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The Peninsula

Climate Change is Critical to Assuring U.S. leadership on the Korean Peninsula and Northeast Asia

Published December 30, 2019

By Emanuel Pastreich

The conclusion of COP 25 (UN Climate Change Conference) in Madrid failed to produce any consensus, or plan, for responding to the acidification of the oceans, increasing desertification, rising sea levels or alternating droughts and hurricanes that spell catastrophe for humanity. This inaction was not a result of ignorance. The U.N. Environment Program released a detailed report “The Production Gap” at the time of the conference that describes in detail the abject failure of leading nations to address climate change, even in the face of scientific data.

The United States, whose domestic energy policies are critical to our shared future, and which once worked with the European Union and other nations to set goals for mitigation and reduction, has become the primary obstacle to the planning for, and implementation of, such critical global agreements.

In part this shift is the result of a growing isolationist sentiment that expresses itself in the contempt shown by the current administration for binding international treaties, whether about carbon emissions, space, or nuclear weapons. In part the shift is a result of the massive influence that fossil fuel interests have on the American policy making process, marginalizing experts and promoting the use of energy sources other countries are trying to eliminate.

This profound transformation of the American discourse on policy has made it more acceptable for India or South Korea to accept the loose guidelines of the Paris Agreement (2015) as more than sufficient, and in many cases to backtrack.

Although there has been vocal opposition in Congress to the administration’s lack of action on climate change, the alternatives offered up by the Democratic Party remain woefully inadequate to the task of rapidly ending our addiction to fossil fuels.

Rather, the fight for meaningful climate change policy has moved away from congressional subcommittees to school strikes and protests in the streets. A serious debate on the impact of climate change has all but vanished from think tanks and political debates on the TV news.

The international ramifications of this domestic paralysis are catastrophic. The United States has no policy proposal concerning climate change, the greatest emerging threat today, and a threat that will be a part of every discussion on the economy, security and society in our age.

The United States is currently the only country in the world that has withdrawn from the Paris Agreement.

Even North Korea signed the Paris Climate Agreement. This point is critical when we consider what the role of the United States on the Korean Peninsula will be. We have lost the moral high ground. Moreover, North Korea’s per-person emissions are near the bottom in the world—whereas the United States is one of the worst emitters.

U.S. and China Battle for Leadership

The failure of American leadership on the Korean Peninsula is not taking place in a vacuum. Washington faces competition for influence in South Korea and, in part because of the sanctions regime in place, in North Korea as well.  Whether science and technology, education, trade or diplomacy, investment and markets, or culture and philosophy, China has reached a new level of sophistication and offers palatable alternatives to the United States.

The primary field of play for leadership is not weapons systems or missile defense. It is rather moral leadership. Leadership on the global response to climate change is shaping up to be the front line.

The administration in Washington, D.C. has taken climate change off the table in its discussions about economics and security with South Korea. Climate change as a threat to North Korea does not even come up in the writings of progressive American analysts.

By contrast, China has dramatically increased the production of electric vehicles, solar and wind farms, over the last decade, making it the world leader. At the same time, China declared that “ecological civilization” is national policy. The fact that China has fallen far short of the goals it espouses, funding the construction of coal-fired power plants in third countries and failing to reduce the use of coal and petroleum for most of the country, does not detract from its new leadership role in the development of renewable energy and its domination of the core technologies that will be demanded by a renewable economy. Moreover, the Chinese government is capable of making, and implementing, 30-year, or 50-year plans.

The contrast with the United States in climate change policy is increasingly stark.

But the United States has not lost the battle yet.

How the U.S. can Take the Initiative Again

It is possible for the United States to show true leadership in Northeast Asia by making climate change the primary security concern and therefore to compete with China, not in the negative sense of an arms race, but in the positive sense of a race to go green, to restructure their massive economies to respond to this existential threat.

What better place for the United States and China to compete in this positive sense than on the Korean Peninsula, in the process of ending the dangerous isolation of the North Korean regime?

The United States must propose a vision for the Korean Peninsula that makes climate change the central concern, and thereby restore American legitimacy, and upgrade the alliance, in that process.

At present, United States is focused on the nuclear threat from North Korea, employing sanctions as the primary means of compelling North Korea to denuclearize and to rejoin the international community. In the current discourse on diplomacy and security within the U.S. State Department there is no space for a discussion of climate change with regards to United States policy in Northeast Asia, and certainly not policy towards North Korea.

Perhaps many assume that a discussion of climate change would distract from efforts to turn North Korea around because it would introduce yet another variable.

However, making climate change the core security concern for the United States in Northeast Asia could be transformational. If we shift the core security issue of the United States in Northeast Asia from North Korean denuclearization (which is impossible without a regional disarmament regime) to mitigation of, and adaptation to, climate change (which is convincing to citizens and can be implemented immediately) we will open up a new horizon for American engagement in the region.

Needless to say, the systematic response to climate change is not anywhere on the agenda for U.S. talks with North Korea.

But it could be. In light of the growing awareness about the climate catastrophe among U.S. security experts, such a fundamental shift can take place now, regardless of the late-night tweets of President Trump.

Once we have established such a shift in thinking, we can push forward with a vision for a peace regime in Northeast Asia wherein the United States continues to play a vital role, but one that encourages global cooperation in the development of, and implementation of, renewable energy programs.

If this goal is set forward as the priority in future National Security Strategy reports, the door will be open to cooperation with China, and eventually cooperation with North Korea in a field that is of critical importance in security for all of us.

Climate Change and North Korea

North Korea offers an unprecedented opportunity to establish a 100 percent renewable economy of a completeness such as does not yet exist in the world elsewhere. Whereas most policy voices discuss the inexpensive skilled labor, and the mineral resources, in North Korea as its attractive points, this perspective has been absent in all discussions.

If the United States can take the initiative in pushing for such policies, starting with important public intellectuals at first, we can play a critical role in the debate on policy.

To start with, North Koreans begin with an extremely small per-capita carbon footprint; they live modest lives, do not drive automobiles or use large amounts of energy and there are large parts of the countryside that remain in an undeveloped state.  No industrialized country is better positioned to become 100 percent renewable in a short period of time.

Equally important, North Korea will need entirely new infrastructure in the coming years. That situation offers us the chance to make the systemic shifts in city planning and energy that cannot be easily undertaken in nations that have a well-established infrastructure. It is possible, for example to plan for, and implement, a plan for North Korea wherein it does not employ automobiles for transportation, or a power system the employs entirely solar, wind and hydro power.

North Korea would be a perfect place to develop organic farming that does not require petroleum-powered mechanized farming equipment and to require that all products be 100 percent recyclable or 100 percent degradable.

If the United States can promote such a developmental model for North Korea, it will do much to reverse the diplomatic damage we have suffered after we became the only nation in the world to leave the Paris Climate Agreement.

The United States could even push forward a more complete green economy on the Korean Peninsula than China is pushing and thereby set in motion a positive competition between the two countries to see who can make Korea green faster.

The fact that the current administration has been heading in the opposite direction is no reason to dismiss the possibility for a dramatic shift. America has made such dramatic shifts before and this moment, as we are losing our edge in science and our share in the market for renewable technologies, could be a perfect “Sputnik moment.”

If the United States can go forward with a zero carbon model for the development of North Korea that makes that country a leader in the world, we may be able to win over the leadership in Pyongyang and regain a moral and intellectual leadership in Asia and the world. The resulting positive competition between the United States and China to see who can create a more sustainable Asia will be a great positive and the efforts of scientists can be drawn away from the planning for a catastrophic war and focused on what humanity needs right here and now.

Emanuel Pastreich is the President of The Asia Institute and a Non-Resident Fellow at the Korea Economic Institute. The views expressed here are his own. 

Photo from Rae Allen’s photostream on flickr Creative Commons.

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