Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) decided to pick a fight with Hillary Clinton over climate change on Friday.
The sticking point was a speech the former Secretary of State gave on Thursday to the National Clean Energy Summit in Las Vegas. Her remarks covered a wide range of issues, in particular foreign policy. But she also zeroed in on the need for the U.S. to tackle climate change, calling it “the most consequential, urgent, sweeping collection of challenges we face.”
That was the part Paul pounced on. “For her to be out there saying that the biggest threat to our safety and to our well-being is climate change, I think, goes to the heart of the matter or whether or not she has the wisdom to lead the country, which I think it’s obvious that she doesn’t,” Paul said in a Friday appearance on Fox News, while discussing ISIS — the Islamic terrorist organization that’s seized territory in parts of Iraq and Syria.
“I don’t think we really want a commander-in-chief who’s battling climate change instead of terrorism,” Paul continued.
Hillary Clinton is widely considered the Democrats’ main contender for the presidency in 2016, while Paul is one of several Republican front-runners. In particular, the Kentucky Senator has distinguished himself as a voice of skepticism regarding American military intervention abroad, a position that has both won him accolades and put him in the uncomfortable position of embodying one side in a growing rift within the GOP over foreign policy.
That side also appears to be losing, as polling of Republicans across the country suggests a convergence is happening in favor of foreign policy hawkishness . Recently, Paul himself has taken the rise of ISIS as an opportunity to push back at his reputation as an isolationist.
The trouble for Paul is that, by all accounts, Clinton’s characterization of climate change is perfectly sound. Multiple environmental groups — including the League of Conservation Voters and NextGen Climate — shot back at Paul, many of them pointing out that the Defense Department’s own Quadrennial Defense Review in 2014 pointed to climate change as a “significant challenge for the United States.”
“The pressures caused by climate change will influence resource competition while placing additional burdens on economies, societies, and governance institutions around the world,” the report explained. “These effects are threat multipliers that will aggravate stressors abroad such as poverty, environmental degradation, political instability, and social tensions — conditions that can enable terrorist activity and other forms of violence.”
A 2014 study by a panel of 16 retired three- and four-star American generals and admirals also looked into the national security threats posed by climate change and concluded it is “a catalyst for conflict.” And Rebecca Leber noted in The New Republic that the Pentagon’s deputy assistant secretary of Defense for strategy and force development even explained the situation to the Senate panel Paul himself sits on.
“The effects of the changing climate affect the full range of Department activities, including plans, operations, training, infrastructure, acquisition, and longer-term investments,” Daniel Chiu told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in July. “By taking a proactive, flexible approach to assessment, analysis, and adaptation, the Department can keep pace with the impacts of changing climate patterns, minimize effects on the Department, and continue to protect our national security interests.”
Beyond national security threats, the threats posed by climate change to Americans’ well-being and economic security are also striking. A recent national report entitled “Risky Business” — arguably the most comprehensive analysis done yet on the economic risks of climate change — noted that by 2100 there is a one-in-twenty chance climate change will reduce national labor productivity by three percent. “A decline of three percent in labor productivity nationally is like losing all of Connecticut’s labor force,” Kate Gordon, the study’s executive director, told ThinkProgress. A big part of that reduction would come from heat: within the same time frame, the eastern half of the country could begin seeing a few days a year where heat and humidity combine to such a degree that it literally becomes life-threatening for people to be outside for an extended period.
The latest National Climate Assessment, meanwhile, projects rising heat waves, more droughts, more floods, and even more insidious effects like ocean acidification for every region of the U.S. — all of which in turn threaten the stability of industries and infrastructure around the country. If current projections for sea level rise pan out, it could wipe much of South Florida, including the city of Miami, right off the map by 2100.
In short, if climate change is not “the most consequential” challenge facing America, it’s hard to imagine what issue could possibly qualify. And polling also indicates most Americans are aware of the problem, with majorities of voters consistently labeling climate change a serious threat and saying government should move decisively to deal with it.
That stance is not uniformly distributed, however: Democrats, along with Latinos, and other minorities, tend to register the most concern with global warming. But Republicans and Tea Party voters tend to be the most skeptical. They’ll also be the voters Rand Paul will need to court in 2016.