How Biden’s war on climate change could bring peace

Image credit: Dreamstime

What do climate change, pollution and conflict have in common? If things turns out well under the new Biden administration, efforts to prevent them may kill several birds with one stone.

Many have looked forward to this day ever since the moment Donald Trump was elected US President on 8 November, 2016. This week, it was time to say goodbye to the man who broke the US impeachment record. The bad one is out. The good one is moving in. Is this how easy it all is? The answer is, as with most diplomatic questions to ponder, is that it depends where you look.

The rivalry between China and the US will continue, leading foreign relations analysts predict. Ex-president Trump touted and nurtured the conflict and competition with the East Asian superpower. President Joe Biden will continue some of that, though perhaps not with the iron fist Trump displayed.

Some of that rivalry may move into space. Biden’s pick for defence secretary, Lloyd Austin, has warned that confrontation between the two countries could move into space as a 'domain of war' and said that Chinese and Russian space activities present serious and growing threats to America’s national security interests. 

Where Biden’s stance differs significantly is on climate change. Trump was largely a climate change denier, Biden isn’t. If you disagree, and you may, then we might at least settle on that he wasn’t interested in or able to understand what climate change is or does.

My own reporting on the way the Trump administration supported the US oil and gas sector that encouraged local pollution and methane leaks, corroborates this view. EarthWorks, a non-for-profit reminded us this week that Biden’s oil and gas climate order must lead to a 65 per cent methane pollution cut.

“The increasing severity of the climate crisis demands bold and immediate action in the coming weeks and months, including utilising the Clean Air Act to the fullest extent of the law to cut oil and gas methane pollution 65 per cent by 2025," the group's policy director Lauren Pagel says.

More so, Trump showed us all how to move backwards in international collaboration – exiting the Paris agreement, which Biden will join again. International leaders warmly welcomed him back in Twitter:

Climate change is roughest on developing countries. Foreign aid development and assistance is the tool countries use to help. But under Trump, there were significant cuts to the US development budgets. Under his administration, the US Department of State slashed funding for Syria's ‘White Helmets’. Officially named the Syria Civil Defence, the volunteer organisation active in the area of Syria and in Turkey was also the first to raise allegation that chemical weapons were used on the Syrian city of Douma in Eastern Ghouta, killing 50 and injuring more than a hundred. The EU condemned the attack and expressed grave concern that chemical weapons continued to be used, especially on civilians

Biden and his team on the other hand recognises assistance as a crucial foreign policy tool. “We’d bring aid back to the center of our foreign policy,” said Antony Blinken, who was the foreign policy adviser for the Biden campaign and is now Biden's nominee for Secretary of State. That could bring funding back the groups like the White Helmets as well as sending an important signal to the world.

Biden’s campaign made clear he's keen to make climate change central to aid policy and cut development financing for fossil fuel projects. That's an important way forward. One quick digression here. Helping US oil companies abroad is a source of concern. The new issue of E&T published this week (February 2021) includes a piece about how Texaco, now owned by Chevron, was responsible for one of the most horrendous toxic oil spills in history.

Chevron, an American company, was acquitted of compensation charges. The Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague voted in favour of Chevron and Texaco Petroleum Company, on the basis that the judgment in Ecuador should not be recognised by the courts of other states. If the US wants to hold companies doing damage elsewhere accountable, however, having Biden in the White House offers a unique chance for progress.

See what we scraped together that shows where the oil contamination continued, long after Texaco left the country.

But will Biden's administration be so progressive and start holding oil industry to account? Again, this depends. Activists have warned that the new Louisiana congressman Cedric Richmond, who takes the role of the head of the White House Office of Public Engagement, is a tricky choice.

Richmond’s job is to help advance the administration’s legislative agenda on climate change. Yet one investigation has shown he accepted donations from oil, gas and chemical industries and has revealed indifference to local air-pollution issues – the latter measured in the extent to which his news releases shows failed to mentioned air pollution in his district at any point during his tenure. In Congress, in his recent job, he hasn’t talked about it either.

At war

What’s the Biden administration’s attitude to waging war? It was Biden’s decision to nominate Austin as the next secretary of defence. Austin is a retired General, so there is a valid question to what extend his profile may lead to more conflict, the Brookings think tank wonders. Biden, now as President, is the new commander in chief of the military. The way the US is set up at present, experts call for a tightening of constraints on the possible first use of US nuclear weapons. I tend to agree. The Trump administration lobbied for the exact opposite, that loosens constraints on the use of nuclear weapons and develop a new low-yield nuclear warhead for US Trident missiles.

It’s critical that more defence funding goes into helping poor communities, not waging more wars which encourage destruction. When Trump signed the Department of Defense appropriations bill, $617bn was named as the dedicated base budget and $69bn was dedicated for ‘war funding’. This 2019 budget was the fourth year when budget increased. It’s the wrong direction.

Trump’s America First stance encouraged conflict. Looking more inward than outward affects the global power balance. Nowhere last year may this have been more apparent than for the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. In 1994, the US and Russia helped to arrange a ceasefire. First with Obama, then exacerbated by Trump routine peace-maintenance in the area grew less interesting. The Trump administration could have prevented the conflict in the Caucasus if it had the spirit to do so. There are many other what analysts call a‘frozen conflicts’. Under Biden, one would hope the US again becomes a reliable ally to NATO and gets back to maintaining the power balance. I am not the only one with this view. Taras Kuzio, professor of political science at the National University of Kyiv Mohyla Academy in Kyiv, Ukraine, and security analyst says the new administration must support the replacement of Russian peacekeepers with a genuine UN peacekeeping force as well engage other progressive measures to keep the South Caucasus at peace.

Satellite images of attack

Image credit: Planet labs, Ben Heubl

Preventing such wars can have a huge impact on preventing toxic disasters, ensuring food supply and counteracting climate change. In the example of the Caucasus conflict last year, in addition to human casualties among civilians, the attacks observed were also an environmental tragedy. “Inhuman attacks against the environment shocked Azerbaijani society and fuelled anger,” writes Naghi Ahmadov, a fellow at the Center of Analysis of International Relations. Videos showed banned white phosphorus munitions on Armenian-controlled areas in Karabakh and satellite images confirmed damage in the area, triggering an Ecocide Alert for the region (Syria saw similar attacks with dirty phosphorus bombs, Atlandic Council’s DFRLab found).

But the so-called eco-terror is broader and includes not only the time during the conflict last year. Various acts committed over the past 27 years show it's a more fundamental problem. The region suffered from "long-term impacts of overuse of pastureland, clearing of forests, stockpiling of waste, and irrational use of land in Nagorno-Karabakh," Ahmadov writes. Biden should be made aware of such eco-terror and help to counteract it.

More climate change can also lead to more conflict. It's not hard to picture. One example is that Boko Haram, the Islamic State group in West Africa, would find it a lot harder to recruit foot soldiers if hungry young men did not see picking up a rifle as an attractive career choice, as the Economist writes. There are so many other examples. More generally, climate change-driven extreme weather and related disasters can damage economies, lower farming and livestock production and intensify inequality among social groups. These factors, when combined with other drivers of conflict, may increase risks of violence, authors of a 2019 Stanford University study explains. 

Severe pollution is another problem that war and conflict brings. Take the drone attacks by Yemen’s Houthi rebels that struck central oil installations inside Saudi Arabia in late 2019. It damaged the facilities that process the vast majority of the country’s crude output. The attack that sent shockwaves through markets. It was one of many environmental catastrophes, including, as Rachel Ramirez writes: “refinery explosions are an environmental menace, spewing toxic chemicals into the air and threatening the health of anyone nearby.”

One of the latest examples is toxic air pollution and limited access to clean drinking water in Kirkuk, Iraq. In 1927 oil was discovered in Baba Gurgur, near Kirkuk. Today, the population in the war-torn country is suffering horrendous consequences. First was the First Gulf War in the 1990s. Then came the Iraq War. In both conflicts, the US played a key role. Today, the air is full of smoke hovering over the city. Its residents are exposed to a mixture of gases discharged from the burning oil; some, such as methane, are toxic and can be dangerous in high concentrations, Tara AbdulAziz writes.

There is hope that the Biden administration can play some role in bringing back some of the benefits that Kurds had generally benefited under the Obama administration. Though, many wonder - including this analysis - what in Erbil and eastern Syria is to be salvaged after so much destruction in the past several years.

Burned fields near refugee settlements

In December, we witnessed how Eritrean Soldiers set fire to crops and nearby forests where refugees near a camp used to collect wood (See the burned area below). While the UN warned about reported violence against the 96,000 Eritrean refugees in Tigray, Reuters reported in December it found evidence that the US has joined the conflict. Biden on the other hand, advocated for ending the fighting in north Ethiopia. 

In conclusion, we can say Biden is a blessing for foreign policy. But he and his team have a mountain of work to do. It warrants to look closely how his first 100 days unfold. I hope I've shown here how the US presidency handles foreign relations, aid and climate change will have direct and indirect knock-on effects on pollution and war and conflict abroad. 

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