The Rand Corporation’s been designing war games with the Pentagon since the 1950s, modelling such hard-nosed security scenarios as a two-front U.S. war with China and Russia. Now the think tank is turning its realpolitik tool kit to a question more often associated with environmental dreamers: How will clean energy change the world?

Rand is among the small but growing number of research organizations, universities and at least one European government that have started gaming out the gritty geopolitical implications of a globe dominated by green energy. It’s the latest sign that the once quaint idea of renewable energy displacing fossil fuels has gone mainstream.

Last year was a turning point. China, the world’s biggest polluter, finally joined the cascade of nations and companies setting target dates for carbon neutrality. The European Union for the first time generated more electricity from carbon-free sources than polluting ones. Joe Biden won the U.S. presidency, bringing an ambitious climate agenda to the White House.

Addressing the United Nations Security Council last month, U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson ridiculed those who still think of climate change as “green stuff from a bunch of tree-hugging tofu munchers,” unsuited to serious diplomacy.

Power Surge
Some experts even predict that the end of an era defined by uneven access to fossil fuel deposits will produce a security dividend, similar to the one that followed the end of the Cold War. After all, a latter-day Saddam Hussein would have little reason to invade Kuwait to seize its solar parks, as he did in 1990 for its oil wells, because there would no longer be anything special about Kuwait’s patch of desert. It would be cheaper to buy panels to put on his own.

“Anyone can now become an energy player, that is the nature of renewable energy,’’ says former Iceland President Olafur Ragnar Grimsson, who chaired an international commission on the geopolitics of the energy transition. Grimsson has already seen the green future. Iceland’s energy mix is 85% renewable, and all its electricity is generated from clean sources. The last time his island nation saw conflict with another country over resources, it was about fish.

“You need a new geopolitical model, you cannot simply put renewables into the old coal and oil model,” Grimsson says.

Until renewable dominance is reached, though, oil could have a long and destructive tail. For about three centuries, access to fossil fuels has shaped the rise and fall of great powers. Plentiful, well-located coal mines helped fire Britain’s industrial revolution and the expansion of its empire. Oil and gas fueled the former Soviet Union’s military power and shaped “the American century,” including U.S. alliances and fleet deployments.

“We’re not even close to a world dominated by renewables,’’ says Andreas Goldthau, who heads research at Germany’s Institute for Advanced Sustainability Studies on the systemic impacts of the shift to clean energy.

World of Oil
Changing such a fundamental driver of the global pecking order could have multiple consequences. Vladimir Putin might struggle to sustain Russia’s rise as an “energy superpower.” An implosion of the U.S. shale industry, combined with China’s dominance in renewables manufacturing, could define the 21st century’s great superpower contest. The rationale for American alliances and military bases in the Middle East would weaken. A sudden loss of oil revenues could trigger Arab Spring-style revolts against the most brittle petrostate autocracies.

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