Why global warming needs national solutions

by Anatol Lieven

Climate Change International relations 32 mins read

Climate change is global, but we need to get real— and grasp that the most practical way to save the world will often be one country at a time

It wasn’t really much of an epiphany. I was reading yet another think tank report about the threat posed by China’s fortification of sandbanks in the South China Sea—a move to expand Beijing’s military reach far beyond its home waters, which has provided much of the basis for suggestions of a “New Cold War” between China and the US, and inspired massive redeployment of US warships and aircraft to East Asia. Suddenly, my mind just brought together the word “sandbank” with the words “climate change” and “sea level rise,” and—behold!—I realised that there is a high probability that 100 years from now, historians will consider these so-called “islands” an utterly baffling preoccupation because they will all be under water.

And yet such is the gulf between military and scientific elites—between the intellectual worlds of international relations security studies and that of climate analysis—that this obvious prospect is one that appears to have eluded almost everybody else working on this subject.

The obsession of US security elites with South China Sea sandbanks will one day seem irrational to the point of wilful lunacy. But history teaches us that security establishments can and do get it exactly this wrong. Consider Fashoda, a village in South Sudan otherwise known as Kodok. In 1898, when a French expeditionary force reached Fashoda just as the British arrived from the north, Britain and France came close to war over which empire should control southern Sudan. Two great nations, which for much of the succeeding half-century would be allies in fights for survival together, almost became mortal enemies, and for what? Only a few years later, the question of southern Sudan was all but forgotten, in the wake of the rise of Germany.

Today, the idea of great power competition over a small town on the banks of the Nile seems utterly crazy. As indeed will today’s great powers’ readiness to be distracted by passing rivalries from the reality of climate change as, by a mile, today’s pre-eminent national security threat. The vital interests of the US (and many other western nations) are threatened by ecological changes that if not checked will—even in the medium term—flood its coastal cities, ruin much of its agriculture, -and produce new and disruptive mass movements of migrants. In the longer term, these changes could potentially destroy the US as a country.

The appeal of climate change activists is generally pitched as about saving humanity as a whole

The appeal of climate change activists is generally pitched as about saving humanity as a whole. That is understandable, but it urgently needs to be accompanied by a greatly increased emphasis on the specific threats to individual nations. This is necessary both because it is individual states that will have to organise and drive through the actions and sacrifices required to prevent further climate change, and because appeals to national communities are the most effective available means we have of rallying human beings to collective action. We are seeing that right now in the dramatic responses to coronavirus, which are overwhelmingly being organised at the level of the nation state.

But it is in relation to the collective defence of the interests of our descendants that the power of the nation applies with special force. Modern history has shown that the bond of nation engenders a uniquely effective willingness to make shared sacrifices for shared survival—stronger than class, faith, or appeals to humanitarianism. At a time when sacrifices are urgently required, however alien it may be to some political tastes, the role of nationalism is not one we can afford to eschew.


Central to security thinking is, or should be, the calculation of risk. The risks posed by climate change come in two broad categories. The first concerns the effects we can already observe, and which we can expect with near certainty to worsen in the decades to come: increased heatwaves, drought, floods and disease. With heavily-populated countries in Asia and Africa already under ecological stress, the result of all this will certainly be increased mass migration, and—in the west—much more of the political upheaval that has already come in its wake.

The second category of risk concerns the future potential for runaway climate change, which will take hold at that hard-to-call moment when the world falls prey to ruinous feedback mechanisms—such as the melting of the permafrost which is all that currently keeps vast amounts of the potent greenhouse gas methane in the ground. Despite having been unleashed by humanity, at this point rising temperatures would no longer be amenable to human action but would instead be on their own trajectory—a trajectory which could seal the end of modern civilisation.

As things stand, even after having been caught off guard by a pandemic, many nation states are again grotesquely miscalculating the relative risks they face. This may in part be because the new threats to national security are not the sort of dangers they are conditioned to look out for. Historically, the dangers have usually come from rival nations, which might be why there is still so much fretting about the danger posed by competitor states. The real twist today is that the chief threat that nations have to answer is one that, to a greater or lesser degree, threatens them all.

Other than the US, the western country that has spent most time worrying about the rise of China is Australia. Yet as the recent months of unprecedented heatwaves and wildfires show, Australia is already suffering damage from climate change colossally in excess of anything China could do to Australia (short of nuclear war), or would wish to do. Meanwhile, China itself has just been the first of several countries to receive a severe lesson in how epidemic disease can not only exert a terrible human cost, but also inflict severe damage on national economies. The experience of coronavirus ought to wake all these countries up to yet another predicted result of climate change—the spread of tropical diseases.

While the existential threat to humanity as a whole from runaway climate change would probably only appear in the next century, the threat to many individual states—and to western democracy—will appear in the next decades. Easily within the lifetimes of many people living today, climate change will combine with other, related developments—notably migration and economic change—to put intense pressure on the political and social orders of many nations, including our liberal democratic ones. These are already in serious trouble as a result of the political backlash against migration and inequality, and cannot take much more pressure without crumbling into chauvinist authoritarianism.

If the last few years have taught us anything, it is that the combination of material disappointment with national insecurity and decline is a potent one. Climate change threatens both things, and so could translate into a politics of rage that though it rises through the ballot box, goes on to destroy democracy.

Clear-eyed national establishments will need to make a radical shift in focus and resources away from traditional great power threats (which, though real, are minor by comparison), and towards a new understanding of national security in a much wider sense, requiring new forms of national mobilisation in response.

Even in the short to medium term, climate change will kill more western citizens than died in most recent wars. For the moment the victims are mostly much older than soldiers, but comparing the raw numbers is nonetheless striking. The European heatwave of 2003 killed some 35,000 Europeans; more casualties than those of France in the Algerian War lasting eight years. The Russian heatwave of 2010 killed around 55,000 people—twice as many Russians as died during the 10-year-long Soviet intervention in Afghanistan, and roughly matching the US death toll in Vietnam which had, a few years further back, shaken a society to its core. (Some of these numbers are, already, comparable to some of the prospective national death tolls from coronavirus, which have jolted governments to take so many extraordinary measures.) But if climate change continues unchecked, such heatwaves will become not individual events but annual summer temperatures.

In Europe, the most dramatic direct effects will be seen in the Mediterranean states, where the summer is predicted to last for an additional month, heatwaves (with temperatures over 35 degrees) to be extended by more than a month, and rainfall to decrease by up to 20 per cent. The result will be severe damage to existing agriculture, the radical transformation of ecosystems towards semi-arid conditions, and greatly increased wildfires. The first effects are already here, as the repeated heatwaves of recent years, and the unprecedented forest fires of 2018 in Greece and Portugal demonstrate.

All this is before we consider the potential for runaway climate change down the track, which would desertify the whole region. Moreover, these countries of southern Europe are also those which will be asked to accommodate the largest number of migrants from the even worse-affected countries on the North African shores of the Mediterranean. Just compare this with one of the other issues that obsesses western security elites: does Russia’s occupation of parts of Ukraine threaten to turn Greece, Italy and Spain into an extension of the Sahara?

The when and even the if of truly runaway climate change taking hold are uncertain, but should we slide down this slipway it would be so catastrophic—involving the destruction of the nations which militaries are sworn to defend—that even a remote possibility should be enough to mobilise militaries in response. In a more conventional national security context, we would not wait until there was a certainty that terrorists would acquire nuclear weapons before acting to prevent them doing so—because by then, it would be too late. Instead, by their very nature military forces have to plan for “worst-case scenarios.”


In the decades to come, the most important single branch of the US armed forces will become not the Marines or the special forces but the Army Corps of Engineers. This corps has been tasked since its inception with flood control, coastal defence and river management—these tasks are going to become more and more obviously key to the national security of the US. The same will be increasingly true in other countries as well. In a sense, we will all become Holland. The most important motto of our armed forces will not be “For Queen and Country,” but the old motto of the inhabitants of Romney Marsh: “Serve God. Honour the Queen. But first, maintain the dyke!”

In the decades to come, the most important single branch of the US armed forces will become not the Marines or the special forces but the Army Corps of Engineers

Another increasingly important military task will be fighting wildfires. In recent months in Australia, we saw the grotesque spectacle of comparatively tiny forces of volunteer and semi-amateur firefighters trying to control immense blazes (without nearly enough firefighting aircraft to help them), while tens of thousands of Australian troops essentially sat staring out to sea waiting for a Chinese invasion. Enormously increased forces will need to be deployed for emergency relief across the world, both for humanitarian reasons and to stop natural disasters creating new waves of migration. And in the last resort, troops may be needed as in the past to prevent pandemics creating social collapse.

But the need for western security establishments to prioritise climate change is not just about such practical reallocation of resources; an even more important impact could be about political persuasion. Strong warnings by -military figures about the threats to nations posed by climate change will help to win over those sections of the population that instinctively reject action against climate change.

Consider the Republican voter base in the US. In recent decades, most of its members have moved away from even a pretence of considering the evidence, and towards a belief that rejection of the idea of anthropogenic climate change is part of what distinguishes conservatives culturally from supposedly metropolitan, atheist, and unpatriotic cultural liberals. Not “We aren’t convinced by the evidence” but “We aren’t the kind of people who believe in climate change.” But while the conservative sections of the US electorate deeply distrust “experts,” they make an exception for the military in their role as experts on national security. We cannot afford to write huge sections of electorates off as a lost cause: the huge changes needed today will require not small and fleeting electoral majorities but the forging of an enduring consensus.

A general recognition of climate change as a threat to national security in the short term and national existence in the long term would allow the mobilisation of the only modern ideological force that retains wide enough popularity to inspire collective sacrifice: nationalism (or patriotism, which is essentially the same thing by a nicer name). Nationalism and ecological thinking may appear to be poles apart. But they converge in the capacity of both to demand sacrifices on the part of existing people for the sake of future generations. As Yael Tamir has written in her book Why Nationalism:

“Nationalism endows the state with intimate feelings linking the past, the present and the future. The fact that individuals feel that they are part of a continuous entity induces in them mutual dependencies and responsibilities and invigorates the will jointly to pursue common ends.”

Nationalism therefore helps address one of the greatest obstacles to action against climate change: namely, that considerable sacrifices will have to be made by present generations, but the most terrible results of refusal to make these sacrifices will only affect generations yet unborn.

It was only when I began to read how mainstream economists thought about climate change that I came fully to understand our moral decadence as a culture. They look at things from a standpoint that deems that the interests of future generations matter little, or even not at all. One “discount rate” which has been used by economists when it comes to valuing future benefits is 6 per cent. As Nicholas Stern has pointed out in his book Why Are We Waiting? this is no innocuous technicality. It implies that a “unit of benefit” in 50 years is being valued 18 times lower than it would be today, and in 100 years, 339 times lower: “To assume such a rate comes close to saying ‘forget about issues concerning 100 years or more from now.’” Such an attitude is antithetical not just to nationalism, but to the very idea of a nation (or of a family, for that matter).

The tremendous emotional power of the nation stems largely from the way in which it can echo loyalty to the family and appeal to that most fundamental of all instincts, the desire of the living organism to propagate its genes. This has always set conservative nationalists at something of a tangent to radical free market liberals, and today brings them closer to the moral and philosophical thinking of environmentalists. Nationalism is rooted in a sense of national society in Burkean terms, as a covenant between the dead, the living, and those yet to be born—a sentiment close to the environmentalist maxim that “the world is not given to us by our fathers but borrowed by us from our children.”

The idea of a nation thinking of itself as living for only one generation is a contradiction in terms; and this is true not only of those nations founded (whether accurately or not) on the idea of ancient ethnic identity, but those founded on a civic ideology like that of the US, an ideology that is meant to endure. The motto on the US Great Seal reads Novus Ordo Seclorum: “A New Order for the Ages.”

Above all, with communism gone and religion in abeyance in the west, a sense of nationalism is essential to motivate sacrifice. For the melancholy fact is that whenever western electorates have been asked in concrete and specific terms to make sacrifices to limit fossil fuel emissions, majorities have voted or protested massively against the measures concerned. This was seen with President Macron’s fuel tax in France, and of the carbon tax proposals in Australia and the US state of Washington. In the UK, a planned “fuel duty escalator” was postponed so many times, that in the end it was simply switched off. In the Democratic nomination campaign in the US, opposition to higher taxes helped wreck the chances of Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders. The fears of even small tax rises could yet spook enough Americans into re-electing Trump in November. And even if—pray God—Trump is removed, the US Constitution gives the Republicans enormous opportunities to block both climate change legislation and the new taxes needed to finance it.

We should not be surprised that individualistic and materialist cultures struggle with the most collective of all collective action problems. Even where these cultures are liberal and rational, they can do nothing to challenge the mindset of the individual who looks at the potentially big sacrifice being asked of them, and rationally judges that it will on its own make no difference to the big picture. Real change will need a new political dispensation.


Appealing to nationalism in the fight against climate change is abhorrent to most environmentalists, coming as they do from liberal and socialist internationalist traditions. Indeed, in many cases this hostility extends to the nation state itself, and the national legitimacy that is necessary for effective states. The Green Party in France, to take one of the most florid of many exemplars from across the continent, appears to conceive of the borders that define nations as a wicked thing. Its “plan of action” for climate suggests eschewing serious attempts to manage them in the wake of the coming migratory pressure, and instead proposes simply “welcoming the men and women whom global tumult has thrown onto the roads.”

The Greens’ blindness to the political importance of stable and rooted national communities risks driving voters into the arms of the chauvinists, while their contempt for the nation state leads to an overwhelming focus on international agreements demanded and driven by global movements. International agreements are indeed necessary, as is the mobilisation of opinion around the world by Greta Thunberg and others. These figures can play a very valuable role, but in the end, neither the treaties nor the movements themselves can do anything at all to limit and replace fossil fuel consumption. Their role is to get the states, who retain a monopoly on the power to honour (or breach) any treaty, to actually implement the agreed policies. And in this, most have so far manifestly failed. The environmentalist slogan “Think globally, act locally” actually means—or ought to mean—“Think globally, act nationally.”

The language of “empowerment” that permeates much left-wing environmentalist discourse misses an absolutely central point. If you really want to act for the climate, then you need powerful allies, not powerless ones whom you have to expend energy empowering. This means state elites, state institutions, and, in the democracies, sweeping electoral majorities who can push through the painful changes required.

The centrality of states and nationalism also applies to very important proposals in the US and elsewhere for “Green New Deals” combining different goals: to support a new industrial revolution based on alternative energy and thereby convince dubious voters that climate change action is not an enemy of economic progress and prosperity; to build social solidarity by providing jobs and social welfare to the population, and especially workers in fossil fuel industries; and to legitimise the necessary sacrifices by ensuring that they will be shared through progressive taxation. I would add that such programmes are also necessary to build the social and national resilience that we will require if our political orders are to survive the inevitable shocks of the next decades.

Any Green New Deal and the new bonds of social solidarity that it can engender will inevitably be national, not international. After all, every successful welfare state has been created by a strong national polity, often in the context of strengthening national solidarity in wartime or in preparation for war. In the UK, for example, the Beveridge Report that laid the basis for the British welfare state was drawn up during the Second World War on the basis of ideas originally formulated in the context of preparations for the First.

The alternative idea of massive transfers of resources from wealthy countries through systems of international solidarity has long been proved a complete fantasy, and will remain so. Even within the world’s most developed transnational entity, the European Union, cross-border solidarity and transfers have been achievable only on a very limited scale, as Greeks, Spaniards and others discovered to their cost during the eurozone crisis. To imagine we can achieve much more across the world as a whole is to indulge in a utopianism the planet can ill afford in the face of this emergency.

The fundamental issue at stake has been well expressed by the development economist Paul Collier: “The brute fact is that the domain of public policy is inevitably spatial… elections generate representatives with authority over a territory… The non-spatial political unit is a fantasy…” He rightly concludes that there is a pressing need for “viable” “national identities,” to which I can only add that if states are to demand the sacrifices necessary, it will not be enough for the national bonds to be “viable.” They will have to be strong.

So nationalism is indispensable, even though we also know it can often be dangerous. Thankfully, it does not have to be nationalism of an ethnic chauvinist variety. Western nations have developed strong traditions of civic nationalism based on the equal rights of citizens. Nor is there any contradiction between the need for nationalism and international co-operation on climate. In order to co-operate effectively, nation states need to bring effective powers to the table. In the apt formulation of the Oxford political theorist David Miller, “Nations are communities that do things together” [my italics].

Looking back at us from the perspective of a hundred years hence what may strike historians most (assuming for the moment that civilisation remains vigorous enough for historians still to exist) is the extent to which our institutions and political classes have become trapped by their own traditions. Military establishments amass huge arsenals at huge cost, though the existence of nuclear weapons has long banished any serious risk of direct war between the great powers; conservatives adhere blindly to a free-market ideology that has long been proved to be inadequate to the management of great modern states; and progressives remain fixated on dreams of an internationalist utopia that stand no chance whatsoever of being realised. All of these are the preoccupations of a rapidly vanishing age. We are now moving into a new and much grimmer age, in which our watchword must be survival.

Prospect (London), May 2020.