There is a class of climate change impacts that has received relatively little attention, perhaps because their effects will be indirect. These consequences will result not from increases in world temperatures, but from the world’s attempts to limit those increases. As the international community tries to reduce and eventually eliminate greenhouse gas emissions, global energy systems will undergo a massive transformation. Whether quickly or slowly, the nations of the world will almost certainly give up reliance on the fossil fuels – coal, petroleum, and natural gas – that drove the Industrial Revolution and created wealth and power dynamics that long dictated international relations. Britannia ruled the seas for a few hundred years, and the 20th century was American, in significant part because of the military might and financial power provided by fossil-fuel-powered industrial sectors.
Will the coming transition to energy sources with low or no carbon dioxide emissions – solar, wind, nuclear, and other – also create new geopolitical winners and losers? The general answer to that question is almost certainly, “Yes, to some degree.” Specifically how – and how greatly – the shift from fossil fuels to renewable energy will affect global power dynamics are matters of less certainty.