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John Warner Q&A: The Former Senator on Climate Change and National Security

5 years ago
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Virginia Republican John Warner, a former Navy secretary, former senator and former chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, is trying to build grass-roots support for congressional action to limit global warming. Ethics laws do not permit him to lobby his former colleagues in the Senate. But he is traveling the country to discuss military research that shows climate change is a threat to U.S. national security, and this fall he'll testify to Congress on the issue for the fourth time. Politics Daily's Jill Lawrence spoke with Warner last week.
PD: How did you get involved in this cause and what are you hoping to accomplish?

JW: There are two events. In 1943 I was 16 years old. . . . I got a job with the U.S. Forest Service as a firefighter on the border of Montana and Idaho. I worked that summer for three months in the most beautiful, pristine forest you've ever seen in your life. Five or six years ago I went to Coeur D'Alene, Idaho, to give a speech. I asked the Forest Service to take me back to those camps. I was just absolutely heartbroken. The old forest, the white pine forest in which I worked, was absolutely gone, devastated, standing there dead from the bark beetle. I said to the forest ranger, "This is such an emotional, distressing trip for me -- what is the problem?" He said, "Our climate has changed so much out here. We don't have the cold winters which used to curtail the level of the bark beetle. So it's decimating the white pine and many valuable species." That sparked my interest.
At the same time I was chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee. More and more [retired military] people would say to me, "We've got to take a look at this climate change. If it continues as it is and worsens, we're going to be called on in more incidents to provide troops for humanitarian causes . . . or where governments are toppled as a consequence of lack of food or water or energy or all the other things associated with natural disasters." I said all right. I studied it. In 2008, Sen. [Hillary] Clinton was a member of my committee and the two of us . . . directed the secretary of defense to start a study on the roles and missions of the armed forces as they relate to climate change. That has grown tremendously in the department. There's a section working fulltime on it.

PD: Does the responsibility fall to us to respond to the consequences of climate change?

JW: Not exclusively, but we're often in the forefront of response to these things. We're the nation with the most sealift. The most airlift. We have more medical teams which are mobile, more storehouses of food and supplies to meet emergencies. And throughout our history, from the beginning of the republic, America's always had to respond to certain humanitarian disasters.

PD: What are some examples of destabilization due to climate?

JW: One clear case of it is Somalia. [In the early 1990s] the prolonged drought began to tie up the economy, the food supplies. There was a certain amount of political and economic instability. Where you have fragile nations . . . a serious climactic problem will come along, with a shortage of food or water, and often those governments are toppled. And then they fall to the evils of . . . terrorism or others who try to exploit these fallen governments. You saw it in Darfur. You saw it in Somalia. This political instability and weakness is given the final tilt by a problem associated with climactic change.

PD: Is your purpose to get national security into the forefront of the debate on climate change?

JW: Two years ago I teamed up with Joe Lieberman. The Lieberman-Warner bill was the only climate-energy bill that got out of a committee and actually got to the floor of the Senate. We debated it for three or four days. It had a cap-and-trade system [to limit carbon pollution]. . . . It was a very broad-based bill, a 500-page bill. The Bush administration felt they did not want to support it on their watch and it collapsed.

PD: What is your sense of the Senate at this point?

JW: The leadership of the Senate, primarily [Senate Majority Leader Harry] Reid, made a very wise decision at this time. All the committees that have a part of the jurisdiction are putting in their own recommendations for legislation. Therefore six committees are now preparing a bill to be submitted to Senator Reid the last week or so in September.

PD: Will senators give this issue the level of attention that you think is warranted?

JW: We just got back from Florida. They are very responsive there for two reasons. They have so many military bases. The men and women on those bases are affected by the additional missions they could be called on. . . . Public awareness should be raised. This is not just a private debate among environmentalists. The Department of Defense is really beginning to shoulder a good deal of the responsibility.

Here's the second thing that got Florida's attention, and that is sea rise. You raise the mean level of the oceans about two to three inches and it has a profound multiplying effect on hurricanes and other violent storms, and Florida is in the path of these storms. Also you've got so many military bases in South Carolina and Virginia. If there's a significant rise of the sea, you put military installations at risk.

PD: Are senators paying attention to you?

JW: I think so. Very much so. Certain chairpersons [John Kerry of Foreign Relations and Barbara Boxer of Environment and Public Works] are very interested. I haven't been as successful as I had hoped to engender the military committees to get involved. I have no means whatsoever under the ethics law to even call a senator or staffer. There is an Iron Curtain. But I can testify.

PD: With environmentalists already on board, are you trying to interest other types of people?

JW: That's quite true. People think climate change is solely an environmental campaign. And I . . . consider myself strongly in support of the environmental goals of this country. But a lot of people look with a different view on that. This says, "Hey, wait a minute, irrespective of your feeling about environmental concerns, here's a practical effect. Your sons or daughters or next door neighbor might be sent out on a military mission."

PD: Are you trying to reach out to conservatives?

JW: I'm not trying to identify them as conservatives, liberals or independents. I'm basically trying to tell the American public that if we're going to make progress with regard to climate change, it's got to start at the grass-roots level. President Obama is quite committed. Certain elements of Congress are quite committed. But it's going to take a significant grass-roots education program so the American public can decide: Is this something we should do for our nation? And I think there's going to be a price tag. There's going to be some cost, and I want to make sure people understand what's behind the need for it.
Filed Under: Environment, Energy
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