U.S. Senator Sheldon Whitehouse on Climate Change: A Test of American Leadership

| August 2016
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globe-140051_1920America has long stood before the world as an exceptional country.  And deservedly:  we proved the case for popular sovereignty with no need of kings or crowns; we rode our balanced market capitalism (and the safety of two oceans) to international economic dominance; we have long been the vanguard of civil and human rights for our people and around the globe; and when we use our military power we do not conquer and rule, we come home.

This exceptional nature confers upon America responsibilities, but it also confers on America a soft power that allows us influence without gunpoint, and a power of example that draws people to our country, to our ideals, and to our mode of government.  These are tidal forces, and these tides have flooded in our favor for generations.  Climate change, or more exactly an American failure on climate change, could stem or reverse those tides.  The atmosphere is warming; icecaps are melting; droughts are worsening; and seas are warming, rising, and acidifying.  We are past theory and well into measurement on all these points.

Climate change is urgent, and it commands a moral dimension.  Pope Francis has called on us “to watch over and protect the fragile world in which we live, and all its peoples.”  He said:  “Let us not leave in our wake a swath of destruction and death which will affect our own lives and those of future generations.”

The poorer peoples, those who live closest to the land, who lead subsistence lives, will feel first the brunt of the coming change.  At the top of the economic pile, upper-income societies will likely pay a greater share of their wealth for food; marginal societies will go without. Their struggles—for water, farmland, and fisheries—will be so desperate as to generate instability and conflict.

The Department of Defense repeatedly raises this strategic dimension.  Its 2014 Quadrennial Defense Review warns:  “Climate change poses another significant challenge for the United States and the world at large. . . . Climate change may exacerbate water scarcity and lead to sharp increases in food costs.  The pressures caused by climate change will influence resource competition while placing additional burdens on economies, societies, and governance institutions around the world.” Admiral Samuel J. Locklear III, as head of U.S. Pacific Command, called climate change the biggest long-term security threat in the Pacific, because it “is probably the most likely thing that is going to happen . . . that will cripple the security environment, probably more likely than the other scenarios we all often talk about.”

Secretary of State John Kerry, a combat veteran himself, summed it up this way last year:

The bottom line is that the impacts of climate change can exacerbate resource competition, threaten livelihoods, and increase the risk of instability and conflict, especially in places already undergoing economic, political and social stress.  And because the world is so extraordinarily interconnected today—economically, technologically, militarily, in every way imaginable—instability anywhere can be a threat to stability everywhere.

Stephen Hadley, National Security Advisor to President George W. Bush, recently acknowledged that climate change has influenced the movement of refugees across Europe, fueling potential security risks.  “Climate change and a lot of other economic dislocations have put a lot of people out of work,” he said.  “They are on the move and they have no place to go and it means they are recruiting grounds for terrorists and extremists and potential refugee flows that will tax Europe even more.”

The latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change assessment echoes what national security and diplomatic leaders warn about the dangers of climate change.  According to the report, “climate change can indirectly increase risks of violent conflicts in the form of civil war and inter-group violence by amplifying well-documented drivers of these conflicts such as poverty and economic shocks.”

The dry, strategic terminology about competition, conflict and instability shrouds a terrible toll of simple human suffering—person by person, family by family.  Let us not forget the simple fact of that suffering, nor its extent.  It is happening on a scale sufficient to arise as a global security threat.  And that suffering will raise resentments.

As the country that generated the most wealth in the carbon economy, as the world’s most profligate emitter of carbon, and as the essential nation upon which the world counts for leadership, America will not be able to avoid ownership of this mess.  In another era and on another challenge, Sir Winston Churchill once said that “Owing to past neglect, in the face of the plainest warnings, we have now entered upon a period of danger. . . . The era of procrastination, of half-measures, of soothing and baffling expedients, of delays, is coming to its close.  In its place we are entering a period of consequences. . . . We cannot avoid this period; we are in it now.”  Those words ring true of climate change today.

We are in a period of consequences.  Here’s what the Republican presidential nominee had to say just two elections ago: “. . . in the end, we’re all left with the same set of facts. The facts of global warming demand our urgent attention, especially in Washington. Good stewardship, prudence, and simple common sense demand that we act to meet the challenge, and act quickly. . . .  We have many advantages in the fight against global warming, but time is not one of them. . . .  There were costs we weren’t counting, . . . and these terrible costs have added up now, in the atmosphere, in the oceans, and all across the natural world.”

Yet we are in a period of political crisis at home. These are the harsh truths: carbon polluters are calling the tune in Congress; the present Republican Party is unwilling or unable to stand up to the polluters (indeed, it is often their agent); and a massive propaganda effort is churning full steam to deny the carbon problem. The polluters’ propaganda effort is a deliberate apparatus: front organizations designed to look and sound like they are real; messages honed by public relations experts to sound like they are truthful; a few slickly contrarian scientists ready to be trotted out as needed; and the whole apparatus big and complicated enough to look like it is not all the same beast. But it is all the same beast, and it is as poisonous to our democracy as carbon pollution is to our atmosphere and oceans.  The story of our failure on climate change is a story of our failure to withstand the manipulative and evil effects of money in politics. And it is happening before the eyes of the world.

James Madison in Federalist Papers No. 63 warned of “moments in public affairs when the people, . . . misled by the artful misrepresentations of interested men, may call for measures”—or in our present case, failure to take measures—“which they themselves will afterwards be the most ready to lament and condemn.” We are wreaking much for ourselves and others later to lament and condemn.

Although this denial apparatus has won unseemly influence in Congress now (largely thanks to a deeply foolish Supreme Court decision), it will surely lose the test of time. The measure in parts per million of atmospheric carbon has ranged between 170 and 300 for longer than homo sapiens have been on the planet, but that measure has now broken through 400.  We keep adding gigatons of carbon to the atmosphere and oceans every year. The consequences of this carbon saturation for the atmosphere and for the oceans are determined by the laws of chemistry and physics. Those laws cannot be repealed or wished away. Propaganda can manipulate people and politics, but it has no effect on immutable laws of nature.

So the denial apparatus will ultimately be exposed as the great fraud and scandal that it is. There will be disgrace. Lord Acton urged historians “to suffer no man and no cause to escape the undying penalty which history has the power to inflict on wrong.” With all the dread power that history has to inflict on wrong, the polluters and their allies will be judged harshly. Unfortunately, their success at propaganda and denial is a commensurate failure of American democracy. That failure of democracy will also be judged harshly, and will stain our great American experiment.

If we believe that the world needs America; if we believe that America is an essential and exceptional nation; then getting climate right matters.  When we let big polluters stymie responsible climate action, it hurts us among our fellow nations and citizens across the globe.  It will hurt every ambassador in every post in every country.  It will hurt our soldiers when they put their boots on the ground anywhere in the world.  It will hurt every one of us when those tides that have quietly sustained us begin to shift, and we all then pay the price of the polluters’ truculence, greed, and folly.

There is still a chance.  The historian David McCullough reminded us that for America’s founding generation, pledging their lives, their fortunes, and their sacred honor to this cause was not mere words.  When they signed the Declaration of Independence, they were signing their own death warrants.  McCullough explains, “It was a courageous time.”  This too can be a courageous time.  As Americans have in the past, we can shed the shackles of corrupting influence and rise to our duty.  It just takes courage to make this a courageous time.


—Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse

The author is the junior U.S. Senator from Rhode Island.

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