The world seems to have woken up. It may have been sluggish, but the reluctant acknowledgement of climate change seems to be a global trend in which even some politicians and religious leaders are taking part. The world is turning a cold shoulder to fossil fuels as it begins to embrace clean, sustainable energy technologies. Though global warming had to be rechristened ‘climate change’ to appear more politically palatable, it is now largely accepted as fact. Despite strong resistance in some political quarters, the (developed) world is off like a herd of turtles toward the idealized goal of a greener planet, run on clean energy and empty of fossil fuels.
Yet one consequence of climate change — a consequence of a consequence, really — has been largely unexplored: the negative political ramifications for economies dependent on oil exportation. With the sudden slowdown of the voraciously oil-hungry Chinese economy and recent declines in oil’s price-per-barrel, we’ve been given a peek at the possible future consequences of the green movement for oil-exporting countries. For these nations, the expansion of green energy could mean economic collapse and political instability.
The typical structure of a country economically reliant on the export of oil is one that easily accommodates both political and economic fragility. These nations generally share two interrelated characteristics. First, the health of their economies is inevitably precarious, as it is almost entirely dependent on the desirability of oil and stability of oil prices. Secondly, oil-exporting countries are almost invariably developing nations characterized by restive populations subdued by oil wealth and the governmental subsidies and benefits it provides.
Moreover, the governments of oil-exporting countries tend to either be iron-fisted authoritarian regimes or semi-democratic leaderships deeply afflicted by corruption. In the former group, there are countries like Qatar and Oman, where oil and gas exports account for 55 percent and 50 percent of GDP, respectively. Fossil fuels keep their rulers in power and maintain a veneer of order and law, authoritarian as it may be. This system, in which rights are exchanged for political stability and economic prosperity, has been quite effective in Saudi Arabia, notorious for egregious human rights abuses. Though the citizens of these nations are stripped of a good deal of freedom and independence, oil money insures that they are the beneficiaries of expansive social programs and government subsidies. This delicate balance is achieved solely through oil wealth, as the heads of state in these countries are surely aware. Were oil to lose its value, so too would these authoritarians lose their legitimacy; the passivity of the population — the direct result of their prosperity — would almost certainly reverse into an intolerance of their political repression should the benefits of oil wealth no longer be available.
In the latter category are countries like Nigeria and Venezuela, culturally disparate but economically quite similar. Oil money in these nations does not necessarily determine heads of state, but it serves as a much-needed lubricant to keep the bureaucracy and, by extension, the government, running. In these countries, violence and internal discord is already rife, propagated by weak government institutions, and ready to be exaggerated by poor economic conditions. In Nigeria, the sale of petroleum accounts for an enormous 80 percent of the government’s total revenue; in Venezuela, oil revenues make up for roughly 95 percent of export earnings. The governments of both countries are already shaky: Nigeria is plagued by a religious divide that runs along a North-South line, as well as by Boko Haram’s Islamic extremism; Venezuela has one of the highest murder rates in the world, and the office of its Prosecutor General estimates that 98 percent of crimes are not prosecuted. The labor and jobs provided by oil, as well as the smattering of government subsidies oil wealth enables, have maintained a fragile status quo in these countries. Without oil money to smooth over social and political tensions, however, unrest will translate into chronic violence that these frail governments will be unable to withstand.
Oil wealth has been used to shore up the cracks in unstable governments for decades, but that well is drying up. The economic turmoil that inevitably accompanies reduced oil revenues will create palpable discontent among these nations’ citizenries, as there is an inextricable link between the health of the economy and the happiness of any country’s population. As oil continues to lose its value in competition with renewable energies, young people in oil-exporting countries will be forced to grow up in a desolate economic environment, and they will likely form the core of a restless polity.
Authoritarian governments that previously subdued their populations with military strength or social subsidies will no longer have the means to fund social satisfaction. Fragile governments will find themselves facing angry citizens unable to live within violent societies that leave them hopelessly unemployed . These are the conditions of a terminally ill economy:those that produce mass economic migration and domestic strife that translates into civil wars, which in turn generate refugees and regional instability.
It doesn’t seem that the tide will turn away from the implementation of clean energy in the place of oil — and it shouldn’t. We are now internationally in agreement that the earth is in need of sustainable energy sources. However, much like climate change itself, this shift could entail chaotic political consequences that require determined action to avoid. The shift from fossil fuels to clean energy may be inescapable, but it will also be inevitably slow. In a sense, this is a blessing for nations dependent on oil exportation, as this intermittent time allows a much-needed opportunity for economic diversification.
There is no singular blueprint for economic diversification, and it is difficult to create the multiple branches of a diverse economy out of a market singularly focused on oil exports. A conscious effort to tap into other sectors of the economy with the potential for new growth, instead of tapping back into the oil well, will be the first step towards attaining a more balanced economic environment. This will in turn help these countries achieve more stable political environments, but governments of oil-exporting countries should also be aware that this may not be enough.
To appease a population aware of ebbing economic prospects, legitimate avenues of political participation will likely have to be opened to the general citizenry. In politically fragile nations, government institutions will have to be democratically strengthened and legitimized in a similar fashion, particularly through the implementation of corruption-fighting strategies that increase public-sector efficiency. Economic reform that lacks a political component will ultimately stymie social development, leaving the fundamental problems of these fragile governments unsolved.
When the first hints of climate change began to show themselves, we chose to be awash in ignorance of the potential consequences, and now we are paying the price of always being one step behind. If no changes are made to the way in which oil-dependent economies choose to operate, they will find themselves in the same position, but replete with political ramifications in addition to the environmental ones. Like with climate change, it is more comfortable to feign obliviousness and close our eyes, but we know what faces us at the end of that path. Taking the uncomfortable but necessary steps sooner, before the onset of a crisis, will prevent a perpetual, political game of catch-up that we are now playing with the environment.
Zoe Savellos, a sophomore studying political science, is a staff writer at Stanford Political Journal.