Harvard Kennedy School Oral History: Thomas Schelling

Tom Schelling

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Strategic commitments deter wars

Thomas Schelling, Professor of National Security at University of Maryland

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@NZGreens say something sensible on global warming @jamespeshaw @GreenpeaceNZ

It is a stretch to say that New Zealand Greens have accepted that adaptation is the only proper response to the threat of global warming.

Nonetheless, their call for a plan for adaptation is an acceptance that more must be done than hoping for the best that a massively expensive international public good will be provided through a climate change treaty.

It is time for the environmental movement to face up to the fact that there never will be an international treaty to restrain carbon emissions.

The practical way to respond to global warming is healthier is wealthier, richer is safer. Faster economic growth creates more resources for resilience and adaptation to a changing environment.

Source: Energy Policy & the Environment Report | Leading Nowhere: The Futility and Farce of Global Climate Negotiations.

Tom Schelling has been involved with the global warming debate since chairing a commission on the subject for President Carter in 1980.

Schelling is an economist who specialises in strategy so he focuses on climate change as a bargaining problem. Schelling drew in his experiences with the negotiation of the Marshall Plan and NATO.

International agreements rarely work if they talk in terms of results. They work better if signatories promise to supply specific inputs – to perform specific actions now. Individual NATO members did not promise to slow the Soviet invasion by 90 minutes if it happened after 1962. NATO members promised to raise and train troops, procure equipment and supplies, and deploy these assets geographically. All of these actions can be observed, estimated and compared quickly.

The Kyoto Protocol commitments were made not about actions but to results that were to be measured after more than a decade and several elections.

Climate treaties should promise to do certain actions now such as invest in R&D and develop carbon taxes that return the revenue as tax cuts. If the carbon tax revenue is fully refunded as tax cuts, less reliable countries, in particular, have an additional incentive to collect the carbon tax properly to keep their budget deficits under control.

As for the chances of a global treaty, Schelling has said:

The Chinese, Indonesians, or Bangladeshis are not going to divert resources from their own development to reduce the greenhouse effect, which is caused by the presence of carbon-based gases in the earth’s atmosphere. This is a prediction, but it is also sound advice. Their best defence against climate change and vulnerability to weather in general is their own development, reducing their reliance on agriculture and other such outdoor livelihoods. Furthermore, they have immediate environmental problems — air and water pollution, poor sanitation, disease — that demand earlier attention.

The costs of global warming to New Zealand are small. For developing countries, their best protection against global warming is rapid economic development through capitalism and freedom.

The latest report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC) Working Group II has concluded that global warming of 2.5˚C would cost the equivalent to losing between 0.2-2.0% of annual income.

John Howard’s birthday – what I admire most about him

What I admire most about John Howard was his decision to intervene in East Timor to stop massacres, which were a by-product of succession struggles within TNI. Howard didn’t have to do that. He didn’t.

If there ever was a prime directive in Australian national security policy, more so than have a great and powerful friend (first the UK, than the USA, dumping Britain like a stone in 1941 when a better great and powerful friend became available), it’s never put Australian military forces in a position risking an exchange of fire with TNI.

That did happen during the East Timor intervention. There were armed stand-offs at roadblocks between the Australian Army and TNI. Platoon leaders in the Australian Army had to keep their cool with guns drawn on both sides otherwise it would be a real shooting war that could spiral out of control.

That is why there is a genuine risk of major war not from accidents in the military machine but through a diplomatic process of commitment and escalation that is itself unpredictable. Schelling also argues that nations, like people, are continually engaged in demonstrations of resolve, tests of nerve, and explorations for understandings and many misunderstandings.

In Schelling’s view, many wars including World War 1 were products of mutual alarm and unpredictable tests of will. When people discuss the futility of World War 1, they under rate the role of unintended consequences and the dark side of human rationality in situations involving collective action.

Indonesia and its politically ambitious and corrupt military wing are next door to Australia forever. A pragmatic approach is a necessity of survival along such a volatile border.

That’s actually why Whitlam did what he did, and sat on his hands over the East Timor massacres in 1975. Australia had no credible capability of intervening, particularly against a country with such a large military and unstable politics. In 1975, the Indonesian military most certainly would have shot back.

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