National security and the paradox of sustainable energy systems

Bruner Oil smallUnlike economic policy, national security is rarely influenced by popular decisions taken in the public domain. While citizen-led movements in Western democracies may help to encourage or discourage a particular military intervention or diplomatic alliance, the actual coordination of efforts to mitigate major security threats rests with top tier generals, qualified analysts and skilled specialists. The public may elect leaders who will, by popular mandate, appoint experts to govern domestic and/or foreign intelligence organisations. But the actual responsibility over national security lies far beyond the public sphere, situated centrally, in the upper echelons of government. Centralised management of national security decision-making reflects the realities of a global system whereby rogue nations issue warnings by testing ‘low-intensity’ nuclear weapons, extremists pledge to murder innocent civilians en masse, cyber attackers plot to expose state secrets and organised criminals smuggle large volumes of deadly weapons into the hands of drug czars and tribal warlords. It is a system bedevilled by deadly, chaotic forces. Only experienced individuals at the highest levels of government are qualified to deal with these deadly forces and to take calculated measures designed to protect the innocent. However, even with the best and brightest at the helm, ‘success’ is not always guaranteed. Threat multipliers in the form of climate destabilisation and volatility in financial markets are further complicating matters so that the challenges of understanding and mitigating security threats in the 21st century are perhaps more daunting than they have ever been in modern history.

At the start of a century characterised by constrained resources, rapid population rises and the collapse of oppressive regimes – some home to high-yielding oil provinces – the need to gain access to sensitive information and the capability to process and manage sensitive information flows is of paramount importance for decision-makers whose job it is to maximise the safety of citizens. So too, is the availability of predictable fossil fuel supplies and the capacity to manage conventional supply chains, essential for ensuring the smooth functioning of day-to-day telecommunications and transportation systems. At least, for now and irrespective of whether or not they are aware of it, citizens in Western economies demand acute regularity in the functioning of electrical grids and cost effective fuel supplies for manufacturing, importing and delivering basic goods. Affordable energy keeps commerce afloat and allows for a minimal standard of living without which, most people and especially people with investment capital, would either relocate or protest. Ideally, in societies organised on the basis of industrial capitalism (which nearly all are), telecommunications and transport systems will not merely function predictably, but will prosper and grow. Attracting foreign investment and foreign companies from abroad depends on creating a stable environment for businesses to operate.

Steady access to affordable energy supplies also enables advanced economies to thrive by facilitating an environment in which livelihoods are not stifled by a lack of lighting, heating, refrigeration, medical equipment, clean water and sanitation. These fundamental energy and infrastructure services, once they become readily available and cost competitive, create the conditions from which innovations and new products like the Internet and renewables technologies can emerge. It could therefore be argued, that like a seed to a tree, green shoots stem from brown roots. Is it any wonder why most countries are moving rapidly ahead with business as usual? Without growth, trade and industry stagnate, inflation can rise, so too can food prices and when that happens – as we’ve witnessed in the Arab Spring – populations can revolt. Industrial growth, in a global capitalist system that is overwhelmingly dependent on oil and gas, must continue or the global economy will collapse. Alternatively, an energy transition, where fossil fuels are gradually phased out or replaced by renewable sources may be on the horizon. But whether or not a global energy system fuelled by renewables will yield economic growth on par with that of the 20th century will largely depend on the prudence of heads of state and industry in managing the transition. Meanwhile, global carbon emissions have risen by even more than previously thought, according to new a recent article published by the Guardian.

Jeremy Rifkin, senior adviser to many European heads of state, including the European Commission has put forth a vision for a ‘Third Industrial Revolution (TIR)’ which aims to integrate smart communications technologies with distributed, renewable energy resources into an ‘energy Internet’. This energy Internet, according to Rifkin, constitutes an essential paradigm shift, which will spell an end to the old embedded top-down hierarchies of centralised governance, which the Second Industrial Revolution produced. The old top-down method of organising fossil-fuelled energy and telecommunications networks will be replaced by a new way of laterally organising renewable-fuelled energy and transnational information communication networks. The TIR has gained popular support throughout Europe at various governance scales, legitimising Rifkin’s recommendations for a complete overhaul of existing infrastructure and services delivery systems. This overhaul consists of 5 pillars:

  • Shifting to Renewable Energy
  • Converting Buildings into Power Plants
  • Hydrogen and Other Energy Storage Technology
  • Smart Grid Technology
  • Plug in, Electric, Hybrid, and Fuel Cell based Transportation

Rifkin’s optimism is a refreshing break from many of the dire forecasts we’re accustomed to hearing. His solutions-oriented approach, is aligned closely with those of some of the world’s leading industrialists as evidenced by their involvement in the TIR Global CEO Business Roundtable – a committee of TIR supporters who gather informally to discuss how to strategically implement Rifkin’s vision. At the same time, there is a missing element to Rifkin’s thesis. If national security is deeply concerned with ensuring a steady stream of access to conventional energy sources and requires a high degree of central control over sensitive information in order to mitigate 21st century threats, then Rifkin’s TIR vision, which advocates a decentralised, renewable ‘energy Internet’ leaves open the question of security as it relates to the realities of a fossil fuel industry-dependent global economy. What’s more, there is evidence that while the TIR vision has widespread support amongst heads of state and industry, governments everywhere are going to great lengths to secure access to diminishing fossil fuel reserves. A recent post by SustainableSecurity.org, ‘The Security Implications of the Current Resource Scramble,’ draws attention to the work of Michael Klare, which provides several cases in point. Klare is Defense Correspondent for The Nation magazine and has published, among other works, a book titled The Race for What’s Left, in which he outlines in great detail the efforts of the world’s most powerful nation-states, pursuing access to increasingly scarce, yet fundamental resources. This work lies in stark contrast to Rifkin’s bestseller, The Third Industrial Revolution, which paints a much rosier picture. Klare’s analysis presents us with a possible future in which governments continue to work closely with industry to protect their populations from fundamental supply shortfalls for many of the good reasons outlined above.

The transition away from a centralised global economy built around conventional energy sources to a decentralised global economy mostly fuelled by renewable resources is one we must make for the sake of our children’s futures and that of our planet. Rifkin has outlined a game plan for smoothing the transition in a way and on a scale which powerful government decision-makers and industry leaders can support. But there needs to be another parallel conversation on what the TIR vision means for the future of national security. If, as Rifkin argues, the historical development of telecommunications, infrastructure and energy systems are interwoven, then a move to make one sustainable overhaul in one of these sectors must be reflected in both the other two sectors. Rifkin’s plan acknowledges this fact, but leaves open the question of security. If national security is at present, deeply concerned with preserving access to conventional energy, then how would national security for a decentralised renewable energy Internet be managed? Who would manage it? And what role, if any, could the public play in helping to alleviate some of the burdens of 21st century threat mitigation?

Phillip Bruner is Founder of the Green Investment Forum and a guest lecturer in global political economy at the University of Edinburgh

Image source: Truthout