How Curbing Reliance on Fossil Fuels Will Change the World


Editor’s Note: This article is adapted from a contribution to “21st Century Diplomacy: Foreign Policy is Climate Policy,” a project led by adelphi and the Wilson Center. 


The world’s reliance on fossil fuels for energy has had geopolitical implications of one sort or another ever since humans first started burning coal several thousand years ago. In modern times, major powers’ need for oil and gas to fuel their economies and armies contributed to colonialism in the 19th and early 20th centuries, Japan’s 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor, the 1967 and 1974 Arab oil embargos (and subsequent global recessions), the 1990 Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, and the U.S. invasions of Iraq in 1991 and 2003, to name just a few of major developments driven at least in part by growing energy demands. Today, scholars and practitioners argue that the changes to the climate that result from this energy use are accelerating rising sea levels and the frequency and severity of droughts, fires, and mega storms — trends they predict could undermine governments, generate destabilizing refugee flows, and ultimately lead to tensions or even resource conflicts among states. It is undeniable that a failure to address the planet’s warming would have dramatic political and geopolitical consequences.



Less attention has been paid, however, to the potential geopolitical consequences of the opposite scenario — a decrease in reliance on fossil fuels. But that could prove shortsighted, because the policy changes required to avoid climate catastrophe — the elimination of oil, coal, and gas as primary energy sources and their replacement with renewables — will themselves have a profound impact on domestic and world politics. The dramatic recent reduction in global energy use and emissions associated with the coronavirus pandemic may make climate change, and the measures needed to contain it, seem less urgent. But rather than solving the climate crisis, the pandemic has actually underscored its depth. The fact that it took an almost unprecedented global economic shutdown to reduce emissions to levels barely consistent with the 2015 Paris climate commitments highlights the need for far more comprehensive policy action than was previously underway. With the devastating impact of climate change becoming ever clearer in the United States — not least through the worst forest fires in California’s history and a growing number of mega storms — it is not hard to imagine that even the United States will have to start getting serious about actually reducing emissions. That process that could begin with a victory in the November presidential election for Joe Biden, who has pledged far-reaching domestic and international measures to deal with the crisis.

The shift to a decarbonized world — in which global reliance on fossil fuels for energy production is dramatically reduced and virtually all remaining carbon dioxide emissions are captured, stored, utilized, or compensated for — could change world politics in a number of ways. One likely consequence, for example, will be necessary transformation of the political systems of oil and gas producing states. According to the International Energy Agency, those states could lose $7 trillion in revenues by 2040. Countries that rely on oil revenues for large shares of government revenue include Libya (96 percent), Iraq (89 percent), Kuwait (70 percent), Nigeria (58 percent), Saudi Arabia (61 percent), Venezuela (50 percent), Russia (40 percent), the United Arab Emirates (46 percent), and Iran (29 percent). Declining oil revenues will oblige these countries to cut subsidies (including for utilities such as electricity and water), raise taxes, and in many cases diminish their reliance on expatriate workers, forcing citizens to take menial jobs they are not used to doing. The world’s leading oil exporter, Saudi Arabia, is particularly vulnerable: A booming youth population and the need to create millions of jobs will require deficit spending of up to $100 billion per year, eroding reserves that could be exhausted within just a few years. Russia, too, would lose considerable income in a decarbonized world, which could lead its government to become even more repressive to maintain its grip on power. The potential upside of such changes is that these states will be compelled to reform their economies and invest in education, industry, human capital, and other non-energy sectors, as Riyadh is seeking to do in its Vision 2030 plan. But such transitions are difficult and disruptive, and could also be a source of domestic instability, as citizens used to an implicit social contract with their governments — security and prosperity in exchange for loyalty — find those governments unable to uphold their end of the bargain.

Another likely consequence of decarbonization is continued U.S. disengagement from the Middle East. Declining American — and global — dependence on oil from the Middle East will likely accelerate growing U.S. reluctance to devote significant blood and treasure to the region. After the failure of President George W. Bush’s efforts to “transform” the Middle East, in part through the invasion of Iraq, President Barack Obama sought gradually to “pivot” away from the region, in part due to the diminishing U.S. need for its energy imports. President Donald Trump has taken that view to an extreme, boasting about American energy “independence,” claiming previous presidents had wasted $7 trillion trying to stabilize a region allegedly no longer a vital interest of the United States, and pledging to reduce the U.S. troop presence in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Syria. A growing number of Americans agree with former top official Martin Indyk, who recently asserted in The Wall Street Journal that the Middle East just “isn’t worth it anymore,” in large part because “the United States no longer relies on imported petroleum.” Two other former Obama administration officials, Mara Karlin and Tamara Wittes, have made “the case for doing less” in the region, while two top advisers to former Vice President Biden — Dan Benaim and Jake Sullivan — have called for greater use of diplomacy and less reliance on military force. The strategic importance of American energy “independence,” of course, can be exaggerated, because even if the United States doesn’t import oil directly from the Persian Gulf, it has a stake in the free flow of oil from the region so long as other countries — including many close U.S. partners and allies — do. And the United States will continue to have other national interests in the region, including containing Iran, supporting Israel, counter-terrorism, and nonproliferation. Still, the perception that securing imports from the region might no longer be worth American blood and treasure makes future U.S. engagement in the region less likely, increasing the prospects of a security vacuum, conflict among states, and competition among outside actors such as Russia, China, and Turkey.

Finally, the drive toward decarbonization could easily exacerbate tensions among some of the world’s major powers over their respective contributions to reductions in global emissions. This risk is particularly great between the two largest emitters, the United States and China, as Beijing has long argued that developed countries (such as the United States) who have contributed the most to the current problem should bear a disproportionate share of that burden, while the United States wants China to play a role commensurate with its current contribution to emissions. China has, more recently, begun to accept more responsibility for climate action. But with the two countries already at loggerheads over trade, Taiwan, the South China Sea, intellectual property, human rights, responsibility for the COVID-19 crisis, and much more, disputes over “burden-sharing” could poison this critical relationship further, especially as the costs and consequences of climate change become increasingly apparent in both countries. Imagine the debates that will result if large numbers of deaths are caused by climate developments in either country that its citizens attribute to irresponsible policies pursued by the other. U.S.-Chinese disputes over climate burden-sharing could contribute to a new Cold War that will affect all aspects of international relations in the decades to come.

It is easy to imagine plenty of other geopolitical developments beyond the three listed above, from strains in the transatlantic relationship to global competition for clean-energy jobs. What is certain, however, is that decarbonization — whenever it happens — will have a profound impact on world politics, in predictable and unpredictable ways. To adapt, governments around the world will have to take into account the geopolitical consequences of their climate policies. This will mean incorporating geopolitical impact assessments into intelligence product, making bureaucratic adjustments that elevate climate change to the same level as more traditional national security concerns, and developing diplomatic approaches designed to mitigate the negative impact of decarbonization on other states and the relations between them. The world’s gradual addiction to fossil fuels has transformed international relations over the past century and more. Leaders in all countries should start thinking now about the political consequences of withdrawing from that addiction.



Philip H. Gordon is the Mary and David Boies Senior Fellow in U.S. Foreign Policy at the Council on Foreign Relations. He served as White House Coordinator for the Middle East, North Africa, and the Gulf Region, and Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs during the Obama administration. His book, Losing the Long Game: The False Promise of Regime Change in the Middle East, will be published on October 6.

Image: Antandrus