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Global Leadership is Essential to Combat the Climate Crisis
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Global Leadership is Essential to Combat the Climate Crisis

flooding, storm surge, sea level rise


As wildfires worsen with each succeeding summer, ocean storms intensify, croplands dry up, and the seas rise, climate change will, by mid-century, uproot hundreds of millions of the world’s poor from their precarious perches along seashores, flood plains, and desert fringes. 

We should not forget that just 2 million refugees flocked to the US and EU borders between 2016-2018, triggering a major eruption of divisive populism. So let’s begin thinking about the political upheaval to come, particularly its impact on current world order, when global warming generates some 200 million refugees by mid-century. 

After a decade of heated debate, the current consensus among policy makers in the Boston–Washington corridor of power is that US global power is fading, but its liberal world order of international organizations governed by the rule of law will almost certainly survive. 

This confident assumption is based on a limited understanding of the nature and historical conditions for their rise or fall. 

The current Washington consensus and other world orders are deeply rooted global systems. This was demonstrated by the United Nations’ recent climate conference. This conference brought together hundreds of world leaders to Glasgow to seek solutions that could slow climate change. It takes an extraordinary event or even a disaster to remove such a deeply embedded global system. 

Looking back at 700 years of world history from the Black Death in 1350 to the coming climate crisis in 2050, new world order seem to emerge when a cataclysm (whether mass death or a maelstrom for destruction) coincides with a sweeping political transformation. 

Around 90 empires have been built and destroyed since the advent of exploration in the 15th century. But there have been only three major world orders — the Iberian age (1494–1805), the British imperial era (1815–1914), and the Washington world system (1944–circa 2020). 

By the middle of the 21st century, if not before, global warming has the potential to equal if not surpass past catastrophes, creating conditions for the eclipse of Washington’s liberal world order — which has been marked by international organizations and the rule of law — and the rise of Beijing’s decidedly illiberal global system. 

While environmental scientists have done an admirable task of charting the likely course and severity of climate change over the 21st century for the future, their counterparts in social sciences such as historians, political scientists, and political scientists have shied away form making similar predictions about the political consequences. 

So let’s make a start at correcting that oversight.

Alfred W. McCoy — Harrington Professor of History, University of Wisconsin-Madison — wrote the above comments for WhoWhatWhyTo introduce the following excerpt from his novel, To Govern the Globe: World Orders & Catastrophic Change(Haymarket Books), out November 16.   

Global Presence of the USA under Pressure

In the United States, the impact of climate change is a key factor — along with economic pressures and demographic change — that will likely force a reduction or even a retreat from its worldwide military commitments. 

A few key trends, taken together, indicate the potential role of an environmental crisis in accelerating the transition to a new global order. First and fundamentally, America’s share of the gross world product has declined steadily, from 50 percent in 1950 to a projected 15 percent by 2024. However, the defense budget has moved in a opposite direction. It has risen 150 percent from $274 Billion in 2000 to $720 Billion in 2019, with plans to increase to $747 Billion by 2024. (1)

Complicating Washington’s ability to sustain the high costs of its global military presence, its own 2018 National Climate Assessment predicted the country will face multiple consequences of climate change by 2050, if not before — including sustained drought, proliferating wildfires, coastal storm surges, far more intense hurricanes, damaged infrastructure, and declining harvests — all of which it is already experiencing to some degree. 

The combined impact of “rising temperatures, extreme heat, drought, wildfire on rangelands, and heavy downpours” will cut US agricultural production back to the level of the 1980s. Indicating the lack of preparation for such cascading changes, the report warned, “The potential need for millions of people and billions of dollars of coastal infrastructure to be relocated in the future creates challenging legal, financial, and equity issues that have not yet been addressed.” 

A 2020 government report stated that 40% of the US population lives near coastal areas, making them vulnerable to sea level rising, which has been rapid. The sea level will rise by at least twelve inches by 2100 from 2000. However, if carbon emissions are not controlled, they could rise as high as 8.2 feet. (2)

Confronted by an ever-widening gap between rising military budgets and declining fiscal resources, Washington will likely have to reduce expensive overseas deployments and turn increasingly to a cost-effective covert triad for national defense — cyberwarfare, special operations forces, and satellite surveillance. 

flooding, storm surge, sea level rise

As sea levels rise, flooding is becoming more common in low-lying areas. This makes infrastructure and homes vulnerable to flooding. Photo credit: US. Global Change Research Program

As its share of the world economy declines, Washington’s fiscal and political capacity to maintain its troop commitments to NATO is already fading. At the other end of Eurasia, Beijing’s expanding economy will draw longtime US allies into China’s orbit, weakening their support for American bases and joint military operations. China’s growing dominance will eventually make the costs of US overseas garrisons prohibitive, and Washington will likely retreat to some version of hemispheric hegemony. 

Two social forces working together will likely reduce the US’s ability to carry out overseas military missions, adding to the pressure for a global retreat. The need for domestic troop deployments will be most urgent due to the increasing frequency of natural disasters caused by global warming. “Climate change is an urgent and growing threat to our national security,” the Pentagon told Congress in 2015, “contributing to increased natural disasters, refugee flows, and conflicts over basic resources such as food and water.” Already, there have been major deployments for hurricane relief, and the need will only grow as disasters increase in scale and frequency with each passing decade. (3) 

America faces increasing social costs to support an aging society. By 2034, the United States will reach what the Census Bureau calls “a new milestone,” when people over age 65 (77 million) will outnumber children under 18 (76.5 million). Those older Americans will generate “greater demands for healthcare, in-home caregiving and assisted living facilities” that will likely divert fiscal resources from defense to social services. The Congressional Budget Office predicts that federal spending for people over 65 (Social Security and Medicare) will rise steadily from 20 to 50 percent of the federal budget by 2049, while the labor force will grow at a slower rate than in decades past. (5) As senior citizens age, the budget for overseas bases and military intervention will likely be cut significantly. From this synergy of domestic and foreign pressures, Washington’s global presence will probably start to fade within a decade. 

To compound these internal problems, an increasing number of climate change refugees from Mexico or Central America who are crossing the southern border may contribute to an increase in populist nationalism in the United States. While the political consequences of anti-immigrant xenophobia are unpredictable, they could lead to sealed borders, a less welcoming society, and Washington’s further retreat from international leadership. (6) As tensions around climate change refugees rise both on the Atlantic and after 2030, the United Nations could be paralyzed due to a great-power deadlock at the Security Council as well rising recriminations about the role of its high commissioner for refugees. 

As China pushes its maritime frontier farther into the Pacific, engulfing and threatening Taiwan, Washington may well be faced with a difficult choice — to either abandon an old ally, or fight a war it might lose.

Pummeled by these and similar crises from other climate change flashpoints such as Bangladesh, East Africa, and Southeast Asia, the international cooperation that lay at the heart of Washington’s world order for the previous 80 years would come under severe pressure amid faultfinding and reprisals. 

The Chinese global system’s hypernationalism will likely be more attractive in a world that is suffering from global warming and millions of migrants crossing borders. As the international cooperation that was once the hallmark of the current world system recedes, Beijing’s transnational system marked by transactional diplomacy could slowly achieve something akin to global hegemony. 

In the earlier transition into the Iberian era, the cataclysm brought about by the Black Death merged with European conquests in Asia or the Americas to create a new order. The British imperial age was created by the combination of the industrial revolution with the cataclysm wrought by the Napoleonic Wars. In a possible reprise of such a process, the geopolitical impact of China’s growing economic dominance over Eurasia, catalyzed by the mounting disruption of climate change, could gain sufficient force to supersede Washington’s world order with something new. 

Washington’s Eclipse, Beijing’s Ascent 

When will this convergence in geopolitics and climate cataclysm result in such a significant change? Beijing plans to complete its technological transformation and much of its trans-Eurasian infrastructure before 2025. That projected date complements a prediction by the US National Intelligence Council that “China alone will probably have the largest economy, surpassing that of the United States a few years before 2030.” 

The accounting firm PricewaterhouseCoopers projected that by 2030 China’s GDP would grow to $36 trillion — over 40 percent larger than America’s of $25 trillion. (7) Since Beijing’s and Washington’s defense budgets represent 2 and 3 percent of their respective economic outputs, China’s military, already the world’s second largest, should be comparable or even more powerful than America’s around 2030, leaving Washington militarily dominant only in the Western Hemisphere. In late 2019, The New York Times reported that “in 18 of the last 18 Pentagon war games involving China in the Taiwan Strait, the US lost.” 

China, Taiwan, annex

One notional concept of an attempt by China to annex Taiwan by force assumes that Chinese forces would prioritize leaving the large economic centers largely intact by avoiding urban warfare but would employ instead massive ground fires and aerial attacks on the heavily defended western shoreline of Taiwan to destroy the bulk of Taiwanese forces while directing the invasion’s main effort at securing lodgments on the relatively lightly defended eastern and southern coast lines. Photo credit: US Army

Those outcomes may explain how Beijing’s growing strength in the South China Sea could become the first step in Washington’s retreat from the Pacific littoral. As China pushes its maritime frontier farther into the Pacific, engulfing and threatening Taiwan, Washington may well be faced with a difficult choice — to either abandon an old ally, or fight a war it might lose. (8) In sum, climate change pressures on the current international system will likely converge with China’s expanding economic and military power around 2030 to catalyze the transition to a new hegemon and a new world order cast in its image. If so, the impact on the three intertwined issues that have long been the hallmark of global governance — national sovereignty, human rights, and energy — will be profound. 

Compared to the way the unrivaled US military dominated the globe for the past 80 years, China’s hegemony will likely be more diffuse and less direct. China’s deep commitment to defense of its frontiers will likely lead Beijing to concentrate its military forces closer home, pushing the US Navy toward Hawaii. Furthermore, the Chinese state is run largely by Communist mandarins who are unaccustomed and dismissive of international legalistic negotiations. It is likely to limit its global leadership role to bilateral economic exchanges with specific countries or regional blocs. 

All this means that the Chinese global order, which may emerge around 2030, will be looser than its American predecessor. Beijing will not resort to military intervention or covert manipulation to ensure compliance with preordained political standards. Instead, it will focus on the mutual benefit of economic exchange and ignore the corruption, incompetence or inhumanity of international partners. Instead of aspirations for human rights and adherence at all costs to the decisions of international tribunals it will place national sovereignty ahead of universal principles in its world order. Instead of hundreds of overseas military bases or troop deployments, it will be a world order that favors national sovereignty over universal principles.

China will likely concentrate its forces on the western Pacific and Indian Oceans for its deployments. 

In this more diffuse world order, each hegemon would dominate its immediate region — Brasilia over South America; Washington, North America; Beijing, East and Southeast Asia; Moscow, Eastern Europe; New Delhi, South Asia; Tehran, Central Asia; Pretoria, southern Africa; Ankara and Cairo, the Middle East. Judging from Beijing’s past actions, it seems likely that this divergence of its emerging global order from Washington’s will be especially marked in the defining areas of national sovereignty and human rights. From the suppression of Tibetan Buddhist identity during the 1960s to the repression and persecution of Uyghur Muslims fifty years later, its leaders have not been concerned about the human rights its religious minorities. It also ignores abuses committed by its partners. (9) As the first global hegemon in five centuries to emerge outside the succession of Western powers, China’s ruling Communist elite does not share the same ingrained cultural references. 

The shift in global power from Madrid, London, Amsterdam, and Washington was smoothed through continuity in the discussions over human rights within the same Western cultural traditions. So China’s rise represents a real rupture. After centuries of struggle to establish the principles of individual liberty articulated in the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights, that seminal document’s moral imperative will probably fade during the coming decades. Similarly, the recognition of the world’s oceans as a shared commons for commerce among nations, hard won after centuries of war and diplomacy, will likely diminish as Beijing defends its claim to a mare clausum [international law term]Over the East and South China Seas 

In parallel with President Xi’s political ascent since 2013, a generation of statist intellectuals has celebrated China’s rise as a new kind of empire and rejected most Western influences. Arguing that “the history of humanity is surely the history of competition for imperial hegemony,” prominent statist scholar Jiang Shigong posits that the Anglo-American powers created the UN as nothing more than “a site of struggle in the construction of world empires.” Now that the United States and its empire are suffering “state failure, political decline, and ineffective governance caused by … decadence and nihilism created by cultural liberalism,” China must, he says, take advantage of the current “historical transition … to construct world empire 2.0.” (10)

Judging from its diplomacy to date, Beijing will try to bind its world system together with the rhetoric of economic progress, while leading a global campaign to lift humanity’s forgotten millions out of their material misery. Yet, Beijing’s embrace of economic growth as the basis for both its domestic legitimacy and international influence may well condemn its global leadership to an early death. 

Beijing has flooded its cities with coal smoke and automobile exhaust in its quest for development. It has also dammed its most important river to get cheap electricity and fished its coastline waters to oblivion. (11) To repair the damage from that environmental degradation, Beijing adopted a generally successful five-year Air Pollution Action Plan in 2013 to cut coal consumption for home heating and reduce fine particulates in the air of major cities below 60 micrograms per cubic meter (still far above the World Health Organization’s maximum of 10 micrograms.) To combat global warming, President Xi announced in 2020 that China would reach carbon neutrality by 2060 — a date so far in the future that it might well be too late to stop the feedback loops of tropical fires and Arctic permafrost melting that are already creating an environmental crisis. (12) 

President Xi Jinping, Rwanda

President Xi Jinping of China was in Kigali (Rwanda) on 23 July 2018. Photo credit: Paul Kagame / Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Beijing has been conflicted as well on the global stage. During the UN’s 2019 Madrid climate summit, China claimed a leadership role while simultaneously joining the United States and India in blocking the call for stricter emission targets. China also remained the world’s leading emitter of carbon dioxide (CO2 ) and even raised its coal-fired electrical capacity in 2018–2019 by 4.5 percent, while use elsewhere in the world declined. China was busy building new coal-fueled electrical plants to power its Madrid conference. This is more than the 105.2 gigawatts worldwide. 

Moreover, the Institute of International Finance (a trade group) reported that 85 per cent of all projects in the BRI had been completed by the Institute of International Finance in the early 2020. [China’s Belt and Road Initiative]High greenhouse gas emissions were a result, especially the 63 coal-fired electric plants that the project was financing around the world. As global CO2 emissions only rose, China’s combination of increasing oil imports and continuing coal production made it the largest single source of pollution on the planet, accounting for 29 percent of the world’s total in 2017. (13) 

Both at home and abroad, China’s global influence has thus become a major barrier to curbing greenhouse gas pollution. Recent American records have been marred by a similar lack of progress, especially under a climate-denying president whose administration was keen to give free rein to fossil fuel producers. Despite Donald Trump’s impassioned defense of the coal industry, market forces driving the shift to natural gas for electrical generation cut the country’s coal consumption by 18 percent. The US actually saw an increase in emissions due to increased pollution from natural gas and a continued reliance upon gasoline for road transport. Instead of meeting its commitment under the Paris climate accord for a 28 percent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions within a decade, the Trump administration adopted anti-environmental policies that will add 1.8 billion metric tons of CO2 to the atmosphere by 2035 — equivalent to the annual combined emissions of Britain, Canada, and Germany. (14) 

China and the United States combined accounted for 44 percent total CO2 emissions for 2018. However, unlike the Europeans they have failed to play a significant role in the transition to renewable energy. (15) It will take enormous effort to shift the planet from its current dependence upon fossil fuels for the remaining 80 percent of its energy needs, despite the apparent rise in photovoltaic panels worldwide and the appearance of turbine towers. 

Mulan, wind farm, Heilongiang, China

Mulan wind farm is located approximately 170km northeast of Harbin City in Heilongiang, China’s northernmost province on November 12, 2007. Photo credit: Land Rover Our Planet / Flickr (CC BY-ND 2.0)

The UN’s “middle-of-the-road scenario,” which aims to keep the global temperature increase to 1.5°C above preindustrial levels, requires that electricity from all renewables (solar, wind, hydro, modern bioenergy) reach 48 percent in 2030 and 63 percent by 2050. This is a significant increase from the 11 percent world total currently generated by these four sources. (16) Since 72 percent of all greenhouse gases come from energy for industry, heating, and transport, their reduction requires a sweeping two-phase transformation — first, a shift of all three activities to appropriate forms of electricity, and then a simultaneous conversion of the electrical grid to renewables. (17)

To transform an energy infrastructure that has been built up over the last 150 years, it will take several decades of sustained investments and a strong political will. Both China and the United States are still lacking this kind of political will. Washington, under the Biden administration, has made the same promise for 2050 as Beijing. 

To advance toward that ambitious goal, the US needs to make some drastic, even daunting, changes by 2030: it must close all remaining coal-fired power plants, convert a quarter of the country’s homes to electrical heat pumps, raise annual sales of battery-powered cars from the current 1.5 percent to 50 percent of the total, and expand the nation’s electrical grid by 60 percent. 

The country will also have to double and then triple its annual pace for renewable energy construction until solar and/or wind installations cover an area greater than Colorado and Wyoming. Even if America and China meet those ambitious goals, there will still be enough residual CO2 accumulated in the atmosphere for the inertia of “committed warming” to drive world temperatures well past the UN’s target of 1.5°C to a dangerous average of 2.3°C. 

The world can slow down climate change and avoid most catastrophic scenarios, but it cannot stop the onset of serious social and environmental disruptions. (18) 

Over the past three hundred thousands years, humanity has experienced three fundamental energy transitions. First came the mastery over fire, then the domestication and cultivation of draft animals, and lastly, the dependence on fossil fuels. Without more effective leadership from the global titans, humanity’s fourth transition to renewable, non-emitting energy sources will likely be too slow to contain global warming at manageable levels. (19) 

As Washington’s dominance fades and its share of the world economy falls steadily, leadership in this critical transition to renewable energy will probably fall to Beijing. Assuming that China indeed ascends to global hegemony sometime after 2030 and that it continues its long-standing policy of prioritizing the economy over the environment, Beijing’s global leadership will fail to slow the relentless pace of climate change, quite likely contributing to an untimely end to its own hegemony and leaving humanity without a functioning world order for the first time in five centuries. If this happens, then the second half of the 21st century could be a period not only plagued by incalculable issues but also has the potential to inaugurate a completely different kind of world order.


  1. Hanke, All Mankind, 6–22, 57–70; Henry Stevens and Fred W. Lucas, eds., The New Laws of the Indies for the Good Treatment and Preservation of the Indians (1893), lxxxvi–xciv; Elliott, Empires, 132–33.
  2. Hanke, All Mankind, 82–105; Brian Tierney, The Idea of Natural Rights (2001), 272–74; Anthony Pagden, The Fall of Natural Man (1982), 109–18.
  3. Las Casas, Short Account, 12–17, 27–30; Hanke, All Mankind, 113–22. 
  4. Hanke, All Mankind, 113–22. 
  5. Juan Comas, “Historical Reality and the Detractors of Father Las Casas,” in Juan Friede and Benjamin Keen, eds., Bartolomé de las Casas in History (1971), 487–538. 
  6. Hodgen, Early Anthropology, 361–64; Tierney, Natural Rights, 273–78; Pagden, Natural Man, 119–26; John L. Phelan, “The Apologetic History of Fray Bartolomé de las Casas,” Hispanic American Historical Review 49, no. 1 (1969), 94–99. 
  7. Pablo Miguel Sierra Silva, Urban Slavery in Colonial Mexico Puebla de los Ángeles, 1531–1706 (2018), 35–42; Magnus Lundberg, Unification and Conflict (2002), 225–26. 
  8. McNeil, Plagues, 177–92; Wolf, Europe, 133–35; Alfred W. Crosby, The Columbian Exchange (1972), 42–58; Yun-Casalilla, Iberian, 64, 149. 
  9. Eltis, “Transatlantic Slave Trade,” 17–46; Wolf, Europe, 195–201; Herbert S. Klein, The Atlantic Slave Trade (2010), 11, 99–100, 216–17.
  10. Timothy Brook, Vermeer’s Hat (2008), 157–59, 160–61; Kamen, Empire, 285–91; Wolf, Europe, 138–39. 
  11. Flynn, “Born,” 201–21; Kamen, Empire, 210–21; Brook, Vermeer’s Hat, 161–62, 170–79; Nicholas Cushner, Spain in the Philippines (1971), 135–36; William Lytle Schurz, The Manila Galleon (1939), 334–35; Herbert S. Klein and Sergio T. Serrano Hernández. “Was There a 17th Century Crisis in Spanish America?,” Journal of Iberian and Latin American Economic History 37, no. 1 (2019), 46; Jan de Vries, “The Limits of Globalization in the Early Modern World,” Economic History Review 63, no. 3 (2010), 730
  12. “Coins of Latin America,” Encyclopedia Britannica, https://www. 
  13. Cardim, “Political Constitution,” in Bouza, Iberian World, 38–39; G. Alvarez et al., “The Role of Inbreeding in the Extinction of a European Royal Dynasty,” PLoS ONE 4, no. 4 (2009), 5174; Andrea Thompson, “Inbreeding, “ Live Science, 4/14/2009, https://www.livescience. com/3504-inbreeding-downfall-dynasty.html. 
  14. José Javier Ruiz Ibáñez, “The Iberian Polities within Europe,” in Bouza Iberian World, 62–66; Yun-Casalilla, Iberian, 258–63. 
  15. Kamen, Empire, 49–82; Wolf, Europe, 138–39; Parker, “Gunpowder Revolution,” 116–17; Burbank, Empires, 117, 128, 143–48. 
  16. Kamen, Empire, 91–93; Yun-Casalilla, Iberian, 162–63; Gerhard Geissler, Europäische Dokumente aus fünf Jahrhunderten (1939), 85. 
  17. Wolf, Europe, 138–39; Kamen, Empire, 91–93, 151–67, 192–93, 296; Guilmartin, Gunpowder, 109–12; Elliott, Imperial Spain, 249–56. 
  18. Boxer, Portuguese, 160–61; Kamen, Empire, 294–95. 
  19. Kamen, Empire, 70–77.

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