Climate Change: The New WMD?

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Climate Change: The New WMD?

By Matt Purushotham, Staff Contributor

It seems that if you want someone in Washington to take an issue seriously these days, it must be framed as a threat to national security.

For instance, over the past few years, public leaders as varied as former Secretary of State Hilary Clinton, former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Michael Mullen, and Senator Rand Paul, among others, have all referred to the national debt as a threat to national security.   The issue dominated the second half of President Obama’s first term, led to a government shutdown, and will return again.

The White House has learned from this experience, and it is deploying the same language with respect to climate change.  In a recent statement, Secretary of State John Kerry called climate change “the world’s most fearsome weapon of mass destruction” and declared it a threat to America’s national security.

Internationally, one of the biggest obstacles to urging rising powers like China and India to grow their economies more cleanly is that the United States was heavily dependent on dirty fuels during a comparable period of its own economic development.  For either the United States or China to make major steps toward addressing climate change, however, each nation will have to make the same commitment.  The two powers, which are the top two emitters of greenhouse gasses in the world, met in mid-February to discuss climate change.  Although no specific measures were announced, the countries committed to working to secure such results by the sixth U.S.-China Strategic and Economic Dialogue later in 2014.

” … approximately 33 percent of the U.S. population still questions the validity of climate change.”

In his 2014 State of the Union address, President Obama took the significant step of making a clear statement affirming that climate change is a fact.  In doing so, he acknowledged the reality that approximately 33 percent of the U.S. population still questions the validity of climate change.  This view is not limited to the fringe of the political spectrum; mainstream voices like Washington Post columnist George Will continue to question whether climate change is happening.  Perhaps in response, scientists continue to highlight the vast consensus on the issue.

Meanwhile, recent years have seen an increase in severe weather and drought.  Current projections predict a rise in sea levels and threats to coastal lands, islands, and areas only slightly above sea level, like much of highly populated Bangladesh. The country of 160 million people may have tens of millions of inhabitants that would be driven from their homes as a result of even a relatively modest rise in sea levels.

The military and intelligence community has been analyzing climate change as a global security threat for years.  In the 2014 Quadrennial Defense Review, the Pentagon identified climate change as a “threat multiplier,” which will lead to water scarcity, displace populations, and result in increased food costs.

Research institutes and non-profit organizations also frame climate change in national security terms.  The Truman National Security Project, a research institute whose Board of Advisors includes Anne-Marie Slaughter, John Podesta, and Madeleine Albright, among other distinguished advisors, features veterans who promote the security-related merits of renewable energy in an effort dubbed Operation Free.  A new non-profit group, American Security Project, whose Board of Directors is led by former Senator Gary Hart and includes business, non-profit, and former government leaders, is dedicated to addressing security threats stemming from climate change and related issues.  For instance, in addressing the current situation in Ukraine, the group produced a briefing note on the impact of Eastern Europe’s dependence on Russian oil.

So, if the White House, the overwhelming majority of scientists, the military, private groups and even China have agreed that steps must be taken to curb climate change, what will be done about it?

Enter Congress.  On Monday, March 10, 2014, thirty Democratic senators engaged in an all-night series of speeches about the need to take action on climate change.  Republicans have dismissed the speeches as “theater,” not policy.  Nothing in the reactions of Republicans, or even moderate Senate Democrats, offers hope for any near-term action.

“Further steps to forge new international agreements on climate change will be doomed if the United States, by virtue of its domestic politics, is not in a position to lead.”

The President pledged in the State of the Union address, that where Congress would not act, he would take action independently.  In November 2013, President Obama issued an executive order outlining planned action to address climate change.  The order establishes a number of intergovernmental groups to enhance information sharing and policy coordination.  In March of this year, the Environmental Protection Agency also issued new emissions standards for fuel and cars.  However, in order to make any changes to address the vast and real challenges recognized by scientists and the military, the President will need legislation passed by Congress.

Further steps to forge new international agreements on climate change will be doomed if the United States, by virtue of its domestic politics, is not in a position to lead.  The President has laid down a marker by identifying the problem as real.  Secretary Kerry has taken the additional step of recognizing climate change as a national security threat.  The question is: will it be enough to move Congress toward substantial action?

The results of the budget debates of the last few years are not encouraging, but perhaps they hold a valuable lesson that U.S. leaders may use to avoid similar results: frame climate change in a national security context.