Earth's Fate Is the No. 1 National Security Issue

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By Al Gore
Friday, October 12, 2007; 11:05 AM

Editor's note: The following article appeared in the Post's Outlook section on May 14, 1989.

HOW CAN WE possibly explain the mistakes and false starts President Bush has been making on environmental policy? His administration's decision to censor scientific testimony on the seriousness of the greenhouse effect -- and initially to oppose an international convention to begin working out a solution to it -- may well mean that the president himself does not yet see the threat clearly. Apparently he does not hear the alarms that are awakening so many other leaders from Margaret Thatcher to Mikhail Gorbachev.

Humankind has suddenly entered into a brand new relationship with the planet Earth. The world's forests are being destroyed; an enormous hole is opening in the ozone layer. Living species are dying at an unprecedented rate. Chemical wastes, in growing volumes, are seeping downward to poison groundwater while huge quantities of carbon dioxide, methane and chlorofluo-rocarbons are trapping heat in the atmosphere and raising global temperatures.

How much information is needed by the human mind to recognize a pattern? How much more is needed by the body politic to justify action in response?

If an individual or a nation is accustomed to looking at the future one year at a time, and the past in terms of a single lifetime, then many large patterns are concealed. But seen in historical perspective, it is clear that dozens of destructive effects have followed the same pattern of unprecedented acceleration in the latter half of the 20th century. It took 10,000 human lifetimes for the population to reach 2 billion. Now in the course of one lifetime, yours and mine, it is rocketing from 2 billion to 10 billion, and is already halfway there.

Yet, the pattern of our politics remains remarkably unchanged. That indifference must end. As a nation and a government, we must see that America's future is inextricably tied to the fate of the globe. In effect, the environment is becoming a matter of national security -- an issue that directly and imminently menaces the interests of the state or the welfare of the people.

To date, the national-security agenda has been dominated by issues of military security, embedded in the context of global struggle between the United States and the Soviet Union -- a struggle often waged through distant surrogates, but which has always harbored the risk of direct confrontation and nuclear war. Given the recent changes in Soviet behavior, there is growing optimism that this long, dark period may be passing. This may in turn open the international agenda for other urgent matters and for the release of enormous resources, now committed to war, toward other objectives. Many of us hope that the global environment will be the new dominant concern.

Of course, this national-security analogy must be used very cautiously. The U.S.-Soviet rivalry has lasted almost half a century, consumed several trillions of dollars, cost close to 100,000 American lives in Korea and Vietnam and profoundly shaped our psychological and social consciousness. Much the same could be said of the Soviets. Nothing relieves us of our present responsibilities for defense or of the need to conduct painstaking negotiations to limit arms and reduce the risk of war. And yet, there is strong evidence the new enemy is at least as real as the old. For the general public, the shocking images of last year's drought, or of beaches covered with medical garbage, inspired a sense of peril once sparked only by Soviet behavior. The U2 spy plane now is used to monitor not missile silos but ozone depletion. Every day in parts of southern Iowa, where it hasn't rained for more than a year, National Guard troops are being used to distribute drinking water. In the not too distant future, policies that enable the rescue of the global environment will join, perhaps even supplant, our concern with preventing nuclear war as the principal test of statecraft.

However, it is important to distinguish what would -- in military jargon -- be called the level of threat. Certain environmental problems may be important but are essentially local; others cross borders, and in effect represent theaters of operations; still others are global and strategic. On this scale, the slow suffocation of Mexico City, the deaths of forests in America and Europe or even the desertification of large areas of Africa might not not be regarded as full-scale national-security issues. But the greenhouse effect and stratospheric ozone depletion do fit the profile of strategic national-security issues.

When nations perceive that they are threatened at the strategic level, they may be induced to think of drastic responses, involving sharp discontinuities from everyday approaches to policy. In military terms, this is the point when the United States begins to think of invoking nuclear weapons. The global environment crisis may demand responses that are comparatively radical.

At present, despite some progress made toward limiting some sources of the problem, such as CFCs, we have barely scratched the surface. Even if all other elements of the problem are solved, a major threat is still posed by emissions of carbon dioxide, the exhaling breath of the industrial culture upon which our civilization rests. The implications of the latest and best studies on this matter are staggering. Essentially, they tell us that with our current pattern of technology and production, we face a choice between economic growth in the near term and massive environmental disorder as the subsequent penalty.

This central fact suggests that the notion of environmentally sustainable development at present may be an oxymoron, rather than a realistic objective. It declares war, in effect, on routine life in the advanced industrial societies. And -- central to the outcome of the entire struggle to restore global environmental balance -- it declares war on the Third World.

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© 2007 The Washington Post Company

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