Brinkmanship as Climate Policy: Trials and Tribulations

In October 1962, the Soviet Union began to install long-range, nuclear-armed missiles in Cuba – an unprecedented expansion of Soviet reach.[1] President Kennedy, seeking a firm yet measured response, decided shortly thereafter to impose a naval blockade on the region, demanding a swift withdrawal of Soviet forces.[2] With neither country willing to capitulate to the other, tensions mounted, pushing both parties to the brink of internecine nuclear warfare, an inadmissible outcome facilitating a consequent joint de-escalation effort.[3] This international game of chicken is formalized in game theory as “brinkmanship:” a strategy whereby two opposing parties continuously heighten the stakes of conflict in order to gain the upper hand while pre-empting potentially calamitous outcomes – or as Secretary of State John Foster Dulles explained in 1956, “the ability to get to the verge without getting into the war.”[4],[5] Around half a century after the Missile Scare of 1962, the Trump Administration is employing an analogous tactic of brinkmanship to the war against climate change, establishing a Presidential Committee on Climate Security to “keep challenging the Pentagon . . . until it gets an answer it likes,” withdrawing from the Paris Climate Agreement, and otherwise gutting Obama-era climate policies in an obstinate game of climatic gambling – delaying concrete action until the need for de-escalation (or in this case, decarbonization) can simply no longer be ignored.[6] However, this approach is fundamentally flawed.

Though environmental crises have often proven effective in bringing to light the adverse impacts of – and catalyzing subsequent action on – anthropogenic climate change, such crises were typically of a highly visible nature: the Santa Barbara oil-spill of 1969 led to the first Earth-Day protests, and the pesticide epidemic of the 1960s contributed to the establishment of the EPA.[7],[8]  In contrast, climate change is a somewhat less obvious phenomenon than oil in oceans or pesticides in produce, and it is often difficult for a mainstream audience to internalize the implications of a warming climate as spelled out in academic publications employing complex scientific techniques. Moreover, the climate changes in a non-linear fashion – e.g. warming global conditions facilitate permafrost thawing, which may contribute to an abrupt, widespread release of CO2 into the atmosphere – meaning that environmental harm can increase at a sudden and exponential rate after certain thresholds are exceeded.[9] In other words, these elements of non-linearity and (in)visibility obscure the true magnitude of climate crises and problematize the application of brinkmanship tactics to climate policy, as it is difficult to “get to the verge” if the cliff cannot be seen and objects are, in reality, much closer than they appear.

Furthermore, climate crises are different than missile crises as the latter can be resolved with few residual ramifications: missiles can be dismantled, blockades can be dismissed, and diplomacy can be restored. However, climate crises strain the environment in adverse and enduring ways. For instance, the chlorofluorocarbon crisis of the 1970s resulted in a nearly irreversible void in the ozone layer,[10] and the recent increase in the incidence of weather extremes have resulted in the destruction of millions of habitats, eliminated carbon sinks, and contributed to consistently elevated levels of greenhouse gas emissions.[11] As Naomi Oreskes summarizes in Merchants of Doubt, “Climate change is happening. It’s under way, and it’s not reversible.”[12] This element of permanence – of lasting effects – renders climate change a difficult issue to push to the brink, as it may not be feasible to walk back from the edge.

To tackle climate change with the frame of brinkmanship is to recklessly assume an enormous amount of risk: as Michael Klare writes in The Nation, rising global temperatures are “expected to diminish crop yields . . . adding to the desperation of farmers and very likely resulting in widespread ethnic strife and population displacement” and “as food and water supplies dwindle and governments come under ever-increasing pressure to meet the vital needs of their populations, disputes over critical resources are likely to become more heated and violent.”[13] Developments of this nature – Alfred McCoy predicts in “What Does it Take to Destroy a World Order” – are poised to destabilize communities on a national scale, which could further cause “the international cooperation that lay at the heart of Washington’s world order for the past 90 years [to] simply wither.”[14] However, the assumption of these risks is wholly unnecessary and avoidable. At a recent global security conference in Munich, top European and United Nations officials expressed concern over climate change’s role as a “threat multiplier” that could exacerbate geopolitical conflicts abroad – one of many indications that there exists tangible support for proactive, rather than reactive, coordinated global climate action.[15] Moreover, the 26 corporations comprising the U.S. Climate Action Partnership’s 2007-2010 lobbying effort for a federal cap and trade system, and the 58 senior military leaders citing climate change as a significant threat to national security in a recent open letter, suggests similar sentiments of support amongst both the public and private sectors.[16]

Still, mainstream politics eschews the realities of climate change, kicking the can down the road and in some instances, dismissing outright the prevailing scientific consensus of a warming climate. However, pushing the Earth to the brink of its planetary boundaries – holding out for absolute consensus (a virtual impossibility in science) or the manifestation of regular, worsening environmental crises – is negligence on an unfathomable scale and a dangerous game of brinkmanship that could well backfire.


Bibliography

Gilbert, Emily. “The militarization of climate change.” ACME: An International E-Journal for Critical Geographies 11.1 (2012): 1-14.

Keller, Jared. “The White House Will Keep Challenging the Pentagon on the Threat of Climate Change Until It Gets an Answer It Likes,” Task & Purpose, February 20, 2019. https://taskandpurpose.com/trump-climate-change-national-security-panel.

Klare, Michael. “How Rising Temperatures Increase the Likelihood of Nuclear War,” The Nation (January 13, 2020), https://www.thenation.com/article/archive/nuclear-defense-climate-change/.

Kozloff, Max. “American painting during the Cold War.” Artforum 11.9 (1973): 43-54.

Lewis, Jack. “The birth of EPA.” EPA J. 11 (1985): 6.

Lobel, Nathan. “Unraveling the U.S. Climate Action Plan: Explaining Corporate Participation in a Pro-Regulatory Advocacy Coalition,” Senior Essay, Yale Department of Political Science, December 9, 2016.

McCoy, Alfred. “What Does It Take to Destroy a World Order,” Salon (March 3, 2019), https://www.salon.com/2019/03/03/what-does-it-take-to-destroy-a-world-order_partner/

McNeill, John Robert, and Peter Engelke. The Great Acceleration. Harvard University Press, 2016.

Oreskes, Naomi, and Erik M. Conway. Merchants of doubt: How a handful of scientists obscured the truth on issues from tobacco smoke to global warming. Bloomsbury Publishing USA, 2011.

Paul Newman et al, “2018 Ozone Hole is a Reminder of what Almost was,” NASA: November 2, 2018. https://svs.gsfc.nasa.gov/13103.

Powell, Robert. “Nuclear brinkmanship with two-sided incomplete information.” American Political Science Review82.1 (1988): 155-178.

Rial, José A., et al. “Nonlinearities, feedbacks and critical thresholds within the Earth’s climate system.” Climatic change65.1-2 (2004): 11-38.

Weldes, Jutta. Constructing national interests: The United States and the Cuban missile crisis. University of Minnesota Press, 1999.

Wheeling, Kate and Max Ufberg, “‘The Ocean is Boiling:’ The Complete Oral History of the Santa Barbara Oil Spill,” Pacific Standard, November 7, 2018. https://psmag.com/news/the-ocean-is-boiling-the-complete-oral-history-of-the-1969-santa-barbara-oil-spill.


Endnotes

[1] Weldes, Jutta. Constructing national interests: The United States and the Cuban missile crisis. University of Minnesota Press, 1999.

[2] Weldes, 1999.

[3] Weldes, 1999.

[4] Powell, Robert. “Nuclear brinkmanship with two-sided incomplete information.” American Political Science Review 82.1 (1988): 155-178.

[5] Kozloff, Max. “American painting during the Cold War.” Artforum 11.9 (1973): 43-54.

[6] Jared Keller, “The White House Will Keep Challenging the Pentagon on the Threat of Climate Change Until It Gets an Answer It Likes,” Task & Purpose, February 20, 2019. https://taskandpurpose.com/trump-climate-change-national-security-panel

[7] Wheeling, Kate and Max Ufberg, “‘The Ocean is Boiling:’ The Complete Oral History of the Santa Barbara Oil Spill,” Pacific Standard, November 7, 2018. https://psmag.com/news/the-ocean-is-boiling-the-complete-oral-history-of-the-1969-santa-barbara-oil-spill.

[8] Lewis, Jack. “The birth of EPA.” EPA J. 11 (1985): 6.

[9] Rial, José A., et al. “Nonlinearities, feedbacks and critical thresholds within the Earth’s climate system.” Climatic change 65.1-2 (2004): 11-38.

[10] Paul Newman et al, “2018 Ozone Hole is a Reminder of what Almost was,” NASA: November 2, 2018. https://svs.gsfc.nasa.gov/13103

[11] McNeill, John Robert, and Peter Engelke. The Great Acceleration. Harvard University Press, 2016.

[12] Oreskes, Naomi, and Erik M. Conway. Merchants of doubt: How a handful of scientists obscured the truth on issues from tobacco smoke to global warming. Bloomsbury Publishing USA, 2011.

[13] Michael Klare, “How Rising Temperatures Increase the Likelihood of Nuclear War,” The Nation (January 13, 2020), https://www.thenation.com/article/archive/nuclear-defense-climate-change/.

[14] Alfred W. McCoy, “What Does It Take to Destroy a World Order,” Salon (March 3, 2019), https://www.salon.com/2019/03/03/what-does-it-take-to-destroy-a-world-order_partner/

[15] Gilbert, Emily. “The militarization of climate change.” ACME: An International E-Journal for Critical Geographies 11.1 (2012): 1-14.

[16] Nathan Lobel, “Unraveling the U.S. Climate Action Plan: Explaining Corporate Participation in a Pro-Regulatory Advocacy Coalition,” Senior Essay, Yale Department of Political Science, December 9, 2016.