February 26, 2020

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National Security & Sustainability: Fiscal Cliff or Climate Cliff?

Tackling the climate crisis will get the debt under control and increase our national security.


By Francesca Rheannon

While the Beltway is chattering at a fever pitch about the fiscal cliff, it has turned a deaf ear to a World Bank report issued just in time for the climate talks in Doha. In stark relief, the Bank paints the real cliff our civilization is about to go over: the climate cliff.

We can debate whether the fiscal cliff is really a cliff or more like a slope, curb or a fiasco, but there is no doubting the urgency of retreating from the brink of the climate catastrophe we face: a global temperature rise of 4 degrees C. by the end of this century (other scientific estimates place it even higher.) And we are running out of time, if we haven’t passed the point already.

Meanwhile global carbon emissions hit a record high in 2012. Not coincidentally, it was also the warmest year on record.

Is there a way that we can move back from both precipices together? Or is it a zero sum game, as the politicians -- including President Barack Obama -- and a passel of pundits claim: either we cut the debt or we cut climate changing carbon emissions. A similar zero sum trope says we have to heal the economy before dealing with climate change – as if climate change won’t obliterate whole economies on a scale that dwarfs even the most derivative-drunk Wall Street behemoth.

A new study by the Robert Pollin for the Center for Progress says tackling the climate crisis can help us solve the debt crisis – and protect national security at the same time. It will reduce the enormous costs of climate catastrophes -- like Hurricane Sandy and the Texas megadrought, boost tax revenues by creating domestic jobs, and lessen the need for many of our debt-bloating military expenditures.

The Military Budget: The Debt-Creating Elephant In The Room?

Some like to tout Medicare as the boogeyman of debt generation, but increases in military spending fiscal cliffoutpace those in Medicare -- up 9 percent per year, while Medicare goes up about 5.8 percent. It’s true that, as a percentage of GDP, Medicare and Medicaid together slightly edge out the military budget, but Medicare also prevents higher costs – it’s more efficient than private insurance and helps keep costs down through disease prevention and management. The military budget, on the other hand, has few, if any, restraints on overspending.

So why are so many purported deficit hawks adamant about protecting the military budget from the slightest nick of the knife?

The 2011 debt deal that got us onto the fast track toward sequestration mandates broad across-the-board cuts in both non-military discretionary and military spending. Even if sequestration doesn’t happen, the outcry to slash the debt provides convenient cover to those who want to put critical programs on the chopping block, including investments in clean energy. Military spending will be defended by tooth and claw, as Congress members rush to protect defense contractors in their districts from any loss in funds.

But the pressure to safeguard the military budget threatens deep cuts to environmental protection and clean energy, as can be seen by the following graph published in a report from the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation titled Eroding our Foundation: Sequestration, R&D, Innovation and U.S. Economic Growth:

Federal Investments in Energy Innovation

Climate Security is National Security

The zero sum mentality dominating the debt reduction debate is misguided, Robert Pollin argues in his report Rebalancing Our National Security. According to him, we need a unified security budget that defines security more broadly in an era of climate threats to include investments in the green economy, as well as wise allocation of funds to traditional defense.

Case in point:

The World Bank’s report noted that the restive states of the Middle East (including those with nuclear capabilities) will “bear the brunt of climate change.”  They are already incubators for terrorist activity and state-sponsored security threats – what will happen when they are no longer able to grow food? And that is just one of the many security threats the world will face from climate chaos.

If climate and environmental security were brought into the realm of national security, where it War or Jobs?belongs, we would have the conceptual framework to shift security resources from where they doing little good (or even creating blowback, as in the case of drone strikes in Pakistan) to where they could do immense good through a panoply of positive multiplier effects.

For example, we could stop spending $20 billion on developing new nuclear weapons that do nothing to enhance security and only invite other nations to bolster their own first strike capacity. Instead, we could shift that spending to retrofit millions of low to moderate income homes to be more energy efficient. This would:

  • Create jobs in those communities (the green economy creates more jobs per dollar of investment than military spending, according to Pollin’s figures);
  • Expand the market for green building entrepreneurs and the green tech companies that supply them;
  • Free up discretionary dollars to boost consumer spending, as homeowners and renters spend less on heating and cooling their homes;
  • Boost local, state and federal revenue through increased business, payroll and income taxes, thereby lessening the debt;
  • Make the economy more resilient through the multiplier effect (local jobs spend on local businesses;
  • And, by the way, mitigate much of the 40 percent of annual carbon emissions produced by buildings.

Or take the same amount of money and fully fund the Department of Transportation’s “investment in clean fuels, R&D, Green emissions technologies and sustainable transportation projects,” as pointed out in another report from IPS Research fellow Miriam Pemberton.

Or the federal government could lessen threats to our national security from weather disasters by promoting solar and wind power, distributed both locally and through a smart grid. That would not only mitigate climate change but also enhance resilience (i.e. adaptation), by hardening power systems against disruption. National security would be strengthened.

A Green Industry In Every District; A Green Superfund For Workers

Dwight D. Einsenhower coined the term, “military-industrial complex” -- but he actually called it the “military-industrial-congressional complex” to refer to the fact that military production has been solar energypurposely located in every state of the union in order to insure that defense spending would be fiercely protected by legislators from each Congressional district. This was a brilliant stroke on the part of defense manufacturers coming out of WWII – a model that should be imitated by the green industry. It would create a sea change of bi-partisan political support for the green economy.

Another brilliant idea for creating the political will to support the green economy builds on an idea from my old friend and mentor, Tony Mazzochi. Tony was the legislative director of the Oil, Chemical and Atomic Workers Union (O.C.A.W.) – and a committed environmentalist. He devised whole sections of the O.S.H.A. act and built the labor-environmental coalition that got the E.P.A. Act passed – under a Republican president.

Tony knew that environmental protection would cost jobs in the industries in which O.C.A.W. members worked. So he proposed a Superfund for workers. Workers who were displaced because of environmental laws would get retrained and put to work in environment-friendly jobs.

Today, workers in the hard-bitten coal industry regions of Appalachia could be put to work restoring their ravaged communities, cleaning up polluted rivers and streams, building energy efficient homes, and sparking a new American industrial revolution based on green energy. It wouldn’t take long to turn them from fighting against climate protection to passionately supporting it.

Making climate security the lynch pin of national security will make it the engine of economic growth. And the surest path away from the twin cliffs of the climate crisis and fiscal irresponsibility. But who's listening?

The opinions, beliefs and viewpoints expressed by CSRwire contributors do not necessarily reflect the opinions, beliefs and viewpoints of CSRwire.

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