervene by the Anglo-French argument that a German victory would lead to a single power capable of dominating the world and so threatening vital American interests. The same line of reasoning led President Franklin Roosevelt to support U.S. entry into World War II in Europe and his successors to deploy substantial forces there to prevent the Soviet Union (today, Russia) from dominating the continent. This, in fact, is NATO’s essential reason for existing.

In the Asia-Pacific theater, however, the United States has largely followed Mahan’s approach, seeking control over island military bases and maintaining the region’s most powerful naval force. When, however, the U.S. has gone to war on the Asian mainland, as in Korea and Vietnam, disaster and ultimate withdrawal followed. As a result, Washington’s geopolitical strategy in our time has focused on maintaining island military bases across the region and ensuring that this country keeps its overwhelming naval superiority there.

Great-Power Competition in the Twenty-First Century

In this century, Washington’s increasingly fraught post-9/11 global war on terror (GWOT), with its costly and futile invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, came to be viewed by many strategists in Washington as a painful and misguided diversion from a long-established focus on global geopolitics. A fear only grew that it was providing China and Russia with opportunities to advance their own geopolitical ambitions, while the U.S. was distracted by terrorism and insurgency. By 2018, America’s senior military leadership, reaching the end of its patience with the endless war on terror, proclaimed a new strategic doctrine of “great-power competition” — a perfect euphemism for geopolitics.

“In this new era of great power competition, our warfighting advantages over strategic competitors are being challenged,” explained Secretary of Defense Mark Esper in 2019. As the Pentagon winds down the GWOT, he noted, “we are working to re-allocate our forces and equipment to priority theaters that enable us to better compete with China and Russia.”

That, he went on to explain, would require concerted action on two fronts: in Europe against an increasingly assertive, well-armed Russia, and in Asia against an ever more powerful China. There, Esper sought an accelerated buildup of air and naval forces along with ever-closer military cooperation with Australia, Japan, South Korea, and — increasingly — India.

In the wake of this country’s Afghan War defeat, such an outlook has been embraced by the Biden administration which, at least until the current crisis over Ukraine, saw China, not Russia, as the greatest threat to America’s geopolitical interests. Because of its growing wealth, enhanced technological capacity, and ever-improving military, China alone was viewed as capable of challenging American dominance on the geopolitical chessboard. “China, in particular, has rapidly become more assertive,” the White House stated in its Interim National Security Strategic Guidance of March 2021. “It is the only competitor potentially capable of combining its economic, diplomatic, military, and technological power to mount a sustained challenge to a stable and open international system.”

In early February, to provide high-level guidance for a “whole-of-nation” struggle to counter China, the White House issued a new “Indo-Pacific Strategy,” just as Russia was mobilizing its forces along Ukraine’s borders. Describing the Indo-Pacific as the true epicenter of world economic activity, the strategy called for a multifaceted effort to bolster America’s strategic position and — to use a word from another age — contain China’s rise. In a classic expression of geopolitical thinking, it stated:

“Our objective is not to change [China] but to shape the strategic environment in which it operates, building a balance of influence in the world that is maximally favorable to the United States, our allies and partners.”

In implementing this blueprint, Biden’s national security team views key islands and sea passages as vital to its strategy for containing China. Its senior officials have emphasized the importance of defending what they call the “first island chain” — including Japan and the Philippines — that separates China from the open Pacific. Smack in the middle of that chain is, of course, Taiwan, claimed by China as its own and now viewed in Washington (in a typical Mahanian fashion) as essential to U.S. security.

In that context, Assistant Secretary of Defense for Indo-Pacific Affairs Ely Ratner told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in December:

I’d like to begin with an overview of why Taiwan’s security is so important to the United States. As you know, Taiwan 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.

From Beijing’s point of view, however, such efforts to contain its rise and prevent its assertion of authority over Taiwan are intolerable. Its leaders have repeatedly insisted that U.S. interference there could cross a “red line,” leading to war. “The Taiwan issue is the biggest tinderbox between China and the United States,” said Qin Gang, China’s ambassador to the U.S., recently. “If the Taiwanese authorities, emboldened by the United States, keep going down the road for independence, it most likely will involve China and the United States, the two big countries, in the military conflict.”

With Chinese warplanes regularly intruding on Taiwan-claimed airspace and U.S. warships patrolling the Taiwan Strait, many observers expected that Taiwan, not Ukraine, would be the site of the first major military engagement arising from the great-power competition of this era. Some are now suggesting, ominously enough, that a failure to respond effectively to Russian aggression in Ukraine could induce Chinese leaders to begin an invasion of Taiwan, too.

Other Flashpoints

Unfortunately, Ukraine and Taiwan are hardly the only sites of contention on the global chessboard today. As great-power competition has gained momentum, other potential flashpoints have emerged because of their strategic location or access to vital raw materials, or both. Among them:

  • The Baltic Sea area containing the three Baltic republics (and former SSRs), Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania, all now members of an expanded NATO. Vladimir Putin would ideally like to strip them of their NATO membership and once again place them under some form of Russian hegemony.
  • The South China Sea, which borders China as well as Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, and Vietnam. China has laid claim to almost this entire maritime expanse and the islands within it while employing force to prevent other claimants from exercising their developmental rights in the area. Under Presidents Trump and Biden, the U.S. has vowed to help defend those claimants against Chinese “bullying.”
  • The East China Sea, its uninhabited islands claimed by both China and Japan. Each of them has sent combat planes and ships into the area to assert their interests. Late last year, Secretary of State Antony Blinken assured Japan’s foreign minister that Washington recognizes its island claims there and would support its forces if China attacked them.
  • The border between India and China, which has been the site of periodic clashes between the militaries of those two countries. The U.S. has expressed sympathy for India’s position, while pursuing ever closer military ties with that country.
  • The Arctic, claimed in part by Canada, Greenland, Norway, Russia, and the United States, is believed to harbor
  • vast reserves of oil, natural gas, and valuable minerals, some lying in areas claimed by two or more of those countries. It is also seen by Russia as a safe haven for its nuclear-missile submarines and by China as a potential route for trade between Asia and Europe.

In recent years, there have been minor clashes or incidents in all of these locations and their frequency is on the rise. In the wake of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, tensions are only going to increase globally, so keep an eye on these flashpoints. History suggests that global geopolitics rarely ends peacefully. Under the circumstances, a new cold war — with militaries largely frozen in place — might just prove good news and that’s about as depressing as it gets.

There's only one way to save the planet from climate Armageddon

This summer we witnessed, with brutal clarity, the Beginning of the End: the end of Earth as we know it — a world of lush forests, bountiful croplands, livable cities, and survivable coastlines. In its place, we saw the early manifestations of a climate-damaged planet, with scorched forests, parched fields, scalding cities, and storm-wracked coastlines. In a desperate bid to prevent far worse, leaders from around the world will soon gather in Glasgow, Scotland, for a U.N. Climate Summit. You can count on one thing, though: all their plans will fall far short of what's needed unless backed by the only strategy that can save the planet: a U.S.-China Climate Survival Alliance.

Of course, politicians, scientific groups, and environmental organizations will offer plans of every sort in Glasgow to reduce global carbon emissions and slow the process of planetary incineration. President Biden's representatives will tout his promise to promote renewable energy and install electric-car-charging stations nationwide, while President Macron of France will offer his own ambitious proposals, as will many other leaders. However, no combination of these, even if carried out, would prove sufficient to prevent global disaster — not as long as China and the U.S. continue to prioritize trade competition and war preparations over planetary survival.

In the end, it's not complicated. If the planet's two "great" powers refuse to cooperate in a meaningful way in tackling the climate threat, we're done for.

That harsh reality was made clear in September. The United Nations then issued a report on the likely impact of pledges already made by the nations that signed the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement (from which President Trump withdrew in 2017 and which the U.S. has only recently rejoined). According to the U.N.'s analysis, even if all 200 signatories were to abide by their pledges — and almost none have — global temperatures are likely to rise by 2.7 degrees Celsius (nearly 5 degrees Fahrenheit) above pre-industrial levels by century's end. And that, in turn, most scientists agree, is a recipe for catastrophically irreversible changes to the planetary ecosphere, including the kind of sea level rise that will inundate most American coastal cities (and many others around the world) and the sort of heat, fire, and drought that will turn the American West into an uninhabitable wasteland.

Scientists generally agree that, to avert such catastrophic outcomes, global warming must not exceed, at worst, 2 degrees Celsius over pre-industrial levels — and preferably, no more than 1.5 degrees Celsius. Mind you, the planet has already warmed 1 degree Celsius and we've only recently seen just how much damage even that amount of added heat can produce. To limit warming to 2 degrees Celsius, by 2030, scientists believe, global carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions would have to be reduced by 25% from 2018 levels; to limit it to 1.5 degrees, by 55%. Yet those emissions — driven by strong economic growth in China, India, and other rapidly industrializing nations — have actually been on an upward trajectory, rising on average by 1.8% per year between 2009 and 2019.

Several European countries, including Denmark, Norway, and the Netherlands, have launched heroic efforts to lower their emissions to reach that 1.5 degree target, setting an example for nations with far bigger economies. But however admirable, in the grand scheme of things, they just won't matter enough to save the planet. Only the United States and China, by far the world's top two carbon emitters, are in a position to do so.

It all boils down to this: to save human civilization, the U.S. and China must dramatically reduce their CO2 emissions, while working together to persuade other major carbon-emitting nations, beginning with fast-rising India, to follow suit. That would, of course, mean setting aside their current antagonisms, however important they may seem to U.S. and Chinese leaders today, and instead making climate survival their number one priority and policy objective. Otherwise, put simply, all is lost.

The U.S.-China Carbon Juggernaut

To fully grasp just how central China and the United States (the largest carbon polluter in history) are to the global climate-change equation, you have to grasp their present roles in both carbon consumption and CO2 emissions.

In 2020, according to the BP Statistical Review of World Energy 2021 (a widely respected source), China was the world's top user of coal, the most carbon-intense of the three fossil fuels. That country was responsible for a staggering 54.3% of total world consumption; India came in second at 11.6%; and the U.S. third at 6.1%. When it came to petroleum consumption, the U.S. took first place with 19.9% of world usage and China came in second with 15.7%. The U.S. was also number one when it came to consumption of natural gas, followed by Russia and China.

Combine all three kinds and China and the U.S. were jointly responsible for 42% of total global fossil-fuel consumption in 2020. No other countries came even remotely close. Rising fast in the energy realm, India accounted for 6.2% of global fossil-fuel consumption and the European Union for 8.5%, which should give you some idea of the way the two countries dominate the global energy equation.

Not surprisingly, since they're responsible for such a large share of fossil-fuel consumption every year and the combustion of those fuels is responsible for the overwhelming majority of global carbon emissions, China and the U.S. also account for a comparably large share of those discharges. According to BP, China was the world's leading source of CO2 emissions in 2020, responsible for 30.7% of the global total, while the United States came in second with 13.8%. No other country even reached double digits and the European Union as a whole accounted for only 7.9%.

Put simply, the heating of this planet can't be slowed down and eventually stopped if the U.S. and China don't slash their carbon emissions drastically in the coming decades and invest massively — on a scale comparable to preparing for a world war — in alternative energy systems. We're talking about trillions of dollars of future expenses. But there's really no choice, not if we want to save our civilization.

The Mastodon in the Room

Any strategy to substantially reduce global CO2 emissions and keep global warming from exceeding 2 degrees (let alone 1.5 degrees) Celsius above pre-industrial levels must confront the largest obstacle to success around: China's continuing reliance on coal to provide the lion's share of its energy supply. According to BP, in 2020, China obtained 57% of its primary energy needs from coal. No other country comes close to that. If China was responsible for 26% of total world energy consumption that year, then its coal combustion alone constituted 15% of global energy usage — a greater share than Europe's from all energy sources combined.

If China phases out its coal plants in this decade and other countries followed through on their Paris commitments, meeting that target of 1.5 to 2 degrees Celsius and avoiding a climate Armageddon would at least be possible. But that's not the way China's headed. Not faintly. According to some reports, that country is actually expected to boost (yes, boost!) its coal consumption in this decade by adding 88 gigawatts of coal-fired power capacity. (A large, modern coal-fired plant can generate about 1 gigawatt of electricity at a time.) Worse yet, its officials are mulling over plans to sooner or later build another 159 gigawatts worth. Because coal is the most carbon-intensive of the fossil fuels, to construct and operate so many new coal-powered plants will add monstrously to China's CO2 emissions, making a sharp reduction in global emissions impossible.

Chinese President Xi Jinping has indeed spoken of building an "ecological civilization" and has also promised to halt the rise in China's carbon emissions by 2030. For a time, it appeared that he was even prepared to take stern measures to halt the growth of China's coal consumption. He did, in fact, pledge that his country would reach peak oil consumption by 2025 and halt the financing of the construction of coal plants abroad as part of its globalizing "Belt and Road Initiative," a major shift in policy. But it seems that his government has otherwise turned a blind eye to efforts by provincial governments and powerful state-owned energy firms to rush the construction of new coal plants at home.

Western analysts believe that Chinese leaders are desperate to propel economic expansion in the wake of the Covid pandemic. Offering cheap energy from coal is one obvious way of facilitating investment in new infrastructure projects, a standard tactic for boosting growth. Some analysts also suspect that Beijing has allowed coal production to increase in response to U.S. trade sanctions and other expressions of Washington's hostility. "The recent U.S.-China trade war has further heightened Chinese concerns about energy security, given that the country imports roughly 70% of its oil needs and 40% of its gas requirements," Daniel Gardner of Princeton's High Meadow Environmental Group pointed out in the Los Angeles Times, adding, "Coal — abundant and relatively inexpensive — seems to many a reliable, tried-and-true energy source."

Why a U.S.-China Climate Survival Alliance is Essential

Recently, during a meeting with top officials in Tianjin, President Biden's global climate envoy, former Secretary of State John Kerry, chided the Chinese for their addiction to coal. "Adding some 200-plus gigawatts of coal over the last five years, and now another 200 or so coming online in the planning stage, if it went to fruition would actually undo the ability of the rest of the world to achieve a limit of 1.5 degrees [Celsius]," he reportedly said to them during their interchange.

There was, however, no way Chinese leaders were going to respond positively to his entreaties, given the growing hostility between the U.S. and China. Even more than during the final Trump years, Washington under President Biden has voiced support for Taiwan — considered a renegade province by Beijing — while seeking to encircle China with an ever-more-militarized network of anti-Chinese alliances. These include the newly formed "AUKUS" (Australia, the United Kingdom, and the U.S.) pact that also involved the ominous promise to sell American nuclear-powered submarines to the Australians. Chinese leaders have responded angrily that any progress on climate change must await improvement in what they consider more critical aspects of their relationship with America.

"China-U.S. cooperation on climate change cannot be divorced from the overall situation of China-U.S. relations," Foreign Minister Wang Yi told Kerry during his September visit to China. "The U.S. side wants the climate change cooperation to be an 'oasis' of China-U.S. relations. However, if the oasis is all surrounded by deserts, then sooner or later, the 'oasis' will be desertified."

In theory, the two countries could pursue the goal of radical decarbonization on their own — each independently spending the necessary trillions of dollars on domestic energy transformation. It is, however, essentially impossible to imagine such an outcome in today's world of intensifying military and economic competition. In March, for instance, China announced a 6.8% increase in military spending for 2021, raising the official budget of the People's Liberation Army to $209 billion. (Many analysts believe the actual figure is much higher.) Similarly, on Sept. 23rd, the U.S. House of Representatives authorized defense spending of $740 billion for Fiscal Year 2022, $24 billion more than the staggering sum requested by the Biden administration. Both countries are also moving to "decouple" their critical supply lines, while investing vast amounts in the race to dominate technologies like artificial intelligence, robotics, and microelectronics assumed to be essential to future success, whether in trade wars or actual ones. Neither is planning to invest anything faintly comparable in efforts to slow the pace of global warming and so save the planet.

Only when China and the United States elevate the threat of climate change above their geopolitical rivalry will it be possible to envision action on a sufficient scale to avert the future incineration of this planet and the collapse of human civilization. This should hardly be an impossible political or intellectual stretch. On January 27th, in an Executive Order on Tackling the Climate Crisis, President Biden did, in fact, decree that "climate considerations shall be an essential element of United States foreign policy and national security." That same day, Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin issued a companion statement, saying that his "Department will immediately take appropriate policy actions to prioritize climate change considerations in our activities and risk assessments, to mitigate this driver of insecurity." (At the moment, however, the thought that Republicans in Congress would support such positions, no less fund them, is beyond imagining.)

In any case, such comments have already been overshadowed by the Biden administration's fixation on dominating China globally, as have any comparable impulses on the part of the Chinese leadership. Still, the understanding is there: climate change poses an overwhelming existential threat to both American and Chinese "security," a reality that will only grow fiercer as greenhouse gases continue to pour into our atmosphere. To defend their respective homelands not against each other but against nature, both sides will increasingly be compelled to devote ever more funds and resources to flood protection, disaster relief, fire-fighting, seawall construction, infrastructure replacement, population resettlement, and other staggeringly expensive, climate-related undertakings. At some point, such costs will far exceed the amounts needed to fight a war between us.

Once this reckoning sinks in, perhaps U.S. and Chinese officials will begin forging an alliance aimed at defending their own countries and the world against the coming ravages of climate change. If John Kerry were to return to China and tell its leadership, "We are phasing out all our coal plants, working to eliminate our reliance on petroleum, and are prepared to negotiate a mutual reduction in Pacific naval and missile forces," then he could also say to his Chinese counterparts, "You need to start phasing out your coal use now — and here's how we think you can do it."

Once such an agreement was achieved, Presidents Biden and Xi could turn to Prime Minister Narendra Modi of India, and say, "You must follow in our footsteps and eliminate your dependence on fossil fuels." And then, the three together could tell the leaders of every other nation: "Do as we're doing, and we'll support you. Oppose us, and you'll be cut off from the world economy and perish."

That's how to save this planet from a climate Armageddon. There really is no other way.

Copyright 2021 Michael Klare

Follow TomDispatch on Twitter and join us on Facebook. Check out the newest Dispatch Books, John Feffer's new dystopian novel, Songlands(the final one in his Splinterlands series), Beverly Gologorsky's novel Every Body Has a Story, and Tom Engelhardt's A Nation Unmade by War, as well as Alfred McCoy's In the Shadows of the American Century: The Rise and Decline of U.S. Global Power and John Dower's The Violent American Century: War and Terror Since World War II.

On the brink in 2026: A vision of the bleak future of zero-sum conflict between the U.S. and China

It's the summer of 2026, five years after the Biden administration identified the People's Republic of China as the principal threat to U.S. security and Congress passed a raft of laws mandating a society-wide mobilization to ensure permanent U.S. domination of the Asia-Pacific region. Although major armed conflict between the United States and China has not yet broken out, numerous crises have erupted in the western Pacific and the two countries are constantly poised for war. International diplomacy has largely broken down, with talks over climate change, pandemic relief, and nuclear nonproliferation at a standstill. For most security analysts, it's not a matter of if a U.S.-China war will erupt, but when.

Does this sound fanciful? Not if you read the statements coming out of the Department of Defense (DoD) and the upper ranks of Congress these days.

"China poses the greatest long-term challenge to the United States and strengthening deterrence against China will require DoD to work in concert with other instruments of national power," the Pentagon's 2022 Defense Budget Overview asserts. "A combat-credible Joint Force will underpin a whole-of-nation approach to competition and ensure the Nation leads from a position of strength."

On this basis, the Pentagon requested $715 billion in military expenditures for 2022, with a significant chunk of those funds to be spent on the procurement of advanced ships, planes, and missiles intended for a potential all-out, "high-intensity" war with China. An extra $38 billion was sought for the design and production of nuclear weapons, another key aspect of the drive to overpower China.

Democrats and Republicans in Congress, contending that even such sums were insufficient to ensure continued U.S. superiority vis-à-vis that country, are pressing for further increases in the 2022 Pentagon budget. Many have also endorsed the EAGLE Act, short for Ensuring American Global Leadership and Engagement — a measure intended to provide hundreds of billions of dollars for increased military aid to America's Asian allies and for research on advanced technologies deemed essential for any future high-tech arms race with China.

Imagine, then, that such trends only gain momentum over the next five years. What will this country be like in 2026? What can we expect from an intensifying new Cold War with China that, by then, could be on the verge of turning hot?

Taiwan 2026: Perpetually on the Brink

Crises over Taiwan have erupted on a periodic basis since the start of the decade, but now, in 2026, they seem to be occurring every other week. With Chinese bombers and warships constantly probing Taiwan's outer defenses and U.S. naval vessels regularly maneuvering close to their Chinese counterparts in waters near the island, the two sides never seem far from a shooting incident that would have instantaneous escalatory implications. So far, no lives have been lost, but planes and ships from both sides have narrowly missed colliding again and again. On each occasion, forces on both sides have been placed on high alert, causing jitters around the world.

The tensions over that island have largely stemmed from incremental efforts by Taiwanese leaders, mostly officials of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), to move their country from autonomous status as part of China to full independence. Such a move is bound to provoke a harsh, possibly military response from Beijing, which considers the island a renegade province.

The island's status has plagued U.S.-China relations for decades. When, on January 1, 1979, Washington first recognized the People's Republic of China, it agreed to withdraw diplomatic recognition from the Taiwanese government and cease formal relations with its officials. Under the Taiwan Relations Act of 1979, however, U.S. officials were obligated to conduct informal relations with Taipei. The act stipulated as well that any move by Beijing to alter Taiwan's status by force would be considered "a threat to the peace and security of the Western Pacific area and of grave concern to the United States" — a stance known as "strategic ambiguity," as it neither guaranteed American intervention, nor ruled it out.

In the ensuing decades, the U.S. sought to avoid conflict in the region by persuading Taipei not to make any overt moves toward independence and by minimizing its ties to the island, thereby discouraging aggressive moves by China. By 2021, however, the situation had been remarkably transformed. Once under the exclusive control of the Nationalist Party that had been defeated by communist forces on the Chinese mainland in 1949, Taiwan became a multiparty democracy in 1987. It has since witnessed the steady rise of pro-independence forces, led by the DPP. At first, the mainland regime sought to woo the Taiwanese with abundant trade and tourism opportunities, but the excessive authoritarianism of its Communist Party alienated many island residents — especially younger ones — only adding momentum to the drive for independence. This, in turn, has prompted Beijing to switch tactics from courtship to coercion by constantly sending its combat planes and ships into Taiwanese air and sea space.

Trump administration officials, less concerned about alienating Beijing than their predecessors, sought to bolster ties with the Taiwanese government in a series of gestures that Beijing found threatening and that were only expanded in the early months of the Biden administration. At that time, growing hostility to China led many in Washington to call for an end to "strategic ambiguity" and the adoption of an unequivocal pledge to defend Taiwan if it were to come under attack from the mainland.

"I think the time has come to be clear," Senator Tom Cotton of Arkansas declared in February 2021. "Replace strategic ambiguity with strategic clarity that the United States will come to the aid of Taiwan if China was to forcefully invade Taiwan."

The Biden administration was initially reluctant to adopt such an inflammatory stance, since it meant that any conflict between China and Taiwan would automatically become a U.S.-China war with nuclear ramifications. In April 2022, however, under intense congressional pressure, the Biden administration formally abandoned "strategic ambiguity" and vowed that a Chinese invasion of Taiwan would prompt an immediate American military response. "We will never allow Taiwan to be subjugated by military force," President Biden declared at that time, a striking change in a longstanding American strategic position.

The DoD would soon announce the deployment of a permanent naval squadron to the waters surrounding Taiwan, including an aircraft carrier and a supporting flotilla of cruisers, destroyers, and submarines. Ely Ratner, President Biden's top envoy for the Asia-Pacific region, first outlined plans for such a force in June 2021 during testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee. A permanent U.S. presence, he suggested, would serve to "deter, and, if necessary, deny a fait accompli scenario" in which Chinese forces quickly attempted to overwhelm Taiwan. Although described as tentative then, it would, in fact, become formal policy following President Biden's April 2022 declaration on Taiwan and a brief exchange of warning shots between a Chinese destroyer and a U.S. cruiser just south of the Taiwan Strait.

Today, in 2026, with a U.S. naval squadron constantly sailing in waters near Taiwan and Chinese ships and planes constantly menacing the island's outer defenses, a potential Sino-American military clash never seems far off. Should that occur, what would happen is impossible to predict, but most analysts now assume that both sides would immediately fire their advanced missiles — many of them hypersonic (that is, exceeding five times the speed of sound) — at their opponent's key bases and facilities. This, in turn, would provoke further rounds of air and missile strikes, probably involving attacks on Chinese and Taiwanese cities as well as U.S. bases in Japan, Okinawa, South Korea, and Guam. Whether such a conflict could be contained at the non-nuclear level remains anyone's guess.

The Incremental Draft

In the meantime, planning for a U.S.-China war-to-come has dramatically reshaped American society and institutions. The "Forever Wars" of the first two decades of the twenty-first century had been fought entirely by an All-Volunteer Force (AVF) that typically endured multiple tours of duty, in particular in Iraq and Afghanistan. The U.S. was able to sustain such combat operations (while continuing to maintain a substantial troop presence in Europe, Japan, and South Korea) with 1.4 million servicemembers because American forces enjoyed uncontested control of the airspace over its war zones, while China and Russia remained wary of engaging U.S. forces in their own neighborhoods.

Today, in 2026, however, the picture looks radically different: China, with an active combat force of two million soldiers, and Russia, with another million — both militaries equipped with advanced weaponry not widely available to them in the early years of the century — pose a far more formidable threat to U.S. forces. An AVF no longer looks particularly viable, so plans for its replacement with various forms of conscription are already being put into place.

Bear in mind, however, that in a future war with China and/or Russia, the Pentagon doesn't envision large-scale ground battles reminiscent of World War II or the Iraq invasion of 2003. Instead, it expects a series of high-tech battles involving large numbers of ships, planes, and missiles. This, in turn, limits the need for vast conglomerations of ground troops, or "grunts," as they were once labeled, but increases the need for sailors, pilots, missile launchers, and the kinds of technicians who can keep so many high-tech systems at top operational capacity.

As early as October 2020, during the final months of the Trump administration, Secretary of Defense Mark Esper was already calling for a doubling of the size of the U.S. naval fleet, from approximately 250 to 500 combat vessels, to meet the rising threat from China. Clearly, however, there would be no way for a force geared to a 250-ship navy to sustain one double that size. Even if some of the additional ships were "uncrewed," or robotic, the Navy would still have to recruit several hundred thousand more sailors and technicians to supplement the 330,000 then in the force. Much the same could be said of the U.S. Air Force.

No surprise, then, that an incremental restoration of the draft, abandoned in 1973 as the Vietnam War was drawing to a close, has taken place in these years. In 2022, Congress passed the National Service Reconstitution Act (NSRA), which requires all men and women aged 18 to 25 to register with newly reconstituted National Service Centers and to provide them with information on their residence, employment status, and educational background — information they are required to update on an annual basis. In 2023, the NSRA was amended to require registrants to complete an additional questionnaire on their technical, computer, and language skills. Since 2024, all men and women enrolled in computer science and related programs at federally aided colleges and universities have been required to enroll in the National Digital Reserve Corps (NDRC) and spend their summers working on defense-related programs at selected military installations and headquarters. Members of that Digital Corps must also be available on short notice for deployment to such facilities, should a conflict of any sort threaten to break out.

The establishment of just such a corps, it should be noted, had been a recommendation of the National Security Commission on Artificial Intelligence, a federal agency established in 2019 to advise Congress and the White House on how to prepare the nation for a high-tech arms race with China. "We must win the AI competition that is intensifying strategic competition with China," the commission avowed in March 2021, given that "the human talent deficit is the government's most conspicuous AI deficit." To overcome it, the commission suggested then, "We should establish a… civilian National Reserve to grow tech talent with the same seriousness of purpose that we grow military officers. The digital age demands a digital corps."

Indeed, only five years later, with the prospect of a U.S.-China conflict so obviously on the agenda, Congress is considering a host of bills aimed at supplementing the Digital Corps with other mandatory service requirements for men and women with technical skills, or simply for the reinstatement of conscription altogether and the full-scale mobilization of the nation. Needless to say, protests against such measures have been erupting at many colleges and universities, but with the mood of the country becoming increasingly bellicose, there has been little support for them among the general public. Clearly, the "volunteer" military is about to become an artifact of a previous epoch.

A New Cold War Culture of Repression

With the White House, Congress, and the Pentagon obsessively focused on preparations for what's increasingly seen as an inevitable war with China, it's hardly surprising that civil society in 2026 has similarly been swept up in an increasingly militaristic anti-China spirit. Popular culture is now saturated with nationalistic and jingoistic memes, regularly portraying China and the Chinese leadership in derogatory, often racist terms. Domestic manufacturers hype "Made in America" labels (even if they're often inaccurate) and firms that once traded extensively with China loudly proclaim their withdrawal from that market, while the streaming superhero movie of the moment, The Beijing Conspiracy, on a foiled Chinese plot to disable the entire U.S. electrical grid, is the leading candidate for the best film Oscar.

Domestically, by far the most conspicuous and pernicious result of all this has been a sharp rise in hate crimes against Asian Americans, especially those assumed to be Chinese, whatever their origin. This disturbing phenomenon, which began at the outset of the Covid crisis, when President Trump, in a transparent effort to deflect blame for his mishandling of the pandemic, started using terms like "Chinese Virus" and "Kung Flu" to describe the disease. Attacks on Asian Americans rose precipitously then and continued to climb after Joe Biden took office and began vilifying Beijing for its human rights abuses in Xinjiang and Hong Kong. According to the watchdog group Stop AAPI Hate, some 6,600 anti-Asian incidents were reported in the U.S. between March 2020 and March 2021, with almost 40% of those events occurring in February and March 2021.

For observers of such incidents back then, the connection between anti-China policymaking at the national level and anti-Asian violence at the neighborhood level was incontrovertible. "When America China-bashes, then Chinese get bashed, and so do those who 'look Chinese,'" said Russell Jeung, a professor of Asian American Studies at San Francisco State University at that time. "American foreign policy in Asia is American domestic policy for Asians."

By 2026, most Chinatowns in America have been boarded up and those that remain open are heavily guarded by armed police. Most stores owned by Asian Americans (of whatever background) were long ago closed due to boycotts and vandalism, and Asian Americans think twice before leaving their homes.

The hostility and distrust exhibited toward Asian Americans at the neighborhood level has been replicated at the workplace and on university campuses, where Chinese Americans and Chinese-born citizens are now prohibited from working at laboratories in any technical field with military applications. Meanwhile, scholars of any background working on China-related topics are subject to close scrutiny by their employers and government officials. Anyone expressing positive comments about China or its government is routinely subjected to harassment, at best, or at worst, dismissal and FBI investigation.

As with the incremental draft, such increasingly restrictive measures were first adopted in a series of laws in 2022. But the foundation for much of this was the United States Innovation and Competition Act of 2021, passed by the Senate in June of that year. Among other provisions, it barred federal funding to any college or university that hosted a Confucius Institute, a Chinese government program to promote that country's language and culture in foreign countries. It also empowered federal agencies to coordinate with university officials to "promote protection of controlled information as appropriate and strengthen defense against foreign intelligence services," especially Chinese ones.

Diverging From the Path of War

Yes, in reality, we're still in 2021, even if the Biden administration regularly cites China as our greatest threat. Naval incidents with that country's vessels in the South China Sea and the Taiwan Strait are indeed on the rise, as are anti-Asian-American sentiments domestically. Meanwhile, as the planet's two greatest greenhouse-gas emitters squabble, our world is growing hotter by the year.

Without question, something like the developments described above (and possibly far worse) will lie in our future unless action is taken to alter the path we're now on. All of those "2026" developments, after all, are rooted in trends and actions already under way that only appear to be gathering momentum at this moment. Bills like the Innovation and Competition Act enjoy near unanimous support among Democrats and Republicans, while strong majorities in both parties favor increased funding of Pentagon spending on China-oriented weaponry. With few exceptions — Senator Bernie Sanders among them — no one in the upper ranks of government is saying: Slow down. Don't launch another Cold War that could easily go hot.

"It is distressing and dangerous," as Sanders wrote recently in Foreign Affairs, "that a fast-growing consensus is emerging in Washington that views the U.S.-Chinese relationship as a zero-sum economic and military struggle." At a time when this planet faces ever more severe challenges from climate change, pandemics, and economic inequality, he added that "the prevalence of this view will create a political environment in which the cooperation that the world desperately needs will be increasingly difficult to achieve."

In other words, we Americans face an existential choice: Do we stand aside and allow the "fast-growing consensus" Sanders speaks of to shape national policy, while abandoning any hope of genuine progress on climate change or those other perils? Alternately, do we begin trying to exert pressure on Washington to adopt a more balanced relationship with China, one that would place at least as much emphasis on cooperation as on confrontation. If we fail at this, be prepared in 2026 or soon thereafter for the imminent onset of a catastrophic (possibly even nuclear) U.S.-China war.

Copyright 2021 Michael T. Klare

Follow TomDispatch on Twitter and join us on Facebook. Check out the newest Dispatch Books, John Feffer's new dystopian novel, Songlands(the final one in his Splinterlands series), Beverly Gologorsky's novel Every Body Has a Story, and Tom Engelhardt's A Nation Unmade by War, as well as Alfred McCoy's In the Shadows of the American Century: The Rise and Decline of U.S. Global Power and John Dower's The Violent American Century: War and Terror Since World War II.

Michael T. Klare, a TomDispatch regular, is the five-college professor emeritus of peace and world security studies at Hampshire College and a senior visiting fellow at the Arms Control Association. He is the author of 15 books, the latest of which is All Hell Breaking Loose: The Pentagon's Perspective on Climate Change. He is a founder of the Committee for a Sane U.S.-China Policy.


'Those who play with fire will get burned': How a dangerous game of chicken risks a globe-shaking war

The leaders of China and the United States certainly don't seek a war with each another. Both the Biden administration and the regime of Chinese President Xi Jinping view economic renewal and growth as their principal objectives. Both are aware that any conflict arising between them, even if restricted to Asia and conducted with non-nuclear weapons — no sure bet — would produce catastrophic regional damage and potentially bring the global economy to its knees. So, neither group has any intention of deliberately starting a war. Each, however, is fully determined to prove its willingness to go to war if provoked and so is willing to play a game of military chicken in the waters (and air space) off China's coast. In the process, each is making the outbreak of war, however unintended, increasingly likely.

History tells us that conflicts don't always begin due to planning and intent. Some, of course, start that way, as was the case, for instance, with Hitler's June 1941 invasion of the Soviet Union and Japan's December 1941 attacks on the Dutch East Indies and Pearl Harbor. More commonly, though, countries have historically found themselves embroiled in wars they had hoped to avoid.

This was the case in June 1914, when the major European powers — Britain, France, Germany, Russia, and the Austro-Hungarian Empire — all stumbled into World War I. Following an extremist act of terror (the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria and his wife Sophie by Serbian nationalists in Sarajevo), they mobilized their forces and issued ultimatums in the expectation that their rivals would back off. None did. Instead, a continent-wide conflict erupted with catastrophic consequences.

Sadly, we face the possibility of a very similar situation in the coming years. The three major military powers of the current era — China, the United States, and Russia — are all behaving eerily like their counterparts of that earlier era. All three are deploying forces on the borders of their adversaries, or the key allies of those adversaries, and engaging in muscle-flexing and "show-of-force" operations intended to intimidate their opponent(s), while demonstrating a will to engage in combat if their interests are put at risk. As in the pre-1914 period, such aggressive maneuvers involve a high degree of risk when it comes to causing an accidental or unintended clash that could result in full-scale combat or even, at worst, global warfare.

Provocative military maneuvers now occur nearly every day along Russia's border with the NATO powers in Europe and in the waters off China's eastern coastline. Much can be said about the dangers of escalation from such maneuvers in Europe, but let's instead fix our attention on the situation around China, where the risk of an accidental or unintended clash has been steadily growing. Bear in mind that, in contrast to Europe, where the borders between Russia and the NATO countries are reasonably well marked and all parties are careful to avoid trespassing, the boundaries between Chinese and U.S./allied territories in Asia are often highly contested.

China claims that its eastern boundary lies far out in the Pacific — far enough to encompass the independent island of Taiwan (which it considers a renegade province), the Spratly and Paracel Islands of the South China Sea (all claimed by China, but some also claimed by Malaysia, Vietnam, and the Philippines), and the Diaoyu Islands (claimed by both China and Japan, which calls them the Senkaku Islands). The United States has treaty obligations to Japan and the Philippines, as well as a legislative obligation to aid in Taiwan's defense (thanks to the Taiwan Relations Act passed by Congress in 1979) and consecutive administrations have asserted that China's extended boundary claims are illegitimate. There exists, then, a vast area of contested territory, encompassing the East and South China Seas — places where U.S. and Chinese warships and planes increasingly intermingle in challenging ways, while poised for combat.

Probing Limits (and Defying Them)

The leaders of the U.S. and China are determined that their countries will defend what it defines as its strategic interests in such contested areas. For Beijing, this means asserting its sovereignty over Taiwan, the Diaoyu Islands, and the islands of the South China Sea, as well as demonstrating an ability to take and defend such territories in the face of possible Japanese, Taiwanese, or U.S. counterattacks. For Washington, it means denying the legitimacy of China's claims and ensuring that its leadership can't realize them through military means. Both sides recognize that such contradictory impulses are only likely to be resolved through armed conflict. Short of war, however, each seems intent on seeing how far it can provoke the other, diplomatically and militarily, without triggering a chain reaction ending in disaster.

On the diplomatic front, representatives of the two sides have been engaging in increasingly harsh verbal attacks. These first began to escalate in the final years of the Trump administration when the president abandoned his supposed affection for Xi Jinping and began blocking access to U.S. technology by major Chinese telecommunications firms like Huawei to go with the punishing tariffs he had already imposed on most of that country's exports to the U.S. His major final offensive against China would be led by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who denounced that country's leadership in scathing terms, while challenging its strategic interests in contested areas.

In a July 2020 statement on the South China Sea, for instance, Pompeo slammed China for its aggressive behavior there, pointing to Beijing's repeated "bullying" of other claimants to islands in that sea. Pompeo, however, went beyond mere insult. He ratcheted up the threat of conflict significantly, asserting that "America stands with our Southeast Asian allies and partners in protecting their sovereign rights to offshore resources, consistent with their rights and obligations under international law" — language clearly meant to justify the future use of force by American ships and planes assisting friendly states being "bullied" by China.

Pompeo also sought to provoke China on the issue of Taiwan. In one of his last acts in office, on January 9th, he officially lifted restrictions in place for more than 40 years on U.S. diplomatic engagement with the government of Taiwan. Back in 1979, when the Carter administration broke relations with Taipei and established ties with the mainland regime, it prohibited government officials from meeting with their counterparts in Taiwan, a practice maintained by every administration since then. This was understood to be part of Washington's commitment to a "One China" policy in which Taiwan was viewed as an inseparable part of China (though the nature of its future governance was to remain up for negotiation). Reauthorizing high-level contacts between Washington and Taipei more than four decades later, Pompeo effectively shattered that commitment. In this way, he put Beijing on notice that Washington was prepared to countenance an official Taiwanese move toward independence — an act that would undoubtedly provoke a Chinese invasion effort (which, in turn, increased the likelihood that Washington and Beijing would find themselves on a war footing).

In the first high-level encounter between U.S. and Chinese officials in the Biden years, a meeting in Anchorage, Alaska, on March 18th and 19th, newly installed Secretary of State Antony Blinken used his opening remarks to lambaste the Chinese, expressing "deep concerns" over China's behavior in its mistreatment of the Uighur minority in Xinjiang Province, in Hong Kong, and in its increasingly aggressive approach to Taiwan. Such actions, he said, "threaten the rules-based order that maintains global stability." Blinken has uttered similar complaints in other settings, as have senior Biden appointees to the CIA and Department of Defense. Tellingly, in its first months in office, the Biden administration has given the green light to the same tempo of provocative military maneuvers in contested Asian waters as did the Trump administration in its last months.

The Trump administration also took concrete actions on the military front, especially by increasing naval maneuvers in the South China Sea and in waters around Taiwan. The Chinese replied with their own strong words and expanded military activities. In response, for instance, to a trip to Taipei last September by Under Secretary of State for Economic Affairs Keith Krach, the highest-ranking State Department official to visit the island in 40 years, China launched several days of aggressive air and sea maneuvers in the Taiwan Strait. According to Chinese Defense Ministry spokesman Ren Guoqiang, those maneuvers were "a reasonable, necessary action aimed at the current situation in the Taiwan Strait protecting national sovereignty and territorial integrity." Speaking of that island's increasing diplomatic contact with the U.S., he added, "Those who play with fire will get burned."

Today, with Trump and Pompeo out of office, the question arises: How will the Biden team approach such issues? To date, the answer is: much like the Trump administration.

"Gunboat Diplomacy" Today

In the years leading up to World War I, it was common for major powers to deploy their naval forces in waters near their adversaries or near rebellious client states in that age of colonialism to suggest the likelihood of punishing military action if certain demands weren't met. The U.S. used just such "gunboat diplomacy," as it was then called, to control the Caribbean region, forcing Colombia, for example, to surrender the territory Washington sought to build a canal connecting the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. Today, gunboat diplomacy is once again alive and well in the Pacific, with both China and the U.S. engaging in such behavior.

China is now using its increasingly powerful navy and coast guard on a regular basis to intimidate other claimants to islands it insists are its own in the East and South China Seas — Japan in the case of the Senkakus; and Malaysia, Vietnam, and the Philippines in the case of the Spratlys and Paracels. In most instances, this means directing its naval and coast guard vessels to drive off the fishing boats of such countries from waters surrounding Chinese-claimed islands. In the case of Taiwan, China has used its ships and planes in a menacing fashion to suggest that any move toward declaring independence from the mainland will be met with a harsh military response.

For Washington in the Biden era, assertive military maneuvers in the East and South China Seas are a way of saying: no matter how far such waters may be from the U.S., Washington and the Pentagon are still not prepared to cede control of them to China. This has been especially evident in the South China Sea, where the U.S. Navy and Air Force regularly conduct provocative exercises and show-of-force operations intended to demonstrate America's continuing ability to dominate the region — as in February, when dual carrier task forces were dispatched to the region. For several days, the USS Nimitz and the USS Theodore Roosevelt, along with their accompanying flotillas of cruisers and destroyers, conducted mock combat operations in the vicinity of islands claimed by China. "Through operations like this, we ensure that we are tactically proficient to meet the challenge of maintaining peace and we are able to continue to show our partners and allies in the region that we are committed to promoting a free and open Indo-Pacific," was the way Rear Admiral Doug Verissimo, commander of the Roosevelt Carrier Strike Group, explained those distinctly belligerent actions.

The Navy has also stepped up its patrols of destroyers in the Taiwan Strait as a way of suggesting that any future Chinese move to invade Taiwan would be met with a powerful military response. Already, since President Biden's inauguration, the Navy has conducted three such patrols: by the USS John S. McCain on February 4th, the USS Curtis Wilbur on February 24th, and the USS John Finn on March 10th. On each occasion, the Navy insisted that such missions were meant to demonstrate how the U.S. military would "continue to fly, sail, and operate anywhere international law allows."

Typically, when the U.S. Navy conducts provocative maneuvers of this sort, the Chinese military — the People's Liberation Army, or PLA — responds by sending out its own ships and planes to challenge the American vessels. This occurs regularly in the South China Sea, whenever the Navy conducts what it calls "freedom of navigation operations," or FONOPs, in waters near Chinese-claimed (and sometimes Chinese-built) islands, some of which have been converted into small military installations by the PLA. In response, the Chinese often dispatch a ship or ships of its own to escort — to put the matter as politely as possible — the American vessel out of the area. These encounters have sometimes proven exceedingly dangerous, especially when the ships got close enough to pose a risk of collision.

In September 2018, for example, a Chinese destroyer came within 135 feet of the guided-missile destroyer USS Decatur on just such a FONOP mission near Gavin Reef in the Spratly Islands, obliging the Decatur to alter course abruptly. Had it not done so, a collision might have occurred, lives could have been lost, and an incident provoked with unforeseeable consequences. "You are on [a] dangerous course," the Chinese ship reportedly radioed to the American vessel shortly before the encounter. "If you don't change course, [you] will suffer consequences."

What would have transpired had the captain of the Decatur not altered course? On that occasion, the world was lucky: the captain acted swiftly and avoided danger. But what about the next time, with tensions in the South China Sea and around Taiwan at a far higher pitch than in 2018? Such luck might not hold and a collision, or the use of weaponry to avoid it, could trigger immediate military action on either side, followed by a potentially unpredictable escalating cycle of countermoves leading who knows where.

Under such circumstances, a war nobody wanted between the U.S. and China could suddenly erupt essentially by happenstance — a war this planet simply can't afford. Sadly, the combination of inflammatory rhetoric at a diplomatic level and a propensity for backing up such words with aggressive military actions in highly contested areas still seems to be at the top of the Sino-American agenda.

Chinese and American leaders are now playing a game of chicken that couldn't be more dangerous for both countries and the planet. Isn't it time for the new Biden administration and its Chinese opposite to grasp more clearly and deeply that their hostile behaviors and decisions could have unforeseeable and catastrophic consequences? Strident language and provocative military maneuvers — even if only intended as political messaging — could precipitate a calamitous outcome, much in the way equivalent behavior in 1914 triggered the colossal tragedy of World War I.

Copyright 2021 Michael T. Klare

Follow TomDispatch on Twitter and join us on Facebook. Check out the newest Dispatch Books, John Feffer's new dystopian novel Frostlands(the second in the Splinterlands series), Beverly Gologorsky's novel Every Body Has a Story, and Tom Engelhardt's A Nation Unmade by War, as well as Alfred McCoy's In the Shadows of the American Century: The Rise and Decline of U.S. Global Power and John Dower's The Violent American Century: War and Terror Since World War II.

Michael T. Klare, a TomDispatch regular, is the five-college professor emeritus of peace and world security studies at Hampshire College and a senior visiting fellow at the Arms Control Association. He is the author of 15 books, the latest of which is All Hell Breaking Loose: The Pentagon's Perspective on Climate Change. He is a founder of the Committee for a Sane U.S.-China Policy.

A pernicious legacy: How Trump put the US on a path for cataclysmic war

In the military realm, Donald Trump will most likely be remembered for his insistence on ending America's involvement in its twenty-first-century "forever wars" -- the fruitless, relentless, mind-crushing military campaigns undertaken by Presidents Bush and Obama in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, and Somalia. After all, as a candidate, Trump pledged to bring U.S. troops home from those dreaded war zones and, in his last days in office, he's been promising to get at least most of the way to that objective. The president's fixation on this issue (and the opposition of his own generals and other officials on the subject) has generated a fair amount of media coverage and endeared him to his isolationist supporters. Yet, however newsworthy it may be, this focus on Trump's belated troop withdrawals obscures a far more significant aspect of his military legacy: the conversion of the U.S. military from a global counterterror force into one designed to fight an all-out, cataclysmic, potentially nuclear war with China and/or Russia.

People seldom notice that Trump's approach to military policy has always been two-faced. Even as he repeatedly denounced the failure of his predecessors to abandon those endless counterinsurgency wars, he bemoaned their alleged neglect of America's regular armed forces and promised to spend whatever it took to "restore" their fighting strength. "In a Trump administration," he declared in a September 2016 campaign speech on national security, America's military priorities would be reversed, with a withdrawal from the "endless wars we are caught in now" and the restoration of "our unquestioned military strength."

Once in office, he acted to implement that very agenda, instructing his surrogates -- a succession of national security advisers and secretaries of defense -- to commence U.S. troop withdrawals from Iraq and Afghanistan (though he agreed for a time to increase troop levels in Afghanistan), while submitting ever-mounting defense budgets. The Pentagon's annual spending authority climbed every year between 2016 and 2020, rising from $580 billion at the start of his administration to $713 at the end, with much of that increment directed to the procurement of advanced weaponry. Additional billions were incorporated into the Department of Energy budget for the acquisition of new nuclear weapons and the full-scale "modernization" of the country's nuclear arsenal.

Far more important than that increase in arms spending, however, was the shift in strategy that went with it. The military posture President Trump inherited from the Obama administration was focused on fighting the Global War on Terror (GWOT), a grueling, never-ending struggle to identify, track, and destroy anti-Western zealots in far-flung areas of Asia, Africa, and the Middle East. The posture he's bequeathing to Joe Biden is almost entirely focused on defeating China and Russia in future "high-end" conflicts waged directly against those two countries -- fighting that would undoubtedly involve high-tech conventional weapons on a staggering scale and could easily trigger nuclear war.

From the GWOT to the GPC

It's impossible to overstate the significance of the Pentagon's shift from a strategy aimed at fighting relatively small bands of militants to one aimed at fighting the military forces of China and Russia on the peripheries of Eurasia. The first entailed the deployment of scattered bands of infantry and Special Operations Forces units backed by patrolling aircraft and missile-armed drones; the other envisions the commitment of multiple aircraft carriers, fighter squadrons, nuclear-capable bombers, and brigade-strength armored divisions. Similarly, in the GWOT years, it was generally assumed that U.S. troops would face adversaries largely armed with light infantry weapons and homemade bombs, not, as in any future war with China or Russia, an enemy equipped with advanced tanks, planes, missiles, ships, and a full range of nuclear munitions.

This shift in outlook from counterterrorism to what, in these years, has come to be known in Washington as "great power competition," or GPC, was first officially articulated in the Pentagon's National Security Strategy of February 2018. "The central challenge to U.S. prosperity and security," it insisted, "is the reemergence of long-term, strategic competition by what the National Security Strategy classifies as revisionist powers," a catchphrase for China and Russia. (It used those rare italics to emphasize just how significant this was.)

For the Department of Defense and the military services, this meant only one thing: from that moment on, so much of what they did would be aimed at preparing to fight and defeat China and/or Russia in high-intensity conflict. As Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis put it to the Senate Armed Services Committee that April, "The 2018 National Defense Strategy provides clear strategic direction for America's military to reclaim an era of strategic purpose... Although the Department continues to prosecute the campaign against terrorists, long-term strategic competition -- not terrorism -- is now the primary focus of U.S. national security."

This being the case, Mattis added, America's armed forces would have to be completely re-equipped with new weaponry intended for high-intensity combat against well-armed adversaries. "Our military remains capable, but our competitive edge has eroded in every domain of warfare," he noted. "The combination of rapidly changing technology [and] the negative impact on military readiness resulting from the longest continuous period of combat in our nation's history [has] created an overstretched and under-resourced military." In response, we must "accelerate modernization programs in a sustained effort to solidify our competitive advantage."

In that same testimony, Mattis laid out the procurement priorities that have since governed planning as the military seeks to "solidify" its competitive advantage. First comes the "modernization" of the nation's nuclear weapons capabilities, including its nuclear command-control-and-communications systems; then, the expansion of the Navy through the acquisition of startling numbers of additional surface ships and submarines, along with the modernization of the Air Force, through the accelerated procurement of advanced combat planes; finally, to ensure the country's military superiority for decades to come, vastly increased investment in emerging technologies like artificial intelligence, robotics, hypersonics, and cyber warfare.

These priorities have by now been hard-wired into the military budget and govern Pentagon planning. Last February, when submitting its proposed budget for fiscal year (FY) 2021, for example, the Department of Defense asserted, "The FY 2021 budget supports the irreversible implementation of the National Defense Strategy (NDS), which drives the Department's decision-making in reprioritizing resources and shifting investments to prepare for a potential future, high-end fight." This nightmarish vision, in other words, is the military future President Trump will leave to the Biden administration.

The Navy in the Lead

From the very beginning, Donald Trump has emphasized the expansion of the Navy as an overriding objective. "When Ronald Reagan left office, our Navy had 592 ships... Today, the Navy has just 276 ships," he lamented in that 2016 campaign speech. One of his first priorities as president, he asserted, would be to restore its strength. "We will build a Navy of 350 surface ships and submarines," he promised. Once in office, the "350-ship Navy" (later increased to 355 ships) became a mantra.

In emphasizing a big Navy, Trump was influenced to some degree by the sheer spectacle of large modern warships, especially aircraft carriers with their scores of combat planes. "Our carriers are the centerpiece of American military might overseas," he insisted while visiting the nearly completed carrier, the USS Gerald R. Ford, in March 2017. "We are standing here today on four-and-a-half acres of combat power and sovereign U.S. territory, the likes of which there is nothing... there is no competition to this ship."

Not surprisingly, top Pentagon officials embraced the president's big-Navy vision with undisguised enthusiasm. The reason: they view China as their number one adversary and believe that any future conflict with that country will largely be fought from the Pacific Ocean and nearby seas -- that being the only practical way to concentrate U.S. firepower against China's increasingly built-up coastal defenses.

Then-Secretary of Defense Mark T. Esper expressed this outlook well when, in September, he deemed Beijing the Pentagon's "top strategic competitor" and the Indo-Pacific region its "priority theater" in planning for future wars. The waters of that region, he suggested, represent "the epicenter of great power competition with China" and so were witnessing increasingly provocative behavior by Chinese air and naval units. In the face of such destabilizing activity, "the United States must be ready to deter conflict and, if necessary, fight and win at sea."

In that address, Esper made it clear that the U.S. Navy remains vastly superior to its Chinese counterpart. Nonetheless, he asserted, "We must stay ahead; we must retain our overmatch; and we will keep building modern ships to ensure we remain the world's greatest Navy."

Although Trump fired Esper on November 9th for, among other things, resisting White House demands to speed up the withdrawal of American troops from Iraq and Afghanistan, the former defense secretary's focus on fighting China from the Pacific and adjacent seas remains deeply embedded in Pentagon strategic thinking and will be a legacy of the Trump years. In support of such a policy, billions of dollars have already been committed to the construction of new surface ships and submarines, ensuring that such a legacy will persist for years, if not decades to come.

Do Like Patton: Strike Deep, Strike Hard

Trump said little about what should be done for U.S. ground forces during the 2016 campaign, except to indicate that he wanted them even bigger and better equipped. What he did do, however, was speak of his admiration for World War II Army generals known for their aggressive battle tactics. "I was a fan of Douglas MacArthur. I was a fan of George Patton," he told Maggie Haberman and David Sanger of the New York Times that March. "If we had Douglas MacArthur today or if we had George Patton today and if we had a president that would let them do their thing you wouldn't have ISIS, okay?"

Trump's reverence for General Patton has proven especially suggestive in a new era of great-power competition, as U.S. and NATO forces again prepare to face well-equipped land armies on the continent of Europe, much as they did during World War II. Back then, it was the tank corps of Nazi Germany that Patton's own tanks confronted on the Western Front. Today, U.S. and NATO forces face Russia's best-equipped armies in Eastern Europe along a line stretching from the Baltic republics and Poland in the north to Romania in the south. If a war with Russia were to break out, much of the fighting would likely occur along this line, with main-force units from both sides engaged in head-on, high-intensity combat.

Since the Cold War ended in 1991 with the implosion of the Soviet Union, American strategists had devoted little serious thought to high-intensity ground combat against a well-equipped adversary in Europe. Now, with East-West tensions rising and U.S. forces again facing well-armed potential foes in what increasingly looks like a military-driven version of the Cold War, that problem is receiving far more attention.

This time around, however, U.S. forces face a very different combat environment. In the Cold War years, Western strategists generally imagined a contest of brute strength in which our tanks and artillery would battle theirs along hundreds of miles of front lines until one side or the other was thoroughly depleted and had no choice but to sue for peace (or ignite a global nuclear catastrophe). Today's strategists, however, imagine far more multidimensional (or "multi-domain") warfare extending to the air and well into rear areas, as well as into space and cyberspace. In such an environment, they've come to believe that the victor will have to act swiftly, delivering paralyzing blows to what they call the enemy's C3I capabilities (critical command, control, communications, and intelligence) in a matter of days, or even hours. Only then would powerful armored units be able to strike deep into enemy territory and, in true Patton fashion, ensure a Russian defeat.

The U.S. military has labeled such a strategy "all-domain warfare" and assumes that the U.S. will indeed dominate space, cyberspace, airspace, and the electromagnetic spectrum. In a future confrontation with Russian forces in Europe, as the doctrine lays it out, U.S. air power would seek control of the airspace above the battlefield, while using guided missiles to knock out Russian radar systems, missile batteries, and their C3I facilities. The Army would conduct similar strikes using a new generation of long-range artillery systems and ballistic missiles. Only when Russia's defensive capabilities were thoroughly degraded would that Army follow up with a ground assault, Patton-style.

Be Prepared to Fight with Nukes

As imagined by senior Pentagon strategists, any future conflict with China or Russia is likely to entail intense, all-out combat on the ground, at sea, and in the air aimed at destroying an enemy's critical military infrastructure in the first hours or, at most, days of battle, opening the way for a swift U.S. invasion of enemy territory. This sounds like a winning strategy -- but only if you possess all the advantages in weaponry and technology. If not, what then? This is the quandary faced by Chinese and Russian strategists whose forces don't quite match up to the power of the American ones. While their own war planning remains, to date, a mystery, it's hard not to imagine that the Chinese and Russian equivalents of the Pentagon high command are pondering the possibility of a nuclear response to any all-out American assault on their militaries and territories.

The examination of available Russian military literature has led some Western analysts to conclude that the Russians are indeed increasing their reliance on "tactical" nuclear weapons to obliterate superior U.S./NATO forces before an invasion of their country could be mounted (much as, in the previous century, U.S. forces relied on just such weaponry to avert a possible Soviet invasion of Western Europe). Russian military analysts have indeed published articles exploring just such an option -- sometimes described by the phrase "escalate to de-escalate" (a misnomer if ever there was one) -- although Russian military officials have never openly discussed such tactics. Still, the Trump administration has cited that unofficial literature as evidence of Russian plans to employ tactical nukes in a future East-West confrontation and used it to justify the acquisition of new U.S. weapons of just this sort.

"Russian strategy and doctrine... mistakenly assesses that the threat of nuclear escalation or actual first use of nuclear weapons would serve to 'de-escalate' a conflict on terms favorable to Russia," the administration's Nuclear Posture Review of 2018 asserts. "To correct any Russian misperceptions of advantage... the president must have a range of limited and graduated [nuclear] options, including a variety of delivery systems and explosive yields." In furtherance of such a policy, that review called for the introduction of two new types of nuclear munitions: a "low-yield" warhead (meaning it could, say, pulverize Lower Manhattan without destroying all of New York City) for a Trident submarine-launched ballistic missile and a new nuclear-armed sea-launched cruise missile.

As in so many of the developments described above, this Trump initiative will prove difficult to reverse in the Biden years. After all, the first W76-2 low-yield warheads have already rolled off the assembly lines, been installed on missiles, and are now deployed on Trident submarines at sea. These could presumably be removed from service and decommissioned, but this has rarely occurred in recent military history and, to do so, a new president would have to go against his own military high command. Even more difficult would be to negate the strategic rationale behind their deployment. During the Trump years, the notion that nuclear arms could be used as ordinary weapons of war in future great-power conflicts took deep root in Pentagon thinking and erasing it will prove to be no easy feat.

Amid arguments over the withdrawal of American forces from Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, and Somalia, amid the firings and sudden replacements of civilian leaders at the Pentagon, Donald Trump's most significant legacy -- the one that could lead not to yet more forever wars but to a forever disaster -- has passed almost unnoticed in the media and in political circles in Washington.

Supporters of the new administration and even members of Biden's immediate circle (though not his actual appointees to national security posts) have advanced some stirring ideas about transforming American military policy, including reducing the role military force plays in America's foreign relations and redeploying some military funds to other purposes like fighting Covid-19. Such ideas are to be welcomed, but President Biden's top priority in the military area should be to focus on the true Trump military legacy -- the one that has set us on a war course in relation to China and Russia -- and do everything in his power to steer us in a safer, more prudent direction. Otherwise, the phrase "forever war" could gain a new, far grimmer meaning.

Michael T. Klare, a TomDispatch regular, is the five-college professor emeritus of peace and world security studies at Hampshire College and a senior visiting fellow at the Arms Control Association. He is the author of 15 books, the latest of which is All Hell Breaking Loose: The Pentagon's Perspective on Climate Change.

Follow TomDispatch on Twitter and join us on Facebook. Check out the newest Dispatch Books, John Feffer's new dystopian novel (the second in the Splinterlands series) Frostlands, Beverly Gologorsky's novel Every Body Has a Story, and Tom Engelhardt's A Nation Unmade by War, as well as Alfred McCoy's In the Shadows of the American Century: The Rise and Decline of U.S. Global Power and John Dower's The Violent American Century: War and Terror Since World War II.

Copyright 2020 Michael T. Klare

The new Cold War with China is intensifying — and we could all feel the costs

America’s pundits and politicians have largely concluded that a new Cold War with China -- a period of intense hostility and competition falling just short of armed combat -- has started. “Rift Threatens U.S. Cold War Against China,” as a New York Times headline put it on May 15th, citing recent clashes over trade, technology, and responsibility for the spread of Covid-19. Beijing’s decision to subject Hong Kong to tough new security laws has only further heightened such tensions. President Trump promptly threatened to eliminate that city-state’s special economic relationship with this country, while imposing new sanctions on Chinese leaders. Meanwhile, Democrats and Republicans in Congress are working together to devise tough anti-Chinese sanctions of their own.

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There's a silver lining even in a shattered world economy

Energy analysts have long assumed that, given time, growing international concern over climate change would result in a vast restructuring of the global energy enterprise. The result: a greener, less climate-degrading system. In this future, fossil fuels would be overtaken by renewables, while oil, gas, and coal would be relegated to an increasingly marginal role in the global energy equation. In its World Energy Outlook 2019, for example, the International Energy Agency (IEA) predicted that, by 2040, renewables would finally supersede petroleum as the planet’s number one source of energy and coal would largely disappear from the fuel mix. As a result of Covid-19, however, we may no longer have to wait another 20 years for such a cosmic transition to occur -- it’s happening right now.

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The Pompeo Doctrine: A formula for catastrophe

Donald Trump got the headlines as usual -- but don’t be fooled. It wasn't Trumpism in action this August, but what we should all now start referring to as the Pompeo Doctrine. Yes, I’m referring to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and, when it comes to the Arctic region, he has a lot more than buying Greenland on his mind.

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Here is the missing three-letter word in the Iran Crisis

It’s always the oil. While President Trump was hobnobbing with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman at the G-20 summit in Japan, brushing off a recent U.N. report about the prince’s role in the murder of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was in Asia and the Middle East, pleading with foreign leaders to support “Sentinel.” The aim of that administration plan: to protect shipping in the Strait of Hormuz and the Persian Gulf. Both Trump and Pompeo insisted that their efforts were driven by concern over Iranian misbehavior in the region and the need to ensure the safety of maritime commerce. Neither, however, mentioned one inconvenient three-letter word - O-I-L - that lay behind their Iranian maneuvering (as it has impelled every other American incursion in the Middle East since World War II).

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Artificial intelligence and the hyperwar: How the Pentagon is barreling toward AI-driven combat - posing a global existential risk

There could be no more consequential decision than launching atomic weapons and possibly triggering a nuclear holocaust. President John F. Kennedy faced just such a moment during the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962 and, after envisioning the catastrophic outcome of a U.S.-Soviet nuclear exchange, he came to the conclusion that the atomic powers should impose tough barriers on the precipitous use of such weaponry. Among the measures he and other global leaders adopted were guidelines requiring that senior officials, not just military personnel, have a role in any nuclear-launch decision.

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Are We on the Road to World War III?

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When it comes to relations between Donald Trump’s America, Vladimir Putin’s Russia, and Xi Jinping’s China, observers everywhere are starting to talk about a return to an all-too-familiar past. “Now we have a new Cold War,” commented Russia expert Peter Felgenhauer in Moscow after President Trump recently announced plans to withdraw from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty. The Trump administration is "launching a new Cold War," said historian Walter Russell Mead in the Wall Street Journal, following a series of anti-Chinese measures approved by the president in October. And many others are already chiming in.

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How Donald Trump Plans to Enlist Fossil Fuels in the Struggle for Global Dominance

The new U.S. energy policy of the Trump era is, in some ways, the oldest energy policy on Earth. Every great power has sought to mobilize the energy resources at its command, whether those be slaves, wind-power, coal, or oil, to further its hegemonic ambitions. What makes the Trumpian variant -- the unfettered exploitation of America’s fossil-fuel reserves -- unique lies only in the moment it’s being applied and the likely devastation that will result, thanks not only to the 1950s-style polluting of America’s air, waters, and urban environment, but to the devastating hand it will lend to a globally warming world.

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Trump Is Trying to Make Dropping Nukes a 'Mainstream' Approach to War

Maybe you thought America’s nuclear arsenal, with its thousands of city-busting, potentially civilization-destroying thermonuclear warheads, was plenty big enough to deter any imaginable adversary from attacking the U.S. with nukes of their own. Well, it turns out you were wrong.

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Beyond Harvey and Irma: Militarizing Homeland Security in the Climate-Change Era

Deployed to the Houston area to assist in Hurricane Harvey relief efforts, U.S. military forces hadn’t even completed their assignments when they were hurriedly dispatched to Florida, Puerto Rico, and the U.S. Virgin Islands to face Irma, the fiercest hurricane ever recorded in the Atlantic Ocean. Florida Governor Rick Scott, who had sent members of the state National Guard to devastated Houston, anxiously recalled them while putting in place emergency measures for his own state. A small flotilla of naval vessels, originally sent to waters off Texas, was similarly redirected to the Caribbean, while specialized combat units drawn from as far afield as Colorado, Illinois, and Rhode Island were rushed to Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands. Meanwhile, members of the California National Guard were being mobilizedto fight wildfires raging across that state (as across much of the West) during its hottest summer on record.

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Climate Change as Genocide: Inaction Equals Annihilation

Not since World War II have more human beings been at risk from disease and starvation than at this very moment. On March 10th, Stephen O’Brien, under secretary-general of the United Nations for humanitarian affairs, informed the Security Council that 20 million people in three African countries -- Nigeria, Somalia, and South Sudan -- as well as in Yemen were likely to die if not provided with emergency food and medical aid. “We are at a critical point in history,” he declared. “Already at the beginning of the year we are facing the largest humanitarian crisis since the creation of the U.N.”  Without coordinated international action, he added, “people will simply starve to death [or] suffer and die from disease.”

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America Third: Donald Trump Is Giving the Phrase 'Multipolar World' New Meaning

If there’s a single consistent aspect to Donald Trump’s strategic vision, it’s this: U.S. foreign policy should always be governed by the simple principle of “America First,” with this country’s vital interests placed above those of all others.  “We will always put America’s interests first,” he declared in his victory speech in the early hours of November 9th.  “From this day forward, it’s going to be only America first, America first,” he insisted in his Inaugural Address on January 20th.  Since then, however, everything he’s done in the international arena has, intentionally or not, placed America’s interests behind those of its arch-rivals, China and Russia. So to be accurate, his guiding policy formula should really be relabeled America Third.

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Escalation Watch: Four Looming Flashpoints Facing President Trump

Within months of taking office, President Donald Trump is likely to face one or more major international crises, possibly entailing a risk of nuclear escalation. Not since the end of the Cold War has a new chief executive been confronted with as many potential flashpoints involving such a risk of explosive conflict. This proliferation of crises has been brewing for some time, but the situation appears especially ominous now given Trump’s pledge to bring American military force swiftly to bear on any threats of foreign transgression. With so much at risk, it’s none too soon to go on a permanent escalation watch, monitoring the major global hotspots for any sign of imminent flare-ups, hoping that early warnings (and the outcry that goes with them) might help avert catastrophe.

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Trump's Energy Policy Will Darken the Future With Disastrous Pollution and Dirty Air

Scroll through Donald Trump’s campaign promises or listen to his speeches and you could easily conclude that his energy policy consists of little more than a wish list drawn up by the major fossil fuel companies: lift environmental restrictions on oil and natural gas extraction, build the Keystone XL and Dakota Access pipelines, open more federal lands to drilling, withdraw from the Paris climate agreement, kill Obama’s Clean Power Plan, revive the coal mining industry, and so on and so forth ad infinitum.  In fact, many of his proposals have simply been lifted straight from the talking points of top energy industry officials and their lavishly financed allies in Congress.

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Emerging Right-Wing Climate Deniers Across the Globe (Maybe Even in the U.S.) Threaten the Future

In a year of record-setting heat on a blistered globe, with fast-warming oceans, fast-melting ice caps, and fast-rising sea levels, ratification of the December 2015 Paris climate summit agreement—already endorsed by most nations—should be a complete no-brainer. That it isn't tells you a great deal about our world. Global geopolitics and the possible rightward lurch of many countries (including a potential deal-breaking election in the United States that could put a climate denier in the White House) spell bad news for the fate of the Earth. It’s worth exploring how this might come to be.

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Hooked! The Unyielding Grip of Fossil Fuels on Global Life

Here’s the good news: wind power, solar power, and other renewable forms of energy are expanding far more quickly than anyone expected, ensuring that these systems will provide an ever-increasing share of our future energy supply. According to the most recent projections from the Energy Information Administration (EIA) of the U.S. Department of Energy, global consumption of wind, solar, hydropower, and other renewables will double between now and 2040, jumping from 64 to 131 quadrillion British thermal units (BTUs).

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Petro Countries on the Brink of Collapse as Oil Prices Remain at Ruinously Low Levels

Pity the poor petro-states. Once so wealthy from oil sales that they could finance wars, mega-projects, and domestic social peace simultaneously, some of them are now beset by internal strife or are on the brink of collapse as oil prices remain at ruinously low levels. Unlike other countries, which largely finance their governments through taxation, petro-states rely on their oil and natural gas revenues. Russia, for example, obtains about 50% of government income that way; Nigeria, 60%; and Saudi Arabia, a whopping 90%. When oil was selling at $100 per barrel or above, as was the case until 2014, these countries could finance lavish government projects and social welfare operations, ensuring widespread popular support.  Now, with oil below $50 and likely to persist at that level, they find themselves curbing public spending and fending off rising domestic discontent or even incipient revolt.

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There Will Be Chaos: Big Oil's Collapse and the Birth of a New World Order

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Delusional Thinking in Washington, Desperate Plight of a Declining Superpower

Take a look around the world and it’s hard not to conclude that the United States is a superpower in decline. Whether in Europe, Asia, or the Middle East, aspiring powers are flexing their muscles, ignoring Washington’s dictates, or actively combating them. Russia refuses to curtail its support for armed separatists in Ukraine; China refuses to abandon its base-building endeavors in the South China Sea; Saudi Arabia refuses to endorse the U.S.-brokered nuclear deal with Iran; the Islamic State movement (ISIS) refuses to capitulate in the face of U.S. airpower. What is a declining superpower supposed to do in the face of such defiance?

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Why the GOP's Vision of North America's Energy Future Should Scare All of Us

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