Moving Climate Change to Center Stage

Moving Climate Change to Center Stage

What a difference five years can make. In 2010, the last time the president released a National Security Strategy, the United States still depended on other nations for most of its fuel and oil was around $80 per barrel. Last Friday, when the president updated that document, net imports were falling fast, as was the price of oil. Old-fashioned dirty energy has transformed the U.S. economy.

So, does that make a clean-energy economy any less important? No, but that idea does point to an apparent inconsistency in the update of the strategy. On the one hand, the document hails the importance of American gas and oil development to U.S. and global energy security, and calls for the continued development of "American fossil resources." But it also says we should become more efficient, develop cleaner alternative fuels and vehicles, and reduce greenhouse-gas emissions.

Ultimately, those goals aren't as opposed to each other as they may sound. Both approaches are critical to national security. So, while it's unlikely this strategy will be fully implemented in the remainder of President Obama's term, it still offers an important policy framework for thinking about energy security, and perhaps a playbook for how presidential candidates could talk about these issues in 2016.

Unlike last time, climate change gets star billing in the first section of the 2015 strategy, which enumerates threats to U.S. security. The heading is clear and declarative: "Confront Climate Change." In 2010, "Climate Change" was a sub-sub heading under "Sustain Broad Cooperation on Key Global Challenges," in the last, "International Order" grab-bag section of the document. The language in the new strategy is also clear as to how the administration intends to counter this threat: from carbon-pollution standards for utilities to the new U.S.-China agreement to a Green Climate Fund, among other means. The administration will not get all of these things, of course, but at least you know where it stands. In 2010, the document laid out a fuzzier menu of options, calling for comprehensive legislation and "global cooperation that works." Interestingly enough, though, the strategy no longer calls for promoting nuclear power, which it did in 2010.

Energy is also a headline issue in the 2015 strategy, coming in the "Prosperity" section of the document. (Last time it was a subheading in that section.) Where the new strategy directs the nation to "Advance Energy Security," the last one suggested we "Transform our Energy Economy." But the first sentences really say it all. Last Friday's reads, "The United States is now the world leader in oil and gas production," celebrating "America's energy revival." The 2010 strategy's was: "As long as we are dependent on fossil fuels, we need to ensure the security and free flow of global energy resources."

While the 2010 strategy was more internally consistent, it was also less realistic in its call for a "new Industrial Revolution in clean energy." The 2015 strategy has it right: The global economy today depends on fossil fuels. Billions of people around the world rely on access to coal, oil, and natural gas for their wellbeing and millions more need more reliable access to energy resources in order to thrive. Renewable and nuclear energy are not yet able to meet that enormous demand affordably, safely, and everywhere there's a need.

But complacency endangers future security, considering the effects of climate change. So the nation must invest in a new energy economy, and that investment has to be purposeful, sustained, and significant. That means research, but also commercialization, and not just for renewable fuels -- also for coal. Coal use is declining in the United States largely on competitive grounds, but it continues to be in demand globally. Research into cleaner coal is, therefore, not a debating point but a practical necessity. To be realistic, it might be better to talk in terms of promoting decarbonized energy, rather than renewable energy.

A credible investment in energy transformation also means getting the incentives right. Although the strategy doesn’t mention putting a price on carbon, it may well be that the energy industry (well, oil and gas, at any rate) would go along with a carbon tax now. Although it's hard to draw a bead on the price at which tight oil and shale gas become too unprofitable to produce, a more stable market price may well be attractive to industry, even if a slice of the revenue goes to taxpayers instead of shareholders. A carbon tax with a ceiling might be palatable to everyone, particularly if there are other tradeoffs, such as allowing the export of crude oil.

Candidates looking to thread the energy needle could use the National Security Strategy as a guide, by just embracing the apparent inconsistency the document tries to tuck out of sight. The truth is that we need both the energy resources of today and a sense of urgency about tomorrow in order to promote and protect the nation's security.

Sharon E. Burke is a senior advisor to the New America Foundation, where she focuses on international security and the security implications of energy, climate change, and other natural resources challenges. Before joining New America, Ms. Burke served in the Obama administration as the assistant secretary of defense for operational energy, a new office that worked to improve the energy security of U.S. military operations.

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