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Not even Obama’s national security argument can get partisans to agree on climate change

President Obama waves as he walks through a group of saluting second-year cadets as he arrives at the U.S. Coast Guard Academy’s 134th Commencement Exercises on May 20 in New London, Conn. Obama spoke on global warming during his commencement address. (Stephan Savoia/AP)
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It’s hard to believe these days that during the 2012 campaign season, many liberals and environmentalists were busy criticizing President Obama for his alleged “climate silence” — his apparent unwillingness to talk about the chief issue facing the planet.

By contrast, since reelection, he’s been as climate-outspoken as you can imagine. Not a week goes by, it seems, but the White House and the president himself highlight new climate plans or measures — or new angles on the problem. Last month, Obama was in the Everglades with Bill Nye the Science Guy to talk about sea level rise. And this week, he was in New London, Conn., to give a commencement address at the Coast Guard Academy — one that he used to focus on climate change and its threat to national security.

“I’m here today to say that climate change constitutes a serious threat to global security, an immediate risk to our national security,” Obama said. “And make no mistake, it will impact how our military defends our country.” The president also cited the drought conditions that helped fuel the rise of Boko Haram in Nigeria and the Syrian civil war as examples of the way that climatic conditions can make the world less stable.

This national security message on climate is intriguing — both because of how it succeeds, and also because of how it doesn’t.

On the one hand, many military leaders have rallied behind it, just as they have also rallied behind clean energy as a key force in improving their effectiveness. The Defense Department, after all, must be able to deploy its forces across a changing world, even as it must fuel those forces with vast amounts of energy, fossil or otherwise. No wonder it thinks hard about these things.

Yet at the same time, the overall reception of the message underscores how sadly partisan the climate issue has become (even if many military leaders, fortunately, aren’t).

After all, dating back to the mid-2000s – a more optimistic era for hopes of climate change depolarization — talking about how a changing climate could imperil national security was thought to be a keen way to make political conservatives, always so focused on military readiness, more open to the issue. For the most part, though, it’s hard say that’s happened — as the response to Obama’s speech plainly showed.

Before getting there, though, let’s consider the substance of the “national security” message about climate change. There are certainly some quibbles — the Pentagon has occasionally hyped some climate-related concerns, and one might also question the expansiveness with which the administration sometimes uses the phrase “national security.” In Obama’s parlance, it refers not only to actual military or geopolitical threats, or rising seas impacting military bases and installations (for instance, in Norfolk), but also general risks to the country as a whole from rising seas and more extreme weather. This will surely surprise some people.

Still, it is hard to contest the overall idea of a changing climate as a “threat multiplier.”

Heat extremes, dramatic weather events like floods, and most of all droughts, can certainly help to destabilize already unstable regions of the world by increasing hardship and unrest. A recent study by the star-studded military advisory board of CNA Corp.  — comprised of 16 retired admirals and generals — makes this point unmistakably. As they put it:

In many areas, the projected impacts of climate change will be more than threat multipliers; they will serve as catalysts for instability and conflict. In Africa, Asia, and the Middle East, we are already seeing how the impacts of extreme weather, such as prolonged drought and flooding — and resulting food shortages, desertification, population dislocation and mass migration, and sea level rise — are posing security challenges to these regions’ governments. We see these trends growing and accelerating.

“Time and tide wait for no one,” the report’s authors grimly noted.

Indeed, the changing Arctic cements the case for the national security implications of climate change. Simply put, much more ship transit in this region, and much more interest in its resources, inexorably changes its geopolitical significance. “As the Arctic opens, the role that the Coast Guard plays will only grow,” Obama told academy graduates Wednesday.

So yes, there is good reason to see a changing climate as – among many, many other things — a security challenge.

As for opening minds, speaking a language that conservatives understand — well, that’s another matter. Obama was widely critiqued on the right for this week’s speech. To give just one example, former Republican Rep. Allen West wrote: “So now according to President Obama, if you’re a young military leader who doesn’t agree with the religion of the liberal progressive socialists, you are negligent and derelict in your duties.”

More generally, the Republican response to the military’s increasing concern about climate change has rarely been receptive. A recent House Republican budget document, for instance, listed Pentagon and CIA spending on climate change research as wasteful. The military aspect of the climate issue, just like every other aspect of it, has become divisive and partisan.

And considering that the influence of climate change is always in the background and statistical — it does not singlehandedly “cause” weather events, much less human conflicts — it’s unrealistic to expect a sudden wake-up call in this area. Rather, doubt about a changing climate’s significance to the military, or to national security, will last as long as doubt about a changing climate itself does.

But there may be no perfect argument, and Obama has long since proved that he’ll advance his climate agenda whether or not political compromise is possible. So the most important thing about his national security argument this week may not be that it’s a tactic, but rather, that it’s likely a conviction.