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Nov 2 / Great Apes

Global Warming, Government Subsidies, and National Security

I was reading David Frum’s endorsement of Mitt Romney today in which he sounds about as confident as Dostoevsky does when he’s arguing for the existence of God (not very).  A number of things jumped out at me, but there’s one in particular that I want to focus on right now.  Frum said:

The way to meet the climate change challenge is by taxing carbon emissions, not by government acting as venture capitalist to the green-energy industry. Fiscal stimulus was necessary in 2009. It’s not an excuse for unending government subsidy to particular industries and firms.

This is a common sentiment among conservatives, and I think it’s worth examing in a bit more detail.  Frum he doesn’t want the government making investment decisions, presumably because he believes the market is better suited to finding efficient solutions than the government is.  Most conservatives are in favour of high military spending, though (admittedly not libertarians, who may favour isolationism as a foreign policy).  While progressives often call for cuts to military spending, believing it to be too high, I don’t think you’d find very many people except at the far left who don’t agree that the government does at least in general need to fund the military.

A significant portion of the funding for the military goes to paying salaries for the people who work in the military.  But a lot of it also goes to the firms that manufacture the equipment and vehicles used by the military; that is to say that a large portion of the military budget is a subsidy to arms manufacturers.  In its most insidious form this is known as the military-industrial complex, but even in a more basic form the point still holds – that the government subsidises military contractors.  And no one really objects to this; while there are all sorts of things that people might wish to do to improve this process, virtually no one believes that on principle the government ought privatise the military and stop “picking winners and losers” in terms of military contractors.  Why is this?

It’s because we recognise the need to provide national security as one of the primary functions of the state.  People at various places on the political spectrum may disagree about what precisely counts as security (resources, housing, etc.) and how best to ensure it, but virtually everyone agrees that security is vital for the state to uphold.  The military, along with diplomacy, is the primary way through which the government carries out the task of ensuring the protection of the people within its borders.  We recognise and accept this, and even though the process of choosing military contractors may not be ideal we don’t for a minute believe that we would be better off letting the private sector protect us from foreign armies or other major threats of violence.  Security is one of the most vital functions of the state.

Global warming is a significant threat to our security.  The impacts of Hurricane Sandy in places like New York and New Jersey this week has been a visceral indicator of what, exactly, might be in store for us.  Before anyone jumps on me here, it’s absolutely true that it is unlikely that global warming directly caused Hurricane Sandy, but the evidence strongly suggests that global warming will make hurricanes worse.  While there is some disagreement about whether global warming will actually increase the number of hurricanes, there’s widespread agreement that global warming will increase the intensity of them; see, for example, here or here or here.  In fact, one study published last year in the prestigious academic journal Nature found that intensifying hurricanes were likely to cause New York to be hit with a highly increased rate of major flooding.

Hurricane intensity is the topic du jour on account of the events of the past few days, but they’re hardly the only security threat that global warming poses.  Climate models predict large increased rates of wildfires, for example.  Food security is another huge issue, and a number of studies have found that global warming “will affect all four dimensions of food security, namely food availability (i.e., production and trade), access to food, stability of food supplies, and food utilization”.  Food security affects people directly in terms of hunger and malnutrition, but its effects on national security are even greater than that, as decreased availability of food will almost certainly lead to more widespread instability as nations fight over diminishing resources.

These are not just the views of some crazy lefties; the view that global warming is a serious issue related to national security has been voiced by The Pentagon (pg. 84):

Climate change and energy are two key issues that will play a significant role in shaping the
future security environment. Although they produce distinct types of challenges, climate change,
energy security, and economic stability are inextricably linked. The actions that the Department
takes now can prepare us to respond effectively to these challenges in the near term and in the

As well as the U.S. Navy:

“Climate change will affect the type, scope, and location of future Navy missions, so it’s essential that naval force structure and infrastructure are delivered at the right time and at the right cost,” Titley explained. “That will depend upon a rigorous assessment of future requirements and capabilities, and an understanding of the timing, severity, and impact of the changing climate, based on the best available science,” he added.

A wide array of foreign policy think-tanks have also put out reports discussing the seriousness of the threat, including the American Security Project (which includes on its board of directors a number of former military officials in addition to John Kerry and Chuck Hagel), the Center for Naval Analyses (funded by the U.S. Navy), and the Center for a New American Security (whose founders are both now high ranking foreign policy officials in the Obama administration).

[As a brief aside before I wrap up here, it has struck me for some time that it’s very odd that in order to be considered a Very Serious Person you have to be very hawkish on the threat that Iran is said to pose to global security.  I think most people agree that nuclear weapons are a serious danger and that we ought to try to limit their spread (except, some would argue, to their own government, which naturally ought to abide by a separate set of rules).  And yet being in order to be considered a Very Serious Person on global warming – an issue with significant security ramifications which seems likely to result in the deaths of millions of people – you have to be against taking any serious action to halt the threat.  That dichotomy has never sat very well with me.]

Global warming is a significant threat to our security.  As such, we ought to treat it like national security and not like a problem with markets.  That means that the government ought to be highly involved in funding and directing solutions to help us combat it.  Spending money on things like renewable resource generation isn’t just about deciding what companies are worth investing in, it’s about making important decisions to protect the security of our own countries and the stability of the international community as a whole.  That does not preclude also using market-based mechanisms like a carbon tax or a cap and trade system, but it does mean that the government needs to be heavily involved in studying, designing, and implementing the overall framework within which we tackle these growing threats, just like it is with other significant security threats.

This isn’t a question of right vs left views on the environment or the econonomy or what the proper role of government is.  We all agree that a fundamental function of government is to protect its people.  So it’s time to let the government do that by make major investments in the technology necessary to combat global warming.

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