US President Joe Biden says he will put fighting climate change at the center of his foreign policy. Image: Facebook

This is Part 2 of the series Watch Out! Biden wants to save the planet. Click to read Part 1.

In his January 27 “Executive Order on Tackling the Climate Crisis at Home and Abroad,” US President Joseph Biden declares that his administration aims at “putting the climate crisis at the center of United States foreign policy and National Security.”

Taken literally, this statement – as I think any sober observer of today’s situation in the US and internationally will agree – is a piece of insanity. Joe, please tell us you don’t mean it.

Whatever one might believe about an oncoming climate apocalypse, the urgent domestic and international problems the Biden administration will face in the immediate months ahead have little or nothing to do with the temperature of the Earth’s atmosphere. They include the likelihood of crises that might decide between war and peace on a short time-horizon.

There may be a method in the madness, however. By implication, Biden’s executive orders make the release of CO2 in any corner of the world into a US national security issue. The forthcoming National Intelligence Estimate would provide the basis for using the resources of the US intelligence community and national security apparatus to enforce administration climate policies on a global scale.

That has ominous implications. The construction of a new highway, pipeline, factory or power plant in a developing country, which might lead to increased CO2 emissions, could in principle be classified as a threat to US national security.

Depending on the case, the US administration would thereby feel justified or even compelled to stop such projects. Green imperialism thus becomes a duty of the US government. One should consider the magnitude of the interventions and conflicts which may result.

To borrow an expression from former president Barack Obama, the US has a variety of “tools” at its disposal to enforce its climate goals on the world. Biden already speaks of the use of carbon tariffs, fees or quotas on carbon-intensive goods from countries that are “failing to meet their climate and environmental obligations.”

Climate would thus provide the Biden administration with an argument to pursue Donald Trump’s protectionist aims with other means. As Biden put it during his campaign: “Countries that fail to meet their climate responsibilities won’t be allowed to erode global progress with cheap, carbon-dirty goods.” A hard line against “carbon-dirty goods” would thus be a way to “protect American jobs.” 

Smoke is discharged from chimneys at a coal-fired power plant in Changchun city om northeast China’s Jilin province, December 24, 2018. Photo: AFP

But there is much more in the toolbox. Climate goals provide ample justification for strong interventions into the domestic politics of nations, including support for selected parties, social movements and NGOs.

Naturally, everything will be done with 100% political correctness. Moreover, Biden evidently regards it as his prerogative, in the name of saving the planet, to dictate to other nations which projects they may or may not finance and build.

The executive order directs the departmental secretaries at State, Treasury and Energy as well as leaders of other government agencies, in consultation with the assistant to the president for national security affairs, “to identify steps through which the United States can promote ending international financing of carbon-intensive fossil fuel-based energy.”

Biden has made it clear that China is the number one target of his climate-leveraged foreign policy. China has over 250 gigawatts (GW) of coal-fired power now in development, with 97 GW already under construction. The 250 GW total is roughly equivalent to the entire coal power capacity of the US, which Biden has pledged to shut down.

During the electoral campaign, Biden declared: “I will lead a diplomatic initiative to get every nation to go beyond their initial commitment” to reducing CO2 emissions. “This is especially true for China, by far the world’s largest emitter of carbon. We will not only hold their leaders accountable for reducing carbon output at home, in their country but make sure they stop financing billions of dollars of dirty fossil fuel projects all across Asia.”  

It is true that many of the projects sponsored by China in the context of its Belt and Road Initiative involve the construction of fossil fuel power plants and fossil fuel infrastructure.

Chinese banks are presently the main source of financing for coal power plants worldwide, with Chinese financing and Chinese companies involved in at least 240 coal projects, including in Vietnam, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Kenya, Ghana, Malawi, Zimbabwe, Egypt, Tanzania, and Zambia.

Chinese and Pakistani technicians at the Chinese-financed Qasim Power Plant near Karachi. Image: Facebook

The simple fact is that developing countries need energy and they are expanding their fossil fuel infrastructure accordingly. This can be seen clearly from the construction of oil and gas pipelines.

India has over 21,000 kilometers of pipelines in planning or construction, African countries have over 33,000 kilometers and Latin America over 13,000 kilometers. The pipelines now in pre-construction or under construction in the Asia-Pacific region (including China) have a total length equal to twice the equator of the Earth.  

Will the US under Biden attempt to stop these projects in the name of saving the climate? 

Note that pipeline projects have long played a role in tensions between the US and Russia (and earlier the Soviet Union).  Most prominent, of course, is the North Stream 2 project linking Russia and Germany, which Trump and now Biden have pledged to stop.

But there is more. Russia would be one of the biggest losers from CO2 reductions by its oil and gas customers. Fossil fuels make up 60% of Russia’s export earnings and about 30% of its GDP.

An oil pump-jack at the Abino-Ukrainian oil and gas field in the Krasnodar region, Russia. Vitaly Timkiv / Sputnik

Taking on the role of a climate policy “enforcer” will bring the Biden administration into conflict with the interests of many countries.

Nearly all Middle East nations live on exports of oil. Among the other countries that depend on fossil fuels for more than 50% of their export earnings are Algeria, Angola, Azerbaijan, Brunei, Columbia, Republic of the Congo, Gabon, Nigeria, Sudan, Turkmenistan and Venezuela.

Scores of other developing countries earn significant amounts from fossil fuel exports, and many have fossil fuel reserves that are counted on as part of their national wealth. The International Monetary Fund report “Unburnable Wealth of Nations” explores this issue.

More broadly, will the Biden administration effectively attempt to force the world’s nations to write off trillions of dollars of still-functioning, non-depreciated fossil fuel infrastructure, and at the same time pay for a whole new infrastructure?

Needless to say, there are also military implications. What about Russian activities in the Arctic region, in which oil and gas play a major role? 

Servicemen of a separate motor rifle brigade of Russia’s Northern Fleet attend tactical training drills last month for an Arctic expedition near the village of Pechenga, in the Murmansk region, Russia. Photo: AFP / Pavel Lvov / Sputnik

What about the immense oil and gas deposits in the areas claimed by China in the South China Sea?

What if Russia or China or other nations refuse to terminate activities that “threaten the global climate”?  

Will “saving the planet” become a new source of military conflicts, as oil and gas have so frequently been in the past?

Jonathan Tennenbaum received his PhD in mathematics from the University of California in 1973 at age 22. Also a physicist, linguist and pianist, he is a former editor of FUSION magazine. He lives in Berlin and travels frequently to Asia and elsewhere, consulting on economics, science and technology.