What happens if global efforts to set and abide by strong carbon emissions cuts fail?
The standard answer to a question like this is that "we all suffer." While that's probably true, it misses the point -- we may all suffer, but we don't all suffer equally. Some nations will be hit harder by storms or droughts than others; some nations will have the resources and technologies to adapt better than others. And therein lies the potential for what may end up as a nasty tool of international competition.
There is, I believe, a non-zero chance that an extended period of climate instability could induce a state that believes itself to be better able to adapt to global warming to slow its efforts to decarbonize in order to gain a lead over its more vulnerable rivals.
Hear me out.
We know that while carbon emissions may come from particular locations, the effects of carbon in the atmosphere are global. If only China, or only the US (or Europe, or Japan) cut carbon emissions to zero, the net result would be at best a delay of the onset of significant climate effects. This is one reason why climate negotiations are such a mess -- we don't just have to change our own systems, we have to make sure that (essentially) everybody else is changing their systems, too. No one nation can cut carbon emissions enough to stop global warming by itself. As a result, we could have a situation where we still get bad climate impacts -- that is, climate agreements have effectively failed -- even if some or most of the treaty signatories have met their commitments.
In such a scenario, there's no doubt we'd see widespread calls to decarbonize as swiftly as possible -- but "as swiftly as possible" may itself be problematic, if the effects of climate disaster hit the world's economy hard (as it likely would).
This is the kind of scenario that would push some people to call for geoengineering, and while I do think that would end up being considered, it's not the focus of this essay.
It's very likely that one of the political impacts of climate problems would be to increase tensions between nations. This would come about due to people assigning blame (rightly or wrongly), competition over resources such as arable land, and just the defensiveness and hostility that seems to inevitably happen when a powerful state comes under significant pressure. Even countries that have had historically close relations (such as the US and western Europe, or the US and post-WWII Japan) could see wedges driven between them; countries that have had a more complicated history could see a level of hostility unmatched in recent years.
Just imagine, for a moment, how China would act if it had cause to believe that American or Russian intransigence over carbon reduction was a leading trigger of global warming-induced problems such as droughts and massive dust storms? Or how America would act if they felt they had cause to blame the Chinese or Russians? It's unlikely that this would be enough to bring about a shooting war; at the very least, nuclear deterrence would still apply. But it would definitely lead to angry rivals trying to undermine each other.
In this scenario, the leadership of a powerful state might come to believe that:
The effects of decarbonization would be slow and diffuse, but
Said powerful state was well-suited to engage in adaptation projects, while
The rival(s) of said powerful state were more vulnerable to the impacts of anthropogenic global warming, so that
The rival(s) would be weakened relative to said powerful state if the effects of global warming persisted and said powerful state adapted.
In short, a powerful state believing itself better-able to adapt to or withstand the effects of global warming might see a persistent advantage to its rivals being hurt by global warming, and slow its decarbonization accordingly.
If all of that sounds ludicrous to you, you've probably forgotten about (or never lived through) the Cold War between the US and the Soviet Union. This kind of thinking wouldn't be new. The US feared that a Soviet nuclear first strike would sufficiently degrade the potential US response that, in combination with widespread bomb shelters and other civil defense mechanisms, the Soviets could "ride out" retaliation (making the Soviets more willing to launch a first strike). This fear led the US to embrace a "launch on warning" posture, meaning that the US declared that it would launch an attack on the USSR upon receiving alerts that a Soviet attack was starting.
It doesn't matter whether or not the fears were justified -- simply recognizing the possibility resulted in altered behavior.
How, then, would the recognition of the possibility of the strategic use of differential climate adaptation change international behavior? What could we as citizens do to prevent this kind of action?
More troublingly, how could we tell if something like that was happening already?
The irony in all of this? Geoengineering may start to look like the less politically-fraught alternative.