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The Politics of Energy Is Changing

By Mohamed Nasheed (The Huffington Post) - July 1, 2013

In February, Russia launched a new Arctic strategy, the latest signal of its intent in the contested, melting polar region. Closer to the equator, temperatures rose in the South China Sea, as Asian nations vied over a cluster of uninhabited islands. Meanwhile, negotiations over the future of Iran’s nuclear programme looked set for a breakthrough, only to fall apart days later. These disparate issues are connected by a common thread: the pursuit of fossil fuels.

Bad energy policy is not just polluting our planet; it is polluting our politics, and warping international relations. It is the invisible force holding nations in thrall to dictators, causing conflicts and repressing human rights, a suffocating inertia that holds back democracy and development. Just as it pollutes the air, the politics of energy is polluting foreign policy.

For more than a century, the fight for fossil fuel resources has shaped the world. It has driven companies to corruption, governments to repression, and nations to war. The struggle to secure and control energy supplies is at the heart of some of our thorniest global problems, from instability in the Middle East to territorial claims in the newly accessible Arctic. The world’s hottest flashpoints are located over its richest reserves. Economies have been ruined, and populations repressed, all in the name of fossil fuels.

Thankfully, the clean energy resources needed to fix the climate problem are now becoming cost competitive with fossil fuels. And clean energy not only has the power to heal our climate, it also has the potential to transform international relations. New sources of energy — solar, wind, and waves — are much more widely distributed than fossil fuels. Some areas are marginally better than others, but there are no ‘resource fields’: huge patches of sky and ocean can be used to generate renewable energy. No longer will nations launch wars over oil, or will energy companies instigate coup d’├ętats to secure contracts. There will be no wars over energy reserves because there will be no energy reserves to fight over. Clean technologies will be truly disruptive and change the way we look at the world.

Moving to clean energy is not just about rewiring the global economy. It is also about a significant shift in the established geopolitical order, a shuffling of the deck in the political great game. This redistribution of resources will bring a new global balance of power. Shale gas and scarcity have begun this process; in a few decades, we may well see an energy-independent America, and an import-dependent Saudi Arabia. But the map will be radically redrawn when clean energy takes over. As a multipolar world emerges, we have a chance to remake energy politics.

I have some first-hand experience of what happens when energy politics rub up against democracy. When I was ousted as President of the Maldives in a police and military coup in February last year, it was telling that those countries that rushed to recognize the new, coup-installed regime were the same nations that had opposed the Maldives’ aggressive climate diplomacy under my tenure.

For people who live in great open lands, in the frontier societies, the world looks very big indeed. Coastal erosion does not seem so pressing when you have the great land mass of continental America behind you. But for my people, island people, the world around us is water. That is what gives us life, sustains us; now it threatens to drown us, and we have no place else to go. For climate vulnerable countries, such as mine, fossil fuels threaten our very existence. In May, carbon concentrations in the atmosphere passed the symbolic, and dangerous, threshold of 400 parts per million. For the Maldives, climate change is no longer tomorrow’s problem.

That is why I believe the fight against climate change is not just an earth science issue, or an economic issue: it is a human rights issue. The way we respond to it will shape not just our environment, but also geopolitical reality for generations to come.

We stand on the brink of a different world. One where the Niger Delta is known not as a toxic breeding ground of instability, but for its rich agricultural soils; where the Strait of Hormuz is not a semi-militarized zone, but just another unpatrolled sea. The politics of energy is changing, and not a moment too soon.

Mohamed Nasheed is the former President of the Republic of Maldives