When it comes to the 2016 Republican presidential primary, the candidates have found two big, fertile policy arenas in which to stake out territory: climate change and national security.
Specifically, presidential hopefuls are scrambling to show who is most aggressive on national security and who is most passive on climate change. The ideal candidate would, presumably, be able to claim both superlatives.
But this set of stances is incoherent as a policy platform. Actually it’s worse than incoherent. It’s an oxymoron.
That’s because climate change is a national security issue. You can’t credibly claim to be tough on national security and terrorism while simultaneously boasting how unconcerned you are about global warming.
A scientific consensus has found that climate change is real. It’s also man-made, and while it can’t be unmade, per se, it can be at least minimized. You wouldn’t know this from the GOP presidential hopefuls, for whom climate denialism — or something close enough to it to amount to the same thing — is sadly considered a prerequisite for the nomination. Ted Cruz said that people who are concerned about global warming are “the equivalent of the flat-Earthers”; Ben Carson argued climate change is fake and also “irrelevant.” Jeb Bush, Rick Santorum, Marco Rubio and Rand Paul have, at best, equivocated, saying climate change is probably real but maybe not anthropogenic. So, you know, nothing to be done. (In millennial-speak: ¯\_(ツ )_/¯.) Scott Walker has largely avoided the issue, but his record on other environmental policies (including proposed cuts to recycling) isn’t encouraging.
Meanwhile these same candidates — including the once-isolationalist Paul — have been offering tough, if vague, platitudes about everything they would do to neutralize any security threat to the United States.
But extreme weather — high temperatures, droughts, storms, floods — is politically destabilizing. It can lead to food and water shortages, mass migrations, destruction of infrastructure, disputes over refugees, pandemics. Sure, it doesn’t directly create armed conflict or militia groups, but it can generate the conditions under which these threats are more likely to emerge and thrive. Such prospects are scarier when you consider that many of the parts of the world most vulnerable to climate change are also areas with weak governance and civil unrest. Global warming is, if nothing else, a threat multiplier.
Don’t take my word for it; that term “threat multiplier” comes directly from a recent Defense Department report about climate change. America’s military and intelligence branches and their scientific partners have been analyzing environmental data for decades, under both Democratic and Republican administrations. In 2004, for example, the Pentagon developed a blueprint to “imagine the unthinkable”: how a sudden change in the world’s climate might affect national security. Many military reports, task forces, advisory boards and conferences since then have looked at the consequences of more gradual warming — and warned in no uncertain terms of the severe threats it poses to the country’s strategic interests around the globe.
And yet, lately, hawkish Republicans have been undermining efforts to assess and confront these risks. Hundreds of state and federal elected officials — including Rubio, Paul, Cruz and Walker — have signed a “No Climate Tax Pledge,” modeled after Grover Norquist’s stultifying anti-tax pledge. Many of their compatriots on Capitol Hill have been hacking away at funding for NASA’s earth-science program, the National Science Foundation’s geosciences program and Energy Department initiatives that support research into new energy sources. Last year, in a party-line vote, the House even passed an amendment prohibiting the Defense Department from using any funds “to conduct its anti-fossil fuel climate change agenda,” as the summary of the amendment, introduced by Rep. David B. McKinley (R-W.Va.), reads.
“This amendment is about prioritizing our national security over ideology,” McKinley said, apparently without irony. The amendment died in conference committee.
President Obama underscored why such attitudes are dangerous in his recent commencement address at the U.S. Coast Guard Academy. He also came startlingly close to characterizing climate denialism as treasonous, noting that in other contexts being aware of a security threat and doing nothing would be “negligence” and “a dereliction of duty.” The same is true, he said, of climate change. “Denying it or refusing to deal with it endangers our national security. It undermines the readiness of our forces,” Obama said.
The speech, disappointingly but not surprisingly, was met with mockery by conservatives, particularly those who usually present themselves as tough on national security. Little do these hawks realize that sometimes it helps to have a little green in your feathers.
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