Global Warming Is Setting Fire to American Leadership

One of the side effects of climate change will be the end of U.S. hegemony.

Burnt bushes are seen as a blaze moves through Deepwater National Park in Queensland, Australia on Nov. 28, 2018. (Rob Griffith/AFP/Getty Images)
Burnt bushes are seen as a blaze moves through Deepwater National Park in Queensland, Australia on Nov. 28, 2018. (Rob Griffith/AFP/Getty Images)

U.S. President Donald Trump has said, “I don’t believe” climate change is real. Guess what? The global environment doesn’t care. The condition of the planet will be determined by the laws of physics and chemistry, not by Trump’s tweets, denials, bluster, or relentlessly head-in-the-sand approach to a rapidly warming planet. Trump will no longer be with us by the time the worst effects are realized, of course; it is future generations who will suffer the consequences.

And make no mistake: Those consequences are going to significant. As reported over Thanksgiving weekend, the latest U.S. government “National Climate Assessment” report makes it abundantly clear that rising average temperatures are going to have far-reaching and damaging effects. The report was a collaborative effort by 13 federal agencies, and it offers a sobering portrait of our likely future. Storms will be more intense and dangerous. Agricultural productivity will decline. Certain diseases and pests will be more numerous and bothersome, and heat-related deaths will increase significantly. Trump may not believe it, but what he does or does not believe is irrelevant, except as it affects what we do (or don’t do) today and thus how serious the problem is down the road.

The direct consequences of climate change will be harmful enough—even if we respond to them more energetically than we have to date—but I believe it will also have profound effects on U.S. foreign policy. Some of the consequences have already been catalogued—including in a landmark U.S. Defense Department study in 2015—but the long-term impact could be even more far-reaching. To be deliberately provocative: Climate change could do more to limit America’s global ambitions than all the books, articles, op-eds, and other advocacy undertaken by apostles of restraint.

Why? Because adapting to a warmer planet is going to be really expensive. 

For starters, climate change is already having an impact on military facilities in the United States and will force the Department of Defense to undertake costly remedial measures. Hurricane Michael caused millions of dollars of destruction at Tyndall Air Force Base in Florida this fall (including damage to some of the costly F-22s stationed there), and the vast U.S. naval shipyard at Newport News is already prone to flooding and will require costly adaptive actions if it is to remain operational as sea levels rise. According to the Union of Concerned Scientists, a three-foot increase in sea levels (which is well within the range of current estimates), could jeopardize the use of 128 U.S. military bases. Protecting these facilities or building new ones will not be cheap, and the money spent on these measures is money that cannot be spent on force structure, personnel, or overseas contingency operations.

Second, as noted above, climate change will impose significant costs on the U.S. economy. According to the recent National Climate Assessment, the costs associated with climate change could reduce U.S. GDP by as much as 10 percent by the end of the century. (That’s roughly twice the impact of the 2008 recession, by the way.) The United States will still be a relatively wealthy country, of course, but not as rich as it would be otherwise.

Third, adapting to climate change won’t be cheap either. Low-lying areas are going to need dikes, seawalls, storm sewers, and other major infrastructure investments. Some densely populated areas may have to be abandoned, which means the need for new housing for tens of thousands of people (if not more). Power grids will have to be strengthened or replaced, while bridges and causeways will need to be elevated. No one knows precisely what all this will cost, but consider that the climate change adaptation plan proposed by then-New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg after Hurricane Sandy hit in 2013 was budgeted at $20 billion. It probably wasn’t ambitious enough, the true costs would probably be higher, and that’s just one city (albeit a big and important one).

To be sure, some of this new infrastructure would need to be built anyway, even if the planet wasn’t getting warmer and sea levels weren’t rising. And spending on infrastructure can boost productivity and provide lots of lower-to-middle-class employment. Even so, the full cost of adapting to the environment of the late 21st century easily runs into hundreds of billions of dollars over the next few decades.

So we are facing a potential double whammy: Climate change will reduce economic growth in various ways, even as we need to spend a lot of money trying to adapt to its effects. This problem might not be too serious if the United States had a big sovereign wealth fund, or if the government were running recurring budget surpluses that could be used to pay for these costs. But the opposite is true: It has a ballooning budget deficit and level of public debt, and recurring political gridlock has turned the budget process into an annual exercise in political posturing and brinkmanship.

My point, in short, is that the costs of adapting to climate change are going to put enormous pressure on an already squeezed federal budget, and at a time when the U.S. population is getting older, health care costs are rising, and tax cuts have become the norm. My question, therefore, is simple: Where’s the money going to come from?

If this scenario is even partially true, then maintaining a defense budget and a national security establishment that dwarfs those of all other states is going to be increasingly difficult if not politically impossible. Persuading the American people to fund wars of choice, to protect distant allies of questionable strategic value, or even to wage far-flung counterterrorism operations is going to be a hard sell. The foreign-policy “Blob” may continue to resist a strategy of restraint, but fiscal realities may gradually impose one on it anyway.

The good news, such as it is, is that climate change will affect a lot of other countries even more than it affects the United States, and many of them are even less prepared to deal with the consequences. So America’s relative position may not be affected all that much. But that “good news” isn’t really positive, because climate change is also likely to exacerbate civil and regional conflicts and is virtually certain to trigger complex humanitarian crises, refugee flows, and other forms of global disorder.

In other words, the global agenda is going to get messier, even as the resources available for addressing that agenda grow sparser. And this dilemma will only get worse the longer the United States defers action, the more fossil fuels (especially coal) that mankind burns, and the more rapid and extensive the changes become. Like the president, I’ll be safely dead and buried by the time all this hits the fan, and I hope future generations forgive us as they wrestle with the consequences. But they’ll have every reason not to.

Stephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.

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