Just a day after the massacre in Paris, the right-wing website Breitbart posted a compendium of times that President Obama and other officials have emphasized the security threat of climate change.
That’s hardly the first time that Democrats from Obama on down have gotten pushback from the Right. In September of last year, before Hillary Clinton or Rand Paul had officially entered the White House race, Paul jumped all over her claim that “climate change is the most consequential, urgent, sweeping collection of challenges we face.”
“I don’t think we really want a commander in chief who’s battling climate change instead of terrorism,” Paul said on Fox News. (Clinton, perhaps hoping to avoid that minefield, said in her campaign-launch speech nine months later that climate change is “one of the defining threats of our time.”)
The Clinton-Paul dust-up was reminiscent of an early 2014 episode, when Republicans John McCain and Newt Gingrich attacked John Kerry for calling climate change “perhaps the world’s most fearsome weapon of mass destruction.” Kerry said it “ranks right up there with terror, epidemics, poverty, and nuclear proliferation.”
Politically, it may be fertile ground for conservatives to use climate change as a vehicle for arguing that Democrats are screwing up on terrorism. After all, polling shows that defending against terrorism is a far, far higher priority than global warming.
But politics aside, questions about ranking security threats—especially such disparate types of threats—may not make much sense.
Daniel Chiu, a former high-level Defense Department official who worked on planning for climate-related risks, says the idea of creating a simple ranking of threats is “understandable, but it is just wrong.” Chiu equates the question to asking what’s more important, food or water.
“You can’t just rack and stack challenges, risks, threats,” said Chiu, the former deputy assistant secretary of Defense for strategy and force development. Risks are a calculation of probability and consequence, he notes, and climate change and terrorism don’t lend themselves to apples-to-apples comparisons.
“The consequences [of climate change], especially if left unchecked, can, according to the scientific community, [be] extremely high but very long-term,” said Chiu, who left the Defense Department late last year and now has a senior role at the Atlantic Council. “Then you have things like terrorism—near-term, in your face, significant, absolutely—but we are not talking about global. So how do you trade off—how do you say which one is more, which one is less? These are different kinds of threats; they are not one-is-more, one-is-less kinds of threats.
“When it comes to people saying, how do you rank-order these and tell me which are your priorities; my answer is, we actually have to deal with both of these things,” Chiu said.