Climate change will define the global political landscape of the twenty-first century. As Admiral Samuel J. Locklear III, then the head of the U.S. Pacific Command, told journalists in 2013, political upheaval caused by climate change “is probably the most likely thing that is going to happen … that will cripple the security environment, probably more likely than the other scenarios we all often talk about.” Events since then have not weakened that assessment: As governments around the world have struggled to cope with supersize tropical storms, drought, wildfire, rising seas, glacier melt, desertification, epidemics, and unprecedented heat waves, there has been a surge in regional instability, civil wars, border skirmishes, mass displacement, and tensions around shifting geographical boundaries, all of which are reshaping national and international politics from the Mediterranean to the South China Sea, from the Arctic to the Rio Grande.
The American foreign policy establishment—the broad coalition between Washington, the military-industrial complex, major think tanks, and the mass media, identified by Ben Rhodes’s resonant phrase as “the Blob”—has been struggling to cope with this fact since the mid-2000s. In the tumultuous twenty-first century, the United States will face global and regional instability, threats to energy and food security, new conflicts over resources and borders, and direct assaults on key infrastructure from superstorms and rising seas. As early as 2007, CNA Corporation, a Pentagon-funded think tank, declared climate change “a serious threat to America’s national security,” and recommended making it a central factor in U.S. strategic planning.
As Michael T. Klare discusses in his recent book, All Hell Breaking Loose, the Pentagon made serious efforts for nearly a decade to assess, confront, and address climate change, from the Department of Defense 2014 Climate Change Adaptation Roadmap to the launch of the guided-missile destroyer U.S.S. Stockdale, which in 2016 became the first U.S. naval vessel powered by alternative fuels (a mixture of petroleum and beef fat). Yet those efforts were halted in 2017 by Trump’s Executive Order 13783, “Promoting Energy Independence and Economic Growth,” which commanded federal agencies not only to abandon planning and preparing for climate change, but also to abolish rules or regulations they’d previously adopted.
The challenge climate change poses to global politics, international security, and American foreign policy emerges in a moment when the United States’ understanding of its role in the world is uncertain. The postwar liberal order that the United States built out of the bombed ruins of Europe and East Asia has collapsed, repudiated at home and disgraced overseas. Trump seems to be running his foreign policy on impulse, without a clear plan, and with an understaffed executive branch. Feckless Democrats waffle between nostalgia for Obama’s “Empire Lite” and fervid calls to abolish ICE. Meanwhile, bruise-colored clouds mass at the horizon, and the first drops of rain flicker on our faces.
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Article by University of Notre Dame Professor Roy Scranton
Published on The New Republic on April 20, 2020.