Paris climate summit: in the US, don’t mention the ‘C’ word

Republicans continue moves to undermine Paris COP21 negotiations


The world is well-versed in America’s military might. But, in recent talks at the Pentagon, it wasn’t the military hardware that struck me.

What struck me was the intellectual firepower and candour of an astonishing legion of oceanographers, rear admirals and even astronomers, all of whom spoke plainly and with eloquence about climate security.

The US military is absolutely clear on the truth of climate change. They know it’s a real and present danger, so they’re adapting to improve resilience, protect military bases and prevent new threats.

Everything they said was fact-based, steeped in evidence. Yet there was also an absurdity to all this: that, in the heart of Washington, in the Pentagon itself, US military personnel were briefing a foreign politician with a candour denied to many of their own congressional leaders.

On Capitol Hill the words ‘change’ and ‘climate’ can be used separately or in conjunction with pretty much any other word in the Webster’s Dictionary – except each other.

Here, as one officer said, you ‘choose your nouns to suit your audience’.

Take the largest naval base in the world – the Norfolk Naval Station, Virginia. Around 36,000 acres of military land, home to the US Atlantic fleet.

And it’s all sinking into the sea.

The land it rests upon is subsiding while the surrounding sea is rising. Storm surges are becoming more frequent and more severe.

The impressive scientists at the base are, obviously, all too aware of this. They’re plain speaking, and deal in fact. But, in applying to raise the level of piers by almost three metres, the words ‘sea level rise’ and ‘climate change’ were studiously avoided. Instead the authors opted for the politically acceptable term: ‘recurrent flooding’.

The politics of climate change is ‘highly charged’, said one. ‘It may not be the ideal way to do things, but it’s the way our system currently operates’.

But their language among us was frank. And they’re clear that climate change is a security issue that multiplies both risk and threat – that, in addition to increasing the probability of damage, it may change the capacity that an adversary has to damage you.

Take the Arctic, for example.

It’s hard to comprehend the scale of what is up there. The average extent of its September ice is approximately 15 million square km. Push together China (9.597 million) and India (2.388 million), throw them both into the Arctic and you’ll still have an area the size of 30 South Koreas to get lost in.

Yet, because of climate change, the US Navy expects a sea route through the Arctic by the mid-2020s.

A transpolar route could open up enormous trade opportunities, cutting the journey from Europe to Asia by up to 4,000 km.

The keen desire of many nations to capture the Arctic’s wealth is no secret. The potential for conflict is immense and climate change is exacerbating matters.

The American right and US Military have long held close ties. But on climate change, their differences are stark.

Despite the clear risks and threats to jobs, buildings, operational capacity and America’s long term security, Republican Senators still stubbornly refuse to vote money for anything justified by the unutterable words ‘climate change’.

Yet, I was told, many do in fact recognise its realities. They’re simply afraid that, if their voting suggested they were climate change believers, re-election would suddenly become much tougher. Campaign funds would dry up. They would face an internal challenge for reselection.

Later this month, the US, alongside almost 200 countries, heads to the COP21 Paris Climate Talks.

The summit presents both a monumental challenge and historic opportunity.

For the first time, all countries are united around a common goal. Each has pledged, of its own accord, to play its part – committing itself to a contribution in its own people’s interest.

Governments will be held accountable on their promises by their own parliaments and legislators – this, though, requires a well-functioning democracy.

Obama is fighting against a powerful political tide at home and, despite great strides on his part, if the Republicans’ climate thought-police hold such sway, we have to question whether the most powerful democracy on earth is up to the challenge of delivering on a Paris deal.

It only strengthens the case for implementing stronger, independent and legally binding safeguards, to ensure governments are held to account for the promises they’ve made.

This will require transparent recording, monitoring and verification of the emissions levels in each country.

We also need a clear review mechanism whereby current promises can be tightened or ratcheted up – vital if we’re to stay below the 2° warming threshold.

Five decades ago, Robert F Kennedy spoke some words that ring true as we journey now to Paris. ‘The future does not belong to those who are fearful of new ideas and bold projects,’ he said …‘In such a fantastic and dangerous world we will not find answers in old dogmas, by repeating outworn slogans. We ourselves must change to master change.’

The risk from climate change to infrastructure, people and jobs is much harder to mitigate when the tyranny of political correctness refuses to allow us to speak the truth.

Paris marks the start of a crucial global promise for bold climate action.

As we head to the summit, America’s political right must have the courage to adapt to deal with the world as it is – not as they’d like it to be.

Barry Gardiner MP is the shadow minister for Energy and Climate Change
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