Saving humans or saving states?

Jonna Nyman

For some states, growing concern over energy security is turning them inwards as they attempt to maximise their own energy supplies. Much of the US energy security debate is centred around the desire for energy ‘independence’, an enticing dream of a United States which does not need to depend on anyone else. A key part of the solution presented by policy makers is to maximise domestic fossil fuel production. Both George W. Bush and Obama have emphasised the need to increase domestic production of oil and gas, resulting in an energy boom with much attention on the current ‘shale revolution’. A recent article in the Economist titled ‘Saudi America’ reflects the current mood well.

 
flame

While the internal debate puts the focus on producing more oil and gas domestically, energy independence is unlikely to be the saviour and solution that is hoped for. Shale gas has been hyped as a ‘bridging fuel’ which will replace dirty coal stations, thus moving the US towards a cleaner energy future. However, not only are the ‘green’ credentials of shale gas dubious at best; cheap and easily available shale gas is also replacing renewable energy sources. US coal use may be in decline, but rather than keeping it in the ground for environmental reasons, it is being exported to pollute elsewhere, making any net-climate benefit shale could have produced virtually inexistent.

In practice, climate change is largely off the agenda in energy security discussions, and leaders rarely talk about ‘coal’, preferring to use the term ‘clean coal’ – despite the fact that the effectiveness and reliability of clean coal technology is still unproven. Federal subsidies have tended to focus on fuels which emit high levels of greenhouse gases over renewable energy sources. George W. Bush noted that US ‘dependence on foreign oil is like a foreign tax on the American Dream’ (2005). Obama has argued that ‘homegrown’ sources of energy ‘make us more secure’ (2012) – whether renewable or not.

oil drum

From USA today: Energy Independence is no longer a pipe dream

Of course, the United States is not alone in its desire to reduce dependence on others. However, securing the American state by maximising domestic supply in this way does not provide security in any meaningful sense. While it gives a much-needed boost to the economy today, failing to invest more in renewable energy sources which will still be here in the future is a dangerous and short-sighted strategy. The US is the second biggest CO2 emitter globally and its continuing high emissions affect human beings within and outside of the state itself, with a huge increase in pollution-related illnesses. Likewise, it contributes to climate change, endangering the future of the planet and climate that human beings depend on to survive.

Thus securing the US state by maximising domestic fossil fuel supply does not produce security in the longer term. The obsession with energy independence works to reinforce national borders and the state-system, making the need to secure ‘us’ with ‘homegrown’ sources of energy appear common sense. However, in an increasingly globalised world even an energy independent US cannot be isolated from the world. Climate change crosses borders and cannot be dealt with in these terms. The human impacts also cross borders – the West coast of the United States, for example, suffers from air pollution drifting across from China.

Traditional political thinking on energy security emphasises the need to secure state supplies of energy, focusing on fossil fuel supplies. Part of this is of course about providing citizens with energy. States also require energy to keep their economies stable, and any government which fails to ensure enough energy to keep its economy going faces the threat of uprisings, protest or even losing power. Energy shortages have a huge impact on human lives, too. However, continuing focus on fossil fuel exploitation is hugely problematic, and energy security understood in these terms is fundamentally incompatible with human security or a stable climate.

Energy security brings together a wide range of security issues and leaves us with serious and difficult questions about whose security should be prioritised. When it comes to energy security, should we save humans, or save states? Conversely, to save humans, do we need to save states? What about the current economic system? In a world with an ever-greater list of issues regarded as threats, how do we prioritise or decide which threats or security issues are more important?

Further useful links:

China’s Energy Strategy

British public attitudes to energy security

United States Energy Security Council

Geopolitics, climate change and energy governance

New energy geopolitics

The changing geopolitics of energy

CSIS project on the geopolitics of energy 

How cheap energy from shale will reshape America’s role in the world

Brookings institute: Geopolitics of energy

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