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Climate is a global security issue; must be part of final debate on foreign policy

climate change in the presidential debate on foreign policyThe final presidential debate on Monday will focus on foreign policy. Among the topics that are sure to come up: the war in Afghanistan, the conflict between Israel and Iran, the changing landscape in the Middle East and new terrorist threats, and the rise of China on the world stage.

But what is less clear is whether the moderator, Bob Schieffer will press the candidates on the national security threat that has yet be addressed: climate change.

The Defense Department in a 2010 report called climate change a prominent military vulnerability and an “accelerant of instability and conflict.” The report identifies climate change and energy as two key issues, “that will play a significant role in shaping the future security environment.” The report notes that “climate change could have significant geopolitical impacts around the world, contributing to poverty, environmental degradation, and the further weakening of fragile governments. Climate change will contribute to food and water scarcity, will increase the spread of disease, and may spur or exacerbate mass migration.”

Thus far, both the debate moderators and candidates have been skirting around the issue, discussing energy issues repeatedly without mention of climate change. This prompted Chris Hayes of MSNBC to compare the silence on climate change during the energy portion of the debate to “discussing smoking without discussing cancer.”

And town hall moderator Candy Crowley, during CNN’s post-debate coverage, explained that time constraints prevented her from getting to climate change, saying, “I had that question for all of you climate change people. We just, you know, again, we knew that the economy was still the main thing so you knew you kind of wanted to go with the economy.”

Dismissing the effect that climate change has our economy is one thing, but excluding climate change from a debate on foreign policy, effectively ignores U.S. military planners’ warnings that climate change poses massive threats to global security. Ignoring it does an enormous disservice to Americans and all those “climate change people” like:

  • Navy Secretary Ray Mabus – “Our responsibilities, our concerns, have to be tied into the effects of climate change” and;
  • U.S. ally, German Chancellor Angela Merkel – “A failure to take action against climate change will have dreadful consequences for the whole world” and;
  • Nobel Prize-winning scientist Mario Molina – “It’s important that people are doing more than just hearing about global warming. People may be feeling it, experiencing the impact on food prices, getting a glimpse of what everyday life may be like in the future, unless we as a society take action.”

But so far, instead of heeding the pleas of our own military, world leaders and a Nobel prize-winning scientist, we’ve had to watch our presidential candidates vie for the hand of the fossil fuel industry to see who gets to be the next Mr. Coal.  The energy-focused portions of the previous debates have been like watching a bad episode of the Bachelorette. The good news is, it’s not too late to call the wedding off.  The final debate offers a chance for the candidates to renounce this destructive relationship and address how they are going to use their position as a global leader to reduce carbon in the Earth’s atmosphere and manage the already clear and present climate change threats.

But again, that opportunity will present itself only if the moderator also acknowledges climate change as a national security threat, as has been widely acknowledged.

In addition to the 2010 report, an October 2011 report by the Office of the Under Secretary of Defense’s Defense Science Board task force warns that failure to anticipate and mitigate these changes in climate patterns, “increases the threat of more failed states with the instabilities and potential for conflict inherent in such failures.”

Recent events like the droughts that affected almost 61 percent of the lower 48 states this summer, the raging wildfires in the northwest and new government data that suggests show that the Arctic sea ice could be gone by the end of this decade clearly demonstrate the domestic challenges we face as a result of unmitigated climate change, but addressing these issues is going to take a global effort with strong leadership from the president of the United States.

So, if discussing domestic energy without mentioning climate change is like “discussing smoking without discussing cancer,” then discussing foreign policy without discussing climate change is like, well, discussing foreign policy without discussing climate change.

Public Citizen’s petition urging Bob Schieffer to ask the presidential candidates to tell us their plans to address climate change.

Photo courtesy of NASA commons