North America’s Energy Boom Meets Climate Change

Will climate change and climate change policies be affected?

Last week, many of the students of the Patterson School of Diplomacy and International Commerce were subjected to the following question as part of their comprehensive examination process:

Recent reports point to a rapid rise in carbon-based fuel production in the United States and in North America at large. Assuming these forecasts are accurate, what do they portend, if anything, for geopolitics (especially the policies and the interactions of the U.S., Russia, and China).  Will climate change and climate change policies be affected?

The question was valuable as a tool of pedagogical evaluation because it asked students to combine energy economics with theories of geostrategic and domestic politics. And what’s good for the goose should be good for the gander; with that in mind, how will predicted increases in North American energy production affect geopolitics and climate change activity?

With regards to the first question, the geopolitical implications of this shift are likely to be relatively minor.  Given the nature of the world energy markets, increased production in North America will tend to result in lower prices (or at least manageable increases) worldwide; even if China can’t match America’s production increases, its economy shouldn’t suffer unduly.  To be sure, difficulties of transport make the market for natural gas different from that of oil, but China should still reap some economic benefits from a sizeable increase in North American production. The same transport difficulties mean that Russia will continue to occupy a privileged position in the Eurasian natural gas market.

For my part, the last question is key. Improvements in U.S. energy efficiency and shifts away from carbon-based fuels appear to have been politically driven by a combination of environmental, economic, and security concerns.  Regarding the last factor, analysts have often observed over the last decade that high energy prices have served to underwrite a variety of hybrid authoritarian and despotic regimes around the world, with the proceeds of energy sometimes bankrolling terrorists.  Setting aside evaluations of the accuracy of this argument (authoritarian regimes have persisted even with low oil proceeds, and the political effects of high oil prices remain uncertain), higher prices have helped generate a political coalition that favors emission standards and wind power, and that is at least willing to consider broader steps against climate change.

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In military terms this coalition has manifested itself in such developments as the Great Green Fleet.  However, the “energy security” component of this coalition has always been premised on the possibility of a loss of access to foreign energy resources. If the “energy security” aspect of the anti-carbon coalition has a less compelling rhetorical message to offer because of increased North American production, we are far less likely to see these kinds of developments, and far less likely to see any kind of leadership from the United States on stopping or rolling back climate change. In light of the U.S. Senate’s failure to ratify the relatively innocuous UN Convention on the Rights of the Disabled, chances for American leadership on climate change appear quite bleak indeed.

Finally, an increase in domestic production will likely strengthen the hand of the already powerful U.S. energy sector, locking in a domestic constituency largely uninterested in doing anything very serious about climate change.  Unfortunately, the most relevant answer to “how do we deal with climate change” may increasingly become “adapt.” The second order geopolitical impact of increased North American energy production may be a greater need for capabilities that allow us to respond to the effects of climate change, either in the Arctic or in a global littoral increasingly afflicted by rising sea levels and natural disasters. This still requires the world’s militaries to have a climate change policy; just not one geared around energy scarcity.