Friday, June 15, 2007

Climate change as IR version of "passive aggressive"?

In the aftermath of the just-signed G8 agreement on restricting greenhouse gases -- a watered-down and ineffective-by-design agreement that Al Gore immediately labeled "a disgrace" -- Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni on Friday made a speech in which he described global warming as
a form of external aggression against Africa as the impact of the phenomenon is felt more acutely on the continent than elsewhere. "Africa used to suffer outside aggression in the past, the latest form of aggression is climate change," Museveni said after talks in Berlin with German Chancellor Angela Merkel. "Our climate is very warm so if it becomes warmer we will suffer more, yet the people emitting these greenhouse gases are not ourselves, it is others," the long-standing Ugandan leader added.
In what sense is this a fair charge? Certainly it seems well accepted that if a company pours toxins into a river that it knows will poison those who live downstream, then that company is legally liable for the damage it does. The challenge with the climate change parallel is that even though the general effects of increasing greenhouse gases is well understood -- it leads to global warming and often radical changes in precipitation patterns -- its effects are both very long-term and very hard to disaggregate, at a local level, from stochastically natural variation in the weather. Over time, however, I believe that these charges will be made to stick. In the medium term, I believe the possibility for international class action cases (toxic torts) based on greenhouse gas emissions is hardly out of the range of conception.

I wonder, however, whether Museveni is wise to push this security angle. If in fact it is a matter of security, then it seems that the lesson of the Melian Dialogue is likely to apply: namely, that the strong will do what they can, while the weak will suffer what they must. The U.S. would be wise to adopt a security lens for understanding the threat of climate change, but for the likes of Uganda, building a legal strategy may make more sense.

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