Progressive American politicians must embrace the necessity of dramatic action on climate change as a touchstone. So far, Senator Bernie Sanders has done it the most persuasively, campaigning on addressing climate change, health care, racial justice, and economic inequality as his unvaried quartet of issues, invoked in every speech and backed up with serious legislation that shows a willingness to move with real speed. Other party leaders will back him on one bill or another, and scientists and engineers are now running for office. Seriousness on climate change needs to be a qualification, not an afterthought, for anyone who wants to run for president. Because it’s not an environmental issue; it’s the most crucial security question that humans have ever faced.
“Security” in the most basic sense: There is a nontrivial chance that the area where you live, your particular home, is going to face a wildfire or flood or extreme storm or killer heat wave in the years ahead. The insurance industry, the part of our economy that we ask to analyze risk, has been clear about this. But at this point, the real experts are the people who survived last fall’s California firestorms, or Hurricane Maria’s assault on Puerto Rico.
When we talk about “security” in magazines, we usually mean something to do with armies and guns and foreign policy. The Pentagon has actually been the one arm of traditional conservative power in America willing to at least lay out the facts of our climate peril, and ranking officers have become ever more outspoken: In 2013, the head of US forces in the Pacific, Adm. Samuel Locklear III, told a reporter that, although he was in charge of dealing with the threats from North Korea and China, the thing his planners feared most was global warming. It was “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.” Though President Trump has forced even the military to remove most overt references to climate change from its reports, one imagines that military planners aren’t fooled, if for no other reason than that rising sea levels and extreme weather threaten half of US bases and ports, according to one study. But it goes far deeper than that: Instability and chaos are the great enemies of peace, and the invariable outriders of climate change.
Failure looks like Syria, where a deep drought—the worst in the Levant in nearly a millennium—forced a million farmers off their land and into the already unstable cities a decade ago. One study after another now shows that this played a crucial role in helping trigger the conflict there, which in turn helped to fuel the hateful new politics in our own country and Europe. Now multiply that by 100, as rising seas and spreading deserts push more and more people into frightened motion. One of the ironies is that the West fears migration resulting from its own fossil-fuel burning; no one on the Marshall Islands is responsible for, or can stop, the rising sea. It will take our work here to actually ensure that people elsewhere enjoy the right to stay in their own homes.