CLIMATE & SECURITY I: THE OIL PROBLEM

July 9th, 2007 <-- by Bryan Mignone -->

 

This is the first of a two-part post in which I will revisit the connection between policies to mitigate climate change and policies to enhance national security. In the first post (today), I will consider the security implications of our increasing national and global dependence on oil and will discuss several climate and energy security policies in this context. In a follow-up post later in the week, I will turn to the security implications of climate change itself.

 

In the U.S., our conflicted relationship with oil is apparent each time we stop at a gas station. Collectively, it’s hard to imagine anything – with the obvious exception of food and water – so essential to our way of life. Yet, with gas prices firmly above three dollars per gallon, income spent on gasoline often does not feel like money well spent.

 

Add to this the fact that gas prices can be extremely unpredictable – subject to change based on the whims of OPEC, the paths of tropical storms, demand in China, the integrity of pipelines and speculation from Wall Street. Volatility is obviously troubling for individual consumers, but it is also troubling for those worried about the health of the economy as a whole.

 

Finally, the visibility of conflict in the Middle East makes it difficult to forget that much of what consumers spend on gasoline will ultimately wind up fueling the very regimes we hope to contain. All of these factors – from our wallets to the war in Iraq – make us think twice about the logic of our actions, but the fact remains that, when it comes to getting around, many people do not feel that they have many alternatives.

 

Together, these anxieties probably explain why Congress felt the need to revisit energy legislation in advance of a lengthier debate on climate change slated to begin this fall. Shortly before the July 4th recess, the Senate successfully adopted a package to expand the use of biofuels – to 36 billion gallons by 2022 – and to increase fuel economy (CAFE) standards for cars and light trucks to 35 miles per gallon by 2020.

 

In the simplest terms, policies to reduce energy demand by increasing energy efficiency (CAFE) and policies to diversify energy supply (biofuels in this case) are both designed to decouple economic growth at home from an increasingly volatile world oil market and to create a buffer between our economy and events outside our borders. As such, this is an energy security agenda driven primarily by concerns over economic security.

 

While sensible in some respects, this notion of energy security fails to internalize the threats to our national security posed by an oil-driven world economy. It does not account, for example, for the fact that authoritarian regimes in the Middle East tend to advance hostile policies with far greater impunity when the world oil price is high than when it is low. At the same time, modest reductions in U.S. oil consumption are unlikely to drive down global prices, unless our actions inspire others to do the same.

 

For these reasons, it makes sense to distinguish between two notions of energy security: A weaker one, driven by concerns over economic security and attainable through unilateral action, and a stronger one, driven by concerns over national security and attainable only when policies are internationally coordinated.

 

In this context, consider a coordinated climate policy to stabilize atmospheric CO2 at 450 ppm. Because global emissions must decline almost immediately to satisfy this atmospheric constraint, emissions from all sectors must be reduced in the near term. Since both coal and oil are targeted from the start, this policy is quite likely to align with the stronger notion of energy security introduced above.

 

But not all policies will yield security dividends. Consider, instead, stabilization at 550 ppm. Because this policy allows global emissions to level off and turn around gradually over a period of several decades, much of the required reductions in the near term can be achieved by mitigating emissions from coal-fired power plants. Since these reductions are cheaper than the equivalent reductions from oil, demand for oil will probably not be significantly perturbed.

 

Much of the climate policy debate today is focused on atmospheric targets between 450 and 550 ppm, as this is the range in which “dangerous anthropogenic interference” is most likely to be avoided. In designing policies to mitigate climate change, it is worth keeping in mind that a subset of climate policies under consideration might actually do more to enhance our energy security than a narrowly-designed policy designed explicitly for this purpose. Perhaps it’s time to include national security among the many benefits to be weighed against the costs of mitigation.

 

Further Reading: For those interested in a longer treatment of this topic, I recommend a report by the Council on Foreign Relations called National Security Consequences of U.S. Oil Dependency.

One Response to “CLIMATE & SECURITY I: THE OIL PROBLEM”

  1. Snowfire Says:

    Stabilization at 450-550 ppm? Alas, I fear that is a pipe dream. Given current trends and economic realities, and given the large increase in the consumption of coal likely in the next 50 years, perhaps 900-1000 ppm is a more realistically achievable target.

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