Climate chaos: the global threat multiplier of our time

Written by Anatol Lieven

[Please read more in Anatol Lieven’s new brief for the Quincy Institute: Climate Change: The Greatest National Security Threat to the United States”]

The Biden administration has declared — correctly — that climate change is an existential threat to the United States and should be a U.S. national priority. In practice, however, U.S. foreign and security policy continues to give priority to “traditional” great power threats from China, Russia, and Iran; threats that are in fact minor compared to that of climate change, and do not threaten the lives and well-being of ordinary American citizens. 

This is not a failure of the Biden administration alone. Rather, it stems from deeply embedded cultures, traditions, and interests within the U.S. establishment as a whole. America today is suffering from an acute case of “residual elites” — elites that came into being in one historical context and to meet one set of historical challenges and are by nature unfit to deal with a new historical era and a new set of national tasks. 

Historically, elites that have stayed too long and changed too little have ended up dragging their countries into failure or revolution. There are still many opportunities for the United States to avoid this ultimate fate, but if the United States and other leading countries fail to radically and rapidly reduce carbon emission, and if Washington fails to build resilience against the effects of climate change at home and abroad, then American democracy will indeed fail at some point in the generations to come. The very survival of the United States as a republican and an organized society may come into question.

It is vital to build resilience as well as limit emissions because some of the ill effects of climate change have already begun and — because of the amount of carbon already pumped into the atmosphere — will get worse in the years to come whatever we now do. This can be seen from intensifying heatwaves, forest fires, droughts, and floods in America itself and other parts of the world. There is, however, still time to prevent local disasters from becoming far greater and more general catastrophes.

We must remember that due to its wealth and geography, the direct physical effects of climate change on the United States will be highly unpleasant, but manageable and survivable. This is however not true of a number of places elsewhere in the world, which are already far closer to the edge of disaster in terms of temperatures, water shortages, mass poverty, population growth, state weakness, and civil conflict. 

As the Pentagon has pointed out, the great danger of climate change to such societies in the short-to-medium term is its capacity to act as a “threat multiplier,” exacerbating a whole range of existing problems. Climate change obviously did not create the combination of social and religious tensions, poverty, and state oppression that led to the Syrian uprising and civil war, for example, but in the years before the war, drought in Syria reduced local food supplies even as crop failures in China led to the Chinese state buying huge amounts of food on international markets, driving up international prices. The resulting rise in the prices of staple foods was a major contributory factor in the growth of public discontent. This is the kind of toxic brew that we can expect to see repeated in different parts of the world in years to come — and, if we fail to limit emissions, in worse and worse forms.

Just as the Syrian civil war created a mass movement of refugees to Europe that helped drive the rise of radical chauvinist parties in Germany and elsewhere, so both the United States and key allies in Europe will be faced with a drastic increase in migration if climate change leads to more state failures and civil wars in South Asia, western Africa, and Central America. 

These are all regions that are especially endangered by climate change, not in the distant future but by the middle years of this century. Long before the direct physical effects of climate change on the United States and western democracies become truly catastrophic, such migration and the reaction against it has the capacity to conjure up domestic demons that will destroy liberal democracy from within. This, not the “alliance of authoritarian states” of which the Biden administration speaks, is the truly dire threat to western democracy in the decades to come.

 It simply cannot be rationally argued that the dangers posed by Chinese, Russian and Iranian rivalry compare to these menaces presented by climate change. These states do not seriously threaten the American population as such, and their geopolitical threat has also been vastly exaggerated. 

China and Iran threaten to reduce (but not end) U.S. power in the Far East and the Middle East respectively. Meanwhile, Russia doesn’t pose a threat to important U.S. allies in Europe. At most, Moscow aims for the restoration of a limited hegemony over former Soviet territory. And of course (except in the case of an unintended nuclear war), none are a long-term threat to the existence of the United States and modern civilization as a whole.

The American establishment’s obsession with great power rivalry hinders the struggle against climate change in mainly two ways. Firstly, it continues to divert immense sums into a (horribly incompetent and wasteful) U.S. military budget, sums that would be far better spent on developing technology to reduce carbon emissions. In recent years, the United States has spent approximately thirty times the amount on military research and development that it spent on developing renewable energy, carbon extraction, or nuclear fusion. Even if the Biden administration’s infrastructure package goes through (something that now looks highly questionable), it will still be spending more than ten times as much on an annual basis.

Secondly, as a symposium of the Quincy Institute in 2020 made clear, U.S. sanctions against Chinese renewable energy will reinforce China’s dependence on ecologically disastrous coal, and any refusal to cooperate with China in the field of green technology will deprive U.S. industry of inputs that it badly needs for the transition to alternative energy and electric vehicles. 

More widely, increased restrictions on technology transfers and intellectual exchanges between the United States and China will impede the spread of intellectual cooperation on renewable energy and carbon capture development across the world. As U.S. China scholar Minxin Pei has written:

Amid cold war-fueled economic fragmentation — especially the aforementioned restrictions on trade and technology transfers — urgently-needed breakthroughs would become much more difficult to achieve. With that, a technological solution for climate change, already a long shot, would effectively become a chimera. And the greatest existential threat humanity faces would be realized.

Finally, if the United States and China were to go to war — something that the security establishments of both countries are seriously contemplating — then the struggle against climate change would be irredeemably lost. Even if the United States and modern civilization survived such a war, it would do so only to fall victim to climate catastrophe somewhere down the line. In this case, will our descendants — if we have any — really think that the elites who led us into this cataclysm understood the true interests of their countries and peoples?

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