By Danielle Butcher
Economic and national security issues have long been understood as pillars of the conservative ideology. To the dismay of those across the aisle, this focus occasionally makes it difficult to engage in productive conversations that lean toward the social side of policy — but it doesn’t have to be that way.
Although it may be true that there is a certain conservative attention on the economy and national defense, that focus does not mean conservatives must exclusively address topics within their scope. Those who wish to participate in bipartisan discussions should view this direct concern as an opportunity to open dialogues addressing challenges such as climate in an unconventional, yet powerful way.
While many will claim that conservatives are apathetic to environmental issues, records tell a different story. In fact, traditionally, conservatives have led on environmental issues, enacting smart, effective policy to protect our nation’s natural beauty and to responsibly manage our precious resources.
From establishing the National Park Service over 100 years ago to current legislation like the Recovering America’s Wildlife Act, Republicans have proven their past and present commitment to sound environmental policy. The general narrative, however, does not reflect this leadership — no doubt in part due to the GOP’s longstanding refusal to embrace clean energies.
Perhaps GOP skepticism was warranted, or at least understandable, at the outset of renewable energies development. After all, early stage wind subsidies and bailouts to solar companies such as Solyndra have been far from conservative, and renewables have only recently broken through as a truly competitive force in the marketplace. However, as these technologies have continued to develop and the private sector has continued to innovate, challenges including battery storage and grid reliability have become more and more obsolete. Wind subsidies fell by 80 percent in just three years. Despite the fallen subsidies, wind power capacity has seen a 1,700 percent increase since 2001. The expansion is rapid, and renewable energy is now creating jobs 12 times faster than the rest of the economy.
The same challenges that caused conservatives to raise their noses to clean energy can now be applauded as prime examples of what conservatives like to see in the economy: breakthrough innovations, market-driven competition, and consumer choice. Obvious economic benefits aside, renewable energy is also able to offer a unique approach to energy independence, and maybe more importantly, national security. Indeed, the green energy we see today is in no way the same technologies we saw break into the scene 20 years ago.
Self-sufficiency is one of many things to highlight about renewables, which should be of particular interest to the right. In few other sectors do we have the opportunity to pursue American independence the way we do through a diverse and reliable energy portfolio. A superb example of clean energy development that is scalable enough to power the nation is nuclear energy, which is the largest carbon-free fuel source and accounts for almost 10 percent of the country’s energy consumption. If we better leverage nuclear by opening up energy markets, promoting research and development, breaking down barriers, and investing in waste storage, this number could drastically increase. Not only is this energy emissions-free, but it is also domestic, American made energy that will leverage our independence.
As an ideology that prioritizes national security, clean energy should be seen as a major key in lowering emissions and maintaining our strong military presence. While the connection is not immediately apparent, it is important to remember the threat that global climate trends present to our national defense. According to the Department of Defense, nearly half of U.S. military sites are threatened by major changes linked to climate change. Storms, droughts, famines, flooding, and sea level rise all provide unpredictable environments for military operations, and their impacts are often costly — at the american taxpayer’s expense. These changes pose immediate risks, and will cause broad impacts on the way the United States’ military is able to prepare for and carry out their missions. Threats of climate change also cost millions to taxpayers across the country. For example, the California National Guard, a branch meant to be part-time, has worked almost around the clock fighting massive forest fires and saving Californians from them in recent years. California droughts can be attributed to changes in climate and weather patterns.
Domestic threats aside, internationally climate changes may influence humanitarian crises, destabilize developing countries, disrupt trade, and enable political violence. The effects of climate trends are widespread and not always immediately identifiable — but no less real.
While only 40 percent of Americans may believe that global climate change is a threat to their country, experts tend to disagree: Retired Brigadier General Stephen Cheney, who served as deputy executive secretary to Defense Secretary Dick Cheney and Les Aspin, says national security and climate change aren’t two separate issues. “Defense plans did include climate change,” he says of his time at the Pentagon.
Climate scientists agree by majority that human influence is rapidly affecting our atmosphere. The United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, or IPCC, has found that several greenhouse gases are responsible for climate trends, and humans emit them in a variety of ways — most notably from the combustion of fossil fuels in cars, production plants, and electricity generation.
Cheney, now CEO of the American Security Project has also noted the Defense Department’s Quadrennial Defense Review published in February “address[es] climate change as a long term threat that will create other threats to our stability here in this country, and will create instability worldwide.”
As the U.S. military views climate change to be one of our largest global threats, conservatives should view this as a circumstance in which they are able to embrace a solution they once shunned. Through innovation and competition, the clean energy market has grown into a force of the future — one that will inevitably play a crucial role in securing American independence. This National Clean Energy Week, it’s time for conservatives to once again be champions for our environment.
Danielle Butcher is the chief operating officer for the American Conservation Coalition.