Anatol Lieven’s Climate Change and the Nation State criticises national security elites for neglecting the ultimate threat of climate disaster. He tells Roderick Kefferpütz why human rights abuses in China and Russia, the retreat of liberal democracy in the world, and rising geopolitical tensions are nothing compared to what would await us with runaway climate change. Security today starts with flood defences and wind turbines, not aircraft carriers and submarines.

Roderick Kefferpüts: You started out as a journalist in Afghanistan before going on to build a long-standing career in global affairs, developing a reputation as a geopolitical super-realist. Now you have written a book on climate change. What happened?

Anatol Lieven: I’ve simply been convinced by the evidence that climate change is the greatest threat facing both humanity in general, and our Western states and societies in particular. Realists are supposed to pride themselves on recognising the facts, and the fact is that the threat of climate change vastly exceeds the danger of great power competition from China and Russia.

It isn’t Russia that is going to destroy western Europe and civilisation over the next century, nor China. It’s climate change. I have become increasingly convinced that the concerns of our security establishments are completely misplaced. We talk about terrorism, new weapons systems, killer robots, and the rise of China, but not about the ultimate threat: climate change.

Why do you think that is?

Because of enormous, institutionalised interests: the military-industrial complex, the huge bureaucracy within the military and associated think tanks, and, most of all, our old-fashioned, traditional mindsets. We need to get away from our classic security beliefs and consider the real threats to our societies in the 21st century, not the 20th-century ones that we are so accustomed to. The residual military and security elites are still living in a mixture of the run-up to the First World War and the Cold War. We need to change their minds.

Moving Targets: Geopolitics in a Warming World
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How is climate change a security issue?

In the grand scheme of things, if we fail to limit climate change quickly and adequately, we will face an apocalyptic threat to human civilisation. If we fail to limit our carbon emissions, we risk hitting tipping points that will get us into feedback loops, such as a massive methane release caused by the Arctic permafrost melting. We could be talking about 3- to 4-degree warming that could turn into 5 degrees. If that happens, agriculture will collapse all over the world. We will be back to temperatures from long before human beings even existed. Some humans will survive, but society will not.

In the short term, countries in south Asia, west Africa, and central America are facing massive climate impacts. The intolerable stress could generate vast flows of forced migration. And we know how migration has been critical to the radicalisation on the right in Europe and North America. So our democratic political systems will come under disastrous strain before any direct catastrophic physical effect of climate change impacts the West. Our democracies will not collapse because of Chinese and Russian authoritarianism. The Russians won’t invade Paris. No – the threat is that the French people will elect Marine Le Pen or Eric Zemmour entirely of their own volition.

You argue that “nationalism is perhaps the only force that can overcome climate change”. This is in stark contrast to the “think global, act local” cooperative approach that many Greens believe in. Why is nationalism the answer?

Of course we need international cooperation. But international organisations, such as the United Nations and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, cannot do anything by themselves. States are the only entities that have executive power, as the pandemic has demonstrated. As well as being disastrous in terms of ending the pandemic, the lack of cooperation on Covid-19 is morally wrong. Richer countries are sitting on stocks of vaccines that they will not share with poorer countries. Nevertheless, there are things that only states can do – closing borders, imposing lockdowns, and vaccinating people. The UN cannot do that.

If states must act on climate change, then the question becomes: how do we motivate elites to do so? We must mobilise electorates to support radical action, and that will require a willingness to make sacrifices. Climate action isn’t just about targeting a few international corporations. People will have to fly less and drive less; the prices of food and electricity will rise. Understandably, it is extremely difficult to get people to accept such sacrifices. So then the question becomes: how do you motivate people? Nationalism, as in protecting your country, could be the answer.

International organisations, such as the United Nations, cannot do anything by themselves. States are the only entities that have executive power, as the pandemic has demonstrated.

It sounds like you are looking at a kind of wartime mobilisation, where everyone works together for a common goal. Our societies are so diverse, in terms of demography as well as interests. Is it even possible for nationalism to unite people around the climate issue?

It may not be. But we have to try. Gramsci called it the pessimism of the intellect and optimism of the will. It is our duty to come up with solutions. The Green New Deal is a very strong magnet that can pull people together. In the 1920s and ’30s, the United States was admittedly a more industrial and traditional society than today, but it was already extremely diverse. Roosevelt’s New Deal still managed to pull together a huge majority of Americans behind an economic and social programme. It meant, among other things, that American democracy survived. America did not follow other European states down the road to authoritarianism. It’s why the Green New Deal is an immensely powerful and positive image.

Can Europe be the scale for a collective project around climate change? Security is traditionally the preserve of the nation. However, EU countries increasingly turn to Brussels for support and protection, whether it’s for vaccines, climate action, or border control.

The EU can certainly play a very important role in coordinating policies and setting standards. But when it comes to asking people for sacrifices, there are limits to what the EU can do. The years after the financial crash of 2008 demonstrated the severe limits to how far populations in much of northern Europe were prepared to go in helping Greece and other southern neighbours. The tensions between different EU members over their readiness to receive migrants can also be deep. Unfortunately, the EU has not achieved the deep popular legitimacy that makes common solidarity and sacrifices possible.

The Greens have supported the Green New Deal for years, but your book criticises them as “counter-elites” – a kind of old-fashioned Green establishment that stands in the way of climate action. What do you mean by that?

I would certainly not say that Green movements as a whole have hindered climate action. On the contrary, they have played an absolutely vital role in spreading public awareness about climate change and the need to act. However, there are problems with certain aspects of certain Green movements. Some traditional Greens – though not Annalena Baerbock and the German Greens today – combine the struggle to act on climate change with the desire to abolish capitalism. It’s basically the old Marxist hard left that has taken on the climate cause. Now it may well be that capitalism cannot reform itself fast enough to meet the challenge of climate change. But if that’s the case, then the war is lost. Because stopping climate change just won’t happen if you abolish capitalism. There is no evidence that a radical, socialist revolutionary agenda would succeed in sufficient time. The idea that if we bring our existing system down in ruins, it will lead to some wonderful, new, progressive utopia is a fantasy. It is far more likely that climate change will have become so bad that states will simply collectivise everything. However, it is just as likely to be fascist collectivisation as socialist; an agenda of human rights and pluralism won’t be part of it.

My book is dedicated to the Green New Deal idea. It is about saving capitalism from itself, because capitalism won’t do it automatically. Left to itself, it will not reform. It never has. It needs leadership from political forces.

Left to itself, Capitalism will not reform. It never has.

You mention the difficulties of getting Western elites on board with fighting climate change. But what about elites in fossil fuel producing countries such as Russia and Saudi Arabia?

Frankly, Saudi Arabia is hopeless. There’s no point in even trying. For Russia, migration is a key argument. Several years ago, I was speaking to the deputy governor of a Siberian province. He claimed that climate change would be good for Siberia; they would grow wonderful oranges and grain. I said to him, “Sir, you do realise that you will be sharing these wonderful crops with tens of millions of climate refugees from countries south of you as desertification takes over central Asia and the Middle East goes to hell?” His jaw dropped. He looked at me and finally said, “I never thought of that.”

Russia is a great Eurasian state with land borders; it will not be able to isolate itself from the collapse of countries to its south. There will also be other effects, such as colossal forest fires in Siberia, and heatwaves. The transition of agriculture from south to north will also not be a smooth process. There is the obvious risk that agriculture in the south will collapse long before the north can replace it. And of course, if you cut down the Siberian forests to make way for grain and orange plantations, you will produce another feedback loop and risk the 5- or 6-degree warming we spoke of earlier.

You have argued throughout that climate change is the primary security issue that we face, and that other geopolitical differences should be put aside. But what does this really mean? Doesn’t climate change cut across and complicate geopolitics rather than superseding it?

It complicates it. But the fact remains that international tensions can be reduced without destroying the existing world order. If nothing is done quickly enough to limit climate change, then the world as we know it will end. One has to prioritise. If climate change escapes our control, you will not have liberal democracy in Europe or anywhere else 100 years from now. All our lecturing of the rest of the world on human rights and democracy will be out of the window.

If you follow that logic, you quickly get to a dangerous point where the ends justify the means, and you sacrifice liberal democracy and human rights for the greater climate good.

No, not at all. On the contrary, my argument is in part about what we need to do to preserve liberal democracy in the West, just as Roosevelt’s original New Deal preserved it in the United States in the 1930s. We in the West have multiple responsibilities, but first and foremost come those to our own societies and governments. As a German citizen, you have a responsibility to reduce Germany’s carbon emissions. By the same token, you have a responsibility to preserve liberal democracy in Germany. But we do not have the same responsibility for what happens in China or Russia or anywhere else. Nobody has given us that responsibility. When we have tried, for example through direct intervention, we have failed miserably. Look at Libya: an intervention in the name of human rights led to unending civil war, the spread of Islamist extremism, and state collapse in large parts of western Africa, with dangerous implications for European stability.

My argument for a Green New Deal is about the defence of democracy in the West. For other societies, we have to adjust our priorities. What’s happening in Xinjiang is bad. But if China collapsed as a state due to climate change down the line, then you would see something much more like the era of the warlords from 1911 to the 1930s. Then you are talking about appalling suffering and dreadful human rights abuses, not by the Chinese state but by endless local tyrannies and bandit kingdoms. I do not support the existing Chinese or Russian governments, but change is something that has to come from within.

If climate change escapes our control, you will not have liberal democracy in Europe or anywhere else.

But you can act on climate change and put pressure on China about Xinjiang without immediately putting China on a course of climate failure leading to state breakdown and tremendous suffering. It doesn’t have to be one or the other.

I’m afraid that to an extent it does. Putting pressure on China over Xinjiang fits into the wider US strategy of maintaining unilateral US global hegemony by creating alliances against China. US support for “democracy” in China is seen by many Chinese – in part correctly – as part of a strategy to remove China as a rival, irrespective of the cost to ordinary Chinese citizens.

Stoking hostility between the West and China naturally makes cooperation on climate change far more difficult. It encourages both the Chinese and the Americans and their allies to pour money into armaments that they should instead be spending on developing alternative energy sources and energy conservation measures. Look at Australia’s nuclear submarine deal. One hundred years from now, if Australian agriculture and the Australian economy have collapsed due to climate change driven partly by Australian coal, will future Australians think that was money well spent?

Much of the military posturing that’s happen-ing is a non-issue. A hundred years from now, these Chinese-occupied reefs and sandbanks in the South China Sea will be underwater. It is insane. The Chinese military is building bases in places that have no long-term physical future.

Would you argue for a recalibration of military spending?

Absolutely. This is about money and how we are spending it. The American annual military budget is about 10 times larger than the amount of money that the Biden administration will likely be given by Congress to spend on combating climate change. It is a misapplication of resources. The average American pays 2000 dollars a year in taxes for military spending. Much of it is irrelevant to the safety of American citizens and a colossal amount is simply wasted or stolen.

Should civil protection and even infrastructure for climate mitigation and adaptation become much more central to defence priorities?

As this 2021’s history of heatwaves, forest fires, and floods shows, it is now too late to prevent some very bad consequences of climate change. Our task is to prevent the bad from becoming the catastrophic. First, this means rapidly reducing our greenhouse gas emissions. But undoubtedly, many countries will have to strengthen their flood defences and precautions against wildfires. The military is already heavily involved in disaster relief operations; greater involvement in disaster prevention would also be a very good idea. The creation of flood defences has always been a key role of the US Army Corps of Engineers.

Whether in future this will also have to involve limited geoengineering efforts is impossible to say at present. I very much hope not, given the obvious risks involved. However, if our efforts to eliminate carbon emissions in time fail – and tragically, there are all too many indications that they will – we must remain open to the idea of geoengineering in the Arctic as a last resort. This is another reason why international cooperation between the great powers is so important. Geoengineering will always be risky, but competitive and rival geoengineering would risk disaster.

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