Unilateral destruction

To secure energy for the future, tackle climate change and end violence in oil-rich areas, a cooperative approach is now required, writes Mary Kaldor.

When politicians talk about energy "security", they worry about securing the supply of energy to the west. But when politicians talk about climate change, they are more likely to adopt a global perspective, worrying about the planet as a whole and not just the west. Yet both challenges are interrelated and both require a global cooperative approach.

Those who worry about energy security fear that Europe will become too dependent on Russian or Middle Eastern oil and gas, and that competition to secure new sources of supply could lead to conflict. The Great Game is the term used to describe the way Russia uses its energy policy to exert influence over its neighbours in the Caucasus or central Asia. And the term Scramble for Africa is applied to the west’s competition with China over oil investments in Africa.

Conflict and security is also a concern for those who worry about climate change, but it is conflict among non-state actors far away rather than major states. Margaret Beckett, the former British foreign secretary, referred in a recent speech to the conflict in Darfur, Sudan, as a climate-driven conflict. Underlying the crisis, she said, was a "struggle between nomadic and pastoral communities for resources made more scarce through a changing climate". And she warned of similar conflicts in other parts of Africa and the Middle East.

But neither of these concerns explains why humans compete rather than cooperate in managing scarce resources. Energy security and climate change could be treated as an opportunity as well as a danger. The shared risks of running out of oil and heating the planet could lead to common action rather than conflict.

In the case of energy security, the risk is not so much conflict among major powers but the instability within producer countries and their regions that results from over-reliance on oil revenues. Our dependence on oil has distorted the states and society of countries that produce oil.

Typically, oil-dependent states are weak and/or authoritarian states. In places such as Iraq, Chechnya, Nigeria or Colombia, pipelines are blown up, oil workers are taken hostage, smuggling and corruption are widespread, and oil rents — whether obtained legally or illegally — are used to finance violence.

This instability is exacerbated by geo-political competition in the form of the Great Game or the Scramble for Africa, as outside powers back different factions.

In the case of Darfur, the explanation may be the same. It is not climate change per se that has caused the conflict. The Sudanese government's backing for the Janjaweed militia and its failure to prevent or stop the conflict or to allow a substantial international presence is an equally important explanation. Like Iraq or Russia, Sudan is a weak and authoritarian state, dependent on oil revenues to sustain the apparatus of government. Competition between the west and China, as well as within Sudan, to capture oil and its revenues further exacerbate the conflict.

Studies suggest that dependence on oil revenues is a significant factor associated with violent conflict. Yet there is no clear evidence that either resource scarcity or natural disasters contribute to conflicts — they can lead to cooperation and to conflict. But the evidence of a correlation between violence and a state's dependence on oil rents as its main form of revenue is compelling.

Oil-dependent states are "rentier" states. Governments do not depend on taxation to finance their activities, and therefore do not need a social contract with their citizens. Instead, oil rents are distributed through patronage networks.

When oil prices are high, states such as Russia, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Nigeria or Venezuela can survive through a combination of patronage, repression and a nationalist, often anti-west, rhetoric. But as competition for the oil rents surpasses the available revenues, oil states often degenerate into sectarian conflicts among competing, often transnational, networks. In the Caucasus, for example, unsavoury networks of oil traders, enterprise managers, security services and ethnic nationalists are an important conduit for energy rents, exploiting local conflicts in places such as Chechnya, and manipulating relations with outside oil interests.

The scenarios of geo-political conflict with Russia or more climate-driven conflicts over scarce resources presuppose an old-fashioned view of sovereignty in which each group or state takes unilateral responsibility for securing resources and has no concern for others. Yet we live in an era of globalisation. Because of the myriad ways in which events in one place influence others, this unilateral approach is self-defeating — any attempt to secure energy supplies unilaterally is bound to backfire and exacerbate the spread of conflict.

This is why any solution to energy shortage, climate change and violent conflict has to address the interdependence of this triple challenge and has to involve global cooperation. The solution is not just reducing the dependence on oil of the west and emerging markets. Any effort to solve the problems of energy security or climate change unilaterally by, for example, reducing dependence on particular oil producers could risk instability in producer countries and undermine the prospects for finding common approaches to climate change. It could accelerate the process of state failure.

In his 2006 state of the union address, president George W Bush talked about weaning America from its addiction to oil. But we also need to wean the producing states from their addiction to oil rents. The oil dependence of producer states can be reduced through diversification, but this does not happen in most oil-dependent states because the funds that should have been invested in diversification are siphoned off by rent-seeking sectarian patronage networks.

Oil revenue transparency and public debate are crucial in addressing this problem, and they need to be supported by outside states and international agencies. Moreover, energy security needs to be about access to energy supplies for individuals and communities everywhere and not just the west.

A reduction of oil dependence and other CO2-emitting fuels among both consumers and producers and a fair distribution of resources require the construction of legitimate states operating within a framework of global cooperation. In other words, saving the planet is not a technical problem, even though a lot of scientific knowledge is required; it goes to the heart of the way we as human beings govern ourselves.


Mary Kaldor is professor of global governance and co-director of the Centre for the Study of Global Governance at the London School of Economics. Her book, Oil Wars, is published by Pluto.

Copyright Guardian News & Media Ltd 2007

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