How Curbing Reliance on Fossil Fuels Will Change the World

 In GCC, Japan, Iraq, Energy

This arti­cle is adapt­ed from a con­tri­bu­tion to “21st Century Diplomacy: Foreign Policy is Climate Policy,” a project led by adel­phi and the Wilson Center. 

The world’s reliance on fossil fuels for energy has had geopo­lit­i­cal impli­ca­tions of one sort or anoth­er ever since humans first start­ed burn­ing coal sev­er­al thou­sand years ago. In modern times, major powers’ need for oil and gas to fuel their economies and armies con­tributed to colo­nial­ism in the 19th and early 20th cen­turies, Japan’s 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor, the 1967 and 1974 Arab oil embar­gos (and sub­se­quent global reces­sions), the 1990 Iraqi inva­sion of Kuwait, and the U.S. inva­sions of Iraq in 1991 and 2003, to name just a few of major devel­op­ments driven at least in part by grow­ing energy demands. Today, schol­ars and prac­ti­tion­ers argue that the changes to the cli­mate that result from this energy use are accel­er­at­ing rising sea levels and the fre­quen­cy and sever­i­ty of droughts, fires, and mega storms — trends they predict could under­mine gov­ern­ments, gen­er­ate desta­bi­liz­ing refugee flows, and ulti­mate­ly lead to ten­sions or even resource con­flicts among states. It is unde­ni­able that a fail­ure to address the planet’s warm­ing would have dra­mat­ic polit­i­cal and geopo­lit­i­cal con­se­quences.

Less atten­tion has been paid, how­ev­er, to the poten­tial geopo­lit­i­cal con­se­quences of the oppo­site sce­nario — a decrease in reliance on fossil fuels. But that could prove short­sight­ed, because the policy changes required to avoid cli­mate cat­a­stro­phe — the elim­i­na­tion of oil, coal, and gas as pri­ma­ry energy sources and their replace­ment with renew­ables — will them­selves have a pro­found impact on domes­tic and world pol­i­tics. The dra­mat­ic recent reduction in global energy use and emissions asso­ci­at­ed with the coro­n­avirus pan­dem­ic may make cli­mate change, and the mea­sures needed to con­tain it, seem less urgent. But rather than solv­ing the cli­mate crisis, the pan­dem­ic has actu­al­ly under­scored its depth. The fact that it took an almost unprece­dent­ed global eco­nom­ic shut­down to reduce emis­sions to levels barely con­sis­tent with the 2015 Paris cli­mate com­mit­ments high­lights the need for far more comprehensive policy action than was pre­vi­ous­ly under­way. With the dev­as­tat­ing impact of cli­mate change becom­ing ever clear­er in the United States — not least through the worst forest fires in California’s his­to­ry and a grow­ing number of mega storms — it is not hard to imag­ine that even the United States will have to start get­ting seri­ous about actu­al­ly reduc­ing emis­sions. That process that could begin with a vic­to­ry in the November pres­i­den­tial elec­tion for Joe Biden, who has pledged far-reach­ing domes­tic and inter­na­tion­al mea­sures to deal with the crisis.

The shift to a decar­bonized world — in which global reliance on fossil fuels for energy pro­duc­tion is dra­mat­i­cal­ly reduced and vir­tu­al­ly all remain­ing carbon diox­ide emis­sions are cap­tured, stored, uti­lized, or com­pen­sat­ed for — could change world pol­i­tics in a number of ways. One likely con­se­quence, for exam­ple, will be nec­es­sary trans­for­ma­tion of the polit­i­cal sys­tems of oil and gas pro­duc­ing states. According to the International Energy Agency, those states could lose $7 tril­lion in rev­enues by 2040. Countries that rely on oil rev­enues for large shares of government revenue include Libya (96 per­cent), Iraq (89 per­cent), Kuwait (70 per­cent), Nigeria (58 per­cent), Saudi Arabia (61 per­cent), Venezuela (50 per­cent), Russia (40 per­cent), the United Arab Emirates (46 per­cent), and Iran (29 per­cent). Declining oil revenues will oblige these coun­tries to cut sub­si­dies (includ­ing for util­i­ties such as elec­tric­i­ty and water), raise taxes, and in many cases dimin­ish their reliance on expa­tri­ate work­ers, forc­ing cit­i­zens to take menial jobs they are not used to doing. The world’s lead­ing oil exporter, Saudi Arabia, is par­tic­u­lar­ly vul­ner­a­ble: A boom­ing youth pop­u­la­tion and the need to create mil­lions of jobs will require deficit spend­ing of up to $100 bil­lion per year, erod­ing reserves that could be exhaust­ed within just a few years. Russia, too, would lose con­sid­er­able income in a decar­bonized world, which could lead its gov­ern­ment to become even more repres­sive to main­tain its grip on power. The poten­tial upside of such changes is that these states will be com­pelled to reform their economies and invest in edu­ca­tion, indus­try, human cap­i­tal, and other non-energy sec­tors, as Riyadh is seek­ing to do in its Vision 2030 plan. But such tran­si­tions are dif­fi­cult and dis­rup­tive, and could also be a source of domes­tic insta­bil­i­ty, as cit­i­zens used to an implic­it social con­tract with their gov­ern­ments — secu­ri­ty and pros­per­i­ty in exchange for loy­al­ty — find those gov­ern­ments unable to uphold their end of the bar­gain.

Another likely con­se­quence of decar­boniza­tion is con­tin­ued U.S. dis­en­gage­ment from the Middle East. Declining American — and global — depen­dence on oil from the Middle East will likely accel­er­ate grow­ing U.S. reluc­tance to devote sig­nif­i­cant blood and trea­sure to the region. After the fail­ure of President George W. Bush’s efforts to “trans­form” the Middle East, in part through the inva­sion of Iraq, President Barack Obama sought grad­u­al­ly to “pivot” away from the region, in part due to the diminishing U.S. need for its energy imports. President Donald Trump has taken that view to an extreme, boast­ing about American energy “independence,” claim­ing pre­vi­ous pres­i­dents had wasted $7 trillion trying to sta­bi­lize a region alleged­ly no longer a vital inter­est of the United States, and pledg­ing to reduce the U.S. troop pres­ence in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Syria. A grow­ing number of Americans agree with former top offi­cial Martin Indyk, who recent­ly assert­ed in The Wall Street Journal that the Middle East just “isn’t worth it anymore,” in large part because “the United States no longer relies on import­ed petro­le­um.” Two other former Obama admin­is­tra­tion offi­cials, Mara Karlin and Tamara Wittes, have made “the case for doing less” in the region, while two top advis­ers to former Vice President Biden — Dan Benaim and Jake Sullivan — have called for greater use of diplo­ma­cy and less reliance on military force. The strate­gic impor­tance of American energy “inde­pen­dence,” of course, can be exaggerated, because even if the United States doesn’t import oil direct­ly from the Persian Gulf, it has a stake in the free flow of oil from the region so long as other coun­tries — includ­ing many close U.S. part­ners and allies — do. And the United States will con­tin­ue to have other nation­al inter­ests in the region, includ­ing con­tain­ing Iran, sup­port­ing Israel, counter-ter­ror­ism, and non­pro­lif­er­a­tion. Still, the per­cep­tion that secur­ing imports from the region might no longer be worth American blood and trea­sure makes future U.S. engage­ment in the region less likely, increas­ing the prospects of a secu­ri­ty vacuum, con­flict among states, and com­pe­ti­tion among out­side actors such as Russia, China, and Turkey.

Finally, the drive toward decar­boniza­tion could easily exac­er­bate ten­sions among some of the world’s major powers over their respec­tive con­tri­bu­tions to reduc­tions in global emis­sions. This risk is par­tic­u­lar­ly great between the two largest emit­ters, the United States and China, as Beijing has long argued that devel­oped coun­tries (such as the United States) who have con­tributed the most to the cur­rent prob­lem should bear a dis­pro­por­tion­ate share of that burden, while the United States wants China to play a role com­men­su­rate with its cur­rent con­tri­bu­tion to emis­sions. China has, more recently, begun to accept more respon­si­bil­i­ty for cli­mate action. But with the two coun­tries already at loggerheads over trade, Taiwan, the South China Sea, intel­lec­tu­al prop­er­ty, human rights, respon­si­bil­i­ty for the COVID-19 crisis, and much more, dis­putes over “burden-shar­ing” could poison this crit­i­cal rela­tion­ship fur­ther, espe­cial­ly as the costs and con­se­quences of cli­mate change become increas­ing­ly appar­ent in both coun­tries. Imagine the debates that will result if large num­bers of deaths are caused by cli­mate devel­op­ments in either coun­try that its cit­i­zens attribute to irre­spon­si­ble poli­cies pur­sued by the other. U.S.-Chinese dis­putes over cli­mate burden-shar­ing could con­tribute to a new Cold War that will affect all aspects of inter­na­tion­al rela­tions in the decades to come.

It is easy to imag­ine plenty of other geopo­lit­i­cal devel­op­ments beyond the three listed above, from strains in the transat­lantic rela­tion­ship to global com­pe­ti­tion for clean-energy jobs. What is cer­tain, how­ev­er, is that decar­boniza­tion — when­ev­er it hap­pens — will have a pro­found impact on world pol­i­tics, in pre­dictable and unpre­dictable ways. To adapt, gov­ern­ments around the world will have to take into account the geopo­lit­i­cal con­se­quences of their cli­mate poli­cies. This will mean incorporating geopo­lit­i­cal impact assess­ments into intel­li­gence prod­uct, making bureau­crat­ic adjustments that ele­vate cli­mate change to the same level as more tra­di­tion­al nation­al secu­ri­ty con­cerns, and devel­op­ing diplo­mat­ic approach­es designed to mit­i­gate the neg­a­tive impact of decar­boniza­tion on other states and the rela­tions between them. The world’s grad­ual addic­tion to fossil fuels has trans­formed inter­na­tion­al rela­tions over the past cen­tu­ry and more. Leaders in all coun­tries should start think­ing now about the polit­i­cal con­se­quences of with­draw­ing from that addic­tion.


Philip H. Gordon is the Mary and David Boies Senior Fellow in U.S. Foreign Policy at the Council on Foreign Relations. He served as White House Coordinator for the Middle East, North Africa, and the Gulf Region, and Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs during the Obama admin­is­tra­tion. His book, Losing the Long Game: The False Promise of Regime Change in the Middle East, will be pub­lished on October 6.

Image: Antandrus

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