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23 Dec, 2007

Environmental Conference in Bali: Interlinked “war on terror” and “war on nature”

Originally Published: 23 Dec 2007

In Bali last week for the climate change conference, I could not but help notice the stark similarities in the management of the two most important global threats — the war on terror and the war on nature.

Both involve human casualties, direct and indirect.

Every week somewhere, an act of terrorism — by Assamese in India, Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka, Maoists in Nepal, Muslims or Jews in the Middle East – is killing people, largely due to the downstream impact of unresolved political, ethnic or socio-cultural grievances.

Every week, hurricanes, cyclones, snowstorms and floods are also killing people, largely as a result of the war on nature waged by humanity in pursuit of a different cause — economic development.

At the centre of both is the role of the US government.

While the US government is seeking to rally the world to back the war on terror, it is discernibly less interested in addressing the war on nature, primarily because it is the primary contributor to this war in the first place.

It also wants both issues to be confronted on its own terms, with palpably little attention being paid to the opinions of the international community, specifically the dozens of developing countries which are becoming increasingly the primary victims of the war on nature.

In one of the most significant but least noticed quotes of the Bali conference, the representative of a South Pacific island nation described global warming as a state of “low intensity chemical and biological warfare which is manifesting itself as climate change.”

The link between war on terror and war on nature could not have been better established.

To put it very simply, the developing countries want the developed countries, specifically the US, to take more responsibility for creating the conditions that fuel both wars. They see the developed countries as part of the problem and want them to become part of the solution to the same proportionate degree.

Indeed, many of the political and ethnic grievances fuelling terrorism today are the result of historical divide-and-rule policies practised by the former colonial powers.

Having become rich by plundering the natural resources of their former colonies, these same countries then became even more rich by burning cheap fossil fuels at outrageously high levels, spewing out tons of chemical and biological agents into the atmosphere.

These are the new weapons of mass destruction. Unlike those fictitious WMDs never found in Iraq, these WMDs are very much present all around us.

If the developing countries were to seek billions of dollars to wage the war on terror, they would probably get it. But when they seek similar assistance to cope with the war on nature, the response is less than enthusiastic or accompanied by a series of ifs and buts.

No wonders, then, that frustration with such double standards and hypocrisy climaxed at the Bali conference on December 15, truly a unique day in the history of international relations.

After a week of stonewalling and legal machinations, the mighty US government was booed, hissed and jeered and then finally told in no uncertain terms to “get out of the way” by the representative of Papua New Guinea.

These are his exact words addressed point blank to the US delegation: “There is an old saying that ‘if you are not willing to lead, then get out of the way’. And I would ask the United States, we ask for your leadership, we seek your leadership, but if for some reason you are not willing to lead, leave it to the rest of us. Please get out of the way.

Kevin Conrad, Ambassador of Environment and Climate Change for PNG and Executive Director of the 30-strong Coalition for Rainforest Nations, effectively was telling the US government what to do if it cannot live up to its values, principles, sense of justice and fair play, and lead by consultation, consensus and example, rather than by diktat.

The applause that followed the slaying of the American Goliath by the PNG David was thunderous. Publicly chastised thus, the faces of the US delegation turned visibly ashen.

It was an extremely inconvenient truth, with a clear message that the US is hearing but not listening, an unsustainable policy for any leader. It accorded great respect for America but not for the Bush Administration.

Indeed, the US missed the backhanded compliment. It was being handed the leadership baton, obviously because some people still do remember the old days when US leadership counted for something.

If I was a US government official, businessman or politician, I would take Kevin Conrad’s wake-up call, frame it and place it prominently on my office wall. The advice is applicable to just about every global policy issue the US is involved in.

At the same time, it was also a wake-up call to the developing countries which need to clearly mark off their own tolerance levels. If they have lost faith in US leadership, then they need to find other mechanisms to better reflect their voices and concerns.

As I have predicted in previous columns, an unjust ruler always falls, always.

A fitting finale to yet another epochal year, Arnold’s rallying cry will resonate widely in this final year of the Bush administration, when the world will wait in suspense to see whether it exits gracefully, or leaves behind more environmental and geopolitical disasters.

Already, in the Middle East, the Arab world is telling the US administration to lead justly and fairly or get out of the way.

It also contained a lesson for the two emerging 800-pound gorillas, India and China, which are also rising on the world stage. If they begin to show the same level of arrogance as the Americans, they can and should expect to face the same tongue-lashing.

I wish all my readers a peaceful and stress-free year ahead, if such a thing is at all humanly possible.