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Republicans use Israel-Hamas war to drum up fake climate controversy
The latest Fox News outrage cycle shows how the GOP regularly uses global conflict to advocate against climate action—a trend which experts say actually harms the global fight against terror.
Here’s something to remember about the people and institutions committed to delaying climate action: They never let a crisis go to waste.
That’s become clear in the wake of deadly terrorist attacks in Israel by Hamas, and subsequent deadly air strikes in Gaza by Israel, which conservative politicians and right-wing media are now using as an opportunity to attack President Joe Biden for being concerned about climate change.
While tempting to ignore, this latest right-wing outrage cycle is a useful window into the disingenuous ways conservatives use fear of global terrorism to turn public opinion against climate policy.
So today, we’re going to talk about the common Republican tactic of pitting climate concerns against terrorism concerns—and why doing so is not only factually wrong, but actively harmful to the fight against terrorism.
Manufacturing a fake climate controversy
This latest climate outrage cycle started on Monday, during a Fox News interview with White House National Security Council spokesperson John Kirby.
In that interview, Fox anchor Martha MacCallum asked Kirby if, in the wake of Israel’s declaration of war against Hamas, President Biden stood by previous comments calling climate change the greatest existential threat to humanity, and calling climate change “more frightening than a nuclear war.”
Kirby said that yes, Biden did stand by the comments, and noted that climate change “actually threatens and is capable of wiping out all human life on Earth over time."
Kirby added: “I don’t know how more existential you can get than that, but that doesn’t mean that we walk away from our obligations or our national security interests.”
Conservative media outlets and politicians quickly pounced on these comments, and acted if Kirby had made them out of nowhere, without MacCallum’s prompting.
Fox News host Laura Ingraham, for instance, aired a segment in which she omitted the question that preceded Kirby’s statement. She then complained that “Even during war … they go to their point of major fanaticism, which is climate change.” She did not mention that actually, Fox News was the one who brought up climate change during war.
On another Fox News segment, Republican Senator Tom Cotton did the same thing, saying that “John Kirby is talking about climate change at a time when Hamas has cut off the heads of babies in Israel." He did not mention that Kirby was only talking about climate change because Fox News specifically asked him to.
According to the right-wing outlet Gateway Pundit, “The world is inching toward nuclear war and the Biden Regime is obsessing over non-existent climate change.”
But Biden is not actually obsessing over climate change during a global crisis. Republicans are—because that’s what Republicans do.
No matter the conflict, Republicans blame climate change
This is not the first time Republicans have used the threat of terrorism to attack climate concerns at home. In fact, it’s a talking point that spans back decades, said Marcus King, an environment and international affairs professor at Georgetown University, and senior fellow at the Center for Climate & Security.
“When we went into Afghanistan and Iraq in 2003, this issue was surfaced by the Republicans,” he said. According to King, Republicans said that investment in green jobs would detract from the war in terror. “It was this false dichotomy of saying what’s more important to focus on.”
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The GOP leaned on that false dichotomy again in 2014, after the Pentagon released a report that said climate change posed immediate risks to national security. In response, Republican Senator James Inhofe told The New York Times that President Obama should be focusing on ISIS instead. “It is disappointing, but not surprising, that the president and his administration would focus on climate change when there are other, legitimate threats in the world.”
Republicans criticized former President Obama again after the wave of deadly ISIL terrorist attacks in Paris in 2015, saying he shouldn’t have been focusing so much on global warming.
President Biden’s climate policies have also been attacked during the war in Ukraine, with conservatives claiming that his expansion of renewable energy supports President Vladimir Putin’s agenda.
According to King, Republicans do this “to paint Democratic administrations as soft on security,” and to inflame their base’s existing negative beliefs about the impacts of climate policy.
So it’s not surprising that this pattern repeated itself on Monday, when former House Speaker Kevin McCarthy went after President Biden’s climate policies in a press conference about the war in Israel and Gaza.
“[Biden] believes the number one threat to America is climate change,” McCarthy said. “That is not true. The number one threat killing Americans is terrorism.”
But here’s the problem with McCarthy’s comments, and the entire manufactured Republican outrage cycle: Terrorism is not the number one threat to Americans.
The number one threat is, in fact, climate change.
Climate change is, in fact, a bigger threat than terrorism
This is not something we would generally point out after a terror attack; it is clearly insensitive to victims of both terrorism and climate change. But conservatives have once again put journalists in the position of having to fact-check the claim, since they can’t seem to resist bringing it up after deadly tragedies. So here we go.
There is a long-existing public perception in America that terrorism is a greater risk than climate change. But that’s not actually true, according to experts from national security to public health to foreign policy.
The United Nations warned last year that the climate crisis is “the largest, most pervasive threat” the world has ever experienced. Top commanders in the U.S. Navy and Army have called the climate crisis the number one security threat for years. The U.S. Joint Forces Command issued a report more than a decade ago warning about the dangers of natural disasters when they collide with existing inequality or unrest. “The effects of climate change, like the impact on food, open up ungovernable spaces in other countries that are exactly where terrorism can arise,” said King.
The reason experts make this claim is because the sheer scale of climate change is unprecedented. “We face all kinds of threats in our line of work, but few of them truly deserve to be called existential,” said U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin. “The climate crisis does.”
(Note from Emily: I explored the worst-case scenarios for climate change and global conflict in a 2019 magazine feature for The New Republic, titled The Bloom-Dimmed Tide. Check it out if you want to feel terrible).
In addition, climate change is far more likely to harm the average American than terrorism. “I would say terrorism is kind of a distant threat to the United States,” said King, “whereas the impacts of climate change are immediate when it comes to these increased storms, heat waves, and flooding.”
But even still, King doesn’t like to compare one problem to the other, because climate change and terrorism are linked. When the former gets worse, so does the risk for the latter—which makes Republicans’ tactic of pitting the two concerns against each other not only wrong, but dangerous.
“Climate change should actually be on the agenda of those who are interested in combating terrorism,” said King.
Downplaying the threat of climate change makes Americans less safe from terrorism
It’s not hard to understand climate change can increase the risk for global conflict. Extreme natural disasters, sea level rise, and drought can exacerbate problems like food and water scarcity, competition for natural resources, mass migration, and civil unrest. That’s why the Department of Defense calls climate change a “threat multiplier,” because it increases “the frequency, scale, and complexity of threats to national security.”
Believe it or not, many conservatives used to accept this and try to deal with it. In 2005, a report by the International Climate Change Taskforce, co-chaired by former Republican Senator Olympia Snowe, concluded that climate change is the “single most important long term issue that the planet faces.”
Late Senator John McCain also called global warming a threat to national security in the 2008 presidential debates, and encouraged U.S. development of renewable energy in order to avoid spending “$400 billion a year in imported oil from countries that don't like us very much ... some of that money is helping terrorist organizations."
But in the last decade, Republican have decided that there’s better political opportunity in attacking people who make this point, rather than attacking the problem itself. The 2016 election proved this point well, when Republicans’ launched a successful attack on Senators Bernie Sanders for linking climate change and terrorism during a debate.
It’s likely we’ll continue to see Republicans manufacture climate outrage during times of war for this very reason. Doing so successfully energizes their base.
But make no mistake: their short-term wins will have long-term consequences for the climate. And these consequences will not serve the interests of national security. They will serve the interests of Big Oil.
Related HEATED coverage: The climate cost of war, January 2020.
Climate scientists have modeled out how global temperatures might shift in different geopolitical scenarios. And the scenario that always ends up with the planet in fiery climate chaos is the so-called “regional rivalry” scenario—to put it simply, the one where everyone is fighting, borders are closed, and rich white-led countries like the U.S. are super racist toward less-wealthy countries filled with brown people.
It makes sense why a nationalistic, conflict-ridden political environment would be a planetary death-knell. The solution to global warming has to be global. Countries have to work together toward the shared goal of a livable climate for all. They have to share technologies and solutions. This does not happen when we’re spending trillions of dollars blowing each other up. It certainly does not happen in the 10 year time frame it needs to happen in.
Catch of the day: Reader Darin says that Maggie and Bia would like to remind everyone that sometimes the best way to combat the stress of the climate crisis is to take some time to be silly with a friend.
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