Opinion

Could the military turn the tide on climate change?

Nobody listens to tree huggers. But the armed forces are another matter.

Climate change is not about saving the planet. It is about self-preservation.

That this simple and compelling argument isn't widely accepted is, I think, due to the way in which the issue was processed by our political digestive system. Treated as an environmental problem, the clear and present danger climate change poses to national security and the economy has gone largely unnoticed. But there are indications that this is beginning to change.

The most recent sign of this was the release of a report from a pack of wealthy bipartisan elites, including former Sen. Olympia Snowe of Maine (R), former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg (I), and a pair of former Treasury secretaries, Hank Paulson and Bob Rubin. The report details the massive economic damage that is likely to afflict the United States if climate change is not checked soon:

More than a million homes and businesses along the nation's coasts could flood repeatedly before ultimately being destroyed. Entire states in the Southeast and the Corn Belt may lose much of their agriculture as farming shifts northward in a warming world. Heat and humidity will probably grow so intense that spending time outside will become physically dangerous, throwing industries like construction and tourism into turmoil.

That is a picture of what may happen to the United States economy in a world of unchecked global warming, according to a major new report released Tuesday by a coalition of senior political and economic figures from the left, right, and center, including three Treasury secretaries stretching back to the Nixon administration. [New York Times]

Any list of names including Hank Paulson and Bob Rubin is sure to turn any good lefty's stomach. But climate change is an issue in which the bipartisan, centrist idea of being "responsible" and making some "tough choices" actually sort of fits the situation, and the report itself is fairly solid, as Neil Bhatiya explains. As the threat to businesses outside the fossil fuel industry becomes increasingly apparent, an alliance with the despised greens is going to look more favorable. Big business still has much sway within both parties, so this could significantly change the political balance of power.

Notably absent is the national security establishment. Though the military has made many adaptations to deal with climate change, it has not put its humongous political weight behind any sort of serious climate plan. The military is still by far the most trusted institution in American life, and holds much political sway. If the American polity were to come to believe that climate change was a clear and present danger to national security, the political effects could be enormous.

Folks like Jim Manzi have made the nickel-and-dime case against acting on climate, arguing that a few percent of gross domestic product isn't worth paying to avert serious climate change. But the hollowness of this argument is made clear when it comes to other national security issues. In reality, anything that is actually understood as a proper threat to the nation is immediately blasted with a firehose of money. Elites thought nothing of waging an aggressive war on Iraq on the flimsiest of security pretexts, one which turned out to cost trillions.

The problem with climate change is that the reality of the threat hasn't quite sunk in, and if conservative Lysenkoism wins the day, it never will. But as the climate disasters add up, the cognitive dissonance among the powerful of all stripes will get ever stronger. Here's hoping they see sense soon enough.

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