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Hey, America, we need to stay in the pool
Globalism is unpopular these days, but global leadership and cooperation is the key to surviving together or dying alone. The US has to lead.
Bear with me, friends, because I’m veering a little wild today. I’ve been thinking about globalization, and how the climate crisis offers the US two things:
Incentive and imperative to maintain our standing as the head of the global order, whether it’s ensuring peace and cooperation in rolling out climate solutions or, as the crisis deepens, even as an enforcer of agreed-upon climate actions.
I believe it’s an opportunity for us to build and encourage global solutions in a way that doesn’t leave people behind, here, or around the world.
Let me explain.
I’ve been reading this book, which I believed I’ve mentioned in Bits and Bobs, called The End of the World is Just the Beginning: Mapping the Collapse of Globalization, by Peter Zeihan. This book is in my head worse than Miley Cyrus.
The central thesis is that globalization, as we’ve known it for the past 75 years, is ending. That is so, Zeihan asserts, because America has “lost interest” in maintaining the global order that has been the standard since the Bretton Woods Agreement toward the end of World War II.
(Shortest possible explainer: basically, the agreement set the dollar as reserve currency and the US as enforcer of global peace and trade norms, and that, combined with NATO has meant the greatest expansion of wealth and relative peace in human history.)
Zeihan has been warning since the Trump administration that the US was on the verge of exiting its role as enforcer of what he calls "The Order.”
Now, he says, it’s happening, and the book quite matter-of-factly lays out all of the ways in which that is going to be appalling, terrifying, and lead to the deaths of millions (if not more) through starvation and de-industrialization. And absolutely zero dropshipping.
Are we dumping “The Order?” We’ve scooted that way, yes. Former President Trump touted “America first” in his inaugural speech, openly denigrated NATO and reportedly considered withdrawing from the alliance, closed borders to the extent that he could, and told the UN that globalism was, basically, a cult.
And while President Biden made global relationships a much bigger priority, the combination of COVID, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and an increasingly protectionist electorate have Politico writing headlines like this:
Last month, Biden kicked off an “investing in America” tour, touting all the ways that his signature legislative packages: the American Rescue Act, the CHIPS act, the infrastructure bill, and the Inflation Reduction Act, are prioritizing American manufacturing. In fact, the various green energy subsidies contained in all or most of these bills so heavily favor American-made solutions that they’ve actually totally infuriated the Europeans (especially the French).
Now. Globalization is a tricky topic. If you read Zeihan’s book and believe the utterly devastating scenarios he lays out, you’ll find yourself strongly in the “yea” camp.
And also, if you’ve spent any time in the middle of the country, or driving around upstate New York, or any of the manufacturing centers of America that were completely hollowed out when those jobs went overseas, you can really understand why nationalism resonates so hard. Globalization may lift all boats, but in the short term, some boats sink. And we let them sink.
So, here I should probably offer some humble acknowledgment that geopolitics is not my forte. And yet, here we go.
Hey, America? We need to stay in the pool.
The US still does boast the world’s strongest economy, the reserve currency, the most powerful military, and is still one of the world’s leaders in innovation, despite some faltering on the latter front. We are also the biggest emitter of planet-warming greenhouse gases in history.
So this is our chance to both atone, repair, and also sell or distribute climate technologies throughout the world.
I’m ok that our massive green energy subsidies have so irritated the Europeans that they’ve responded with their own Green Deal Industrial Plan. Sometimes a little competition is what it takes to get you to jump into the cold, cold pool. But in the long run, we have to cooperate.
From the climate capitalism perspective, we have to fund innovation in the US. And rich countries and rich people have to buy those innovations in order to drive down costs for everyone else. And I would hate for us to cut off any avenues to distribute those innovations! After all, my mercenary viewpoint as a climate investor is climate solutions are such a great business opportunity because they have a total addressable market of the entire planet.
I hear you saying globalization means cargo ships emitting gigatons of GHGs just so we can have our Temu orders. I also know that deindustrialization is the actual rallying cry for lots of environmentalists—the only real way to save species and actually stop fossil fuel emissions.
But first: when we invent the transport technologies of the future, we’ll need everyone to buy them, and a global market is a really good incentive. (See above re: mercenary.) And also, Zeihan has me covered on the second point:
“In a post-globalized world, the primary fuel most countries can source locally is coal. And not just any coal, but low-caloric, low-temperature burning, high contaminant soft or brown coal that generates far more carbon emissions than burning … almost anything else. We are completely capable as a species of devolving into a fractured, dark, poor, hungry world while still increasing greenhouse gas emissions.”
(Zeihan and I share a deep commitment to emphasis through italics.)
That can’t happen.
From a less mercenary and more justice-minded perspective, there are some innovations and infrastructure we will need to distribute for free or at an incredible discount to the parts of the world that can’t afford it. Almost a billion people don’t have electricity, globally, and if they all come online with diesel or coal then, as my friend Danny Kennedy likes to say, “we cook.”
If the US checks out of our job as most powerful leader/organizer/enforcer on the planet, we further doom countries that played very little role in the last 100 years of warming at all. That’s a moral imperative, full stop.
Call in the cavalry
In 2021, all 18 US intelligence agencies jointly released a report called the National Intelligence Estimate, stating unequivocally that there are multiple threats to national security resulting from global warming, starting now and intensifying in the 2030s and 2040s—aka, not a 100-years-away problem. To summarize quickly: Direct impacts include sea level rise and sinking military bases, which is a real worry for the military. Indirect impacts?
Scarcity and civil disorder as a result
Crop shortages and destruction
Radicalization and eco-terrorism
US military spending in 2022 was $877 billion (and to be clear, only 2.3 percent of that was spent on the war in Ukraine). Some $264 billion of that was spent on “procurement and research and development.” We have the money. (In fact, I’ve spoken with several startups that have found an unexpected buyer in the Department of Defense.) And the DOD has publicly announced a commitment to elevating the climate crisis to a national security priority.
Ok, so now imagine if we turned our unparalleled fighting force into a fighting-the-climate-crisis force?
Because, and this is going to be a little uncomfortable, I know. But one of the things that comes up every time there’s a new climate treaty is this question of “enforcement.” Currently, there is none. There are no economic or political or, obviously, military consequences for ignoring your climate pledges and digging new oil wells (ahem, US), belching tons of unreported methane into the atmosphere (ahem, Russia), or approving massive amounts of coal emissions (ahem, China), or literally all the damage that’s happening in and because of the Middle East’s entire economy.
But trust me when I tell you that when there are water wars and climate migration eruptions and scarcities and supply chain disruptions for our future stillsuits, enforcement will become a thing. And it might even get military. As a friend recently mused at lunch, “Imagine if Seal Team 6 was actually in charge of tracking down climate terrorists.”1
What if climate migration is a labor story?
And glancingly, because I’m not trying to write a rebuttal to Zeihan’s entire book, but there’s also a lot in there about demographic collapse and population decline, particularly in China. We all have a tendency to talk about climate migration as a nightmare scenario that will have nations closing borders, fighting wars, stranding innocents in refugee camps. I wish I thought that wouldn’t happen, but what if we could at least imagine a different outcome?
Demographic collapse is a problem because countries don’t have enough buyers and enough workers for the goods their societies need. Inflation in the US is a stubborn problem partly because we don’t have enough labor.
You know what would help? Re-shuffling the population deck. Aka, migration. We can plan for the fact that at least a billion people are going to be on the move from uninhabitable regions of the planet, and we can create a global logistics infrastructure so that no one country is overwhelmed by more people than it can handle, and we can make sure that climate migrants can be resettled humanely and safely in lands of both opportunity and need.
You know what that will take? Probably some big, rich spider at the center of the web who can help enforce good treatment and who already happens to have military bases all over the world that could be some kind of staging grounds or switching statements so that we don’t torture and impoverish and kill and reject people who have done nothing wrong except geography.
We can do this well. We can save lives and economies and infrastructure. But to do it, we have to recognize that a global problem will need a global leader. This is not the time for America to retreat into protectionism and self-interest. We’d only be kidding ourselves, anyway. The climate comes for us all.