Someday we may better understand why we Americans treat some threats more seriously than others. During the Cold War, more often than not we overestimated the Soviet military threat and spent vast sums in anticipation of that threat. Even when our intelligence systems couldn’t find evidence of Soviet capabilities or aggressive intentions, various administrations manufactured them.

Now we have abundant scientific evidence of serious threats from climate change and our political system seems incapable of responding. Some differences are obvious. After World War II we constructed a national security state focused totally on a perceived communist threat in the form of Soviet military power requiring a military response. We could build ships, planes, and tanks. And for hundreds of thousands, that meant jobs.

Second, doubters and skeptics were marginalized. A few questioned Soviet military capabilities and Soviet intentions to wage World War III. But the political mainstream did not take these figures seriously. Third, countering the Soviet threat didn’t make any serious demands on U.S. life styles, though military spending came at the cost of education, infrastructure, and other domestic priorities.

Except for a demonstrable rise in coastal storms, the threat of climate change is silent and invisible. It does not lend itself to a hardware solution (ships, planes, and tanks). And, most of all, reversing the increasingly dangerous accumulation of carbon in the atmosphere will require social and economic transformation in the vehicles we drive, houses and buildings we occupy, and appliances we depend on.

Climate deniers are given much more political credibility today than Soviet threat deniers were during the Cold War. There are few if any political rewards for asking citizens to conserve and reduce waste. Ask Jimmy Carter about “the moral equivalent of war.” Consumption and “sunrise in America” will beat restraint, let alone sacrifice, every time.
Until the U.S. economy regains steady growth, in his second term Barack Obama will probably have to choose one big initiative as he did with health care in his first. Already forces are lining up urging him to choose further financial reform, another round of stimulus spending, education reform, or (at least in the case of this writer) military transformation.

But none of these worthy objectives can match climate protection in terms of long-range human well-being. And as the Presidential Climate Action Project and other serious organizations have established, climate protection is a jobs-creator.

Generations yet unborn will look back on this period with dismay if sharp reduction in carbon emissions is not undertaken. But if President Obama is bold enough to insist on transformation of energy use and transition to a post-carbon economy, he will be respected and admired, possibly even revered, by those same generations yet to come.

2 Responses to “The Silent Threat and the Next Agenda”

  1. Stephen D. Pillow Says:

    I couldn’t agree more. I only hope that the members of Congress are willing to show some intelligence and initiative on this issue.

  2. Edward Says:

    Regarding the premise:

    “Someday we may better understand why we Americans treat some threats more seriously than others.”

    I greatly admire the aspirations inherent within your endeavor…

    … but the answer to this question is actually quite simple (in my humble opinion): we treated the threat of International Communism (or more specifically, the hegemonic intentions of the Soviet Union) as an external force to be resisted, while we are asked to admit that our own collective actions (and prosperity) at the center of the industrial world are the driving force within the growing threat of catastrophic climate change due to global warming.

    Those are two very different propositions (imagine, as a thought experiment, the situation that we would face if it were clear that significant global warming was being produced by the actions of a single nation on the other side of the world… Would we stand for it?).

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