Misunderstanding The Nexus Between National Security and Environmental Issues: Back to the Future

navalAs the commencement speaker at the U.S. Coast Guard Academy on May 20, President Obama warned that climate change is a growing and “serious threat” to national security. He linked severe weather to the rise of international instability and to threats such as the extremist group Boko Haram in Nigeria and the civil war in Syria.

The president invoked tired metaphors of hazards at sea: “When you’re on deck, standing your watch, you stay vigilant. You plan for every contingency. And if you see storm clouds gathering, or dangerous shoals ahead, you don’t sit back and do nothing. You take action — to protect your ship, to keep your crew safe. Anything less is negligence. It is a dereliction of duty. And so, too, with climate change.”

I’ve heard more stirring middle school valedictory speeches.

Such fundamental misjudgments about the priorities of foreign affairs and the armed services are not new.  In a speech at Stanford University in 1996, then-Secretary of State Warren Christopher announced a new policy that elevated environmental concerns to be co-equal with national security and economic issues in U.S. foreign relations.

Several major initiatives were part of this policy, including international agreements and conventions; strategically distributed largess from the State Department and Agency for International Development; and new “environmental hubs” at selected U.S. embassies which would promulgate the environmentalism gospel according to then-Vice-President Al Gore. (The same Al Gore who, in characteristically temperate language, has called global warming “an unimaginable calamity requiring large-scale, preventive measures to protect human civilization as we know it.”)

Secretary Christopher singled out the Biodiversity Treaty, which then-Undersecretary of State Tim Wirth characterized as having “top priority among all treaties” and agreements awaiting confirmation. Never ratified by the U.S. Senate, that international agreement‚Äìlargely a product of the corrupt United Nations Environment Program and various European Union stalking horses in developing countries‚Äìwas a concoction that only an eco-babble connoisseur like Gore could love: a volatile combination of ignorance of science and ideological, heavy-handed environmental and foreign policy that, had it been implemented by the United States, would have been detrimental to our economy and to scientific and technological innovation.

The treaty’s Cartagena Biosafety Protocol, which reflects the bogus “precautionary principle,” governs R&D and commerce in genetically engineered organisms used in agriculture. It has inhibited advances in crop genetics worldwide in the nations that signed it, especially in poorer countries. (Unnecessary case-by-case regulation, poverty and government corruption are an inauspicious combination.)

Another part of the Clinton administration’s environmental initiative was a directive to various government departments to negotiate an international agreement delegating to various “green” international organizations the authority to regulate “hazardous chemicals.” This new “global harmonized system” for chemical classification and labeling was conceived as an extension of an informal identification/notification arrangement originally created to protect worker safety and used among industrialized countries for many years. But the new system would have had a hugely expanded scope, encompassing “all chemicals and mixtures of such chemicals, including when they are intended to be used as pesticides, pharmaceuticals, food additives, and other chemical use categories.” Products generally considered to have low intrinsic toxicity would have been lumped together with pesticides and industrial solvents and lubricants.

Worst of all, international organizations would have usurped U.S. agencies’ autonomy. For example, the radical Environment Directorate of the Paris-based Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development would have been charged with establishing international standards under the agreement, which would likely have been administered by a strengthened successor to the inept and highly politicized United Nations Environment Program.

Fortunately, Gore’s brave new world of international regulation never came to pass, but in the guise of environmentalism the Clinton administration created plenty of mischief in other ways.  For example, foreign-aid funds were used to undermine market economies abroad and put American businesses at a competitive disadvantage. In Indonesia, the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) gave more than $1.3 million to the local chapter of Friends of the Earth (virtually its entire operating budget) for a campaign against New Orleans-based Freeport-McMoRan Copper & Gold. The environmental organization accused the mining company of grossly polluting an Indonesian river, destroying crops, and inciting military attacks on civilians, although independent audits substantiated none of those accusations.

In addition, environmental activists successfully lobbied the Overseas Private Investment Corporation, a federal agency that promotes business abroad by insuring companies against the risk of nationalization, to cancel Freeport’s $100 million policy.

Vice President Gore even enlisted the resources of the intelligence community in his environmental crusade, and in a 1996 speech at the World Affairs Council, John Deutch, then director of the CIA and the coordinator of all U.S. intelligence activities, signed on. “I intend to make sure that ‘environmental intelligence’ remains in the mainstream of U.S. intelligence activities. Even in times of declining budgets we will support policymakers.” Deutch alluded specifically to using CIA assets to determine whether foreign companies were gaining unfair competitive advantage “by ignoring environmental regulations.” (One imagines that our spy satellites would be terrific for checking the contents of recycling bins.)

The juggernaut rolled on. In 1997, the State Department published Environmental Diplomacy:The Environment and U.S. Foreign Policy, a slick 10,000-word document with forewords by Vice President Gore and Christopher’s successor, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright. Its message was that environmental issues were in the mainstream of American foreign policy, because “environmental problems are often at the heart of the political and economic challenges we face around the world.” In other words, it’s not tyrannical governments, not state-sponsored genocide or terrorism, not radical religion-based ideologies, not poverty or disease, but environmental problems that define America’s greatest foreign-policy challenges.

That certainly sounds familiar‚Äìas though President Obama’s speechwriters cribbed from it for his 2015 Coast Guard Academy commencement speech. If so, once again the Obama administration has drawn the wrong lessons from history.