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Why Great Power Rivalry Might Just Save the Planet

Let’s not work together to solve climate change

Why Great Power Rivalry Might Just Save the Planet

When the Paris Climate Accords were adopted in the waning days of the Obama administration, the predominant tone of coverage could best be described as unconvincingly hopeful. Informed observers understood that the agreement had significant limitations, among them the lack of any enforcement mechanism for its commitments. Nonetheless, it was widely trumpeted as the first serious effort by the international community to tackle climate change. Most important, it was the first truly global agreement, embraced by nearly every country on the planet, to deal with a truly planetary problem.

Then, within months of going into effect, the United States announced it would withdraw from the agreement. Given how difficult the original negotiation was, the rising tide of nationalism that the Trump administration exemplified seemed to presage doom for any follow-on accord, and perhaps for the Earth’s climate as well.

And yet, in the years before the U.S. officially rejoined the agreement under President Biden, the news on the climate front got dramatically better. Not that the problem of climate change was solved — it certainly wasn’t. We’re still overwhelmingly likely to face more warming than the 1.5 degrees Celsius that governments of the world agreed to in Paris, with many disastrous consequences. But the true worst-case scenarios are much less likely now, and the prospects for a successful transition to a net-zero world are far better than they were only a few short years ago. The hopefulness, in other words, is starting to get more convincing, even as the tide of nationalism continues to rise.

Is it possible that national competition could, ironically, be helping us solve a problem that seemed insoluble without intense international cooperation?

The most important reason why the worst-case climate scenarios have become less likely is the rapidly dropping cost of alternative energy, which have made a transition to a lower-emissions energy system much more achievable. But what has suddenly accelerated the transition timetable is not climate change but Russia’s war in Ukraine, which disrupted global energy markets and made abundantly clear the geopolitical risks of reliance on imported fossil fuels. While the immediate impact of the invasion was to boost the burning of high-carbon fuels like coal and wood, it has also sent renewables to the top of the European security agenda, prompted a serious reassessment of nuclear power, and bolstered the position of electricity producers like France — whose grid is 70% nuclear-powered — in intra-European energy negotiations.

That shift is likely to be enduring, and again, not only because of the risks of climate change. National security and economic prosperity simply have more political urgency than saving the planet. Thanks to Putin’s war, national and planetary concerns are now more aligned than opposed.

There are deeper ways in which a new atmosphere of national competition has bolstered the climate agenda, however. The increasingly nationalist turn of American trade and economic policy has been something of a double-edged sword for the energy transition. On the one hand, “buy American” rules have made it harder for the Biden administration to achieve its goals of building out wind and solar energy. But those goals are themselves part of an increasingly robust industrial policy driven by national economic security interests and backed by hundreds of billions in new spending.

Indeed, if the U.S. government hadn’t sought to build an American alternative-energy sector, national economic interests might continue to favor fossil fuels as a counterweight to relying on Chinese suppliers for solar panels, batteries, and other renewable parts. Meanwhile, if the United States does cut through the red tape that obstructs the building of many new energy projects (and new transmission lines), the primary reason won’t be to meet its goals under international climate accords, but to secure the country’s economic future.

If the world is to succeed in preventing catastrophic climate change, the same dynamic has to take root in China. As the energy transition has accelerated in Europe and America, China has emerged as by far the world’s biggest contributor to climate change, despite also being the world’s largest supplier of parts for solar and wind power generation. The primary reason is China’s addiction to coal, which is rapidly deepening in blatant contradiction of China’s own pledges. China’s frequently stated reason for this decision is national self-reliance and an emphasis on development at all costs.

In fact, though, new solar energy has gotten so cheap that it’s more economical than existing coal plants. China’s increasing investment in coal is well-understood to be a development dead-end, but it’s an important sop to provincial governments with high levels of employment in the coal industry. The risks of climate change are unlikely to spur Beijing to challenge these interests — but the prospect of being on the receiving end of climate-based tariffs might garner more attention, because they would pose a risk to other crucial industries like steel.

Even when it comes to the developing world, it may be possible to channel increasing competition between major powers in a climate-friendly direction. Countries like Tanzania and Ethiopia have an opportunity to leapfrog to a more sustainable energy system based on renewables and nuclear and an electrified transportation sector. As during the Cold War, both the United States and China have powerful incentives to subsidize that transition and thereby win influence in (and important contracts with) these developing countries.

China’s once-heralded “belt and road” initiative resulted in a great many boondoggles, but green energy (along with communications and surveillance technology) are among the areas where China’s efforts continue to expand. In a competitive international environment, the United States and Europe are sure to want to compete — and the climate could benefit.

None of this is to imply that international cooperation doesn’t have a vital role to play in combating climate change. At a minimum, an atmosphere of good communication and scientific cooperation is essential to understanding what is happening to the planet we all share. The adaptation agenda also absolutely requires assistance to flow from north to south. A major war, meanwhile, would certainly lead to a host of direct environmental harms, with the drive for victory taking precedence over all other considerations.

But international agreements can also be great forums for kicking the can down the road, while competition has a way of sharpening the mind and creating a sense of urgency. That urgency is something climate activists have always felt, but found difficult to inculcate in the populace at large. Every nation has an interest in preventing the worst consequences of climate change from coming to pass. If that interest can be aligned with other, better-recognized interests of national security and prosperity, the prospects for rapid progress on the climate front will probably look a lot rosier.

Noah Millman

Noah Millman is a commentator, critic, and filmmaker, and the author of the newsletter, Gideon’s Substack. He is the film and theater critic for Modern Age, and from 2015 to 2022 was a columnist for The Week, and from 2012 to 2017 he was a senior editor at The American Conservative. His writing has appeared in the Op Ed section of The New York Times as well as The New York Times Book Review, Politico, Foreign Policy, USA Today, The New Republic, The Weekly Standard, First Things and the Jewish Review of Books among other publications. He is currently attached to direct his first feature film, Resentment, scheduled to shoot in June of 2023. Read More

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