Is Climate Change a Foreign Policy Issue?

Opportunity now, not prophecies of doom, should spur America to become a global leader.
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In the Himalayas and the Middle East, countries feud over water. In the African Sahel, farmers feud over cropland. In the melting Arctic, governments feud over seabed minerals. Climate change has provided bottomless inspiration for aspiring paperback novelists. But while thrillers must thrill and generals must fret, fears about the national security threats that climate change could present remain too vague to act on. The geopolitical reasons for a strong U.S. response to climate change lie not in what Americans might imagine about tomorrow’s world politics but in the global political relationships at stake today.

The imagined scenario goes something like this: The world fails to halt climate change in the coming decades and remains dependent on fossil fuels. A warming climate produces greater resource scarcity, leading to more frequent wars and mass displacement of people. Global crises over energy supplies threaten the U.S. economy and international treaties, and soldiers get pulled into resource wars to protect American interests and allies.

These visions of the future might make good ammunition for Hollywood, but they provide a far too narrow, distant, and pessimistic frame for climate change as a U.S. foreign policy issue. And in practice, American climate action will only have limited leverage over how peaceful or violent the future world will be.

Instead, the greatest benefit of climate action to American national interest will come from promoting decarbonization of the global energy supply. American leadership on decarbonization could lay foundations for new partnerships with countries that are emerging as centers of economic and political power. America’s future direction on climate change could thus help to define its international relationships for decades to come — not merely through soft, symbolic power, such as joining climate agreements, but through the hard, shared interest of economic and material cooperation.

Rather than view climate policy as part of a national defense against a bleak and turbulent future, American leaders should leverage climate policy in pursuit of a more optimistic vision of our relationships with the rest of the world.

A Blunt Tool for Peace

American climate policy can do little to mitigate risks of international conflict. The regular waves of global politics will still swamp the ripples that climate change will cause in the coming decades. Significant though the latter will be, peace and security will continue to depend primarily on the traditional factors — the international community, geopolitical power, and diplomatic relations. Instead of considering climate a matter of national security, we should follow analyst Jason Bordoff, who, in a July 2020 Foreign Policy piece, calls for climate change to be put “squarely at the center of U.S. foreign policy”:

An effective foreign policy requires taking climate change directly into consideration — not just as a problem to resolve, but as an issue that can affect the success and failure of strategies in areas as varied as counterterrorism, migration, international economics, and maritime security…. The stakes for climate change are too high for it to be delegated to a marginal role, where it is considered only by climate officials in climate-specific policy contexts.

Some have argued that the ongoing Syrian Civil War is an early example of how climate change will hasten wars in the future. “A drought made worse by climate change was one important factor that initiated the social unraveling,” said climate scientist Richard Seager in 2015. Crop failures and the resulting migration of rural Syrians to urban areas fanned political and religious tensions. In this way, climate change acted as what the U.S. Department of Defense has called a “threat multiplier.”

But others worry that emphasizing the role of climate change in the civil war “shifts responsibility away from the Syrian government,” as one researcher writes. The government deserves blame for its mismanagement of agricultural policy and for its poor response to the crop failures.

Furthermore, most armed conflicts break out without any apparent contribution from climate impacts. Consider, for example, Russia’s annexation of Crimea and the subsequent fighting in western Ukraine, or the intense battle waged by Filipino soldiers to reclaim the city of Marawi from Jihadist militants, or the recent war between Armenia and Azerbaijan over the contested Nagorno-Karabakh region. Violence in the world depends mostly on factors that extend well beyond climate change.

This is not to say that climate change will play no role in making conflicts worse, or that these should not be taken seriously. Given the lethality and destructiveness of modern warfare, any added risk associated with climate conflict warrants caution. And while the role of climate change in starting wars seems unclear, it will very likely make wars uglier, as civilians living in ruined cities or refugee camps will be more vulnerable to heat waves, floods, storms, and drought. Armies operating in severe climate conditions may face similar challenges, potentially prolonging conflicts and increasing the harm to human life.

To prevent future conflict, American policymakers should focus on improving national and international governance, investing in military capabilities for deterrence, strengthening defense treaties, regulating the international arms trade, and employing other such traditional foreign policy tools. Likewise, in response to humanitarian crises and refugee movements, increasing international aid or allowing more refugee resettlement will have a much more direct effect than any climate policies.

Most significantly, U.S. climate policy can only do so much to affect the global climate, and so it makes little sense to put the risk of climateexacerbated conflict at the heart of foreign policy. The planet has already warmed by an average global temperature of 1.2 degrees Celsius relative to the pre-industrial period; that level of warming — and probably more — is already set for the foreseeable future. And despite being responsible for a sizable fraction of global emissions, the United States itself has limited control over the overall trajectory of the climate. Carbon emissions are already on a steady decline in the United States from their peak in 2007, while an increasing proportion of global emissions now originates from China and emerging economies.

American climate policy is far too blunt an instrument for protecting against global conflict — it is at best indirect and uncertain. To look at the geopolitics of climate change through the lens of American national security is to focus on some of the weakest benefits of climate policy.

The New Economies

Climate change is indeed important to American foreign policy — but in ways much more direct than its impact on international peace and national security. The United States should think about how to internationally leverage the kinds of climate actions it already needs to undertake for its own domestic purposes. In particular, leaders should make use of climate policy to build closer relationships with emerging global economies, benefiting our own economy and strengthening America’s strategic position and that of both current and new allies. It may be that the best way to realize a world with fewer security risks in the long term is to intelligently prioritize climate issues in foreign relations in the near term.

The benefits of closer American engagement in Asia and Africa are clear. Countries from Indonesia to Vietnam, from Nigeria to Ethiopia are emerging as important economic hubs and regional powers. Vietnam’s GDP is growing at a rate of more than five percent per year. Bangladesh and Ethiopia have maintained recent growth rates of around eight percent and ten percent, respectively.

Emerging economies thus present expanding markets for American goods and services. In Southeast Asia, for instance, the number of mobile phones per capita doubled from 2007 to 2017, to 1.5 per person. Over the same period, the number of Internet subscriptions rose to 0.5 per person. These numbers highlight the extraordinary pace at which the citizens of developing countries are becoming integrated within global networks.

Many of these nations are also remarkably young. The median Nigerian is only eighteen, and the median Filipino is twenty-four. As these young and burgeoning countries seek to improve standards of living for their citizens and satisfy international pressure to make climate-friendly choices on energy and land use, America should cultivate closer relationships with them by partnering to meet both sets of goals.

Similar interests have motivated the Chinese government’s push to finance development projects across Asia and Africa through its Belt and Road Initiative. Chinese president Xi Jinping’s recent announcement that China will move to better prioritize “green” financing suggests that Beijing sees the intersection of environmental action and international development as the basis for a strong foreign policy. Chinese leaders, in announcing a new net-zero emissions climate commitment late last year — even while strengthening their pursuit of key economic and geopolitical objectives — are signaling that they view climate action not as a hindrance to national ambitions but as a means to achieve them. American policymakers and allies would do well to follow suit.

What might it look like for the U.S. to link climate action with foreign policy? Already today, American research and development programs in clean technology are on the cusp of important advances. In some areas of technology and manufacturing, such as solar modules, wind turbine parts, and batteries, American firms have found themselves either struggling to keep pace with or lagging well behind competitors in China. However, in a number of key sectors, including carbon capture, advanced nuclear reactors, geothermal heat and power, and biogas, American researchers and companies remain competitive. The U.S. Energy Act of 2020 has targeted these areas as priorities for U.S. climate policy, with the goal of maintaining American advantages in related research. But more policy pressure yet can be brought to bear.

At the same time, many emerging global economies are grappling with how to rapidly expand energy access to their citizens, even as they face intense international pressure to control emissions. Policymakers often face daunting challenges in balancing growing energy needs with climate considerations, as renewables like wind and solar provide only intermittent power. Countries like Indonesia and Malaysia have also been criticized for the high rates of deforestation associated with their production of palm oil for use as biofuel and cooking oil.

The people and the economies of these countries require sources of power generation that are affordable, reliable, always on, and preferably clean and not reliant on imported fuel. International partners are key in meeting these needs, and many nations are signaling growing interest in having a partner other than China. Controversies over Chinese development lending in Africa, along with escalating tensions with Beijing over territory and resources across the Asia-Pacific region, have made national leaders increasingly interested in setting limits on their dependence on China for trade and finance. The opportunity here for the United States is ripe.

America’s Opportunity

Governments from East Africa to Southeast Asia are simultaneously trying to expand reliable power generation, avoid economic overdependence on China, and satisfy pressure regarding climate goals. Meeting all these aims at once will require technological development. This is a set of challenges the United States is uniquely well-positioned to help address.

Consider the possible demand for carbon capture in countries that have scaled up their energy grids with fossil fuels. With large populations of poor and rural households in some countries still lacking reliable electricity access, many governments have pursued fossil power as the cheapest means of dramatically improving the lives of their people. Nigeria, India, and Indonesia have already invested heavily in fossil fuel infrastructure (natural gas in the case of Nigeria, coal in the case of India and Indonesia). With growing energy needs, and fossil energy key to everything from government revenue to large-scale employment, solar panels and wind turbines will not replace such infrastructure anytime soon. In India, coal power is also increasingly important in the industrial sector, where clean substitutes remain in relatively early development.

Carbon capture, as the name suggests, is a technology that removes carbon dioxide emissions, either by scrubbing it from exhaust fumes at fossil-burning power plants to keep it from entering the atmosphere, or by extracting it from the atmosphere directly. Carbon capture could allow countries to continue using their fossil power infrastructure while also meeting international calls for greater climate action. However, the energy industries of Nigeria, India, Indonesia, and other such nations have made few efforts so far to independently innovate and deploy such technologies.

But American energy companies and startups have made significant progress on carbon capture, with a number of projects at the pilot and demonstration phases. American leaders should not overlook the opportunity to partner with governments and industries in emerging economies. Options abound: joint demonstration projects, retrofits to existing fossil energy plants, or first-of-a-kind power plants designed from the bottom up to capture carbon.

Or consider geothermal energy. Countries such as Indonesia, the Philippines, Tanzania, Kenya, and Ethiopia have significant geothermal resources thanks to the geologic characteristics of the Pacific Rim and the African Rift Valley. American geothermal energy firms, drawing on innovations and experience from the fracking revolution, could serve as ideal partners on new power projects abroad, and could in turn learn valuable lessons on how to accelerate efforts at home to develop our own vast geothermal resources.

Similarly, low- and middle-income countries with high demand for clean, always-on power may find advanced nuclear energy attractive. Many newer reactor designs pose fewer risks of nuclear-weapon proliferation than do traditional light-water reactors. The United States should explore opportunities to export such designs to select partners, while supporting efforts by development banks to fund nuclear power projects abroad. In light of eager efforts by the Russian and Chinese nuclear industries to market their designs worldwide, U.S. policymakers should act now to allow our nuclear industry to compete.

The potential scope for joint climate initiatives goes beyond clean energy. Climate change may deepen the challenges many countries face in ensuring food security and producing crops for export while fighting deforestation, loss of soil fertility, and environmental impacts. Agriculture — a definitive American strength — is thus another potential area for fruitful collaboration. Financing through the U.S. International Development Finance Corporation can improve access to capital in emerging economies while providing oversight to help manage project risks and maximize benefits.

Taken together, this makes for an ambitious set of goals. But it is important to emphasize that these climate-based partnerships would serve strong mutual interests in line with broader U.S. foreign policy priorities. Many governments are actively seeking greater economic diversification away from trade with China. Strengthening the market for clean energy technologies can also help both the United States and partner nations reduce their dependence on monopolized supply chains for raw materials, such as rare earth minerals controlled by Chinese producers.

The closer relations brought by these partnerships will in turn serve other shared strategic interests: energy security, protecting freedom of navigation, and asserting national sovereignty in the face of geopolitical pressure from China. These are key interests not only of leaders of emerging economies but also of current allies, particularly in the Asia-Pacific region, including South Korea, Japan, and Taiwan. U.S. outreach efforts would dovetail with their own initiatives in the region, from Taiwan’s New Southbound Policy to Japan’s longstanding economic and political relationship-building with Southeast Asian countries.

Americans would of course be naive to expect that cooperation on climate and energy goals would lead partner countries to align themselves entirely with U.S. priorities. But partnerships that work to simultaneously advance energy access, energy security, and climate policy will give America better opportunities for engagement abroad.

Wrongheaded Approaches

There are many ways the United States might fail to achieve this vision. President Biden’s administration now confronts a serious risk as it makes its international climate diplomacy debut: making lofty speeches and applying pressure on other countries to reduce emissions, only to be accused of hypocrisy and empty words. In practice, Biden’s hands are tied, as even the current Democratic Congress likely won’t make the major commitments that would carry weight and credibility in climate negotiations. This limits the promises the United States can make, amplifying the risk that American calls to action will be seen as hollow.

Europe has provided some prime examples of contentious policies and rhetoric that the United States must avoid. The European Union has demonstrated the political capacity to make credible commitments on climate. Yet European policymakers have placed difficult demands on emerging economies in Asia and Africa while in fact adopting policies and exercising their influence on climate negotiations in ways that benefit only their own interests.

In January, E.U. ministers called for a global phaseout of coal, and discouraged future European investments in oil and gas infrastructure worldwide. Only with strong advocacy by Polish delegates was a cursory exception carved out to allow for coal power with carbon capture. The E.U. has also proposed policies to tax products imported from countries with more carbon-intensive manufacturing sectors. These policies have earned fierce criticism, as they would penalize poorer countries for failing to use clean energy without actually helping them to do so.

After all, the E.U.’s stance suggests that Europeans will be quite content to continue to produce fossil fuels in the North Sea, and to import oil and natural gas from countries like Nigeria and Russia, even while criticizing other countries for seeking to use those same energy sources. Coal power still provides 35 percent of Germany’s electricity, and its newest coal-fired power plant came online just last May. Across Europe, coal plants have been converted to burn wood pellets, which European governments count as renewable, carbon-neutral energy for their official climate targets, despite evidence that this source is far dirtier than they claim. Today, biomass burning for heating, electricity, and transportation accounts for a whopping 60 percent of the E.U.’s “renewable” energy consumption.

Conventional environmentalist wisdom in the United States has aligned with the European model, ignoring that Europe’s policy stances are designed only to protect its economic interests and to mollify its constituents. Europe has repeatedly pressured poorer countries to make choices that are wildly misaligned with both fighting climate change and with those countries’ needs — for instance, by rejecting hydropower and nuclear energy as clean energy options for low- and middle-income countries, and lobbying banks and development finance institutions to support only renewable power projects.

The United States has not always been blameless in such patterns of climate engagement abroad. In contrast to this misguided approach, the United States should show that it is committed to offering real solutions.

Climate Policy for the World

The relevance of climate change to foreign policy is not a matter of security perils lurking in a future world that fails to avoid further warming, but rather of how the United States chooses to act now.

With a new presidential administration, an ongoing pandemic and major economic crisis, and uncomfortable tensions abroad, America must move boldly to counteract any doubts regarding its stability and credibility. Governments in Tokyo or London may prove relatively easy to reassure, but leaders from Jakarta to Manila, Abuja to Addis Ababa will assess American words and actions critically. The United States must not only affirm its commitment to resolving global problems like climate change, but also tangibly prove that it can help to meet the challenges many poorer countries face. In the process it will build ties that will serve shared interests.

While a renewed American climate policy focus would advance important near-term foreign policy goals, it will bear the richest fruit over the long term. This year marks the launch of the African Continental Free Trade Area. By 2050, four in five human beings may live in Asia and Africa, and the ranks of the world’s leading economies will likely have shuffled. With time, the structure of world politics and economics will become increasingly multipolar.

For now, many nations across Africa and South Asia stand on the frontlines of sea level rise and extreme weather, working to improve their citizens’ lives while fully aware of the risks that their growing energy footprints pose to tomorrow’s climate. The most sincere acknowledgement America can offer of emerging economies’ aspirations to grow and prosper while also protecting their people from climate change is to help them actually solve these challenges. Real actions will carry far more weight than a mountain of eloquent rhetoric.

In strategically positioning America for the future, there can be no better foreign policy than to tackle the climate challenge shoulder to shoulder with tomorrow’s fellow world leaders.

Seaver Wang, “Is Climate Change a Foreign Policy Issue?,” The New Atlantis, Number 64, Spring 2021, pp. 56–64.
Header image: a floating solar field in Huainan, Anhui province, China (Kevin Frayer / Getty Images)

A crucial moment

SUMMER 2021 — Please read this note about the most important opportunity The New Atlantis has seen since our launch.