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Gone Missing from Grand Strategy: Climate Change

February 2, 2021

This is a guest post from Jeff Colgan, Richard Holbrooke Associate Professor of Political Science and Director of the Climate Solutions Lab at Brown University. He is author of Petro-Aggression: When Oil Causes War, and tweets @JeffDColgan

A slew of new books on grand strategy and international order signal the renaissance these topics are enjoying among scholars. Alas, most of the current thinking does not pay nearly enough attention to climate change—the world’s most important global challenge. Specifically, we are not thinking hard enough about the tradeoffs states face while pursuing the three goals of peace, prosperity, and climate sustainability. 

Is Climate Really a Security Danger?

Treating a climate strategy as an optional feature of international order—a nice-to-have bonus—is no basis for any wise foreign policy analysis or advice about today’s global order. As Josh Busby points out, climate change is entirely different in kind from previous environmental concerns like saving the whales. He adds elsewhere that we need to get “beyond internal conflict” – i.e., thinking about climate change as a driver of civil wars – to thinking big about how climate change will increasingly reshape national and global security.

He is not alone. Erin Sikorsky argues for incorporating climate into threat analysis. Chuks Okereke has written about climate justice for years. Bruce Jentleson argues that climate change poses a first-order threat to the survival, health, and prosperity of the whole human species. Massively dangerous on its own, it also contributes to various additional threats, like future pandemics, loss of biodiversity, and (as Cullen Hendrix and Steph Haggard point out) food insecurity.

Consider the danger. Not everyone is convinced that climate change is more than a second-tier concern, in part because research about the consequences of climate change for humans is still developing (unlike the physical science of climate change, which is abundantly clear). Climate danger stems not only from flooding in low-lying places like Bangladesh or various Pacific Islands, although that danger will come to the Global North too, including Florida and much of the Eastern seaboard. Nor is the danger just about wildfires of the type we’ve seen in Australia and the American West in 2020, though those fires are real and will get much worse.

The real climate danger is in the buckshot-spray of knock-on effects that climate change will create and at which we can only guess right now. For example, MIT scientists forecast that the North China Plain, currently home to 400 million people, will be virtually uninhabitable within a few decades, because of the combination of extreme heat and humidity that is lethal even to young, healthy people sitting in the shade. Massive investments in air conditioning and environmental adaptation might allow some of those people to remain in the area, but realistically, many millions will move or die. Either option creates a massive source of political instability in the heart of East Asia.

Similar extreme weather conditions will affect South Asia, the Persian Gulf Region, and parts of Africa. A 2020 study finds that “between 1.62 billion and 2.49 billion would … be displaced from what is considered the normal range of conditions habitable for human beings.” We do not know what problems migration and death on this scale will cause because we have no real precedent for them. At best, we have some flawed historical analogies, and none of them are pretty.

What about Relative Gains?

Hard-nosed students of international relations are forced to wonder whether climate change really counts as a concern for American policymakers, since its worst effects are likely to hit non-Americans. The trouble with this idea is that, while we don’t know the exact amount of damage, disease, disruption, and death that climate change will inflict on Americans, we can be fairly certain that it will be large.

For instance, one popular estimate is that it will reduce US GDP by $500 billion each year by 2100. My own view is that probably underestimates climate damages, since it is so hard to forecast all of the myriad health consequences and security risks, some of which are still unknown. The $500 billion estimate also does not include political risks, like the 30 million climate migrants from Central America that the New York Times expects could show up on the southern US border by 2050.

There is no easy way to quantify or sum up all of these costs and risks to the United States, but they are large. Climate change will kill people in many ways—extreme heat, food shortages, hurricanes, flooding, pandemics—and just one of those ways, extreme heat, is projected to kill about 2000 Americans every year (that’s the equivalent of a 9/11 attack every 18 months). The fact that other countries are likely to be made even worse off is, depending on your values, somewhere between a silver lining, irrelevant, and a humanitarian tragedy. In no scenario are the small relative gains for Americans enough to justify the absolute level of suffering and immiseration we can expect.

Tacking Climate Seriously

What we lack is a grand strategy that takes seriously the tradeoffs between security, economic integration, and climate change. Analysts have done a lot of research and deep thinking about each one of those topics on its own, but not nearly enough on how to pursue all three goals at the same time.

That has real consequences, as I pointed out about the debate over US-China “decoupling.” Among Americans, the decoupling debate mostly centers on whether the security benefits of limiting economic interactions with China would offset its economic costs. That framing ignores what should be a major factor in determining the best course of action—climate change. If policymakers are serious about developing a climate club that uses carbon tariffs to punish non-participants for their lack of decarbonization—as the Biden administration is promising, and the European Union is already working toward—then they need to think through what those policies mean for other priorities like economic integration and security.

Even brilliant scholars of international order or strategy—including John Ikenberry, Rebecca Friedman Lissner and Mira Rapp-Hooper, Stephen Walt and Dani Rodrik, Stacie Goddard, David Kang and Stephan Haggard, Kyle Lascurettes, Benjamin Friedman and Trevor Thrall, Evelyn Goh, Dan Nexon and Alex Cooley, Jennifer Lind and William Wohlforth, Andrew Phillips and Chris Reus-Smit, Carla Norrlof, and many others—are largely silent on those tradeoffs in their new works. I don’t want to be misunderstood—these analysts get a lot of things right, like their collective emphasis on the centrality of great power politics in world politics, and the flaws of the existing liberal international order. Many of them also contribute new insights of their own.

Still, none of them lay out any serious plan to address the world’s most important global problem—and each implicitly assumes that this climate lacuna has no consequences for their own analysis. I hope the current resurgence of interest in international order and grand strategy will help surface tradeoffs between climate sustainability and other priorities, and give guidance for policymakers looking to navigate those tradeoffs.

For example, if the United States pursues naval primacy in the South China Sea, what consequences does that have for Chinese cooperation on climate change? Analysis of that type of question should avoid American bias (a bias I have analyzed previously) that assumes that the Chinese are the climate laggards and the United States would have to sacrifice security interests to make headway on climate change. At this point, China’s expressed commitment to climate change is arguably as forward-looking as the US position. But one cannot analyze security and grand strategy in the absence of an effort to answer such questions, and take the tradeoffs with climate cooperation seriously.

Non-State Actors are Essential for International Order

My other major hope is that scholars will think about international order in a less statist framework, because key parts of it are not about states-as-billiard-balls interacting with each other. For instance, economists conventionally treat climate governance as a public good, currently undersupplied by states. On this view, climate change is a classic collective action problem, like funding a park or a bus service.

Recent work in political science shows the real limits of the conventional view. While climate politics is afflicted by freeriding, two other features of the problem are at least as salient: the distributive politics, and the dynamic nature of the problem. Distributive means that the costs of climate change—and the costs of decarbonization policies—fall unevenly across and within each country. That means the chief obstacle to pro-climate policy in many key countries, including the United States and China, are the entrenched fossil-fuel interests—not just free-riding by other countries.

The dynamic nature of climate politics means that while politics drives policy in the present, the causal arrow reverses in the future: today’s policy shapes future political coalitions. Jessica Green, Thomas Hale, and I emphasize these two features (distributive and dynamic climate politics) in a forthcoming paper in International Organization. Others like Leah Stokes, Kathryn Harrison and Lisa Sundstrom, and Michaël Aklin and Matto Mildenberger have argued similarly.

Distributive and dynamic politics matter for global order because they mean subnational actors are crucial for solutions. In that sense, climate change is the opposite of nuclear arms control, where the primary actors are national governments rather than sub-national units and private firms. Even trade politics, which has strong distributive and dynamic features, focus on government behaviors (e.g., tariffs, procurement, regulations). Climate change is different because the actors that really matter are mostly firms and other subnational actors.

The implication is that a revamped design for global order must be far more transnational and subnational, as opposed to interstate, than in the past. In the 20th century, international order was primarily about building international organizations and treaties—think nuclear arms control, Bretton Woods, NATO, and the EU. States were central as both causes and effects of these organizations and organizations. In the 21st century, climate change (and possibly other governance challenges) requires an approach that focuses largely on nonstate behavior, rather than state behavior.

Put more bluntly, international order used to be something that that great powers did. In the future, it should also be something great powers seed and coordinate. This shift is not entirely new—a matter of degree rather than kind—but climate change makes it even more significant. Designers of global order should not treat states as billiard balls.

Retooling for the 21st Century

Of course, all of this order building, to the extent it happens, will happen in the shadow of great power competition. Those rivalries will powerfully shape how institutions are built, especially if great powers use them to buttress rival spheres of influence (Nick Miller and I have some work on that).

What might be less obvious is that the need for transnational and subnational governance is not a secondary bolt-on to a 20th-century statist framework; instead, it should be built into principles of global order from the ground up. Nearly thirty years of failures at the UNFCCC process points to the core problem: order building that focuses on interstate negotiation, instead of taking seriously the subnational actors, proves mostly fruitless.

All in all, I applaud the kind of big-picture rethinking of international order that scholars and analysts are embarking upon. They take seriously the idea that social scientists have a duty to engage constructively on the biggest problems society faces. As we do so, let’s take seriously the tradeoffs between the three goals of peace, prosperity, and climate sustainability. 

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Joshua Busby is an Associate Professor in the LBJ School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas-Austin. He is the author of Moral Movements and Foreign Policy (Cambridge, 2010) and the co-author, with Ethan Kapstein, of AIDS Drugs for All: Social Movements and Market Transformations (Cambridge, 2013). His main research interests include transnational advocacy and social movements, international security and climate change, global public health and HIV/ AIDS, energy and environmental policy, and U.S. foreign policy. He also tends to blog about global wildlife conservation.