While much of official Washington was in an uproar Wednesday over the aftermath of President Donald Trump's unexpected firing of FBI Director James B. Comey, another surprise was taking place with much happier result. On a 51-49 vote, the U.S. Senate blocked an effort to repeal a 2016 U.S. Department of the Interior regulation curbing releases of methane from oil and gas wells on federal land.
That was a big victory for climate change science not just because methane is a major source of greenhouse gases or that so-called "flares" from drilling sites represent a significant waste (about $330 million worth of gas per year, or enough to supply 5 million homes that's just burned off for convenience) but because it means a majority of the Republican-controlled Senate has now staked out a position of concern over man-made climate change. And it couldn't happen at a better time.
President Trump has threatened to pull the U.S. out of the Paris climate agreement and has said he expects to make a final decision on that matter later this month. It's not entirely clear which direction he may go. As a candidate, Mr. Trump was often in the outright climate change denial camp, famously suggesting at one point that it was all a Chinese hoax, but his views have been somewhat less clear since he took office. The business community does not speak with one voice of the issue — even some coal companies favor sticking with the Paris agreement if it means the U.S. invests more in developing cleaner coal technologies — and the president may be waiting to judge the political landscape.
If so, the Senate vote shows a key but often overlooked argument to stick with the international push to reduce greenhouse gas emissions: national security. What produced the 51 votes was the support of three GOP senators who broke with their party — Lindsay Graham, Susan Collins and the most surprising of the group, John McCain. What swayed the Arizona senator who has been all over the map on energy policy over the years, from someone who endorsed greenhouse gas limits a decade ago to someone who criticized the science behind that policy in his last re-election bid?
It might have been the growing number of oil and gas wells in his region of the country and concern over their health effects and impact on air quality. But it may also have been the letter he received from a group of veterans including retired generals from the Vet Voice Foundation who view the venting as a national security threat because it reduces the nation's natural gas reserves. Senator McCain, who serves as chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, has espoused similar views in the past.
The U.S. natural gas supply is really just a tip of that particular melting iceberg. As a 2015 Pentagon report pointed out, climate change has much broader implications for defense strategies. Rising sea levels, worsening weather disasters, reduced crop yields, increased vector-borne disease and other ill effects of the warming planet are certain to make the world a more dangerous place. Countries that can't feed or house their populations now are going to face crises of epic proportions. Blunting some of the worst effects is not only a humane and practical approach, it could prove beneficial to U.S. security interests, saving billions of dollars and countless lives.
President Trump has often made much ado about the need to listen to his generals. He shouldn't stop now. Historically, successful military leaders don't ignore the best, most expert information available to them because it's politically unpopular, they make decisions based on a clear-eyed and realistic view of the threat they face. Climate change must be understood in exactly those terms — an existential threat that the nation ignores at its peril.
Given how Congress has been rolling back Obama era regulations with a certain glee — including many involving the environment — it is heartening to see a handful of Republican senators draw a line on the retreat. President Trump would do well to join them. After all, this isn't about hugging trees, it's about putting America first by standing up against ruinous energy policies that promote exploitation of finite fossil fuel resources at a terrible cost to public health and national security. It might also happen to help save the rest of the planet, too.