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The World Could Be Entering a New Era of Climate War

Back in 2015, when I started covering climate change, climate war meant one thing. At the time, if someone said that climate change posed a threat to the world order, you would assume they were talking about the direct impacts of warming, or its second-order consequences. Analysts and scholars worried over scenarios in which unprecedented droughts or city-destroying floods would prompt mass migrations, destabilizing the rich world or giving rise to far-right nationalism. Or they worried that a global famine could send food prices surging, triggering old-fashioned resource wars. Or they fretted over social science showing that weather fluctuations could lead to revolutions and civil wars.

The world of 2015 is not the world of 2022. Countries have made remarkable progress averting worst-case climate scenarios since then: Canada taxes carbon pollution, Europe has its Green Deal, and the United States somehow passed the Inflation Reduction Act. What’s more, elected leaders have run on these policies and won. Thanks to a global turn away from coal power, the world will likely not warm 9 degrees Fahrenheit by the end of the century, as had once seemed possible.

The success of the past seven years was driven home for me when I saw a German public service announcement last month that added decarbonization to the old Enlightenment trinity: “Demokratie, Vielfalt & Klimaschutz. Du Bist Europa,” it read: “Democracy, diversity, and climate protection. You are Europe.” What a victory. And what a complicated one. Since 2015, the risks of climate war have not entirely decreased. Instead the risks have shifted. As more countries have integrated the energy transition into their economies, a chance now exists that efforts to address climate change could encourage conflict in their own right.

This shift has not happened intentionally, to be clear. It’s the result of a process that climate advocates, to their credit, were among the first to note: that batteries, renewables, and zero-carbon energy are the next rung on the technological ladder. Climate hawks have rightly celebrated the news of Ukrainians using ebikes and electric drones for recon or to raid Russian tanks. But that only drives home that these innovations are “dual use”—they can be deployed in civilian and in military contexts, and thus are non-optional for countries pursuing their security.

Conflict over dual-use technologies is already at the center of U.S.-Chinese trade spats. Last month, the Biden administration effectively banned the sale of any modern semiconductor-manufacturing equipment to China. It also forbade “U.S. persons”—a group that comprises American citizens and green-card holders—from working in the Chinese semiconductor industry. As Eric Levitz writes in New York magazine, the policy amounts to a type of economic war, because “it is now official U.S. policy to prevent China from achieving its development goals.”

This is a dangerous logic when you consider that semiconductors are crucial for decarbonization: The shift to electricity all but necessitates greater use of semiconductors. Computer chips govern nearly every part of how electric cars, scooters, water heaters, induction stoves, and more use energy or preserve it. One of the major ways that electric-vehicle makers secure a competitive advantage is by eking out tiny improvements from the computer chips and software that govern a car’s battery pack. Now, the type of semiconductors affected by Biden’s policies is far more advanced than the cheaper kind needed for decarbonization. But you can see how trying to prevent the other country’s development can cascade from an economic disagreement into a military one.

Part of what makes this dynamic tricky to manage is that the U.S. and China are productively using climate policy as a venue for their own diplomatic competition. Perhaps the most important international climate announcement of the past few years was President Xi Jinping’s pledge that China would aim to reach net zero by 2060. He announced the goal less than 2 months before the 2020 U.S. presidential election, and it was widely understood as a “pointed message” for—if not a rebuke of—the United States and the Trump administration. “It demonstrates Xi’s consistent interest in leveraging the climate agenda for geopolitical purposes,” Li Shuo, a Greenpeace analyst, told The New York Times then.

Competition has improved American policy, too. Thanks to the Inflation Reduction Act—a law that passed in part because American legislators did not want to cede the clean-tech industry to China—the United States is about to subsidize domestic solar-panel manufacturing at a massive scale. It’s possible that a decade from now we will have more cheap solar panels than we know what to do with. And while that may cause substantial economic deadweight loss, it’s probably good, on net, for the climate. If geopolitical competition leads America to subsidize a solar industry, then competition is probably helping climate action, not hindering it. Flooding the world with cheap solar power will not only speed up decarbonization, but also push companies to find new and creative ways to use solar panels.

The most likely trigger—possibly the only trigger—of a full-blown war between China and the United States remains Taiwan, but we should be attentive to how conflict over trade, even when it emerges from politicians’ virtuous desire to have a domestic clean-tech industry, can degrade relations between countries and push them toward zero-sum thinking. And the greatest risk from mitigation-fueled violence is not, we should be clear, to citizens of America or China or Europe. Over the past month, the Democratic Republic of Congo has seen its heaviest rebel fighting in a decade as groups allegedly backed by Rwanda try to lay claim to the country’s minerals, The Wall Street Journal recently reported. Congo produces two-thirds of the world’s cobalt and has the largest reserves of tantalum, a metallic element used in capacitors.

At the same time, the old idea of a climate war has not vanished either. The past year has shown how much climate impacts, such as drought, can drive up the price of key commodities, fueling inflation in the rich world and food shortages elsewhere. Conventional energy sources, such as fossil fuels, are far more likely than renewables or climate technology to trigger such a conflict, Dan Wang, a technology analyst at the China-based economic-research firm Gavekal Dragonomics, told me. China remains dependent on oil and natural gas from abroad; the U.S. has become a large and growing exporter of natural gas to the country. Were the U.S. to cut off those exports—as it did with oil to Japan in the run-up to World War II—then the risks of a bigger conflict could be far graver.

For years, climate advocates argued that their issue deserved to be at the center of economic and social policy making. Climate is everything, they said. Well, to a degree, they won: Decarbonization is now at the center of how the U.S., China, and Europe conceive of the future of their economies. Climate advocates have won a seat at the table where the life-and-death matters of state and society are decided. What progress the world has made; what a long way we still have to go.

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