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US hyperfocus on decarbonization creates geopolitical blind spots

On the topic of U.S. energy, this has become a common phrase: The transition from fossil fuels to renewable energy is underway.

The presumption is we’re to accept this inevitability and get in line to support the transition, without debate or even skepticism over the correct policies or implications.

Not all observers accept this path of transition, and it doesn’t automatically translate to climate denial.

Let’s be clear and emphatic: Climate change is a justifiable concern with national security implications.

It is important to state this up front because a person’s position on climate change is the shibboleth for how they’re viewed in debates on energy policy. Those who have decided that the only option to combat climate change is for the U.S. to unilaterally divest from fossil fuels have institutionalized branding those with other ideas as climate skeptics.

The stakes for our country are real. Restructuring the world’s largest, most important industrial economy and greatest military power exclusively on a goal of carbon reduction isn’t exclusively a climate science issue — it’s a geopolitical issue with national security implications unaccounted for in decarbonization models. The importance of getting this right is magnified given the increased competition for energy resources from global powers not aligned with our economic and security interests.

The Biden-Harris administration has positioned climate change at the center of U.S. foreign policy and national security, classifying it as the greatest shared problem in the world. This is serving as the foundation for an evolving 21st-century U.S. industrial policy to phase out fossil fuels and accelerate the transition to renewable energy. Hailed as the most ambitious climate action in U.S. history, it’s being advanced with hundreds of billions of taxpayer dollars.

Industrial policy isn’t new to our country. Following WWII, competition with the USSR was the center of U.S. foreign policy and national security. To avert a third world war, America worked to establish a rules-based global order around individual liberty, free trade, national sovereignty and halting the spread of communism.

To this end, America needed a strong and diverse industrial base to mobilize resources in response to security threats, establish technological and military advantage over the USSR and project national power abroad. This convergence of economic and national security goals prompted the rise of the military-industrial complex, which soon included collaboration with academia.

Concerns were justifiably raised when the priorities of scholarly research became aligned and intertwined with policy goals, fearing the rise of a military-industrial-academic complex that could go so far as to redefine American science. The responsibility of academia, after all, is to communicate ideas or facts, without fear of reprisal, even when inconvenient to political or economic interests.

Tenure was but one of the cloaks used to protect academic freedom and independence of research. Skepticism of the status quo was an expectation, and academic skeptics were not automatically assumed to be anti-military or pro-USSR. In expressing caution about the military-industrial complex, President Eisenhower himself warned against the “recurring temptation to feel that some spectacular and costly action could become the miraculous solution to all current difficulties.”

We – especially those of us in academia – live in a different era today. Career success is directly linked to grant funding, much of which is sourced from the federal government. The ability to publish in academic journals is equally tied to job performance and advancement. With the federal government backing the mandated solution of decarbonization, there is little incentive for tenured or tenure-seeking professors to challenge this “settled” industrial policy, and hundreds of billions of taxpayer dollars incentivizing acceptance and promotion of it.

Grant funding and space in academic journals are limited for those challenging the accepted solutions, which risks reducing academia to an echo-chamber on this subject. Such cognitive tunneling has blind spots for geopolitical realities.

While U.S. policymakers are restructuring our economy and diluting our industrial base with a near exclusive focus on battling climate change — a battle we cannot win unilaterally — China, via its ruling Chinese Communist Party (CCP), is expanding its economy and diversifying its industrial base to displace America as the world’s most influential superpower. It is are increasing its use of fossil fuels — commodities China can procure even cheaper, making its industrial outputs even more competitive, for every ton of coal or barrel of oil the U.S. chooses not to consume.

The CCP will not sacrifice its geopolitical aspirations or dreams of national rejuvenation in an effort to battle climate change. And we need look no further than the CCP’s own declarations.

To be clear, climate policy is only a pawn on the CCP’s chess board. Meanwhile, in the U.S., we play as if it were our king, the protection of which dictates all other moves.

I recently conveyed these concerns in testimony before the U.S. House Energy and Commerce Committee. It was a welcomed opportunity for an academic who acknowledges the concerns of climate change as a global issue but doesn’t accept a unilateral U.S. energy transition and restructuring of our entire economy and industrial base as the solution. Instead, the question we must answer is this: How will a unilateral energy transition and industrial policy focused on decarbonization impact America’s civilian and military industrial base, its capacity to project national power and its standing on the global stage relative to its most strategic great power competitor, CCP-led China?

America is facing multiple challenges on multiple fronts. Rather than exclusively using decarbonization of the U.S. economy as the supreme if not singular answer to the existential threats we face, we must measure climate policy solutions against the geopolitical threat of the CCP. Not only should America avoid an industrial policy that weakens our economy and national security, but academia should be more critical in its evaluation of such an unprecedented transition — as was Eisenhower who warned against spectacular and costly action as a miraculous solution.

David K. Gattie is an associate professor of engineering at the University of Georgia’s (UGA) College of Engineering, and a senior fellow at UGA’s Center for International Trade and Security. He has provided testimony on energy, climate and nuclear power policy before the U.S. House Energy and Commerce Committee.

Tags China Climate change Energy Energy transition Fossil fuels International National security oil and gas Renewable energy

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