Climate Advocates Are Gambling With Fate

Climate advocates finally have some power—and all the dilemmas that come with it.

This photo taken on November 14, 2020, shows an employee working in the workshop of a lithium battery manufacturing company in Huaibei, eastern China's Anhui province
China sees lithium batteries, manufactured at workshops like this one in eastern China, as a strategic industry. (AFP / Getty)

Over the past few years, climate advocates have gained two atypical allies. For the cosmopolitan progressives who normally dominate environmental policy making, these two new groups are somewhat embarrassing to rub shoulders with, which is why discussion of the two shifts has been rejected or muted. But they signal that a new era has begun in climate politics—one that advocates have long wished for, but also one that they may now rue.

The first group of allies can be found in corporate America, especially in the tech and finance sectors. Big companies began advertising their climate bona fides under the Obama administration, when major tech firms started promising to buy 100 percent renewable electricity, at least in the United States. Those initial attempts, which could fairly be described as “greenwashing,” have since become much more interesting: Google has pioneered buying zero-carbon electricity on a 24/7 basis, and Microsoft has become one of the world’s largest funders of atmospheric carbon removal.

But as the cost of climate disasters—and the scale of President Donald Trump’s inaction on the issue—became apparent, corporate America’s involvement intensified. The country’s largest financial firms now advertise their approach to “climate-aware investing,” and every major U.S. automaker now plans for electric vehicles to make up at least 40 percent of their new car sales by the end of the decade. This change isn’t total—the oil and gas industry, of course, continues to oppose most forms of climate policy—and, even among friendly corporations, it doesn’t dictate their behavior on every issue. But it is widespread and persistent, especially among the major firms that must recruit young, highly educated urbanites as employees.

The second group of allies, drawn to the cause more recently, are the China hawks. Since President Joe Biden took office, climate policy has become linked to anti-China policy and North Atlantic security policy more broadly. Although there have been hints of this for a while—the Defense Department first identified climate change as a “threat multiplier” in 2014—it has burst into new prominence with this White House. You can see this best in the U.S.-European steel deal announced last month. The deal allows the U.S. and the European Union to favor low-carbon steel in trade policy, a major step toward decarbonizing the carbon-intensive industrial sector. But that same deal also shields U.S. and EU steelmakers from having to compete with the highly subsidized, carbon-intensive steel that Chinese manufacturers have been dumping on the global market for at least the past half decade.

You can see this change, too, in the president’s infrastructure legislation. “Because of this law, next year will be the first year in 20 years that American infrastructure investment will grow faster than China’s,” Biden bragged last month while stumping for his infrastructure bill. His signature spending bill, the Build Back Better Act, would subsidize electric-vehicle sales to consumers and encourage domestic EV manufacturing with the happy effect of bringing the U.S. market into rough parity with China.

Uncharacteristically, the evenly divided Senate is riding the same wave as the president. It passed a bipartisan bill (which the House is expected to take up soon) that would increase federal support for batteries and other next-generation energy technologies where China is perceived to have an edge.

In Europe, Annalena Baerbock, the leader of Germany’s Green Party and soon to be the country’s top diplomat, has castigated Beijing in Biden-esque terms while championing a faster transition for the EU away from fossil fuels. Outside of Germany, the EU has unveiled its answer to China’s global infrastructure-investment campaign, and it will prioritize green energy and mass transit, according to the Financial Times.

This change in America’s and Europe’s outlooks has not happened without cause. Beijing, too, seems to see a strategic advantage in China’s EV and next-generation energy industry. President Xi Jinping’s recent reforms to the Chinese economy have favored its EV and renewable-energy firms. And if Congress does pass that bipartisan competitiveness bill, some experts think China’s leadership will retaliate specifically by restricting exports of “strategic inputs for electrical vehicles” to the U.S.

These two new alliances herald the arrival of something truly new in climate politics: how to accommodate climate policy to power.

The new corporate friendliness, for instance, signals that climate advocates are winning. If, as advocates have long claimed, climate technologies are superior—if electric vehicles and mass solar farms and nuclear fusion will bring about a faster, cleaner, more prosperous life for consumers—then market logic dictates that companies should get behind them.

At the same time, CEOs are not a natural fit in the Democratic Party’s uneasy coalition of educated professionals, labor unionists, would-be regulators, and the nonwhite working class. By embracing climate action (a less onerous choice at a moment of historically fat corporate profits) companies may be trying to charm politicians out of other, less welcome kinds of regulation, such as higher taxes, stronger labor rights, or protectionist tariffs. Earlier this year, the Business Roundtable, a lobbying group for CEOs, led an expansive campaign against the Democrats’ Build Back Better Act, even as individual firms in that group, such as Apple, Netflix, and 3M, endorsed its constituent climate policies.

But these pitfalls are straightforward. American progressives have experience negotiating with corporate interests (even if they are not always good at it), and this newfound climate-corporate alliance may be navigable over time.

The new security alliance presents thornier problems.

Since the 1990s, climate policy has remained firmly a question of environmental policy. It was the dessert to the geopolitical entrées of economic development, military might, and national interest. Even at the international level, the United Nations did not name climate change as one of its eight Millennium Development Goals.

That has now shifted. Climate change and the global race to decarbonize have been promoted to the first tier. White House advisers and policy experts seem to conceive of decarbonization policy as being of a piece with economic and security policy—core American interests that require a creative and entrepreneurial approach to furthering.

I first cared about climate change because I worried that it could denude nature, impoverish humanity on a mass scale, and destabilize global society. In other words, I feared that it would fuel a global war. So it is uncomfortable that, under the Biden administration, climate policy has been enlisted for the task of making war between China and the United States imaginable. And do not mistake that this is what’s happening: When the federal government invests in domestic manufacturing, when it preserves steelmaking capacity among its allies, when it tries to improve America’s technological edge, it is helping its democratic citizens, yes, but it is also making the prospect of war possible. It is making more feasible a future in which the two countries sever all economic ties and try to eliminate each other by force. Yet it is also easing the path for decarbonization.

It’s hard to see how to avoid this bargain. Although it may sound like a stretch to say that decarbonizing technologies might be relevant to the military, consider, for instance, the battlefield advantage of having a superior battery installed in a drone tank or a quadcopter. A device might be able to last longer, or go farther, with such technology. But that superior battery will be developed first by clean-energy firms, and it will be catalyzed into existence by green industrial policy. And batteries are not unique here: If climate-relevant technologies are as important, as superior, as advocates claim they are, then improving those technologies surely plays a role in military contests between states. Which means the union of climate policy and security policy has only just begun.

So, as with the corporate embrace of net-zero goals and climate experiments, the new geopolitics of decarbonization arise from climate advocates’ success. Advanced energy technologies are proving their mettle; the world will use more solar panels, wind turbines, geothermal plants, and lithium-ion batteries than it does today. Whether those technologies will be put to a peaceful purpose remains an open question. Depending on your preferred theory of international relations, perhaps strengthening the U.S.’s hand today, as the Biden administration seems dead set on doing, may make an actual conflict less likely, because only a show of force can avert catastrophic violence. But the climate cannot abide the kind of miscalculation that could accompany such a display. And if the global system of nations breaks down, countries will be neither prosperous nor secure enough to devote resources to decarbonization. On a more practical level, the climate cannot survive a nuclear holocaust or fossil-fuel-powered arms race any more than it can endure another 1,000 coal plants. So although geopolitical competition might help accelerate decarbonization today, the kind of war that that competition is ostensibly preparing for must never be fought. Addressing climate change is a great privilege—a privilege of a world at peace.