In his analysis of events that unfolded following WWII, Secretary of State Dean Acheson recounts the struggles, uncertainties and shrouded ambiguities of that period of time. He characterized it as a global wreckage of political and economic instability compounded by the challenge of an aggressive communist power and the advent of the most powerful energy resource and military weapon on earth—nuclear power. For those who labored to create what has become known as a rules-based international order, their broad objectives were to establish international allied institutions to accelerate economic development and geopolitical stability in war-ravaged regions, contain the spread of communism by the USSR and develop an international system to control the use of atomic energy.
Today, the blatant weaponization of energy by Russia, energy security threats in Europe, the ongoing specter of climate change and the challenge of great power competitor China have collided in a global geopolitical conflict that is stressing those international institutions. In particular, it’s exposing the insufficiency of the UN Conference of Parties (COP) to oversee an issue as geopolitically complex and, perhaps, as futile as a global energy transition, with COP activities being described as a collective failure and little more than a circus.
This, at a time when the leaders of the world’s two great powers, whose competition will define and shape the 21st century world order, have fundamentally different perspectives and strategies for the energy and climate policies of their respective nations and the world.
However, the failures of COP alongside the clearly articulated doctrine of Russia and China to use energy as a tool of statecraft could serve as a window of opportunity for the U.S. and its allies to rise up to multiple challenges around energy and climate issues and adjust their strategies to align with 21st century challenges rather than those of the 20th century. In particular, the alignment of energy and climate objectives with the 21st century realities of great power competition and energy poverty.
On October 12, 2022, President Biden released his National Security Strategy. In it, he referenced the climate issue sixty-three times, at one point stating: “Of all the shared problems we face, climate change is the greatest and potentially existential for all nations”. He further emphasized “the urgent need to accelerate the transition away from fossil fuels”.
This reflects the ambitions of President Biden as enacted into law through the so-named Inflation Reduction Act (IRA), which he described as the most aggressive action ever taken in the world, and in America’s history, to combat the climate crisis.
Four days later, on October 16, 2022 and one week before being elected to an unprecedented third term as CCP president, Xi Jinping delivered his “Report to the 20th National Congress of the Communist Party of China”. In it, he referenced climate twice, along with the declaration: “Based on China's energy and resource endowment, we will advance initiatives to reach peak carbon emissions in a well-planned and phased way in line with the principle of building the new before discarding the old”.
Xi’s report reflects a position he carved out earlier this year when he addressed the CCP and warned about being too aggressive in any energy transition: Reducing emissions is not about reducing productivity, and it is not about not emitting at all, either…the gradual withdrawal of traditional energy must be based on the safe and reliable replacement by new energy. This in practice means less restrictions on fossil fuel.”
“Accelerate the transition away from fossil fuels” stands in sharp contrast with “the gradual withdrawal of traditional energy” and “less restrictions on fossil fuels”. Technologically and geopolitically.
Under what appears to be a perfect storm of global geopolitics, and to extend President Biden’s warfare analogy of combatting climate change, the U.S. and its allies should regroup forces and reassess their current energy and climate strategy around three key considerations.
First, the campaign to battle climate change has revolved around the demonization of fossil fuels with the primary metric for success being carbon reduction. A tool recently deployed to that end was for wealthy nations to end fossil fuel financing abroad and promote the adoption of renewable energy in low-income countries. The unfairness in such a deprivation is self-evident, as there are no renewable energy alternatives that match the reliability afforded by fossil fuel resources and technologies. Both COP26 and COP27 saw pushback on this as developing economies sent clear messages to the developed world that they are not prepared to phase-out coal and they need leniency and time in the ban against fossil fuel financing.
The focus on carbon emissions as the primary metric misconstrues the fundamental difference between the source of the problem and the cause of the problem. While the source of global warming has been identified as carbon emissions from fossil fuel consumption, this is not the underlying cause. The underlying cause is energy poverty and the need for more reliable energy, not less, and emerging economies are looking for developed economies to partner with them in their priority to reduce energy poverty, not carbon emissions. Which leads to the second consideration.
The U.S. must account for the unintended consequences of going all-in on a transition away from fossil fuels to renewables and ask itself the hard question at this point in the war on climate change: Could the solution actually be the cause of energy poverty? And perhaps more importantly, what is the geopolitical risk of being outflanked by China, Russia and other energy-rich authoritarian states using energy and energy technologies as instruments of national power in unconventional warfare strategies?
Under the rule of President Xi, China is executing its foundational doctrine of Unrestricted Warfare to weaken the competitiveness and geopolitical influence of the U.S. and its allies. The stated goal is to win the war without ever firing a shot. The two campaign plans that operationalize Unrestricted Warfare are the Belt and Road Initiative and the Made in China 2025 industrial policy. China writes its doctrine, publishes its campaign plans, then executes its strategy—we simply don’t bother to read it. Understanding Sun Tzu and the Art of War has never been more important.
A key Measure Of Effectiveness (MOE) is China’s doubling down on establishing energy partnerships with Russia, Saudi Arabia and other Middle East countries—partnerships that are long on fossil fuels and nuclear power. China also has exploited climate change as a pawn in diplomatic relationships with the U.S. when it halted climate negotiations over Speaker Pelosi’s trip to Taiwan. The CCP understands that climate change is a politically and socially divisive issue in the U.S., with strong populist undercurrents that can be exploited to China’s advantage through information warfare. There is no reason to trust the CCP to not repeat this weaponization of climate diplomacy over future issues as it has declared to the world that it will not compromise its economic objectives in order to reduce carbon emissions.
As the U.S. establishes policies to divest from fossil fuels, the very resources that lifted billions out of poverty over the past century and on which major economies were industrialized, China and other energy-rich nations remain willing partners for emerging economies looking to break the bonds of energy poverty. This affords these countries geopolitical leverage with emerging economies who will have a strong hand in determining who leads the 21st century world order—and energy will be central in that determination. Consequently, in global energy relationships, the U.S. is battling not only climate change, but also China and other authoritarian, energy-rich states intent on occupying any space the U.S. vacates. This must be accounted for in order for the U.S. and its allies to avoid being geopolitically outflanked in energy statecraft.
Third, the U.S. and its allies shouldn’t wage these battles without an aggressive strategy to develop and deploy to the front lines, civilian nuclear power—their most potent and proven energy resource and technology. However, inexplicably, nuclear seems to be viewed largely as a stopgap on the pathway to renewables—at least in the U.S. The U.S Department of Energy recently articulated how they are “spending big” on nuclear energy. In actuality they aren’t spending big and there is no war time footing. They are basically keeping the hospice patient comfortable.
Last year, then White House Climate Advisor, Gina McCarthy, said she expected nuclear to play a role for the foreseeable future, but only while America “builds an infrastructure of wind and hydro and other mixes moving forward”. In a recent interview, Geoffrey Pyatt, the U.S. State Department’s Assistant Secretary for Energy Resources, contended that “the fossil fuel energy system era is coming to an end, we are evolving into the renewables era” and, “it’s clear that for Europe in particular, the greatest source of energy security is a renewable energy future”. Moreover, the Inflation Reduction Act is dominated by incentives for renewable energy and the recently-announced Energy Transition Accelerator has a single objective of speeding the transition from dirty to clean power by accelerating the buildout of renewables. Even if this $370 billion taxpayer gambit was successful, it would only return the US back to 40% below 2005 levels of carbon emissions and ignores the need for more abundant and baseload power. It is the wrong answer for energy security, and it isn’t the solution the world is asking for.
Moreover, in remarks at a Democratic national committee fundraiser, President Biden emphasized the need to get off of fossil fuels and lamented over “where we’d be right now if, in fact, Europe was in fact energy-free of fossil fuels and it was all renewables. It’d be a different world”.
This reflects the core of the President’s energy and climate intentions—that being, to promote and deploy renewables to the front lines of the battle against climate change and to establish energy security. This marginalization of nuclear power may reflect an ideological preference for renewables. If so, that ideological preference is blinding leaders and policymakers to the geopolitical consequences and national security implications of a global nuclear supply chain dominated by China and Russia—consequences and implications that have been articulated and generally acknowledged.
The European energy security crisis that emerged in the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, along with the paucity of progress in recent COP efforts, has revived interest in nuclear power. However, Russia is the global leader in nuclear energy exports—a position that may erode in the aftermath of its war on Ukraine. Meanwhile, China has its own ambitions of becoming a dominant global partner in civilian nuclear technology. This provides an opportunity for the U.S. and its allies to form an allied nuclear partnership that could be leveraged to divide these two competitors and weaken their combined geopolitical influence, while at the same time providing emerging economies with a non-authoritarian civilian nuclear partner who can work with them to escape energy poverty under low-carbon constraints and afford them a level of much-needed energy security. Nuclear is the only technology that, on its own, can reduce carbon emissions, alleviate energy poverty and counter China's and Russia's designs for dominating global energy partnerships.
Since the end of the Cold War, there has not been a more urgent need for the U.S. and its allies to leverage their greatest advantage over great power competitors—that being, the advantage of alliances. America and its allies are battling issues on multiple fronts and there is a critical need for strategic energy alliances that accept the reality that fossil fuels will be needed for the foreseeable future to meet energy poverty needs, rather than demonizing fossil fuels and objectifying carbon reduction as the single metric of success in global energy and climate diplomacy. This is especially true for natural gas. Moreover, the need for allied nuclear partnerships is acute with national security implications. And recent progress with small modular reactors (SMR) and other advanced reactors provides an opportune moment in history for allies to coalesce around a long-term strategy to battle two long-term foes—energy poverty and China—with SMRs on the front line of battle.
Recent energy and climate diplomacy by the U.S. and its allies through the UN and COP haven’t been a collective failure because of a lack of ideals. They have been a failure because the dominant measure of success, carbon reduction, is incompatible with 21st century energy realities.
As such, the U.S. and its allies shouldn’t attempt to build world order around carbon reduction. Rather, they should follow the example of the original authors of the rules-based international order and focus on accelerating economic development under low-carbon constraints, shoring up geopolitical stability, countering “socialism with Chinese characteristics” and ensuring energy security through allied energy alliances. And on the front lines of these efforts they should position allied nuclear partnerships to restore international leadership in civilian nuclear power to a U.S.-led coalition, to displace Russia from its current position of civilian nuclear export dominance and to pre-empt China’s weaponization of energy resources and technologies and its ambitions to be the 21st century steward of civilian nuclear—ambitions that align with its Unrestricted Warfare doctrine.
David Gattie is an Associate Professor of Engineering at the University of Georgia’s (UGA) College of Engineering, and a Senior Fellow at UGA’s Center for International Trade and Security. He has provided testimony on energy, climate and nuclear power policy before the U.S. House Energy and Commerce Committee.
RDML (ret) Michael Hewitt, US Navy, is Co-Founder and CEO of IP3 Corporation and CEO of Allied Nuclear Partners. IP3 is the lead U.S. integrator for the development and operations of peaceful and secure civil nuclear power in the global marketplace. IP3’s vision is to create thriving, peaceful environments in critical world markets through the development of sustainable energy and security infrastructure via public/private initiatives and industry-led partnerships.