Was this the fright we needed? Will the deadly global heatwave of 2018, together with fresh scientific warnings that climate catastrophe might be unfolding far quicker than previously thought, finally kick-start a response that stands a serious chance of tackling the problem? That’s up to us. Fatalism even at this late stage would be as self-indulgent as the complacency that allowed matters to reach this desperate point. It is still possible to save humanity, but action must be immediate and dramatic.
Getting serious about climate change doesn’t only mean quick and drastic cuts in carbon emissions and the radical altering of consumption and production patterns. It also means thinking carefully through the implications and knock-on effects of taking those measures, and planning for them accordingly. Take for example the conclusion reached by scientists at UCL in 2015 that 33 per cent of the world’s oil and 49 per cent of the world’s gas is going to have to stay in the ground just to restrict the global temperature rise to 2C which, we now learn, may still not be enough to avert a runaway catastrophe. The geopolitical consequences of this will be far reaching, and since failing to impose these limits is not an option, we need to work out precisely what the effects of doing so will be.
A major reduction and eventual loss of the enormous revenues generated by oil and gas production will be widely felt, not least in the West. The US dollar has maintained its status as the world’s reserve currency, despite Washington’s sizeable current account deficit, in part because oil is traded in dollars and Gulf oil and gas producers, particularly the Saudis, invest heavily in the US financial system. These “petrodollars” play a similar role in helping to prop up an increasingly vulnerable pound sterling, post-Brexit. The accumulated surpluses of the producer states, amounting to trillions of dollars, comprise the vast majority of global sovereign wealth, and Wall Street and the City of London have long exploited this source of capital, at the planet’s expense.
The military industrial complexes of the United States, Britain and France will also suffer from the loss of regular, multi-billion dollar arms deals to the Gulf states. French, British and American taxpayers may not be willing to cover the resulting sharp increase to the cost of sustaining their governments’ military strength, which could force current commitments to be significantly scaled back. Moscow’s much exaggerated power, not to speak of its domestic economy, will also be dealt a hammer blow given Russia’s reliance on oil and gas production, perhaps fatally undermining the authority of the Putin regime or its successors. The ability of all these states to influence international relations and impose their will on others could be severely diminished.
In the Middle East, long the energy heartland of the planet, undemocratic states dependent on oil and gas rents will become more and more vulnerable. Already dysfunctional economies could quickly unravel, public spending to buy popular acquiescence will cease to be an option, and the likes of Saudi Arabia and Iran will lose the means to project power within the region to defend their authoritarian allies. If a second Arab Spring were to emerge from these conditions, the forces of counter-revolution would be much weaker than they were at the peak of the oil boom in 2011, raising the prospect of a series of revolutions across the region.
Much of this could happen irrespective of decisions made in the West. Oil and gas exports from the Middle East are increasingly oriented towards East Asia, and China has every incentive to switch quickly to renewables. Reliance on energy imports from a region historically dominated by the United States and its allies places China in a position of real strategic vulnerability, as it begins to challenge Washington’s position of global dominance over the coming decades. China’s major strategic turn to renewables is bad news both for the oil and gas producers and for those who have grown used to exploiting petrodollar wealth in various ways.
Global warming is the product of a specific form of political-economic organisation, a contemporary capitalism dominated by insatiable and unaccountable corporations, and major states jostling between themselves for geopolitical advantage. Carbon fuels have been the lifeblood of this system, which has long treated the one planet we’ve got as though it was a bottomless sewer. It is the extensive, multi-layered set of vested interests committed to the rigid preservation of that system which have brought humanity to the edge of the abyss.
The changes required to bring us back from the brink are not necessarily to be feared or endured. It has long been understood that a low carbon world would in many ways be a healthier and happier one. But in addition to less pollution, lower energy bills and shorter commutes to work, we might also look forward to less corrupt and destabilising financial speculation, less militarism, and the demise of a few of the world’s worst authoritarian regimes. Either way, a seminal transformation is happening, and we need to ensure we have a say in its direction.
David Wearing is a teaching fellow in international relations at Royal Holloway, University of London, and author of ‘AngloArabia: Why Gulf Wealth Matters To Britain’
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