The U.S. has become a deeply unserious nation in danger of losing its preeminent global role to China. This is the caustic evaluation of commentator and comedian, Bill Maher.
When parody presents the most prescient insights into impending policy failure, it’s probably worth at least considering a course correction.
The consequences of continuing on the current path are starkly outlined in a new report on global trends from the U.S. National Intelligence Council (NIC).
Published every four years, the NIC assessment analyzes the dynamics and forces that are shaping the strategic environment. What it foresees is a world facing “more intense and cascading global challenges ranging from disease to climate change to the disruptions from new technologies to financial crises.”
How the U.S. and other nations respond to these forces will shape the future over the next 20 years. So, there is little time to lose.
The NIC offers four scenarios for how the future may play out.
The most optimistic future is the “Renaissance of Democracies” in which the U.S. and its allies lead the effort to transform the global economy, raise incomes, and improve the global quality of life. Stifling repression by Russia and China lead their top innovators to join with the democratic nations.
The most dystopian development is “A World Adrift” in which the international system is undermined by China and other actors while OECD countries struggle with “slower economic growth, widening societal divisions, and political paralysis.” These are the issues fueling Maher’s satire. In this case global leadership is lost and the major transnational challenges continue to fester.
The other two scenarios offer an environment of cooperation and competition between the U.S. and China but allow for the management of major international problems, including climate change, albeit in one situation in response to a major global catastrophe.
Not surprisingly, the global challenges posed by climate change percolate throughout the NIC analysis. It impacts every key feature of the assessment from civic cohesion to military preparedness to political stability.
The takeaway from it is that higher temperatures will “impact every country” but disproportionately “fall on the developing world.” Meeting this challenge will require “new energy technologies and carbon dioxide removal techniques.”
It notes that in addition to the expansion of renewable energy, “nuclear power production may grow, particularly if new, safer designs emerge.” A particular focus is placed on Small Modular Reactors (SMRs) which “could help developing countries electrify their populations without increasing emissions.”
The preparedness of these nations for nuclear energy, however, is a concern. A new analysis examined 126 nations and determined that most future low-carbon energy need will be in developing economy nations. But many have relatively weak institutions and will require support to strengthen their nuclear governance structures. Building this support system is a market and global security opportunity for nations seeking to export next-generation nuclear reactors.
This role is a natural fit for the Biden White House, which supports nuclear energy as a contributor to clean energy and is funding next-gen nuclear technologies. As part of its $2.25 trillion infrastructure plan, the administration noted the continuing value of nuclear energy and stated that it intends to include nuclear energy under a proposed Clean Energy Standard (CES) designed to drive down carbon emissions.
A similar clean energy standard, called the Taxonomy on Sustainable Finance, is under consideration by the European Union (EU). The Taxonomy is designed to identify environmentally sustainable energy sources and assist in attracting financing.
Nuclear energy has been a political football in this debate, but the EU’s Joint Research Centre determined that nuclear energy does not do “more harm to human health or the environment than other electricity production technologies already included in the Taxonomy.” Two additional sets of experts will review these findings and inform the final European Commission decision.
The timing of the U.S. and European clean energy standards is important because the November COP26 meeting in Glasgow could be a critical juncture in whether nations meet the Paris climate agreement objective of limiting temperatures by halving global carbon emissions by 2030 and achieving net-zero by mid-century.
The COP26 President, the British Parliament’s Alok Sharma, stated that, “We need this to be a decade of delivery…We simply cannot afford another decade of deliberation.”
Sharma’s comments were made a few days before the release of the NIC report. But both underscore the same message. The international environment is now disrupted and could grow even more disorderly. International turmoil is being exacerbated by climate change and decisive leadership is necessary.
As the NIC pointed out, the best response is for the U.S. and its partners to rapidly reestablish leadership by driving real, equitable responses to the new global challenges. That could define the decade of delivery.
Ken Luongo, President, Partnership for Global Security