During the first night of the initial Democratic debates for the 2020 election, candidates were asked to name the biggest geopolitical threat to the United States. Of the 10 contenders on stage, four identified China and three named climate change. On the second night, in response to different questions, many of the other 10 candidates also cited the dangers of China and climate change to U.S. interests and national security. What many of these aspirants to the nation’s highest office may not yet grasp is that the United States has an opportunity to begin tackling both risks through one action: investing in renewable energy and green technology.
Democratic and Republican leaders alike have increasingly realized the degree to which China poses a threat, not only in security terms but also economically and technologically. The energy field is a prime example. China has already set in motion an unparalleled financial investment in green technology. According to the International Renewable Energy Agency, China is now the world’s largest producer, exporter, and installer of solar panels, wind turbines, batteries, and electric vehicles. Further, China maintains hundreds of thousands of patents on renewable energy technology, with approximately 29 percent of the world’s total patent registrations as of 2016. At the same time, China has invested heavily in African mining infrastructure in an effort to dominate mineral markets that are crucial for future technology manufacturing and development.
China also has exploited another component of the clean energy mix: nuclear power. Through its Belt and Road Initiative, China has hatched an ambitious plan to sell upwards of 30 nuclear reactors by 2030 — at the estimated sum of 1 trillion yuan ($145.52 billion). While the United States remains the global leader in nuclear energy technology and innovation, China’s nuclear ambitions clearly are resolute.
As China builds and extends its economic dominance, Congress is slowly coming around to the risk that climate change poses to national security. It’s a danger the scientific community first identified in the 1970s and that the Defense Department has long cited as a critical threat for its role in spurring conflicts over water, usable land, and other resources.
Many of the current Democratic field of candidates have presented plans and positions that identify climate change and renewable energy as top priorities, not only for the potential to deal with global warming, but also for the economic potential. For instance, U.S. Senator Elizabeth Warren articulated during the debate how her plan could rejuvenate manufacturing within the United States through investment in green technology. Warren told the audience, “There’s going to be a worldwide need for green technology — ways to clean up the air and clean up the water. And we can be the ones to provide that. We need to go 10-fold in our research and development in green energy going forward.”
Former U.S. Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Julián Castro also identified China and climate security during the debates as priority strategic challenges facing the nation, and other candidates are thinking critically about the future of climate and renewable energy policies.
But if these candidates view China as a major competitor and want to establish the United States as a leader in addressing global warming and developing green energy, it is time to bridge the partisan divide on these issues. The government needs to truly focus investment on this field and on the associated research and development necessary to surpass China’s efforts.Fortunately, Congress now is openly discussing global warming and its effects, in part because the Pentagon has raised the specter of the impact on military operations. That creates an opportunity for all the 2020 presidential candidates to address the climate crisis as both a national security and economic issue. In addition to advancing global security and addressing climate change, green technology research and development, not to mention manufacturing and services, could generate more jobs for Americans.
Some experts have indicated that nuclear energy could work in tandem with renewables, while also serving as a clean technology bridge allowing the United States to shrink its use of fossil fuel. Still, steadily decreasing public support for nuclear energy because of concerns about how to safely operate reactors and store the resulting waste has made it extremely challenging for Congress to even ensure a future for the existing array of reactors, which account for an estimated 19 percent of U.S. energy production. With a string of nuclear plant closures scheduled to take place before 2025, the U.S. will need a major injection from alternate sources to meet growing U.S. energy demand.
Democratic presidential candidates have expressed varied support of nuclear power, whether by maintaining existing plants or by expanding research and development of advanced nuclear technologies. Both Warren and U.S. Senator Cory Booker voted to include funding for the latter in the North American Energy and Security Infrastructure Act of 2016. Other candidates have adopted a tougher stance, leaning against nuclear technologies. Senator Bernie Sanders, for example, has called for a ban on new nuclear construction. Former Vice President Joe Biden and Senator Kamala Harris are among those who have yet to publicly state their positions on building new nuclear power plants.
As the candidates continue to develop their 2020 platforms, they must come to grips with the need to compete with China militarily and economically for America’s long-term security. They should consider the clear nexus between those demands and the potential security and prosperity that green technology can deliver for the United States.
To be sure, U.S. political leaders will need to find ways of balancing the imperative of maintaining an edge over China with that country’s role as a crucial trading partner for the United States and its allies. China is the United States’ largest trading partner in goods, with 2018 imports from the Asian behemoth exceeding half a trillion dollars.
But the path to competing effectively with the Chinese juggernaut — and ensuring the United States is well-positioned to remain a geopolitical leader — runs directly through investment in green technology and clean and renewable energy. That carries the potential to address two major issues with a singular and focused offensive.