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Peak Oil, Geopolitics, and the Green New Deal

AP Photo/Noah Berger

Article by Ishvaku Vashishtha,

In September, British Petroleum (BP) announced that the world had passed “peak oil” demand in its 2020 Energy Outlook report. At the same time, Earth experienced its hottest September on record, the American West Coast has been ablaze on a larger scope and frequency than in past years, and hurricanes continue to batter the Gulf Coast. BP’s announcement has tremendous implications for environmental advocacy in the United States and the global geopolitical order, as it signals the end of the disastrous growth of global oil demand and suggests an imminent energy transition towards more sustainable sources.

It is imperative to consider the new peak in global oil demand within the context of COVID-19. BP’s chief executive, Bernard Looney, suggested that coronavirus has contributed to the peak in global oil demand. Lawmakers ought to consider the material correlation between coronavirus and global oil demand as they design their economic recovery plans. Some may consider the crisis an opportunity to transition into widespread use of sustainable energy sources; however, when assessing the degree of pollution, food insecurity, accelerating natural destruction, and rising dissatisfaction with the state of democracy around the world, the pandemic, in combination with the aforementioned factors, should be considered a mandate for a green transition. As a matter of geopolitics, transitioning away from the global dominance of oil is sure to reshape the global order, as it will weaken the power of OPEC countries (“petrostates”), who have long played a central role in the global economy. States that are able to transition quickly may gain geopolitical leverage as they take the helm of a new market for green energy equipment. The United States and China certainly have a significant interest in–and capacity for–doing so, given the twin superpowers’ shared objective to remain global superpowers.

Mitigating the catastrophic consequences of climate change should be enough of an incentive to transition towards sustainable energy; nonetheless, millions of people have risen up across 160 countries to participate in a mass movement condemning the international community’s lackluster efforts to address climate change. In the United States, contemporary environmental advocacy takes the form of grassroots organizations like the Sunrise Movement and lawmakers supporting the Green New Deal. While domestic legislative reform is necessary to achieve an energy transition and grassroots movements can play a vital role in reforming local approaches to climate change, the environment is a global issue that requires a global solution. For example, the United States is responsible for only 15 percent of global CO2 emissions. A localized effort to curb carbon emissions is necessary; however, efforts that are not global in nature will be insufficient in curbing the effects of climate change. Thus, countries should center climate change in their foreign policy efforts in order to mitigate its effects, with the United States as a bold leader in the fight.

The United States can lead efforts against climate change by engaging in pronounced climate diplomacy, working with large emitters like China and India in order to deliver significant climate action initiatives. An insufficient but important measure the United States can take is to rejoin the Paris Climate Agreement. The United States can also use its voting power in global institutions like the World Bank to redirect investments from fossil fuel to clean energy projects and invest in the Green Climate Fund, ideas that have been proposed by Senator Elizabeth Warren and Senator Bernie Sanders. Climate change is simply too consequential and its effects too catastrophic for it to be merely a tangential consideration in American foreign policy. Climate change ought to be central to foreign policy reform.

President Carter declared that human rights ought to be a “central concern” of U.S. foreign policy, believing that protecting international human rights would advance American interests. Carter’s doctrine rings perhaps even truer today, given the expeditious nature of environmental decline. The Inter-American Court of Human Rights’ landmark decision in Indigenous Communities Members of the Lhaka Honhat Association v. Argentina further establishes the universal right to a healthy environment. The Court declared that states have a duty to ensure compliance with their human rights obligations, including their obligation to protect the right to a healthy environment through ex-ante prevention of violations by private actors within the given state's territory. Insofar as climate change threatens the right to a healthy environment, it poses a threat to human rights. Any effort by the United States to advance human rights must necessarily account for climate change as a central component of its decision-making. In taking up its mandate, the United States has an opportunity to usher in a new era of global cooperation in thwarting a common enemy of our own creation.

What we have before us is an opportunity, a mandate, and a choice. What is clear, is that we must act, now.


Ishvaku Vashishtha (J.D. Candidate, Class of 2023) is a Contributor to Travaux. His interests include human rights law, international political economy, democratization, and economic justice. Ishvaku holds a B.A. in Political Science from the University of California, Berkeley. Before law school, Ishvaku worked as a paralegal specialist for the United States Department of Justice, Antitrust Division and as an organizer for Elizabeth Warren's Presidential campaign. Currently, he is a student counselor with the Workers' Rights Clinic. He is conversationally fluent in Hindi.



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