If Congress performs the miraculous feat of passing President Obama's two top priorities by the end of the year, we may have a crew of veterans and military experts to thank. Even as health care battles rage on, they're laying the groundwork for the next Senate struggle -- this one over energy and climate policy.
Environmentalists, liberals and clean-energy entrepreneurs already support more investment in conservation and clean renewable energy, and an overall cap on the carbon emissions that contribute to global warming. The new twist this fall is a concerted appeal to independents, moderates and conservatives, inside the Senate and out, on the grounds that global warming and oil dependence are threats to our national security.
In the face of conservative attacks on climate-change legislation as a "job-killing energy tax," this is a welcome and potentially effective experiment in the politics of addition. We are not talking here about indulging tree-huggers or endangered species, or even about protecting the Earth. We are talking about protecting America. The argument is tough and double-barreled: We need to stop pouring money into oil-producing countries that are hostile to our interests, and we need to take global warming seriously as a threat to our national security -- because the military sure does
"In terms of a national campaign, this is very new. We are moving from the realm of people writing scholarly reports to entering the broader public arena," says Frankie Sturm of Operation Free, a coalition of four national security and veterans' groups
seeking "fast, bold action" on climate change.
The House narrowly passed a sweeping energy bill that makes it more expensive to pollute, but offers substantial transition aid to affected industries. Six Senate panels are considering their own measures and the plan is to merge them into a single bill next month. In the meantime, the national security contingent is ramping up. There's a Capitol Hill forum Tuesday sponsored by the Partnership for a Secure America, the Reserve Officers Association and the Center for Naval Analyses
(CNA). Two days later, some 100 veterans will visit Senate offices to discuss the links between climate and security from their personal perspectives. That includes fighting wars in oil-producing countries and wishing the U.S. military in Iraq ran on solar panels instead of oil that must be transported in risky convoys.
Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry, the Democrats' 2004 presidential nominee, promised in a primary-season TV ad "to put in place a plan that frees our nation from the grip of Mideast oil in the next 10 years. Because no child growing up in America today should ever have to go to war for oil." He lost and the issue didn't stick. But now the Vietnam veteran and longtime environmentalist is chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, with another chance to shape the policy and the debate.
Outside the Senate, one of the highest-profile advocates for the cause is Virginia Republican John Warner, 82, a former Navy secretary, former senator and former chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee. Working with the Pew Project on National Security, Energy and Climate
, he was in St. Louis, Kansas City, Tampa, Fla., and Charleston, S.C., last month. Coming up in the next few weeks are Detroit and Lansing, Mich.; Norfolk, Va.; Indianapolis, Ind.; and Missoula, Mont.
"This is not just a private debate among environmentalists," Warner told me. He said the Pentagon is doing extensive research and will include the impact of global warming in its quadrennial review next spring. As for how to explain the urgency to a voter not concerned about the environment, he offers, "Here's a practical effect: Your sons or daughters or next-door neighbor might be sent out on a military mission" as a result of climate change.
Studies show that drought, famine, floods and other consequences of global warming will be worst in regions that already are relatively unstable politically and/or economically. The potential impact includes toppled governments, terrorist breeding grounds, island nations immersed in rising seas, threats to U.S. military installations in coastal areas, and more military and humanitarian demands on the U.S. military -- in many instances the only institution with the resources to make a difference.
Warner has testified to Congress three times about global warming and national security, and plans to do so a fourth time this fall. On the road, he does radio interviews, meets with editorial boards and appears at forums, typically along with a local expert and a CNA board member such as retired Vice Adm. Dennis McGinn. Those in attendance include students, local business leaders and others who are on the fence about climate change. "We tell them to give it a little more thought from a national security perspective," said Chelsea Maxwell, a climate-change expert who works with Pew and Warner.
That's pretty much the message inside the Senate, where lawmakers are weighing factors such as new government regulation, the potential for higher energy costs and the impact on polluting industries that would have to buy emissions permits under a new cap-and-trade system. Daniel Weiss, director of climate strategy at the liberal Center for American Progress, says some senators deeply concerned about security issues may be receptive despite the cross-pressures -- among them Republicans John McCain of Arizona, Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and Richard Lugar of Indiana, and Democrats Carl Levin of Michigan and Evan Bayh of Indiana.
There are no polls of the national security effect on undecided senators, just Sturm's anecdotal observation that "skepticism starts to melt away" when military folks are the ones doing the talking about global warming. That's a signal to smart environmentalists to pass the baton.