In 2013, the EIA projected that world energy consumption would grow by 56% between 2010 and 2040, with fossil fuels continuing to supply almost 80% of the 2040 total. This trajectory threatens not only to alter the nature of the earth’s climate, but to fundamentally destabilize the global security environment. To recognize this, we need only take a closer look at the nature of the fuels themselves.
First of all, fossil fuels are finite and unevenly distributed, meaning that any competition for their acquisition would be a zero-sum game. This competition is likely due the imperfect nature of the energy market. Most of the world’s fossil fuel reserves are controlled by states, not companies. Consequently, they can use this control to exert leverage over consumers. Therefore, states that perceive themselves to be resource-deficient have an enormous incentive to acquire more resources, both in order to hedge against politically motivated supply disruptions, and to exert control over other states. Too often (due to the zero-sum nature of the game), this is likely to be achieved through territorial expansion. As our need for these resources continues to grow, and their readily available supplies continues to dwindle, the incentives for conflict will multiply. (Indeed, a conflict for resources may already be brewing in the South China Sea).
Complicating matters further is the fact that US foreign policy itself has been – and will continue to be – distorted by our need for these very same fuels. This need has compelled us to back authoritarian regimes, and it has left us vulnerable to adversaries and conflicts that otherwise wouldn’t concern us. The result, in part, has been the decline of the US’s reputation around the world, and the over-extension of our military forces. This, too, will only be exacerbated if we allow the present trend in fuel consumption to persist.
Finally, there is that other unique thing about fossil fuels: they’re dirty. The growth in fossil fuel consumption projected by the EIA would almost certainly result in CO2 concentrations in excess of the 550-ppm threshold that scientists have warned us not to cross. This is not solely an environmental concern. Climate change itself threatens to provoke future conflicts by diminishing the supplies of numerous vital resources, and could lead to the displacement of millions.
Unlike many of the threats the United States faces, this one is entirely predictable and avoidable. The United States should aggressively seek an agreement from the UN Conference on Climate Change in Paris this December, and Congress should move ahead with proposals to tax or otherwise limit CO2 emissions. Increased funding for energy R&D is also warranted. It is imperative that the US government and the American people begin to aggressively seek a transition toward alternative fuels, because the security of our country – and the world – depends on it.