RA Posts Spring 2019

Climate Change: a Catalyst for the New World Order?

By Moira Johnson
March 11th, 2019

In June of 2017, President Trump announced the U.S. withdrawal from the Paris Climate Agreement that had gone into effect only a few months before.

In October of 2017, TRIP fielded Snap Poll X, embedded in a faculty survey. One of the questions asked was “What are the three most important foreign policy issues facing the U.S. today?”

From the graph below, the top three responses were in order: climate change, the rising power of China, and U.S. domestic political instability. While concern over climate change is most likely driven by Trump’s announcement in June, the two other responses coincide nicely with this raised concern.

Upon examining Op-Eds on the topic of climate change, we see that authors agree with scholarly consensus and are in favor of international agreements regarding the mitigation of climate change. Another theme that can be seen throughout these Op-Eds is the large amount of concern about the opportunity that China has to gain in power and international prestige.

It has been evident for quite some time that the U.S. is losing power on the world stage. China has seen this gap as an opportunity to gain prestige using soft power.

Soft power, or the ability to attract and co-opt (rather than coerce) international actors into doing what you want them to do, has been China’s weapon of choice as of late. We can see this through economic initiatives such as the One Belt One Road initiative unveiled in 2013 and pressing for control over shipping lanes in the South China Sea through the use of historical claims. While the US, which outputs 13% of the world’s greenhouse gasses, steps back from supporting international efforts to curb the effects of climate change, China has stepped up and voluntarily made commitments under the Paris Agreement.

While scholars express concern about the rising power of China, they have little fear that the U.S. and China will go to war anytime soon:

Why could that be? In essence, China has found a different theater in which to wage war with its rivals. While it looks as though climate change would come with a heavy price to pay (as one of the world’s largest emitters of greenhouse gasses, the decision to back international climate agreements looks as though it would harm many of China’s own industries), it actually doesn’t have a huge impact. The goals are largely unambitious for a country with such large greenhouse gas output. By voluntarily setting goals, China takes a step beyond what many industrialized nations have done and are therefore are able to assert their global power.

Climate change is a pressing issue that will affect our planet for generations to come. It will affect crops in ways that could potentially result in global famine. It will lead to rising sea levels, which in turn will generate climate refugees, adding to the already complex global refugee crisis. In sum, it will affect our planet in ways that will be near impossible to reverse.

While China’s stepping up to battle climate change may only seem to be a small step in helping the planet, could this be a step towards the new world order that emerges following the decline of US post cold war influence? The U.S.’s stepping down from the mantle of global leadership leaves space for China to enhance its global prestige and expand its’ economic clout on the world stage.

If you’d like to see more results from the surveys cited above:

TRIP X Snap Poll (Embedded in the 2017 Faculty Survey) (Fielded in October 2017):

TRIP Survey Data Dashboard:

Moira Johnson is a junior at the College of William and Mary, majoring in Government and minoring in Physics. She has worked at TRIP since August of 2018. Her interests include Middle Eastern conflicts, Nuclear Proliferation, and the U.S. Intelligence Community.