It's Memorial Day, and the forecast is for renewed mocking and derision regarding man-made climate change from the know-nothing, science-averse wing of the Republican Party. President Barack Obama's warning — issued during his commencement address at the U.S. Coast Guard Academy graduation ceremonies Wednesday — that climate change represents a national security threat seems certain to provoke that kind of stormy reaction.
For those who actually serve in the military, however, the response is far likelier to be something along the lines of a matter-of-fact "yes, sir." Whether it's flooding or more severe storms at U.S. Navy bases or the manner in which thawing permafrost is damaging military facilities in Alaska, the evidence of the changing global climate is pretty obvious to the men and women in uniform. With climate-induced rising sea levels already causing problems for some coastal communities, the Coast Guard is certain to be on the front lines of this particular challenge right along with the National Guard.
But why take the commander-in-chief's word for this? We say let's hear what the Pentagon's own top brass has to say about the matter. Just six months ago, the U.S. Department of Defense released a report calling for climate change adaptations as well. "Rising global temperatures, changing precipitation patterns, climbing sea levels and more extreme weather events will intensify the challenges of global instability, hunger, poverty and conflict," warned then-Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel, a Republican who previously served as a U.S. senator from Nebraska.
The U.S. may face more immediate threats for ISIS and other terrorist groups operating in Afghanistan, Syria and Iraq as well as challenges from Iran, Russia, China and North Korea that grab daily headlines, but that doesn't make the problems that stem from rising levels of greenhouse gases any less important. Indeed, there may be some correlation when, for instance, political instability opens up opportunities for violent extremist political groups to gain a foothold. When poverty grows markedly worse or millions of refugees flood an area to escape some natural disaster, conflicts and their human toll can escalate quickly.
Among the Republicans running for president, climate change denial is the current mode of thinking for most. There may be subtle differences — Sen. Ted Cruz gravitates toward total denial, while Gov. Jeb Bush is more on the extremely skeptical side — but it's hard to see anyone in the crowd calling for military preparedness. Mostly, the candidates appear interested in sidestepping the topic (albeit in a disapproving manner) with pledges never to raise a "climate tax," as Gov. Scott Walker has done, or railing against U.S. Environmental Protection Agency rules limiting carbon dioxide and other emissions from coal-fired power plants, as most all have done.
The result is not so much an attack on climate change science as an attack on any policy that would seem to address the problem. Is there such a thing as a conservative approach to global warming? If so, we haven't heard it outlined by an actual candidate — although New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie would seem the ideal mean for the job as he actually believes climate change to be real and that "human activity contributes to it," as he recently told a crowd in New Hampshire. Alas, New Jersey may be the only Northeastern state without a climate change plan, and it isn't even part of the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, the cooperative cap-and-trade program to which Maryland and eight other states belong that has used market forces to reduce excess carbon, an approach that ought to appeal to fiscal conservatives.
Perhaps what Senator Cruz and others should do is simply visit the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis where faculty have been looking into how much damage climate change will have on coastal facilities around the Chesapeake Bay and what are the most cost-effective strategies to deal with it. That might teach them why the Navy and the other branches of the military can't afford to be climate deniers anxious to appease special interests or play to certain voters: They have a country to defend. As Mr. Obama observed, "climate change impacts every country on the planet." It's no laughing matter to imagine a future president who would ignore such an obvious security threat for no good reason beyond some measure of short-term political gain.