My Remarks at the Nancy Weiser Ignatius Lecture on the Environment

American University School of International Service

I stand here deeply sensible of the honor of being asked to deliver this lecture with Bill McKeller and Ernie Moniz. I am equally touched in this moment by many years of affection between Ignatiuses and Whitehouses and Blakes. Thank you.

Husband Paul as a World War II veteran, Secretary of the Navy, and President of the Washington Post; son David as a noted author and national security columnist; and son Adi as the editor of the Harvard Business Review are all living testimony to Nancy’s merit as a wife and mother. Clearly she is doing something right.

And in her own right, Nancy, is a leader who has been described as “at the forefront of environmental advocacy.” As the founder of Concern, Inc., she set herself the task to “utilize the vast woman power of this country to help solve environmental problems.” She has made a difference, and this lecture series is part of that difference.

The Ignatius family’s expertise touches on natural security and the environment, so I thought it would be appropriate here to explore the boundary where our nation’s security and diplomacy are touched by the perilous problem of climate change.

America has long stood before the world as an exceptional country. And deservedly: we proved the case for popular sovereignty with no need of kings or crowns; we rode our balanced market capitalism (and the safety of two oceans) to international economic dominance; we have long been the vanguard of civil and human rights for our own people and around the globe; and when we use our military power we don’t conquer and rule, we come home.

Across our small globe, dawn sweeps each morning, lighting cities and cottages, barrios and villages. Whoever and wherever you may be, you can step out into that morning sunrise, and know from our American example, that life does not have to be the way it is for you. An example of liberty and self-government stands free before you as an alternative and a rebuke to the tyranny, corruption and injustice in which you may be mired.

America’s exceptional nature confers upon us responsibilities. We are not exceptional because we say so; we are exceptional because over and over we do exceptional things — things like what Generals Marshall and MacArthur accomplished putting Europe and Japan back on their feet after World War II.

The world’s (sometimes-grudging) acknowledgement of our exceptional nature confers on America a soft power that allows us influence without gunpoint, and a power of example that draws people to our country, our ideals, and our mode of government. These tidal forces have flooded in our favor for generations, and helped make America “the essential nation.”

Climate change, or more exactly an American failure to lead on climate change, could reverse that tide. Here are the facts: the atmosphere is warming; ice is melting; droughts are worsening; and seas are warming, rising, and acidifying. We’re past theory and well into measurement on those changes. The international implications of those changes command both a security and a moral dimension.

What are the national security risks?

A first order of security risk is the physical damage climate change is causing in our atmosphere, oceans, and environment. Science and our senses are already perceiving this damage, indeed already measuring this damage. This security risk — risk to the Earth’s natural balance — will first hurt farming communities, coastal communities, fishing communities, and those most vulnerable to wildfires and extreme weather. Of course, the poorer you are, the more at hazard you are, as Pope Francis reminds us.

The second order of security risk from climate change is the consequences in human society from those physical, biological, and chemical changes in our Earth’s environment. As farms or fisheries fail, people are impoverished and dislocated. Scarcity of resources leads to conflicts and confrontations. Storms and fires and floods can make the suffering acute. People who are hungry or dislocated or torn from their roots can become desperate, and can become radicalized and violent. That is why the Department of Defense has for many years called climate change a “catalyst of conflict.”

Researchers from NASA and the University of Arizona determined that the drought in Syria was very likely the worst in a thousand years. Massive crop failures and livestock losses moved farmers into stressed cities, where popular protests met brutal violence from the Assad regime. The tide of refugees from that chaos swamped Europe. To the extent the drought in Syria was a root cause of the discontent that led to the conflict, and ultimately to the flight of refugees, European governments have seen this second order of security risk up close.

There is a third order of security risk not often discussed, and that is damage to the keystone institutions of our present world order — market capitalism and democratic government. We depend for the quality of life we enjoy on market capitalism and democratic governance, and those institutions — capitalism and democracy — in turn depend on popular approval and confidence. In the international contest of ideologies, it is not assured that ours will win; we have to earn the winner’s laurel, generation by generation. One way we earn it is by living our values, as the world watches.

People whose livelihoods are lost to those first-order environmental effects of climate change, people swept up in the second-order societal effects of climate change, even people dismayed as they witness others suffering and harm caused by climate change will want answers. It is our human nature when hurt to want answers, to seek a reckoning. When that reckoning comes, terrible discredit will fall on the failure of our institutions — capitalism and democracy — to act timely in face of a well-known risk.

That failure to act is bad enough; worse is the reason why.

Fossil fuel producers who are knowingly causing this harm are also aggressively fighting political solutions to the problem. They are fighting with professionally administered misinformation — a massive propaganda effort churning at full steam to deny the carbon problem. Climate denial is (the original) fake news.

Fossil fuel companies and front groups are also fighting progress with an absurd arsenal of political money, much of it running through dark-money channels to hide their hand.

In Congress, we have shown ourselves unable to resist this industry, despite knowing it to be deeply burdened with obvious and enormous conflicts of interest, and despite clear and repeated warnings from our national security experts.

America’s national security experts could not have made it much plainer.

The Pentagon’s 2014 Quadrennial Defense Review described climate change as a “global threat multiplier,” warning that “the pressures caused by climate change will influence resource competition while placing additional burdens on economies, societies, and governance institutions around the world.”

Former Admiral Samuel Locklear, as head of U.S. Pacific Command, warned in 2013 that climate change was the biggest long-term security threat in his area of operation, noting the need for the military to organize for “when the effects of climate change start to impact these massive populations.”

“If it goes bad,” he said, “you could have hundreds of thousands or millions of people displaced and then security will start to crumble pretty quickly.”

These policy-level warnings about competition, conflict and instability overshroud a lot of simple human suffering, suffering person by person, suffering family by family. The poorest, those who live closest to the land, who lead subsistence lives, will suffer most the brunt of the coming change.

We will be better insulated at the top of the economic pile. Upper-income societies will pay a greater share of their wealth for food; marginal societies will go without. Their struggles — for water, farmland, and fisheries — will be desperate. Hence the instability and conflict. That suffering, on a scale sufficient to arise as a global security threat, will raise resentments.

America has generated the most wealth in the carbon economy; America has been the world’s most profligate emitter of carbon; and America is the essential nation upon which the world counts for leadership. America will not be able to avoid ownership of this mess. It is wise or prudent to imagine that global adversaries who challenge our American values will politely decline to take advantage of all that suffering and resentment?

Although the climate denial apparatus has won unseemly influence in Congress now, it will surely lose the test of time. The consequences of climate change are determined by laws of chemistry, physics and biology. Those laws cannot be repealed or wished away. Propaganda can manipulate people, passions, and politics, but it has no effect on the immutable laws of nature.

So the denial apparatus will ultimately be exposed as a fraud and scandal, and history will lament and condemn it as one of the great American frauds and scandals. With all the dread power that history has to inflict on wrong, the judgment will come harshly. Unfortunately, it is not just the industry’s success at propaganda and denial that will be judged. There is a commensurate failure of American democracy that will be judged harshly, and stain and disgrace our great American experiment.

James Madison in Federalist Papers №63 warned of “moments in public affairs when the people…misled by artful misrepresentations of interested men, may call for measures which they themselves will afterwards be the most ready to lament and condemn.” We have certainly been misled by artful misrepresentations of the interested men of the fossil fuel industry. Lamentation and condemnation may well be our due.

Years ago, at Bunker Hill, Daniel Webster described the work of our Founders as having “set the world an example.” This was not a unique vision of America. From Jonathan Winthrop to Ronald Reagan, we have called ourselves “a city on a hill,” set high for the world to witness. From President Kennedy to President Obama, inaugural addresses have noted that the glow of our ideals “light[s] the world.” President Clinton has argued that “[p]eople the world over have always been more impressed by the power of our example than the example of our power.”

When Daniel Webster said that our founding fathers had set the world an example, he went on to say this: “The last hopes of mankind, therefore, rest with us; and if it should be proclaimed, that our example had become an argument against the experiment, the knell of popular liberty would be sounded throughout the earth.”

If you believe that the world needs America, if you believe that America is to be the essential and exceptional nation, then getting climate right matters. Failure will make a powerful argument against our democratic experiment. A world forever changed by carbon pollution, in ways America foresaw but denied, may not believe it has much need for what America claims to offer. Failing to lead at this moment of necessity will soon, and long darken the lamp America holds up to the world, and the tide that has quietly sustained us could being to shift.

America is an exemplary Nation. The world is watching. We have a role to play in this world, we Americans, and it is time we got about it. The choice which path we take will be a fateful one.

Thank you.

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