Bill McKibben published his landmark book The End of Nature in 1989. It caused a splash as the first major work on climate change for a popular audience, but was soon supplanted by more momentous events. The Berlin Wall came down in November, and for many, the opening of the new decade heralded not the end of nature as we know it but rather the end of history. What America and its champions labelled the liberal international order seemed to have prevailed. Under the banner of market fundamentalism, global consensus and even governance seemed more plausible than ever before.

30 years on, the outlook is very different. The same faith in markets that made America and its allies so confident in the 90s has brought us to the brink of climate catastrophe. After decades of negligence, the consciousness that McKibben helped inaugurate has finally come to the fore. But geopolitical dynamics have also changed dramatically. Gone is a time when the US could expect to control an international structure of its own making. Two decades of endless war have rightly discredited what remained of the myth of our good intentions. Above all, the rise of China has shifted the world in a multipolar direction and ensured that any coercion will only increase the chance of war. We could not force climate policy on the world even if we wanted to—and we should not want to.

Yet as the largest historical emitter of greenhouse gases, we have an enormous obligation to help cut global emissions as quickly as possible. The trick is to do this by deconstructing the American empire, not rebuilding it in a new form. President Joe Biden promised on the campaign trail to make climate change central to his foreign policy. But thus far he has done little to upset the status quo. Instead, the new administration seems to have made a dangerous bargain: play up the threat of China and avoid signs of weakness in foreign policy in hope of rallying support around domestic priorities. It has not helped that those who have made the case for a climate-first foreign policy have often done so through outdated models like ‘containment.’ A true commitment would demand something far bolder. 

It would have to start by cutting defense spending and ending our social and psychological dependence on war as an outlet for our discontents. Direct emissions from war are staggering and indirect costs are even worse. In 20 years since it launched a global War on Terror, the US military has emitted well over a billion metric tons of greenhouse gases—around two times the annual emissions of all US cars. The Department of Defense is the largest institutional petroleum consumer in the world. And this does not come cheap. At over $700 billion a year, our defense spending is more than that of the next dozen countries combined. The opportunity costs are enormous. A bloated defense budget crowds out both non-military versions of foreign policy that would help us build partnerships on climate and domestic projects that would help us transition to a green economy. 

Yet far from offering reversals, Biden has actually proposed to increase military spending. The administration announced in early April a new defense budget of $753 billion, up $12 billion from the previous year. It is especially difficult to justify this in the context of hopes for massive investment on the homefront. Research from Brown University’s Watson Institute has found that spending on clean energy creates significantly more jobs than comparable military spending. Wasting hundreds of billions of dollars on fighter jets and updated nuclear weapons is a weak—and dangerous—tool for reviving the economy and will only make it harder to push the infrastructure spending needed to rapidly decarbonize. 

Funds freed by demilitarization cannot simply be redirected inward, though. In tandem with investments at home, the US must do much more to help low and middle income countries mitigate and adapt to the threats of a changing climate. Home to just four percent of the world’s population, the US is responsible for a quarter of all global emissions since 1751. The best mechanism to address this gap is the Green Climate Fund. Established in 2010, the fund promised to allocate at least $100 billion a year to developing countries by the end of the decade. Yet under 10 percent has been delivered. After initially pledging $3 billion, the US paid only a third of that under President Trump. Biden has committed $1.2 billion with hopes for further payments down the road. But the sum is not likely to be nearly enough. A group of major environmental organizations has estimated that a more honest accounting of our debt would put our obligation on the order of $800 billion over 10 years, split evenly between mitigation, adaption, and repayments for losses and damages. Critics will call this fanciful, but it is similar to what we spend on the military in a year and much less than Biden hopes to spend on domestic infrastructure in the coming decade.  

Just as important as the size of payments are the strings attached. Redistribution to help poor countries fight climate change cannot become a Trojan horse for a new imperialism. The US has a long and dubious record of using foreign aid as a vehicle for its own interests. Funds must come in the form of grants and unconditional public finance, not predatory loans with privatization conditions or strict surveillance methods. And they must be accompanied by broader changes in intellectual property law to allow green technology to be used cheaply and easily across the Global South. 

Moves to frame international climate finance as a counteroffensive to China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) are also worrying. BRI, China’s massive global infrastructure strategy, has a serious dirty energy problem. But engaging with the rest of the world through the prism of Sino-American competition will only increase the chances of a new cold war and distract us from the true threat of climate change. 

This is not to say that China is not important. On the contrary, it is because it is impossible to imagine reversing climate change without their partnership that a competitive framing is so dangerous. China is the largest energy consumer in the world and by far the largest producer of low-carbon energy technologies. It makes 60 percent of the world’s solar panels and is home to 73 percent of global lithium cell manufacturing capacity. And as the second largest economy in the world, its sway over the direction of global climate policy is enormous. A 2014 meeting between then-President Barack Obama and Chinese President Xi Jinping helped lay the groundwork for the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement. China’s role is so critical that its move in September announcing carbon neutrality by 2060 instantly “redefined the future prospects for humanity,” as one expert put it. More than any other single factor, our ability to work together with China will determine whether we are able to maintain a habitable earth. 

Yet we have drifted ever closer to a new cold war. Trump spent four years playing up the threat of China, and for the most part succeeded in bringing the rest of the country along with him. A global pandemic which originated in the Chinese heartland prompted politicians on both sides of the aisle to point fingers and deflect blame. The result has been disastrous for climate prospects. Nearly nine out of ten Americans now see China as an enemy or competitor, not a partner. Since taking office, Biden has maintained much of Trump’s belligerence, putting new sanctions on Chinese officials and engaging in fruitless name-calling. The administration has claimed that it can walk opposing paths at once—that it can feud with China on human rights, trade, and security interests even as it collaborates on climate as a “critical stand alone issue.” But over the long run such an incoherent policy is bound to fail. Rising tensions have already complicated bilateral talks on climate between the two countries. A new cold war will mean less technology and information sharing, dimmed prospects for global agreement, and an expensive arms race that saps and distracts from efforts to build green infrastructure on the homefront. 

McKibben wrote in 1989 that the fight against climate change is hard in part because it demands humility, that “infant philosophy” of which “many questions [have] yet to be asked, much less answered.” He was thinking in terms of individuals, but the same could be said of American foreign policy. Urgency is required, but it must be combined with a real sense of America’s limitations and record of injustice. Above all, climate change should teach us that there are more important things than our position on an imaginary global leaderboard. What the prophets of history’s end missed is not just that the outcome is less certain than we thought, but also that the stakes are different—and much higher.

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