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

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.

If the Third World does not develop economically, poverty, hunger anddisease will consume entire populations. Rapid economic growth is a life-or-death imperative. And why should they accept what we, manifestly, will not accept for ourselves? Will any nation in the developed world accept serious compromises in levels of comfort for the sake of global environmental balance? Who will apportion these sacrifices; who will bear them?

The effort to solve the nuclear arms race has been complicated not only by simplistic stereotypes of the enemy and the threat he poses, but by simplistic demands for immediate unilateral disarmament.

Similarly, the effort to solve the global environmental crisis will be complicated not only by blind assertions that more environmental manipulation and more resource extraction are essential for economic growth. It will also be complicated by the emergence of simplistic demands that development, or technology itself, must be stopped for the problem to be solved. This is a crisis of confidence which must be addressed. The tension between the imperatives of growth and the imperative of environmental management represents a supreme test for modern industrial civilization and an extreme demand upon technology. It will call for the environmental equivalent of the Strategic Defense Initiative: a Strategic Environment Initiative.

I have been an opponent of the military SDI. But even opponents of SDI recognize this effort has been remarkably successful in drawing together previously disconnected government programs, in stimulating development of new technologies and in forcing a new analysis of subjects previously thought exhausted.

We need the same kind of focus and intensity, and similar levels of funding, to deal comprehensively with global warming, stratospheric ozone depletion, species loss, deforestation, ocean pollution, acid rain, air and water and groundwater pollution. In every major sector of economic activity a Strategic Environment Initiative must identify and then spread increasingly effective new technologies: some that are already in hand, some that need further work, and some that are revolutionary ideas whose very existence is now a matter of speculation.

For example, energy is the life blood of development. Unfortunately, today's most economical technologies for converting energy resources into useable forms of power (such as burning coal to make electricity) release a plethora of pollutants. An Energy SEI should focus on producing energy for development without compromising the environment. Priorities for the near term are efficiency and conservation; for the mid-term, solar power, possibly new-generation nuclear power, and biomass sources (with no extraneous pollutants and a closed carbon cycle); and for the long term, nuclear fusion, as well as enhanced versions of developing technologies.

In agriculture, we have witnessed vast growth in Third World food production through the Green Revolution, but often that growth relied on heavily subsidized fertilizers, pesticides, irrigation and mechanization, sometimes giving the advantage to rich farmers over poor ones. We need a second green revolution, to address the needs of the Third World's poor: a focus on increasing productivity from small farms on marginal land with low-input agricultural methods. These technologies, which include financial and political components, may be the key to satisfying the land hunger of the disadvantaged and the desperate who are slashing daily into the rain forest of Amazonia. It may also be the key to arresting the desertification of sub-Saharan Africa, where human need and climate stress now operate in a deadly partnership.

Needed in the United States probably more than anywhere is a Transportation SEI focusing in the near term on improving the mileage standards of our vehicles, and encouraging and enabling Americans to drive less. In the mid-term come questions of alternative fuels, such as biomass-based liquids or electricity. Later will come the inescapable need for re-examining the entire structure of our transportation sector, with its inherent emphasis on the personal vehicle. The U.S. government should organize itself to finance the export of energy-efficient systems and renewable energy sources. That means preferential lending arrangements through the Export-Import Bank, and Overseas Private Investment Corporation.

Encouragement for the Third World should also come in the form of attractive international credit arrangements for energy-efficient and environmentally sustainable processes. Funds could be generated by institutions such as the World Bank, which, in the course of debt swapping, might dedicate new funds to the purchase of more environmentally sound technologies. Finally, the United States, other developers of new technology, and international lending institutions, should establish centers of training at locations around the world to create a core of environmentally educated planners and technicians -- an effort not unlike that which produced agricultural research centers during the Green Revolution.

Immediately, we should undertake an urgent effort to obtain massive quantities of information about the global processes now under way -- through, for example, the Mission to Planet Earth program of NASA.

And we also must target first the most readily identifiable and correctable sources of environmental damage. I have introduced a comprehensive legislative package that incorporates the major elements of this SEI: It calls for a ban, within five years, on CFCs and other ozone-depleting chemicals, while promoting development of safer alternatives; radically reducing CO2 emissions and increasing fuel efficiency; encouraging massive reforestation programs; and initiating comprehensive recycling efforts.

Although Congress is recognizing the challenge, there remains a critical need for presidential leadership, for President Bush to show that as a nation we have the vision and the courage to act responsibly. And in order to accomplish our goal, we also must transform global politics, shifting from short-term concerns to long-term goals, from conflict to cooperation. But we must also transform ourselves -- or at least the way we think about ourselves, our children and our future. The solutions we seek will be found in a new faith in the future of life on earth after our own, a faith in the future which justifies sacrifices in the present, a new moral courage to choose higher values in the conduct of human affairs, and a new reverence for absolute principles that can serve as guiding stars for the future course of our species and our place within creation.

Al Gore is a Democratic senator from Tennessee.

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