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Infinite Regress: Prioritising Decarbonisation in an Era of Unconstrained Geopolitical Competition

25 May 2022
By Jim Serpless
Stacks of Pipes for the Russian gas pipeline Nordstream 2 at the port of Mukran, Germany.  Source: Josef Streichholz, Wikimedia Commons,

The current conflict in Ukraine, and the ensuing energy shock, highlight the tension between a state’s parochial interests and collective efforts to decarbonise. As prioritising decarbonisation becoming more challenging, is it possible to separate the two?

The return of unconstrained geopolitical competition and climate change are two of the key security challenges facing the world today. However, which challenge poses a greater threat to global stability and how should we prioritise them? Although, climate change should be arguably prioritised due to its existential and systemic nature, this is not occurring in practice. Instead, realpolitik has seen the prioritisation of more parochial national interests, and, in some instances, these interests appear irreconcilable with decarbonisation efforts. The tension between competition and climate policy, stems from a lack of consensus on decarbonisation efforts globally, which is a result of unconstrained geopolitical competition. Thus, attempting to prioritise the two issues leads to a situation of infinite regress. The current conflict in Ukraine provides us with a case study in the tensions between short-term geopolitical interests and long-term collective climate goals. It provides practical examples of the difficulty in prioritising these key security issues and of finding a surface area where cooperation on climate can be separated from geopolitical competition.

The Relationship Between Unconstrained Geopolitical Competition and Climate Change

“[C]limate change is not ideological. It’s not partisan, it’s not a geostrategic weapon or tool… It’s a global, not bilateral, challenge” remarked Special Presidential Envoy for Climate John Kerry during talks to address climate change in Tianjin, China. Wang Yi, China’s Foreign Minister, in reply stated it “hopes that climate cooperation can be an oasis in China-US relations, but if that oasis is surrounded by desert, it will also become desertified sooner or later.” These remarks highlight the tension between unconstrained geopolitical competition and climate. Relations between China, Russia, and the US are at their lowest point since the Cold War. At the same time as the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) is warning of multiple unavoidable climate hazards, Russia, with its invasion of Ukraine, has threatened the widely held norms of the current international order. Indeed, the risk of nuclear confrontation has not been this high since the Cuban Missile Crisis. This unconstrained competition leads to a situation of infinite regress, whereby, due to disagreement over short-term geopolitical issues, cooperation on the systemic issue of climate becomes even more difficult.

If the consequences forecast by the IPCC transpire, great power competition will be of secondary concern. Indeed, an inability to cooperate on climate change, drastically increases the risk of competition escalating to conflict. For instance, China’s expansion in the South China Sea is at least partially explained by dwindling fish stocks, as China searches further abroad for a stable food supply. Given the great powers have a mutual interest in addressing climate change, logically, should not cooperation be turned into an “oasis?” After all cooperation would benefit not only the great powers, but the global community as well. Daneil Nexon, of Georgetown University, recently stated that “competition isn’t a strategic goal. It’s a means to an end.” It seems that geostrategic competition is, borrowing Lykke’s strategic parlance, the ends, when it should be part of the means with which global security is achieved, inclusive of cooperation on climate. Contrasting climate to the COVID-19 pandemic, another transnational issue, does not provide hope. Instead of a coordinated, equitable, global response, we witnessed unilateral measures aimed to benefit individual nations. Further, instead of a coordinated effort to provide vaccines to the most vulnerable, geopolitics intervened and a regressive game of vaccine diplomacy emerged. A myopic focus on short-term geostrategic interests makes it difficult to prioritise and cooperate on climate.

The Ukraine Conflict and Wolfer’s Dichotomy

The 2022 invasion of Ukraine by Russia provides a case study on the complexity of trying to divorce climate from competition. Wolfer’s dichotomy between possessional goals – parochial state interests – and milieu goals – multilateral issues beyond the control of any one power, such as climate on non-proliferation – is useful here. The Ukraine conflict is essentially an energy war. Europe depends on Russia for 40 percent of its natural gas and approximately a quarter of its oil. The looming energy shock provides a unique window into the interplay of a state’s possessional goals, the need for energy security to keep the lights on for example, and how they relate to efforts to decarbonise, a milieu goal.

Arguments that Europe is unable to achieve both energy security and decarbonisation at the same time, reflect an emphasis on possessional goals. Here, the resultant energy shock from the conflict causes unacceptable economic and social disruption due to the higher energy prices. Accordingly, European governments will curtail decarbonisation until energy security can be accomplished. This would be achieved by increasing production of sovereign oil and gas fields, steps the UK is taking, or coal and nuclear capacity, as in the case of Germany and France. This approach emphasises the parochial, short-term geopolitical aims of European nations in the context of global competition, as opposed to the milieu goal of decarbonisation. In contrast, arguments for confronting both energy security and decarbonisation could achieve both. The resultant energy shock, caused by the conflict, presents an opportunity to drastically accelerate decarbonisation. This approach sees the short-term energy security goal, and long-term climate goals, or possessional and milieu goals, through the same lens. By doubling down on clean energy, you remove Europe’s dependence on Russian fossil fuels, whilst also cooperating and providing leadership on climate change.

What of Russia? Let us imagine that Europe takes the approach of radically increasing the speed of decarbonisation. The resultant loss of revenue from oil and gas would devastate the Russian economy and potentially collapse President Vladimir Putin’s rule. Therefore, Putin does not perceive climate change as an existential threat, rather, it is climate change policy that he fears most. For Putin, the maintenance of oil and gas exports to Europe is a possessional goal of existential importance. It is somewhat ironic that the conflict in Ukraine may be the catalyst for the destruction of a significant part of Putin’s economy. In the modern international environment where multilateralism is pervasive, and isolation almost impossible, ever greater tensions between possessional and milieu goals are unavoidable. The conflict in Ukraine, without even addressing the potential second and third order effects – such as the potential increase in food prices and its effect on emerging economies – evidences the difficulty in prioritising global security issues.

Unconstrained geostrategic competition leaves no room for a convergence on decarbonisation efforts — indeed, it may crowd out climate concerns altogether. Climate change, due to its systemic and transnational nature, should be prioritised over nations’ possessional goals. However, this has proven extremely difficult in practice due to the existential nature some possessional goals hold, such as Russia’s reliance on the export of oil and gas for example. Until these two key security issues are not seen as mutually exclusive, like the avoidance of catastrophic nuclear conflict during the Cold War, progress on climate will prove difficult. Indeed, cooperation on climate is almost impossible in an environment of unconstrained geopolitical competition. Although difficulties arise in prioritising short-term aims with long term climate action, prioritised they must be, and creative and effective diplomacy is required to avoid an existential threat that will render geopolitical competition an afterthought.

Jim Serpless is currently undertaking a post graduate degree in Security and Strategy studies. He has over 10 years’ experience as an officer within the Australian Defence Force and holds an BA/LLB (Honours) from Monash University. All views expressed herein are his own and do not represent those of the Australian Defence Force.

This article is published under a Creative Commons Licence and may be republished with attribution