People who have criticized the Obama administration’s climate agenda throughout his entire presidency sought to unravel some of the president’s core arguments yesterday.
At issue was the administration linking global warming to national security threats and its contention that the United States has a moral obligation to address climate change.
At a contentious Senate Environment and Public Works Committee hearing, a retired military general and a Roman Catholic priest led the charge against the underpinnings of the administration’s agenda. A fossil fuels advocate also testified against climate action, sparring with Democratic members of the panel (Greenwire, April 13).
"This administration has spent significant time and taxpayer dollars promoting a sense of fear and urgency around climate change," said Chairman James Inhofe (R-Okla.), "exploiting any recent, catastrophic event to justify Obama’s economically devastating policies."
The hearing came less than two weeks before the Obama administration is set to sign the Paris Agreement that calls for nations to limit global warming to 2 degrees Celsius and to pursue efforts to limit warming to 1.5 C.
Democrats both defended the administration and criticized GOP colleagues for holding the hearing.
"Thank goodness we have an administration that isn’t cowed by the kinds of rhetoric that we heard from my chairman — whom we like," EPW ranking member Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) said. "But the fact is, his words just don’t make sense to me."
Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) described himself as "sad" at the state of the committee, which he labeled the "Committee on Eccentricity and Public Works."
"We have these very, very strong signals coming from the vast majority of these great institutions — our military and Catholic Church," Whitehouse said, "and what we hear in this committee are these extremely eccentric voices."
In 2014, the Department of Defense released a key report that found climate change posed a threat to national security and would increase risks associated with terrorism, disease and poverty. DOD has characterized climate change as a threat multiplier that could make other existing national security threats worse.
Individual administration officials have also linked climate change to conflicts in the Middle East, including Secretary of State John Kerry, who has said that drought tied to a warming planet has contributed to the violence in Syria.
"No challenge poses a greater threat to future generations than climate change," President Obama said during his State of the Union address.
But a Republican witness, retired Maj. Gen. Robert Scales, argued that climate change was a "distraction" keeping the military from focusing on other key national security issues, the most pressing of which was the threat of Russia.
Scales, a military analyst for Fox News, told lawmakers that he has visited men and women who have served in the armed forces in Afghanistan and elsewhere who feel disillusioned by the administration’s focus on climate change.
"When they’re sitting in a mess hall in Kabul and they see the president say on television that [the Islamic State group] ISIS may not be our No. 1 enemy, climate change may be," Scales said, "and they just came back from patrol with their Afghan allies — these young men and women turn to each other and say, ‘Have our leaders sort of lost touch with realities all around us?’"
Scales also claimed that military officers put their names on that 2014 report’s climate conclusions simply because everybody else was doing it.
"It’s like Y2K, or it’s like Prohibition," Scales said. "We in our society have a tendency to jump on bandwagons because that’s just what America does. It makes us feel like part of the organization."
Boxer pushed back at the comment. She challenged Scales to provide specific names of military officers who did not agree with the link between climate change and national security. Whitehouse also countered the retired general’s remarks.
"I kind of doubt that actually individual soldiers are being asked to address climate change," he said. "That’s not their job. It’s our job, in Congress, to set the terms for our economy so that we don’t drive our soldiers into situations in which conflicts caused by climate change are putting them at risk."
Whitehouse warned that warfare was entering "unprecedented territory" with atmospheric carbon dioxide levels having surpassed 400 parts per million.
Democratic witness Michael Breen, CEO of the Truman National Security Project and Truman Center for National Policy, told lawmakers that the security implications of doing nothing about climate change were "dire" and could upset fragile relationships between nations.
"I urge the Congress to do what it has always done when our nation has been tested throughout history: Heed the threat," said Breen, a former combat leader in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Whether the United States had a moral obligation to address climate change also came under fire yesterday.
The Catholic Church and faith-based organizations have been increasingly making the case for action against climate change as a moral issue.
Pope Francis’ encyclical last year that called for urgent action to protect the Earth from climate change has been at the center of that argument.
But the Rev. Robert Sirico, who co-founded the free-market group Acton Institute, told lawmakers yesterday that the encyclical has been taken out of context and that the church should be seen to speak authoritatively only on the subjects of faith and morals — and that scientific issues like climate change don’t fall under those umbrellas.
"The church simply does not speak, nor does she claim to speak with the same authority, on matters of economics and science," said Sirico, a GOP witness who testified that his group had received a small portion of funding from Exxon Mobil Corp. and groups affiliated with the Koch brothers.
But the Rev. J. Herbert Nelson, director of the Presbyterian Church Office of Public Witness, countered that faith groups have an obligation to the poor and that environmental risks like climate change disproportionately affect poverty-stricken areas.
"We implore our nation to accept its moral responsibility to address global warming," he said.
Opponents of the administration’s climate policies, however, argued that regulations aimed at transitioning from fossil fuels were making people poorer.
"I think it’s fair to say when you wage what is in effect a war on coal, fossil fuels," Sirico said, "what you end up doing is increasing the cost of those resources. When you increase the cost of those resources, the poor are further impoverished."
But coal plant closures and bankruptcies are inevitable in a carbon-constrained free market, Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) argued.
He said subsidies for the fossil fuels industry have skewed the market away from wind and solar energy in the past, and that "we’ve finally begun to break out" thanks to the extension of tax credits for the renewable technologies.
"We’ve finally begun to win. And what happens out of the free market when the same subsidies are given to the new technologies?" he said. "Peabody Coal today declared bankruptcy. It’s a free market, ladies and gentlemen. Finally the new sources of energy can, in fact, compete."
Republican colleagues slammed Markey for what they described as "gleefully" celebrating the bankruptcy of the coal company.
"When I hear my colleague cheering that a major corporation in this country has gone bankrupt, you know what I think about?" Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.) said. "The thousands of families who now don’t know if they’re going to be working, they’re going to have a paycheck."