Climate change and national security

Chess pieces are shifting into position on the board of campaign rhetoric. We already know that the knights of sexism will be darting here and there across the board, but that isn’t the entirety of the arsenal. A wise candidate knows that a campaign can’t be based solely upon calling the opposition a woman and sitting back, especially when confronting candidates from within the same party, when it becomes critical to provide a distinction for voters. It’s not enough to attack the other side when voters want to know why they should pick you in particular during primary season.

Even if both sides feel a bit like a grim coronation, that doesn’t mean rhetoric no longer matters. And some of the most important rhetoric is that surrounding foreign policy, which has always been an issue for the US, but is particularly so now. We’re looking at much more asymmetrical, creative enemies and a shift in what warfare and foreign powers look like. We don’t have a neat lumbering enemy in the form of the Soviet Union, someone to demonise like Cuba. We have to engage with smaller and more agile foes that are creating a cascading series of security problems across the world — ISIS is occupying headlines but it’s not the only nightmare for the federal government.

There are many things wrong with how the US handles foreign policy issues. From some perspectives, issues like security theatre, profiling, and harassment are patently ridiculous and serve not just to disenfranchise people, but to actively foment hostile attitudes and create an environment in which people have an incentive to launch attacks against the US. From other perspectives, the country isn’t doing enough, and isn’t doing it from the right angles, and that’s particularly apparent with our approach to climate change.

The Military Advisory Board has already identified climate change as a key evolving risk to national security. Ms. Clinton has done likewise in public appearances, with her own policies, and with her own stated platform and concerns as well as in her books. Other candidates appear to be more on the fence, and no wonder, because many conservatives still refuse to acknowledge climate change. It’s hard to admit that something you don’t exist might be a threat to security and foreign policy, like saying that unicorns should be a serious consideration in weapons development for the 21st century.

This leaves them rather backed against the wall. The Pentagon itself acknowledges climate change and is conducting detailed studies on how it will affect global security, the US position on the foreign stage, and the way the US engages with foes and allies alike. Individual branches of the military are also concerned with the issue, as are agencies like the State Department. The sitting president acknowledges climate change as an issue with multiple facets, including those that threaten to destabilise the planet and the United States along with it.

Conservative climate deniers, however, are in a bind. For those who still staunchly refuse to believe in science, it’s impossible to engage with rhetoric on the subject, which leaves people like Clinton at a distinct advantage, because they can run circles around their opponents. Moreover, they can do so in the arena that conservatives typically think they dominate: They’ve always tried to position themselves as more responsible when it comes to national security, better-suited to addressing threats, and more able to govern a nation with growing challenges. When one candidate can explore a national security issue that they’re ignoring in detail, it looks rather terrible to conservative supporters and fence-sitters.

Others may be more open to the reality of science, but they’re aware of the bind in conservative communities. Plenty of smart, critically thinking conservatives are well aware that climate change exists, many believe there is an anthropogenic component, and some are actively working on research and development to explore additional causes and solutions. For those conservatives, a candidate aligned with their values who also takes on the climate change issue is an asset and an appealing prospect at the polls, especially given the scientific illiteracy on the part of other candidates.

But that same edge could prove a liability with scientifically illiterate conservative voters who disbelieve climate change or don’t agree with key findings regarding its causes or potential extent. The candidate who ventures to explore it in a national security context might find it a liability, with some voters turning away in favor of candidates with more ‘traditional’ conservative views, and other candidates attacking on the grounds that climate change doesn’t exist. Some conservatives are going to find themselves playing a delicate dance this election season as they attempt to have it both ways, working the very real and relevant national security angle within a party known for hardline foreign policy stances while striving not to alienate voters who don’t comprehend the basics of science.

The results will be fascinating to observe, but they’re also a disturbing testimony to the state of critical thinking, analysis, and culture in the United States. While politicians here debate over whether they can safely include climate change in their campaigns at all, those overseas are already operating at a policy advantage. They’re skipping the question of whether it exists and if it affects national security, and moving on to how they can defend their nations in a world wracked by a rapidly shifting environment.

This divide is yet another illustration of how the US lags behind the rest of the world in many respects. For all the air of superiority the nation cultivates, its hesitance on basic scientific issues speaks poorly of it, and the failure to engage with climate change is noted by other global powers.

Image: Old Globe, Kenneth Lu, Flickr