The good oil: halfway-house technology
Fossil fuels have a greater impact on international politics than many would realise. Photo: Mark Ralston
There has always been a logical link between the political left's views on fossil fuels and the environment, and its views on international relations and human rights. At the heart of both is the noxious effect of a nation's dependence on oil. Unfortunately these two views are now coming into conflict.
The effects of fossil fuels on the environment are well known and don't need repeating here (and if you reject the science on global warming, nothing I could add here would convince you otherwise). The effect of fossil fuels on international politics, however, is less well acknowledged. While putting aside patently false claims that the US invaded Iraq for the oil, American foreign policy has been dominated by a concern over ensuring a reliable supply of oil, largely from the Middle East.
This explains Washington's support for Saudi Arabia and its willingness to look the other way over the monarchy's abuses. Likewise, part of the tension with Iran is due to Tehran's claims to the Straits of Hormuz, one of the main transit points for world oil supplies. With a nuclear bomb it could shut off the oil-filled veins of the global economy with ease.
Oil has a noxious effect on other nations, too. It props up authoritarian regimes such as Russia and Venezuela. It is also a prime source behind the tension in the South China Sea, at present the most unstable region of the world. Oil in short is bad for human rights, bad for peace and bad for the morality of our foreign policies.
A way out of the West's dependence on oil (and thus the wealth and influence of their suppliers) is slowly coming on line, offering a new era for our foreign policies and help for oppressed people around the world. But for the left there's a catch. The new replacement fuels are not the renewables such as solar or wind they want, but halfway-house technologies such as nuclear, coal seam gas, shale gas and tar sands oil. These fuels are much more plentiful within the borders of developed countries (especially the US and Australia), but come with some risks to our own environments.
The reaction of most of the left has been to put domestic concerns first. After all, the issue of fossil fuels is no longer just about environmental degradation but potentially also destruction through climate change. Likewise, after decades of railing for renewables and against the fuel industries it's hard to turn around and accept their moderately cleaner new alternatives.
However, this is not the only choice, and perhaps not the best moral choice.
Arguably, some environmental risk in the territories of rich, developed countries is worth the cost of breaking these same countries from dependence on human rights-abusing regimes around the world. As the US frees itself of oil dependence through these technologies it can increasingly give wholehearted support to the Arab Spring uprisings. It can also be more critical of Saudi funding of extremists and exhibit greater caution about any military action against Iran.
Likewise, the spread of these technologies in Asia would help reduce the economic incentives driving the South China Sea tensions. With China less concerned about the economic wealth under the seas, the likelihood of a conflict with Japan or the Philippines - and thus with the US and perhaps even Australia - drops substantially. We don't know how many people will be affected by climate change, but we can guarantee any conflict over the South China Sea involving these countries would lead to casualties in the tens of thousands, if not millions.
Of course, renewables also offer this path away from conflict, but they're just not ready yet while this technology is. And so the left is stuck. If it wants good environmental policy at home it will continue to reject these half-way-house technologies and risk the continuation of the tense, abusive international environment. If it wants to reduce tensions and improve the chance for freedom for oppressed people around the world, supporting and developing these technologies is an important step. It's not the only answer to our foreign policy problems, just as Western support and purchases are far from the only reason regimes such as Saudi Arabia, Iran, Russia or Venezuela continue to operate free of international justice. But oil cloaks and shields these governments from the courts as well as from their own people.
No one likes to risk spoiling what we have at home. But when there's someone suffering out in the storm, sometimes you have to invite a little mud into your home in order to offer them protection. In time, the left will be able to return to having an environmental policy that supports its international policies. But for the next decade or two their views conflict and the left needs to make a choice about which is more important. Cleanliness at home, or those suffering outside?
Dr Andrew Carr is an associate lecturer at the Strategic and Defence Studies Centre, Australian National University.