The U.S. Can’t Lose the Global Nuclear Energy Race
The Biden administration has made the transition to clean energy a top strategic priority, but ignoring nuclear power cedes influence to Beijing and Moscow.
In his analysis of events that unfolded following World War II, Secretary of State Dean Acheson recounts the struggles, uncertainties, and shrouded ambiguities of that pivotal period. He characterized it as a global wreckage of political and economic instability compounded by the challenge of an aggressive Communist power and the advent of the most powerful energy resource and military weapon on earth—nuclear power. For those who labored to create what has become known as a rules-based international order, their broad objectives were to establish international allied institutions to accelerate economic development and geopolitical stability in war-ravaged regions, contain the spread of Communism by the Soviet Union, and develop an international system to control the use of atomic energy.
Today, the blatant weaponization of energy by Russia, energy security threats in Europe, the ongoing specter of climate change, and the challenge of China have collided in a global geopolitical conflict that is stressing those international institutions. In particular, it is exposing the insufficiency of the UN Conference of Parties (COP) to oversee an issue as geopolitically complex and, perhaps, as futile as a global energy transition, with COP activities being described as a collective failure and little more than a circus.
COP’s failure comes at a time when the leaders of the world’s two great powers, whose competition will define and shape the twenty-first-world order, have fundamentally different perspectives and strategies for the energy and climate policies of their respective nations and the world.
However, the failures of COP, alongside the clearly articulated doctrine of Russia and China to use energy as a tool of statecraft, could serve as a window of opportunity for the United States and its allies to rise up to multiple challenges around energy and climate issues and adjust their strategies to align with twenty-first-century challenges rather than those of the twentieth century. In particular, they must focus on the alignment of energy and climate objectives with the realities of great power competition and energy poverty.
U.S. and Chinese Approaches to Energy Security
On October 12, President Joe Biden released his National Security Strategy. In it, he referenced the climate issue sixty-three times, at one point stating: “Of all the shared problems we face, climate change is the greatest and potentially existential for all nations” He further emphasized “the urgent need to accelerate the transition away from fossil fuels.” This reflects the ambitions Biden enacted into law through the so-called Inflation Reduction Act, which he described as the most aggressive action ever taken to combat the climate crisis.
Four days later, and one week before being elected to an unprecedented third term as the leader of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), Xi Jinping delivered his “Report to the 20th National Congress of the Communist Party of China.” In it, he referenced climate twice, along with the declaration that “based on China's energy and resource endowment, we will advance initiatives to reach peak carbon emissions in a well-planned and phased way in line with the principle of building the new before discarding the old.”
Xi’s report reflects a position he carved out earlier this year when he addressed the CCP and warned against being too aggressive in any energy transition: “Reducing emissions is not about reducing productivity, and it is not about not emitting at all, either … the gradual withdrawal of traditional energy must be based on the safe and reliable replacement by new energy. This in practice means less restrictions on fossil fuel.”
“Accelerate the transition away from fossil fuels” stands in sharp contrast with “the gradual withdrawal of traditional energy” and “less restrictions on fossil fuels.” Technologically and geopolitically, these strategies are out of sync.
A U.S.-Led Energy Strategy
The United States and its allies should regroup forces and reassess their current energy and climate strategy around three key considerations.
First, the campaign to battle climate change has revolved around the demonization of fossil fuels, with the primary metric for success being carbon reduction. A tool recently deployed to that end is for wealthy nations to end fossil fuel financing abroad and promote the adoption of renewable energy in low-income countries. The unfairness in such a deprivation is self-evident, as there are no renewable energy alternatives that match the reliability afforded by fossil fuel resources and technologies. Both COP26 and COP27 saw pushback on this, with developing economies sending clear messages to the developed world that they are not prepared to phase-out coal and that they need leniency and time in the ban against fossil fuel financing.
The focus on carbon emissions as the primary metric misconstrues the fundamental difference between the source of the problem and the cause of the problem. While the source of global warming has been identified as carbon emissions from fossil fuel consumption, this is not the underlying cause. The underlying cause is energy poverty and the need for more reliable energy, not less. Emerging economies are looking for developed economies to partner with as they prioritize reducing energy poverty, not carbon emissions. This leads to the second consideration.
The United States must account for the unintended consequences of going all-in on a transition away from fossil fuels to renewables and ask itself the hard question at this point in the war on climate change: could the solution actually be the cause of energy poverty? And perhaps more importantly, what is the geopolitical risk of being outflanked by China, Russia, and other energy-rich authoritarian states using energy and energy technologies as instruments of national power in unconventional warfare strategies?
Under Xi’s rule, China is executing its foundational doctrine of “unrestricted warfare” to reduce the competitiveness and geopolitical influence of the United States and its allies. The stated goal is to win the war without ever firing a shot. The two campaign plans that operationalize unrestricted warfare are the Belt and Road Initiative and the “Made in China 2025” industrial policy. China writes its doctrine, publishes its campaign plans, and then executes its strategy—we simply don’t bother to read it.
A key measure of effectiveness is China’s doubling down on establishing energy partnerships with Russia, Saudi Arabia, and other Middle Eastern countries—partnerships that are long on fossil fuels and nuclear power. China has also exploited climate change as a pawn in diplomatic relations with the United States, such as when it halted climate negotiations over House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s trip to Taiwan. The CCP understands that climate change is a divisive issue in America with strong populist undercurrents that can be exploited to China’s advantage through information warfare. There is no reason to trust the CCP not to repeat this weaponization of climate diplomacy over future issues, as it has declared to the world that it will not compromise its economic objectives in order to reduce carbon emissions.
As the United States establishes policies to divest from fossil fuels, the very resources that lifted billions out of poverty over the past century and on which major economies were industrialized, China and other energy-rich nations remain willing partners for emerging economies looking to break the bonds of energy poverty. This affords these countries geopolitical leverage with emerging economies that will have a strong hand in determining who leads the twenty-first-century world order—and energy will be central in that determination.
Consequently, in global energy relationships, the United States is battling not only climate change but also China and other authoritarian, energy-rich states intent on occupying any space Washington vacates. This must be accounted for so that the United States and its allies avoid being geopolitically outflanked in energy statecraft.
Finally, the United States and its allies should not wage these battles without an aggressive strategy to develop and deploy civilian nuclear power, their most potent and proven energy resource and technology. However, inexplicably, nuclear power seems to be viewed largely as a stopgap on the pathway to renewables—at least in the United States. The U.S. Department of Energy isn’t, as it recently claimed, “spending big” on nuclear energy, let alone adopting a wartime footing.
American Energy Illusions
Last year, then-White House Climate Advisor Gina McCarthy said she expected nuclear to play a role for the foreseeable future, but only while America “builds an infrastructure of wind and hydro and other mixes moving forward.” In a recent interview, Geoffrey Pyatt, the U.S. State Department’s assistant secretary for energy resources, contended that “the fossil fuel energy system era is coming to an end, we are evolving into the renewables era,” adding that “it’s clear that for Europe in particular, the greatest source of energy security is a renewable energy future.”
Moreover, the Inflation Reduction Act is dominated by incentives for renewable energy, and the recently-announced Energy Transition Accelerator has a single objective of speeding the transition from dirty to clean power by accelerating the buildout of renewables. Even if this $370 billion taxpayer gambit succeeded, it would only return the United States back to 40 percent below 2005 levels of carbon emissions and would ignore the need for more abundant and baseload power. It is the wrong answer for energy security and isn’t the solution the world is asking for.