The United States has an opportunity to forge the post-World War II order into a new "American Century" — if the Trump administration and climate-change skeptics will embrace the world's climate challenges as an opportunity for American innovation, capital and leadership.
Climate change may well be the forcing event in an era of renewed great-power competition. If the United States sits on the bench in this new "great game," it will cede political, economic and social power to China, Russia or even emergent regional powers such as Turkey, Iran and the Gulf states.
We are witnessing historic political and social change: Brexit, President TrumpDonald TrumpTrump goes after Cassidy after saying he wouldn't support him for president in 2024 Jan. 6 panel lays out criminal contempt case against Bannon Hillicon Valley — Presented by Xerox — Agencies sound alarm over ransomware targeting agriculture groups MORE’s election and the rising tide of global nationalism signals a fundamental challenge to the liberal, democratic international order that Franklin Delano Roosevelt championed at the Yalta Conference near the end of WW II. Roosevelt’s manifested vision has since served as the most powerful force for peace and prosperity in history and established the United States as the ultimate uncontested power by the beginning of the 21st century.
Climate change is our Yalta, a potential turning point in world history. A new American Century requires the administration to understand that the climate's challenges also present transforming opportunities.
First the facts: President Trump’s own National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) reports that the 2017 average global temperature across land and ocean surface areas was 0.84°C (1.51°F) above the 20th century average of 13.9°C (57.0°F), making it the third-warmest year on record behind 2016 (warmest) and 2015 (second-warmest).
Since the start of the 21st century, the annual global temperature record has been broken five times.
The Paris Climate Change Accord epitomized U.S. leadership in the post-WW II order, but that era is effectively over. Will either President Trump or his successors have the foresight to chart the next American Century to blunt the risks and seize the leadership opportunities of climate change?
This next century begins now, with massive environmental stress in two geostrategic locations: the hot south and the cold arctic. Climate change will affect more than a billion people in South Asia, the Arabian Peninsula, and the Horn of Africa. A combination of high temperature and high humidity at a wet-bulb temperature of 35 degrees Celsius (95 degrees Fahrenheit), coupled with extreme humidity, is not compatible with human life after more than a few hours. Climate stress will be a threat multiplier — in ways currently unfathomable — where a substantial portion of the world’s population competes for water, power, food and security.
The Arctic already is witnessing massive change. One of the most striking examples is the region's sea ice, declining by about 13 percent per decade, with the 12 lowest seasonal minimums all recorded in the last 12 years. As the Arctic loses snow and ice, bare rock and water absorb more of the sun’s energy, making it ever-warmer. Glaciers, sea ice and tundra will melt, contributing to global sea level rise — potentially catastrophic to 13 out of 15 of the world’s largest cities which lie in coastal plains.
The Arctic political powers are now engaged in a sprint to open up sea channels and exploit newfound natural resources. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo complained about Russia’s aggressive behavior at an Arctic Council meeting just last month.
Given this and more, here is how the Trump administration can chart the next American Century.
First, the United States can aggressively strive to own the next generation in technology. For instance, Silicon Valley is witnessing breakthroughs in launching the next “green” revolution. A great example is Impossible Foods out of California which is developing plant-based meats that have the texture, taste and experience of real meat. Add dramatic changes in meat production with advances in the power, water and agriculture nexus, and we can envision a new eco-friendly agricultural revolution. Small-holder farmers with access to off-grid, renewable power, water desalination and treatment will have the resilience to better cope with climate stress. Finally, the United States could be the leader in new financial technologies that mitigate climate's impact — including through peer-to-peer currency exchange, new insurance instruments and climate impact bonds.
Second, the administration can consider the history of prior power competitions. Like the U.S.-USSR Cold War, or the 19th century's "Great Game" between the Russian and British empires in Central Asia, great powers consistently deployed economic, political and social capital abroad in concert with military strength. Today, our competitors are on the move while America is in retreat. China's "Belt and Road Initiative" is developing infrastructure in frontier markets with the aim of creating trade and connectivity favorable to Beijing; Russia has challenged or overtaken U.S. leadership in Syria, aiding dictator Bashar Al Assad and foreclosing U.S. interests in the heart of the Middle East. In Djibouti, America, China, Russia, France and the Gulf States are in a race for ports and military bases in the Horn of Africa. While the rest of the world is preparing for the next round of competition, the Trump administration is seeking to reduce its international aid and projecting near disdain for historic alliances and post-WW II multilateral institutions established in the U.S. image.
Third, the United States has other attractive tools that President Trump could use to blunt climate change. The administration is quick to impose tariffs — but it may make environmental and political sense to impose "green" tariffs on "dirty" producer nations, as a tax to access large, "clean" markets and protect possibly more-expensive clean manufacturing. Further, the United States is likely to remain attractive to global talent and capital; a merit-based immigration system could favor environmental science and technology talent. We should open our doors to leading thinkers, scientists, entrepreneurs and investors in new green markets.
Finally, the U.S. is likely to remain the engine for venture capital and private equity in the start-up green market; investors may increasingly favor social-impact ventures in the climate-change space.
The end of the post-World War II era poses a grave, disruptive challenge to U.S. leadership, power and a prosperous global order. Climate change is an existential risk to humanity. These historical trends are upon us — and grasping the opportunities these risks present may well be the most important policy decisions of the 21st century.
America has a choice: It can lead or retreat.
R. David Harden is managing director of the Georgetown Strategy Group and former Assistant Administrator at USAID’s Bureau for Democracy, Conflict, and Humanitarian Assistance, where he oversaw U.S. assistance to all global crises.