Published On

April 30, 2015

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The issue is not only about environmental destruction, but also the economy and national security

The word from Capitol Hill is that Republicans have begun to accept that climate change is real, man-made and a threat to our future. At least in private.

The challenge is to draft a policy that respects the intelligence of GOP voters (half of whom, according to recent polls, believe Washington should be taking action), without offending the party’s wealthiest backers tied to the fossil-fuel industry. (Koch Brothers’ $889 million 2016 campaign fund.)

I feel their pain. As an entrepreneur who has invested 25 years and millions of dollars in the solar-lighting business and as chairman of a learning network of high-net-worth investors, I frequently confront arguments from friends in the oil-and-gas industry: that climate change is not certain; that pollution regulations stifle innovation and kill jobs; that we should focus on real threats, like terrorism.

My recommendation to GOP pragmatists is to rush to hallowed ground. Stay true as the party of national security and business and ally yourselves with those leaders who have been planning strategies for adapting to and reducing the effects of climate change for a decade. For them, climate change is not a partisan issue; it’s about economic growth and America’s global objectives.

Top planners in the Department of Defense began exploring the geostrategic consequences of abrupt climate change as early as 2003. But the Pentagon did not publicly identify the issue as a security threat until its 2010 “Quadrennial Defense Review.” The latest four-year review, released last March, focused on climate change’s role as a “threat multiplier” – aggravating security challenges that U.S. troops are already facing in global hot spots, such as local poverty, environmental degradation and political instability, “conditions,” the report noted, “that can enable terrorist activity and other forms of violence.”

CEOs of major U.S. corporations have concluded that climate change is presenting serious enough financial risks to the ‚Äòsustainability’ of their enterprises to require costly counter-efforts.

In October, the DOD published its first “Climate Change Adaptation Roadmap” for dealing with its impact on U.S. missions, installations and supply chains. Troops are being trained to play a new role in helping civil authorities in poor countries deal with humanitarian assistance and the results of more frequent, intense natural disasters. Also under way is an assessment of the vulnerability of the more than 7,000 U.S. military bases and other facilities around the world. In the Hampton Roads region of Virginia, concerns are rising with the sea levels because it hosts the largest concentration of U.S. military sites in the world.

One of DOD’s trusted sources for detecting natural security threats has already upgraded the effects of extreme weather from an accelerator to a direct “catalyst for conflict.” According to the Military Advisory Board for the Center for Naval Analyses, a group of retired generals and admirals with decades of experience as war planners and risk managers, rising sea levels in vulnerable coastal regions of India, Bangladesh and Vietnam have put people and food supplies at risk that could cause new waves of refugees. In the Middle East and Africa, extended droughts due to climate change are already causing violence over food and water.

Syria is a case in point. According to a study just published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, human causes increased the severity of the Syrian drought that began in 2006, triggering mass migrations, higher food prices and disease. The resulting political instability, the authors argue, fueled Syria’s Arab Spring street protests in 2011, which quickly evolved into the current civil war that has left some 200,000 people dead. And spawned the murderous terrorist army, ISIS, which the chair of the House Committee on Homeland Security has called “the greatest national security threat since 9/11.”

Both the Pentagon and CNA’s military advisers note that field commanders specialize in making risky decisions based on imperfect or conflicting information. “Speaking as a soldier,” explained one retired Army general advising CNA, “if you wait until you have 100% certainty, something bad is going to happen on the battlefield.”

Business strategists likewise rarely have the luxury of certainty. Yet, the CEOs and boards of scores of major U.S. corporations have concluded that climate change is presenting serious enough financial risks to the “sustainability” of their enterprises to require costly counter-efforts.

The number of greening companies astonishes even an alternative-energy cheerleader like me. Leading the charge are big tech companies, such as Apple,Googleand Facebook,whose new data center in Iowa runs totally on renewable energy. Apple announced last year that it will focus on reducing the emissions of its suppliers, mainly located abroad and responsible for 70% of the company’s emissions.

Nor is the shift limited to Left Coast companies with the luxury of not depending on fossil fuels. A number of enduring American brands have ambitious environmental projects underway, including Kellogg,General Mills,Mars, Cargill, Pepsiand Coca Colawhich has a program to reduces its use of water, fertilizer, energy and greenhouse emissions around the world, engaging farmers controlling one million acres of its global corn supplies.

Even Walmarthas become one of the greenest companies in America. The world’s largest retailer has announced its goal of producing or buying 7 billion kilowatt hours of renewable energy by 2020, supplying its stores around the world with 100% renewable energy, creating zero packaging waste and doubling the fuel efficiency of its fleet of 6,000 trucks.

Would so many big companies freely choose to invest so many billions to win applause from a few environmental activists? Not likely. Would they spend on new solutions to stay ahead in a changing future? More likely. And yet, according to my sources on Capitol Hill, representatives from Arkansas never hear from Walmart on environmental issues; nor is Coke educating Georgia’s delegation on the importance of renewable energy to U.S. economic growth. Why is there such a disconnect between those companies’ actions and their political commitment?

Too many Americans are ignorant about the huge sustainable investments by U.S. corporations, or the Pentagon. Some are running for president. “I don’t think we really want a commander in chief who’s battling climate change instead of terrorism,” declared Sen. Rand Paul last fall in a shot at Hillary Clinton.

Even Paul’s more hawkish Republican rivals – senators Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz – have so far refused to budge from their position as climate-change deniers. Meanwhile, Jeb Bush, much praised for his environmental record as governor of Florida, has taken refuge in his party’s default skepticism regarding the human causes of climate change – apparently unaware that his brother’s commanders had linked global warming to national security.

In 1962, a U.S. intelligence analyst named Roberta Wohlstetter wrote a book on why the intelligence community overlooked the mounting evidence that the Japanese were gearing up to attack Pearl Harbor. Generations of security experts and policy makers have since passed copies of “Pearl Harbor: Warning and Decision” to newcomers, echoing its message: take care that the real danger signals do not get lost in the background noise of raw data and personal prejudices.

It’s time for GOP pragmatists to step away from the political noise surrounding climate science and pay attention to the warning signals from America’s most experienced military and business strategists hard at work to avoid the environmental Pearl Harbor looming in our future.

Let’s find out what they need to keep national security and the economy strong. And then maybe our elected officials can begin crafting serious policy and laws to address the manifold problems created by our changing climate. Voters are waiting.

Michael Sonnenfeldt is chairman ofCarmanah Technologies Ltd., a public solar-lighting and signaling company. He is also chairman of Tiger 21, a learning network for high-net-worth investors whose members control over $30 billion of personal assets.