Before a United States-owned oil well drilled into what no one yet knew was the largest single source of petroleum on the planet on March 3, 1938, Saudi Arabia was a sparsely populated country of desert nomads. The nation’s largest source of revenue was from Islamic pilgrims. To the average person outside of the muslim world, Saudi Arabia was an easy overlooked patch of sand associated with little more than Arabian Nights. Just 12 years after that first discovery, on the eve of the Cold War, Saudi Arabia’s international status had been so radically transformed that U.S. President Harry Truman was pleading allegiance to the Saudi King. “No threat to your Kingdom,” the president wrote to King Ibn Saud, “could occur which would not be a matter of immediate concern to the United States.” We live in a world shaped, mapped, and powered by oil. How many of the world’s alliances, conflicts, invasions, and eras of prosperity and poverty can be traced back to oil or lack thereof? “In the modern era, no other commodity has played such a pivotal role in driving political and economic turmoil, and there is every reason to expect this to continue,” read a Brookings Institution study. The world’s geopolitical map has been drawn and redrawn by oil over the last century. After the world began to turn around the Gulf States the balance was upset and recalibrated by the United States’ shale revolution which flooded the market with cheap crude which loosened the Middle East’s chokehold on the global energy industry seemingly overnight. And now the geopolitical power of the shale revolution, too, is fading as the flood of cheap crude out of the Permian Basin slows and peak oil demand is suddenly upon us.
What will the world look like when oil is no longer a leading force in global geopolitics? Some of the world’s leading research organizations, universities, and even some countries are hard at work trying to answer just that question. The Rand Corporation, which has been designing war games alongside the Pentagon for nearly 70 years, is now aiming its arsenal of brainiacs toward the newest pressing geopolitical question: what will the green energy transition do to the world?
Now that China, the world’s biggest greenhouse gas emitter (by a huge margin) is on board with global decarbonization targets, the European Union is producing more clean energy than carbon-based energy, and the United States has elected a president who features climate change and clean energy initiatives as a focal point of his platform, it’s not a question of if, but when, oil will become a thing of the past and we have a new geopolitical sheriff in town.
Gaming out what this will mean for peace and conflict is a tricky challenge. On one hand, clean energy will be a democratizing resource which allows countries to produce their own energy and become energy secure and sovereign regardless of what natural resources they sit on top of. “After all, a latter-day Saddam Hussein would have little reason to invade Kuwait to seize its solar parks, as he did in 1990 for its oil wells, because there would no longer be anything special about Kuwait’s patch of desert,” points out Bloomberg Green. “It would be cheaper to buy panels to put on his own.”
On the other hand, many countries are sure to be left behind in the new green world order. New struggles, inequities, and competitions will arise over access to technology, infrastructure, finance, and a new set of world-building raw materials. In the near future, rare earth metals–needed to construct clean energy technologies such as photovoltaic solar panels and electric vehicle batteries–will be the new oil. As of now, China controls over 90 percent of some of these essential ingredients and has shown that it’s more than willing to wield that power for political gain and intimidation.
What’s more, if the bottom falls out of the oil markets before the world’s petro-states can diversify their economies, economic turmoil and conflict are sure to ensue, opening up power vacuums and clearing the way for violent radicalism to flourish. “Beyond Petrostates: The burning need to cut oil dependence in the energy transition,” a new study by U.K.-based think tank Carbon Tracker found that 40 fossil-fuel dependent nations around the world will lose more than half of their oil and gas revenues if we meet global climate targets, which in turn “could destabilize governments and leave the likes of Nigeria or Iraq unable to afford security to deal with threats from terrorist organizations such as Boko Haram and Islamic State.”
In order for a successful and peaceful green transition, richer countries will have to plug these financial holes, concluded a February report by the European Council on Foreign Relations. “It’s hard to see a smooth, rapid energy transition taking place in the current competitive and nationalistic environment,” said Bloomberg. Making countries more energy-independent will not necessarily create the conditions necessary to lessen that competitive and nationalistic environment. The kind of global trade that oil encourages makes countries more interdependent which can actually dampen appetites for conflict.
What is clear is that the green energy transition will require cooperation on a global scale the likes of which we’ve never seen. Climate change could be the great uniter if the global community is able to set aside political and geopolitical squabbles in the interest of combatting this common enemy. If not, global warming will likely be accompanied by great and accelerating global conflict.