Climate Change Michael T. Klare

How to Save the World From a Climate Armageddon

If Beijing and Washington can’t reach some kind of serious agreement, we, our children, and our grandchildren are in trouble deep. We face a future all-too-literally embroiled in what, as he explains, could be the hottest “war” around.
[Riccardo Maria Mantero / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0]

By Michael T. Klare / TomDispatch

This summer we witnessed, with brutal clarity, the Beginning of the End: the end of Earth as we know it — a world of lush forests, bountiful croplands, livable cities, and survivable coastlines. In its place, we saw the early manifestations of a climate-damaged planet, with scorched forests, parched fields, scalding cities, and storm-wracked coastlines. In a desperate bid to prevent far worse, leaders from around the world will soon gather in Glasgow, Scotland, for a U.N. Climate Summit. You can count on one thing, though: all their plans will fall far short of what’s needed unless backed by the only strategy that can save the planet: a U.S.-China Climate Survival Alliance.

Of course, politicians, scientific groups, and environmental organizations will offer plans of every sort in Glasgow to reduce global carbon emissions and slow the process of planetary incineration. President Biden’s representatives will tout his promise to promote renewable energy and install electric-car-charging stations nationwide, while President Macron of France will offer his own ambitious proposals, as will many other leaders. However, no combination of these, even if carried out, would prove sufficient to prevent global disaster — not as long as China and the U.S. continue to prioritize trade competition and war preparations over planetary survival.

In the end, it’s not complicated. If the planet’s two “great” powers refuse to cooperate in a meaningful way in tackling the climate threat, we’re done for.

That harsh reality was made clear in September. The United Nations then issued a report on the likely impact of pledges already made by the nations that signed the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement (from which President Trump withdrew in 2017 and which the U.S. has only recently rejoined). According to the U.N.’s analysis, even if all 200 signatories were to abide by their pledges — and almost none have — global temperatures are likely to rise by 2.7 degrees Celsius (nearly 5 degrees Fahrenheit) above pre-industrial levels by century’s end. And that, in turn, most scientists agree, is a recipe for catastrophically irreversible changes to the planetary ecosphere, including the kind of sea level rise that will inundate most American coastal cities (and many others around the world) and the sort of heat, fire, and drought that will turn the American West into an uninhabitable wasteland.

Scientists generally agree that, to avert such catastrophic outcomes, global warming must not exceed, at worst, 2 degrees Celsius over pre-industrial levels — and preferably, no more than 1.5 degrees Celsius. Mind you, the planet has already warmed 1 degree Celsius and we’ve only recently seen just how much damage even that amount of added heat can produce. To limit warming to 2 degrees Celsius, by 2030, scientists believe, global carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions would have to be reduced by 25% from 2018 levels; to limit it to 1.5 degrees, by 55%. Yet those emissions — driven by strong economic growth in China, India, and other rapidly industrializing nations — have actually been on an upward trajectory, rising on average by 1.8% per year between 2009 and 2019.

Several European countries, including Denmark, Norway, and the Netherlands, have launched heroic efforts to lower their emissions to reach that 1.5 degree target, setting an example for nations with far bigger economies. But however admirable, in the grand scheme of things, they just won’t matter enough to save the planet. Only the United States and China, by far the world’s top two carbon emitters, are in a position to do so.

It all boils down to this: to save human civilization, the U.S. and China must dramatically reduce their CO2 emissions, while working together to persuade other major carbon-emitting nations, beginning with fast-rising India, to follow suit. That would, of course, mean setting aside their current antagonisms, however important they may seem to U.S. and Chinese leaders today, and instead making climate survival their number one priority and policy objective. Otherwise, put simply, all is lost.

The U.S.-China Carbon Juggernaut

To fully grasp just how central China and the United States (the largest carbon polluter in history) are to the global climate-change equation, you have to grasp their present roles in both carbon consumption and CO2 emissions.

In 2020, according to the BP Statistical Review of World Energy 2021 (a widely respected source), China was the world’s top user of coal, the most carbon-intense of the three fossil fuels. That country was responsible for a staggering 54.3% of total world consumption; India came in second at 11.6%; and the U.S. third at 6.1%. When it came to petroleum consumption, the U.S. took first place with 19.9% of world usage and China came in second with 15.7%. The U.S. was also number one when it came to consumption of natural gas, followed by Russia and China.

Combine all three kinds and China and the U.S. were jointly responsible for 42% of total global fossil-fuel consumption in 2020. No other countries came even remotely close. Rising fast in the energy realm, India accounted for 6.2% of global fossil-fuel consumption and the European Union for 8.5%, which should give you some idea of the way the two countries dominate the global energy equation.

Not surprisingly, since they’re responsible for such a large share of fossil-fuel consumption every year and the combustion of those fuels is responsible for the overwhelming majority of global carbon emissions, China and the U.S. also account for a comparably large share of those discharges. According to BP, China was the world’s leading source of CO2 emissions in 2020, responsible for 30.7% of the global total, while the United States came in second with 13.8%. No other country even reached double digits and the European Union as a whole accounted for only 7.9%.

Put simply, the heating of this planet can’t be slowed down and eventually stopped if the U.S. and China don’t slash their carbon emissions drastically in the coming decades and invest massively — on a scale comparable to preparing for a world war — in alternative energy systems. We’re talking about trillions of dollars of future expenses. But there’s really no choice, not if we want to save our civilization.

The Mastodon in the Room

Any strategy to substantially reduce global CO2 emissions and keep global warming from exceeding 2 degrees (let alone 1.5 degrees) Celsius above pre-industrial levels must confront the largest obstacle to success around: China’s continuing reliance on coal to provide the lion’s share of its energy supply. According to BP, in 2020, China obtained 57% of its primary energy needs from coal. No other country comes close to that. If China was responsible for 26% of total world energy consumption that year, then its coal combustion alone constituted 15% of global energy usage — a greater share than Europe’s from all energy sources combined.

If China phases out its coal plants in this decade and other countries followed through on their Paris commitments, meeting that target of 1.5 to 2 degrees Celsius and avoiding a climate Armageddon would at least be possible. But that’s not the way China’s headed. Not faintly. According to some reports, that country is actually expected to boost (yes, boost!) its coal consumption in this decade by adding 88 gigawatts of coal-fired power capacity. (A large, modern coal-fired plant can generate about 1 gigawatt of electricity at a time.) Worse yet, its officials are mulling over plans to sooner or later build another 159 gigawatts worth. Because coal is the most carbon-intensive of the fossil fuels, to construct and operate so many new coal-powered plants will add monstrously to China’s CO2 emissions, making a sharp reduction in global emissions impossible.

Chinese President Xi Jinping has indeed spoken of building an “ecological civilization” and has also promised to halt the rise in China’s carbon emissions by 2030. For a time, it appeared that he was even prepared to take stern measures to halt the growth of China’s coal consumption. He did, in fact, pledge that his country would reach peak oil consumption by 2025 and halt the financing of the construction of coal plants abroad as part of its globalizing “Belt and Road Initiative,” a major shift in policy. But it seems that his government has otherwise turned a blind eye to efforts by provincial governments and powerful state-owned energy firms to rush the construction of new coal plants at home.

Western analysts believe that Chinese leaders are desperate to propel economic expansion in the wake of the Covid pandemic. Offering cheap energy from coal is one obvious way of facilitating investment in new infrastructure projects, a standard tactic for boosting growth. Some analysts also suspect that Beijing has allowed coal production to increase in response to U.S. trade sanctions and other expressions of Washington’s hostility. “The recent U.S.-China trade war has further heightened Chinese concerns about energy security, given that the country imports roughly 70% of its oil needs and 40% of its gas requirements,” Daniel Gardner of Princeton’s High Meadow Environmental Group pointed out in the Los Angeles Times, adding, “Coal — abundant and relatively inexpensive — seems to many a reliable, tried-and-true energy source.”

Why a U.S.-China Climate Survival Alliance is Essential

Recently, during a meeting with top officials in Tianjin, President Biden’s global climate envoy, former Secretary of State John Kerry, chided the Chinese for their addiction to coal. “Adding some 200-plus gigawatts of coal over the last five years, and now another 200 or so coming online in the planning stage, if it went to fruition would actually undo the ability of the rest of the world to achieve a limit of 1.5 degrees [Celsius],” he reportedly said to them during their interchange.

There was, however, no way Chinese leaders were going to respond positively to his entreaties, given the growing hostility between the U.S. and China. Even more than during the final Trump years, Washington under President Biden has voiced support for Taiwan — considered a renegade province by Beijing — while seeking to encircle China with an ever-more-militarized network of anti-Chinese alliances. These include the newly formed “AUKUS” (Australia, the United Kingdom, and the U.S.) pact that also involved the ominous promise to sell American nuclear-powered submarines to the Australians. Chinese leaders have responded angrily that any progress on climate change must await improvement in what they consider more critical aspects of their relationship with America.

“China-U.S. cooperation on climate change cannot be divorced from the overall situation of China-U.S. relations,” Foreign Minister Wang Yi told Kerry during his September visit to China. “The U.S. side wants the climate change cooperation to be an ‘oasis’ of China-U.S. relations. However, if the oasis is all surrounded by deserts, then sooner or later, the ‘oasis’ will be desertified.”

In theory, the two countries could pursue the goal of radical decarbonization on their own — each independently spending the necessary trillions of dollars on domestic energy transformation. It is, however, essentially impossible to imagine such an outcome in today’s world of intensifying military and economic competition. In March, for instance, China announced a 6.8% increase in military spending for 2021, raising the official budget of the People’s Liberation Army to $209 billion. (Many analysts believe the actual figure is much higher.) Similarly, on Sept. 23rd, the U.S. House of Representatives authorized defense spending of $740 billion for Fiscal Year 2022, $24 billion more than the staggering sum requested by the Biden administration. Both countries are also moving to “decouple” their critical supply lines, while investing vast amounts in the race to dominate technologies like artificial intelligence, robotics, and microelectronics assumed to be essential to future success, whether in trade wars or actual ones. Neither is planning to invest anything faintly comparable in efforts to slow the pace of global warming and so save the planet.

Only when China and the United States elevate the threat of climate change above their geopolitical rivalry will it be possible to envision action on a sufficient scale to avert the future incineration of this planet and the collapse of human civilization. This should hardly be an impossible political or intellectual stretch. On January 27th, in an Executive Order on Tackling the Climate Crisis, President Biden did, in fact, decree that “climate considerations shall be an essential element of United States foreign policy and national security.” That same day, Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin issued a companion statement, saying that his “Department will immediately take appropriate policy actions to prioritize climate change considerations in our activities and risk assessments, to mitigate this driver of insecurity.” (At the moment, however, the thought that Republicans in Congress would support such positions, no less fund them, is beyond imagining.)

In any case, such comments have already been overshadowed by the Biden administration’s fixation on dominating China globally, as have any comparable impulses on the part of the Chinese leadership. Still, the understanding is there: climate change poses an overwhelming existential threat to both American and Chinese “security,” a reality that will only grow fiercer as greenhouse gases continue to pour into our atmosphere. To defend their respective homelands not against each other but against nature, both sides will increasingly be compelled to devote ever more funds and resources to flood protection, disaster relief, fire-fighting, seawall construction, infrastructure replacement, population resettlement, and other staggeringly expensive, climate-related undertakings. At some point, such costs will far exceed the amounts needed to fight a war between us.

Once this reckoning sinks in, perhaps U.S. and Chinese officials will begin forging an alliance aimed at defending their own countries and the world against the coming ravages of climate change. If John Kerry were to return to China and tell its leadership, “We are phasing out all our coal plants, working to eliminate our reliance on petroleum, and are prepared to negotiate a mutual reduction in Pacific naval and missile forces,” then he could also say to his Chinese counterparts, “You need to start phasing out your coal use now — and here’s how we think you can do it.”

Once such an agreement was achieved, Presidents Biden and Xi could turn to Prime Minister Narendra Modi of India, and say, “You must follow in our footsteps and eliminate your dependence on fossil fuels.” And then, the three together could tell the leaders of every other nation: “Do as we’re doing, and we’ll support you. Oppose us, and you’ll be cut off from the world economy and perish.”

That’s how to save this planet from a climate Armageddon. There really is no other way.

Copyright 2021 Michael Klare

Michael T. Klare, a TomDispatch regular, is the five-college professor emeritus of peace and world security studies at Hampshire College and a senior visiting fellow at the Arms Control Association. He is the author of 15 books, the latest of which is All Hell Breaking Loose: The Pentagon’s Perspective on Climate Change. He is a founder of the Committee for a Sane U.S.-China Policy.


  1. I present the United States Army War College’s 2019 report, Implications of Climate Change for the U. S. Army to my city council warning them not to get hooked on natural gas and showed them a map of pipelines across the USA but the nexus of pipeline lying in the path of increasingly fierce hurricanes. The report was chilling and they expect to be called to use force on climate damaged Americans desperate for food and safety. The hostile use of environmental modification techniques are not out of the question as the report ends on page fifty, and I quote, “A decision to weaponize weather in the future would carry with it an almost certain international condemnation for any nation willing to undertake the effort. If someone could prove who did it.”

    1. Yes, Biden announced in 2019 that “climate change” is his theme. Global issue (not just US), many countries made much progress in reducing their climate-changing pollution since the 1970s, and we’re far more likely to go out by nuclear war.

    2. Paula:

      It’s ironic that the US army has the foresight to prepare reports on the consequences of Climate Change, but the US itself is helping make that future a reality with its belligerence. I found your mention of use of force against the American people also chilling, but am not surprised. I live in Canada and would expect that when the gloves are off, towards the end of this century, the US will use its armed forces to dominate both North and South America openly, for the benefit of its own elite.

      We can’t rule out that new technologies will help some of us adapt well: new, clean energy sources or ways to grow food. I suspect that as time goes on, the army will be used to protect greenhouse complexes for controlled growing of food for the rich, and food and water will be as fiercely guarded as oil empires are now.

      It’s fair to say that with increasing automation, much of the US people will not be needed either as workers or “consumers”, and the economy may exist only to provide for the upper class and the soldiers and technicians that protect and repair their bubbles.

  2. Mr. Klare you need to read ‘Overshoot’ written by William R Canton Jr in 1982. Humanity is in the midst of the sixth mass extinction and like it or not, it is too late to turn back now…

  3. I suppose I should edit my comments before posting. The hub of the pipeline lies in hurricane prone weather and will take out power to the east coast if hurricanes build up stronger. I wondered about Biden’s infrastructure plan and how much of it is going to support fossil fuel infrastructure? As we saw, Texas and Louisiana are a mass of aging pipelines and below par for any other kind of energy though there’s plenty of sun and wind in Texas, esp. hot air in the current state governing body. If it weren’t for the good people of Texas, I’d be praying for one hell of a hurricane and turn that coast back into sea water. But can you imagine the pollution and lives lost? Yep, would be yet another example of climate injustice which we seem to be holding no one accountable for just like the war on Afghanistan. No action, no movement on climate change is a war on black and brown and people of color everywhere. It’s war against the planet and its living biosphere. In the case of climate change, it’s an inversion of the biblical verse: The first shall be last and the last shall be first. Hurricane Harvey was a well learned lesson and the visuals tell very much the same story. There were over 100 Harvey related toxic releases. Here’s a story on the aftermath.

  4. Of course this is all true, but notice it is always China which has to react and the USA which will never take into account the Chinese point of view on any issue. Constantly pushing the Taiwan “independence, democracy ” issue when the One China Policy is a red line for China and the USA claims to respect this, need not be made such a big issue. Sailing close to China in the !south China Sea, even bumping into objects with US nuclear subs is hardly conducive to cooperation and respect for China. Provocation in weapons making then blaming China for responding does not help. Sending Wendy Sherman with a list of US demands is not exactly diplomacy. If the USA could consider treating China, or Russia (or anyone!!) as worthy of respect and understanding, instead of bullying, finding ways to interact on issues of concern to both would certainly be possible.

  5. “Climate Armageddon” is a tad overblown. If there is an “end time” it afflicts different populations of plants, animals, and people in different times. A species extinction could be viewed as an end time, these surround us and we are blithely ignorant.

    The CO2 atmospheric levels story has taken over the imagination of the world. And seems to be holding its own against the pandemic story. The virtue signaling and the sanctimoniousness is endless, and tiring. There is always someone else to blame.

    Consider that the CO2 story may be incorrect and with it the global warming story. For an alternative explanation, I recommend: Antiquity Reborn at

    We spend more time wringing our hands than finding durable coping mechanisms, if not outright solutions. And we whine: we like things as they have been, why must we change?

    The real challenges facing the world are adequate, healthy food, clean air and water, biodiversity. We need to stop befouling our nests. We live on a finite planet in a universe we do not know and cannot control.

    I was taught that behavior change best begins at home. It accomplishes little to attempt to convince others of your “truth” and opinion. That way leads to a waste of energy and hostile feelings, each of which are more divisive than inclusive. Quit beating others (like China) about their head and shoulders with your opinions. Better to lead by example. Humility is a more successful strategy than aggressive condemnation.

  6. Stating that reduction in the use of fossil fuels to reduce global warming is accurate to some extent but it ignores the other massive and numerous environmental/ecological problems that have been created. The republicans do not seem to care at all and while some democrats may care I don’t think they know what needs to be done to genuinely help the planet.

    The old thinking is too much with decision makers and ecology is still seen as a dark and mysterious threat to capitalism. I would hope that congress would admit that it was our form of hierarchical capitalism that got us in trouble in the first place , but the chances of that happening are less than the chances of having a saucer full of aliens land in my front yard.

    1. You may be right. and likely that you are, but I don’t give up what little hope there is when people like Carbon Cowboys exist and are catching on. Check it out.

  7. I’m always happy to read there’s another UN Climate Summit. They all fly in on their chartered jets (paid for with public money, of course), bringing along their security and administrative staff, then spend a couple of hours mouthing the expected pieties (“It’s two minutes to twelve!”) before having their champagne lunch. Then it’s time for another sesh or seminar in an air-conditioned room (drinks and snacks comped by the management, naturellement), after which a banquet, the finest drugs and the tightest whores are waiting for them in their four-star hotel rooms.

    We are so lucky to have these fine people looking after our interests!

  8. Just watched a series of UTube videos which can be accessed at CarbonCowboys. org. There’s a great deal we need to change, and what these videos talk about is part of the “HUGE” change we need to see and is happening with farmers who know and care, and we can do it one farm and one person at a time. It’s not only consumers who need education, but farmers too. As these farmers attest, they did not suffer during the pandemic, nor should any communities surrounded by farms who are doing all the right things that we let slip away. We can bring back many things and one is the trust between a community and it’s farmers for bringing the product in and treating the soils and waters right. We’ve so little time left to do the right thing.

  9. How to Save the World From a Climate Armageddon.
    Eliminate all humans, save those still living indigenously.
    But then we are around 50 years too late to stop it now.

  10. In 2009, a major scandal erupted (subsequently suppressed) when a leak or hack of records at East Anglia University Climate Research Unit demonstrated extensive corruption of climate data and modeling for purposes of pushing the climate change narrative due to CO2. Along with (Gates-funded) Oxford University’s “Our World in Data” project (crucial for covid-19 also), East Anglia’s CRU is the principal center for climate data and modeling, directing the UN ‘Independent’ Panel on Climate Change and in turn NGOs, schools, corporations, and governments across the world.

    This incident provides an instructive example of how the alleged ‘science’ of climate change as well as other fields (e.g., public health, as with ‘pandemics’) has been rigged for the sake of ruling interests pushing self-serving narratives and agendas. In the present case, supposed rising levels of carbon dioxide (essential to planetary cycles of life like photosynthesis) are a conveniently contrived cause for displacing capitalogenic destruction of earthly ecology onto anthropogenic conditions justifying structural adjustment plans (SAPs) for social systems and austerity for common people (even though human activity accounts for less than 1% of the mere 3.6% of CO2 in the atmosphere).

    The means for engineering such ecological SAPs follow the pattern established for economic SAPs – centralized institutions under elite corporate state control for global governance overriding national sovereignty. The UN IPCC and US NASA are to ecological debt bondage as the World Bank, IMF, and US Federal Reserve are to economic debt bondage (and the UN WHO and US CDC are to medical debt bondage). This is supplemented by similarly fascist public-private partnerships and philanthropically colonized NGOs and education industrial complexes for manufacturing and enforcing artificial ‘consensus’ science.

    Climate science is anything but exact. Not only are computerized mathematical models and data routinely doctored to fit the narrative of CO2-driven climate change while explaining away anomalies and inconsistencies (e.g., the so-called global warming pause of 1998 to 2012 despite steady increases of CO2 emissions, the pre-industrial medieval warming period of 1000-1350 when global mean temperatures were significantly higher than today, as much as 800% higher than current CO2 levels during earlier ice ages). Prevailing theory requires treatment of the earth’s ecosphere as a closed system, ruling out consideration of variables like solar activity and cosmic radiation as sources of global
    warming. This is the kind of consensus which obstructs authentic scientific method, all the more insured with propaganda attacks upon climate ‘science’ denialism and censorship of dissent (as with Google YouTube’s recent announcement to delete any such ‘misinformation’).

    The upcoming climate summit in Glasgow is designed to cap longstanding elite agenda as articulated at least as far back as the (Rockefeller) Club of Rome’s Limits to Growth (1972), with its neo-Malthusian depopulation implications, and complement the current covid coup ushering in the 4th Industrial Revolution and Great Reset as articulated by the Davos World Economic Forum, with its techno-totalitarian transhumanism aiming to be fulfilled by 2030, when remaining biodigital slaves will be algorithmically governed with social credit scores measuring performative obedience to such eco-health mandates as low carbon footprints (virtuous austerity for proles who will “own nothing and be happy”). Just to make sure this elite agenda is what ‘the people’ want, philanthropically controlled figures like Greta Thunberg and movements like Extinction Rebellion pose as popular fronts, recalling such precedent as the 1973 corporate capture of Earth Day when Exxon-Mobil became its first sponsor and the environmental movement in general began to be turned into a tool for capitalist greenwashing (and Green New Deals).

    Climate catastrophism takes shock doctrine disaster capitalism to a whole new global level of dystopia. Don’t be fooled by this panic porn (or the plandemic’s). The only Armageddon we need to fight is the same old class war.

    1. niko:

      You clearly care enough to post here and discuss the issues, but the pseudo-intellectual word salad does little to help. Examples are” techno-totalitarian transhumanism” and “philanthropically controlled figures”: really? It helps to use layman’s terms and to be open to the possibility. The climate issue is highly political as it questions the entire way our society lives and uses (abuses) the natural world, so there will be controversy surrounding it until we agree to solve it (or climate change solves us).

      It’s good to be skeptical, as science is always a work in progress, but I’m pretty convinced based on decades of journalism and scientific investigation, as well as the forests burning the past few summers and covering the mountains near my home with smoke, that human caused climate change is a thing. I’ve turned to a Canadian scientist, author and activist, David Suzuki (book: From Naked Ape to Super Species) for much of my early understanding, as well as Bill McKibben who I believe first made Climate Change research widely known with The End of Nature.

      1. niko enjoys the fantasy of the entire world conspiring against him and his seeing through all the flimflam. Makes him feel important and smart.

      2. Since I’ve not commented with specialized, technical language accessible only to select audiences like academics or experts, I don’t know what you mean by laypeople’s terms (and “word salad” seems a pseudo-intellectual cliche). As for techno-totalitarian transhumanism and philanthropically controlled figures, they are accurate terms, and for starters you might try turning to the World Economic Forum website and Winter Oak, respectively, to gain some idea as to why.

        There may be any number of reasons (e.g., drought, logging practices, human accident or arson, climate weaponization) why forest fires occur, while the assumption they’re due to climate change may simply exemplify the kind of dominant narrative propaganda already mentioned. I was on the ground in New Orleans for Katrina, often depicted as due to climate change, but people there like myself aware of such things as lack of levee protection by the Army Corps of Engineers and erosion of wetlands by the oil industry knew better, especially since New Orleans did not get a direct hit from what had been downgraded to a level 2 or 3 hurricane by landfall.

        Back to climate weaponization. Where I live now, planes routinely crisscross the sky with chemtrails. This statement no doubt will be treated by some conditioned to dismiss (CIA-inspired) ‘conspiracy theory’ as proof that I’m a tinfoil hat nut job, even though there is ample evidence (e.g., Operation Popeye, HAARP, Gates-funded geoengineering projects) that weather has long been developed as a weapon. Perhaps being open to the possibility that ruling class/deep state climate control may play no small part in the “inconvenient truth” (to recall Al Gore’s PR for the corporate elite) that it is not, as already noted, anthropogenic climate change but capitalist class war we need to fight, including for the sake of a habitable planet.

    2. What a convoluted, misleading, messed up, and sickening post. Get lost, you trolling fossil fuel corporate shill!

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