Time for the GOP to Get Serious About Climate Change, the New National Security Issue

The GOP is ceding important ground by tolerating and encouraging denialism on this critical topic.

A badly under-watered Kansas cornfield awaits rain this past August. An end-of-summer wet spell helped nurture soybeans, but came too late for the corn crop -- a development that could raise food prices around the world. (Reuters)

Mitt Romney's remarks on NBC's Meet the Press earlier this month rankled environmental activists hoping for a bipartisan approach to climate change. "I'm not in this race to slow the rise of the oceans or to heal the planet," the Republican presidential nominee told David Gregory. "I'm in this race to help the American people."

The comment was meant as a dig at some of President Obama's more high-flying rhetoric from the 2008 campaign, but it also laid bare a significant difference in outlook between the parties: When it comes to the issue of climate change, Republicans have taken a decidedly unrealistic tack.

The available evidence overwhelmingly suggests that climate change is real; that extreme weather events are increasing, likely due to climate change; and that this dynamic will have an impact on American national-security interests, if it hasn't already. This year's curiously hot summer was accompanied by the worst drought that the U.S. has experienced in 50 years -- a phenomenon that not only hurts Americans, but is having ripple effects throughout the world as crops wither and food prices increase in nations that can barely afford the price shocks. But the GOP's leading political figures have not been raising the alarm about the connection.

That's unfortunate -- both for the GOP and for America. While the GOP has traditionally held an electoral advantage on national-security issues -- something that apparently will not be the case in this year's election -- its stance on environmental issues also could have a decidedly negative impact on American national security.

Climate change denialism remains a powerful current within the Republican party, and is a stance honored by most of the candidates who sought this year's GOP presidential nomination. Though Romney argued for reductions in carbon emissions when he governed Massachusetts, he changed his tune on the campaign trail. He said at one point that he thought the world was getting hotter, but added, "I don't know that, but I think that it is." As to human contributions, Romney allowed, "It could be a little. It could be a lot." On another occasion, Romney stated outright, "My view is that we don't know what's causing climate change on this planet."

Meanwhile, the evidence that climate change is a real and pressing problem continues to mount. Not only do heat records continue to fall, but the extreme weather events that we have seen with increasing regularity further underscore the problem. As James Hansen, who directs the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies, wrote recently about a new analysis he conducted of six decades of temperature data, "our analysis shows that, for the extreme hot weather of the recent past, there is virtually no explanation other than climate change." Events that can be attributed to climate change, according to his research, include the deadly heat wave that gripped Europe in 2003, the heat wave that rocked Russia in 2010 and caused spontaneous fires, and the droughts that have hit Texas and Oklahoma.

This is not a "soft" issue that should be of concern only to environmentalists. Climate change can be destabilizing in international affairs, a fact that the Department of Defense is now trumpeting. As the 2010 Quadrennial Defense Review Report notes, climate change contributes to food and water scarcity, provoking or exacerbating mass migrations, and amping up conflicts over resources. The report states, "While climate change alone does not cause conflict, it may act as an accelerant of instability or conflict, placing a burden to respond on civilian institutions and militaries around the world."

We have seen this dynamic at play in recent years. The global food crisis of 2008 was destabilizing, causing unrest in the Middle East, Africa, and South America; and this summer's drought will similarly be felt throughout the world. As Robert Thompson, who studies food security at the Chicago Council of Global Affairs, recently said, "What happens to the U.S. supply has an immense impact around the world. If the price of corn rises high enough, it also pulls up the price of wheat. I think we are in for a very serious situation worldwide." The full impact the drought will have throughout the globe remains to be felt, but we can already see world food prices rising.

Some prominent Republicans have admirably tried to reframe the debate within the party by arguing that climate change should be seen as a national security problem. South Carolina senator Lindsey Graham co-wrote a New York Times op-ed with John Kerry in 2009 arguing in favor of climate-change legislation; Inside Energy, a prominent newsletter examining federal energy policies, notes that former Virginia senator John Warner has also argued that "climate change is a national security issue because it could spawn global conflicts that could require a response by the U.S. military."

It is past time for Republican leaders to come around to this reality, and for candidates to formulate a fact-based approach to this significant problem. Environmental issues and national security ones are increasingly intertwined, with climate change the leading edge of this connection. It isn't clear that Republicans will lose electoral support if their environmental policies have a second-order consequence of making the U.S. less safe, though they may (already, some evidence suggests that failure to appeal to environmentally-minded voters is costing the GOP). What is clear, though, is that ignoring climate change won't make it go away -- and that America will be worse off if Republicans fail to act.