Oil Wars and Climate Woes: Two Sides of the Same Coin

By Sandra I. Erwin

If rising waters and violent storms whipped into oblivion a key U.S. military base on the island of Diego Garcia, would such a catastrophe qualify as a national security crisis or as a climate change scourge?

These what-if scenarios help illustrate why any plans to tackle the nation’s “energy security” challenges also require a sound strategy for averting the devastating impact of climate change, experts caution.

“The temptation today is to address oil dependence and climate change as separate issues, but that would be a serious mistake,” says Sharon Burke, a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security.

The base on the Diego Garcia atoll in the Indian Ocean is a symbolic reminder of the constant U.S. military presence in the Middle East and elsewhere to protect its access to oil supplies. The island’s potential vulnerability to the ravages of climate change also demonstrates why weaning the United States from fossil fuels is more than just a security problem, Burke says at a Washington D.C. conference.

Under the rubric of “energy security,” policy experts are making a case that as long as the United States continues to consume 22 million barrels of oil per day — 60 percent of which is imported — the nation will remain at the mercy of hostile oil suppliers, unstable and corrupt regimes. They also note that terrorist groups such as al-Qaida view America’s reliance on dwindling oil supplies as an Achilles’ heel and a source of asymmetric power.

“This vulnerability will increase as more of the oil falls into fewer hands with a high concentration of reserves in the Middle East,” Burke says.

Much of the world’s oil supply travels through the Strait of Hormuz — the only passage to the open ocean for large areas of the petroleum-exporting Persian Gulf states. It is estimated that 20 percent of the world’s oil supply passes through the strait, making it a notoriously precarious chokepoint that requires a U.S. military presence. Analysts cite this as evidence of the vulnerability of the energy supply system.

The use of military forces to protect sources of energy is not new, “but we didn’t always call it energy security,” says Frederick C. Smith, vice president of the Institute for 21st Century Energy at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. “Today, few people would disagree that there is no military solution to our energy challenges.”

With 242 million vehicles running on petroleum, the United States does not have much room to maneuver around its dependence on fossil fuels. But studies warn that any future energy policy that aims to cut down oil consumption must also lead to reductions in the greenhouse gases that cause climate change. The most immediately available alternative to oil for the United States is electricity, 50 percent of which is derived from coal — the No. 1 contributor to manmade greenhouse gas emissions.

“The uncomfortable reality now is that there is no clear mix of policies that will provide the long-term solution to America’s energy and climate security,” says Burke.

A litany of computer models and scientific surveys have documented that climate change will lead to droughts, food shortages, heat waves, unpredictable and severe weather events.

“To address oil and climate change in isolation would only risk improving one at the expense of the other. Both have the potential to derail the American way of life, and both are immediate problems,” she says. “The effects of climate change may not be fully manifest for some time, but everything we do today will determine how serious those effects are in the future.”

Partisan politics engulfed around these issues have made it difficult to integrate the messages of energy independence and climate into a cohesive plan for action. While Democrats typically have been concerned about climate change, Republicans have mostly worried about dependence on foreign oil. The next administration has to find a way to bring together these constituencies, Burke says. “Different messages about energy security appeal to different American audiences,” says Burke. “Framing energy policy, and especially climate change, as a national security issue appeals to the largest number of people.”

Climate change obviously is not a traditional national security issue. Nonetheless, Burke writes in a recent study, “the dangers for our safety and prosperity in our current energy dependencies are every bit as real as Nikita Khrushchev with his finger on the button.”

The warming of the planet that has been witnessed during the past century has accelerated since 1970, scientists have documented. This should be of concern to national security planners, says Peter Brecke, a professor at the Sam Nunn School of International Affairs at the Georgia Institute of Technology. He built a database of 4,500 wars and developed predictive models that forecast increases in instability and armed conflict when there are climate change events that inevitably result in shortages of food and clean water.
“It’s worse or more urgent than you think,” says Jay Gulledge, senior scientist and program manager at the Pew Center on Global Climate Change.

“The risks are more near-term,” Gulledge says. “We are causing more extreme events to occur. Climate change doesn’t happen gradually, unlike what most people think … It comes in fits and starts, with big events such as droughts or hurricanes.”

Despite the evidence, he laments, “nobody is now taking responsibility to deal with climate change.”

It is now conceivable, however, that as a result of sticker shock at the pump, the United States will begin to focus on energy and climate. “As long as the price at the pump was reasonable we seemed to believe we had an energy policy that seemed to be working,” says Smith.

Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., supports the idea that “clean energy independence” is the right way to deal with climate change. With the United States drawing 25 percent of the world’s energy supply, Alexander tells a Brookings Institute panel, the current crisis will only worsen. He has proposed a plan to drastically curtail fossil fuel consumption within the next five years. “If worldwide energy use continues to grow as it has, humans will inject as much carbon dioxide into the air from fossil fuel burning between 2000 and 2030 as they did between 1850 and 2000,” Alexander says. “There’s plenty of coal to help achieve energy independence but there is no commercial way, yet, to capture and store so much carbon from so much coal burning. And we haven’t finished the job of controlling sulfur, nitrogen and mercury emissions.”

A climate change “war game” sponsored by the Center for a New American Security projected that if during the next 40 years the United States could reduce greenhouse gases by 70 percent, it would virtually end its dependence on fossil fuels, says Burke. That goal is only achieved with massive investments in alternative fuels, as well as costly technological efforts to capture and store carbon. The war game also predicted that by 2050, the United States will have forged a cooperative relationship with China by exchanging carbon permits and developing joint technology.

Success begins “when we put a price on carbon,” Burke says. Whether it’s a tax or a cap-and-trade system, the proceeds pay for the research and development. “Pricing carbon correctly is now widely accepted as the best way to alter the energy security situation. “Either system could work, so the choice really comes down to which is most politically viable.”

A cap-and-trade program sets a clear limit on greenhouse gas. It creates a market, and a price, for emission reductions. A carbon tax is considered a tough sell, analysts say, because politicians assume that Americans are intrinsically tax-averse.

Topics: Energy, Climate Change, Energy Security

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