Double Jeopardy: Congress’ Failure to Act on Energy and Climate is a National Security Tragedy

Image: League of Conservation Voters

The most serious threat to U.S. national security and economic health today is not not al Qaeda or a nuclear Iran or the price of gasoline.

No, at the moment the gravest threat is our own inability to take action on fundamental threats, like global warming. The jeopardy we are in is doubled by a Congress that is either incapable of or unwilling to act.

Congress’s failures are acts of commission as well as omission. A significant number of Senators and House members are trying to get rid of policies and tools that past Congresses put in place to protect us. Some of the Republican candidates for president are complicit.

Consider what Congress is doing, or not doing, about oil prices, economic stability, climate change, and our military effectiveness.

It has been clear for a generation that America’s dependence on oil jeopardizes our economy. At the moment, we are supporting economic sanctions against Iran to discourage it from building nuclear weapons, and Iran is retaliating with its own economic sanction, threatening to block the shipping route for one-fifth of the world’s oil supply. Our sanctions are defensible; continuing to rely on the resource that allows Iran to extort us is not. And under the threat of being pushed back into a crippling recession, we are in danger of another Middle East oil war.

It’s a case of sustained recklessness that the world has allowed a single shipping passage to be so important to the global economy all these years. A combination of geography and global energy use gives Iran this power. It sits on the border of the Persian Gulf, including a narrow shipping passage called the Strait of Hormuz.  Oil shipments through the Strait were jeopardized in 1980 by the Iran-Iraq war. Iran threatened to stop shipping in the Strait in 1984 and again in 1997.

Iran doesn’t have to carry out its threat to send shocks through the world oil market. The mere possibility that it might try to mine the Strait or begin inspecting tankers in its territorial waters is helping push gasoline prices toward $5 this year. Bloomberg reports that if Iran carried out its threat, oil could reach $150 a barrel.

What influence do oil prices have on the economy?  Ten of the 11 economic recessions in the United States since World War II have been preceded by oil price shocks, as have all our recessions since the U.S. became a net oil importer in the 1970s.

Today, it wouldn’t take much to push the fragile U.S. economy back into crisis, a catastrophic development for American families trying to hang on to their jobs, houses and retirement savings.

In light of this clear and present danger, Congress should be rushing to approve a new national transportation program that helps us transition away from oil. Federal funding currently favors local highway construction over mass transit and other alternatives that would reduce oil consumption. Congress has failed for years to approve a long-term transportation policy, let alone one that promotes energy security, and it appears poised to fail again. At the moment, the House is considering proposals to spend all gas tax revenues on highways and none on mass transit, and to increase domestic oil production.

Climate change is another example of Congress’s willful failure to protect the American people, present and future. Since so many advocates of sane climate policy have given up on the current Congress, I might be accused of beating a dead horse on this issue, if the horse were dead. But it’s alive and kicking. The unprecedented extreme weather disasters we see here and around the world are consistent with the predictions of climate scientists and samples of worse to come.

Meantime, Congress and the presidential candidates remain deaf to warnings by past and present military experts that climate change is a “threat multiplier” that jeopardizes our national security.

Congress has not only failed to approve a coherent national program to reduce the risks of climate change; the House voted earlier this year to eliminate virtually all federal authority and funding for climate change research, mitigation and adaptation.

Now the House is playing politics with the lives of American soldiers. Republican opposition reportedly is rising to the Pentagon’s plan to use more renewable energy, a switch it says will help make our troops safer and more effective and our military installations more secure.

Department of Defense data show that between 2003 and 2007, 3,000 U.S. soldiers and civilians – one out of eight casualties in Iraq — died protecting fuel convoys in that war alone.  Reducing the number of convoys by using renewable resources should appeal to defense hawks. Deficit hawks, too. The military spent $15 billion on fuel in 2010. Soldiers on active duty consume an average of 3,555 gallons of fuel each year, compared to 945 gallons for the average civilian. Military leaders report that by the time petroleum fuels reach the most forward areas in Afghanistan, they cost around $300 per gallon.

Nevertheless, Republicans dragged Navy Secretary Ray Mabus before the House Armed Services Committee earlier this month to remind him that he’s not the Secretary of Energy and to suggest that the Pentagon’s commitment to renewable energy is a plot by the Obama Administration to carry out his “radical environmental policies,” in the words of Republican Presidential Candidate Rick Santorum.

It’s more likely that President Obama’s principal objective is a stronger defense and fewer casualties among men and women in uniform. But the President’s motives are immaterial. Our soldiers continue dying today to support an oil-dependent military. That’s not an issue to be trivialized and politicized with another ridiculous conspiracy theory about the President.

It would be reassuring to hear this year’s presidential candidates promise to put a stop to this idiocy, but some of them are part of the problem. Santorum is getting applause from the Right by claiming that Obama’s energy policies are the result of strange theology – meaning, apparently, that anyone who doesn’t worship at the alter of Big Oil is a heretic.

Newt Gingrich’s claim that “the high price of gasoline is a direct result of Obama” is an outrageous example of playing politics with a fragile economy. Gingrich is counting on the fact that most voters don’t understand what makes oil markets tick. He knows the world oil market largely determines the price we pay for gasoline, no president controls that market, and a new pipeline and more domestic drilling would have little impact on oil prices or our energy security.

Given Congress’s intransigence, we are left to hope that voters are not as stupid as Gingrich thinks – that they’ll end the careers of politicians who because of cowardice, or the power of special interests, or their willingness to be team players rather than patriots, are jeopardizing the economy and the security of the United States.

Bill Becker is a Senior Associate with Third Generation Environmentalism.

14 Responses to Double Jeopardy: Congress’ Failure to Act on Energy and Climate is a National Security Tragedy

  1. fj says:

    Might be good to interview security expert Dick Clark to do a comparison between the time immediately before 9/11 when many experts were warning that a serious terrorist threat existed; warnings that went unheeded by the administration and now with accelerating climate change.

  2. MarkfromLexington says:

    This is a very important message that makes it clear there is a lot of common ground for all Americans.

    We need to show the stark contrasts of a fossil fuel dependent future vs a renewable energy future.

    One has to ask – where is Iran getting the money to fund its nuclear program?

  3. Mike Roddy says:

    Another good one, Bill, thanks.

    The current Republican Congress is not going to pay attention to rational arguments. They get teary eyed when talking about “the troops” with the flag behind them on the podium, but they have no problem with our young men getting killed as a result of fuel convoys. There is no excuse for this horrifying behavior, and it’s clear that we are up against the dark side.

    We are facing the twin evils of greed and stupidity. They cannot be defeated unless we actually get around to fighting them. This battle must occur in the public marketplace of ideas, currently dominated by corporate media control.

    Unconventional and far more aggressive media strategies are called for. Most of the public has no idea what is actually going on with both global warming and manipulation of the dialogue in the media. We need two things to counter this: money and ideas. Suggestions welcome.

  4. Tom King says:

    The situation is fluid. The mainstream media have ruined their reputations and now get to watch their customers leave in droves to seek out more meaningful insights from the blogosphere. Things look a little grim right now but a new momentum will emerge.

  5. clays says:


    “Today, it wouldn’t take much to push the fragile U.S. economy back into crisis, a catastrophic development for American families trying to hang on to their jobs, houses and retirement savings.”

    So what should we do to keep short term energy prices from pushing us back into “crisis” and “catastrophe?”

    “In light of this clear and present danger, Congress should be rushing to approve a new national transportation program that helps us transition away from oil.”

    Yes, exactly… long term solutions that will increase short term energy prices plunging us back into “crisis” is exactly what we need.

    Seriously, how does this make sense to ANYONE? I’m all for development of new alternative technologies, but not at the expense of pushing us back into economic crisis in the short term.

  6. Sasparilla says:

    Well written article. Obviously the Republicans are doing exactly what they are being lobbied / paid to do by the Oil interests and that means attacking green energy in general and green energy that reduces oil consumption in particular. One thing to add to it – and that’s the recent consistent attacks at the national level on plug in vehicles (which could get us off oil).

    Since the 1970’s when we got our taste of how vulnerable the US was with the oil embargoes, the US government hasn’t changed its oil centric energy policies in those 3 decades (no matter how bad they are for US short, mid or long term strategic interests).

    Today, for the first time, the national US consumer can affect that energy policy themselves (at the individual level) and buy a car that uses no gasoline (or an extremely small amount) – the plug in car.

    This is a totally new power for the US consumer, its expensive at this point (1st generation technology), and the enemies of this choice are mounting a vigorous PR war attacking this technology (presumably to tarnish the technology in the consumer’s mind prior to them considering it) – Newscorp media outlets (Fox News in particular, the Republicans, and the blogosphere – i.e. the oil industries lackies.

    The few automakers with vehicles at the lowest price points at this point (Nissan with the Leaf and GM with the Volt) are mostly looking like deer in the headlights as the attacks of their vehicles are happening consistently on Fox news and the blogosphere (particularly with the Volt, presumably it represents a more near term danger by the oil interests) – for a technology that gets the US off oil (its quite amazing when you think about what these folks are attacking).

  7. Timeslayer says:

    The point of the article is that our heavy dependence on oil CAUSES our economy to be vulnerable to world oil price volatility. Therefore, a good way to STRENGTHEN our economy is to reduce our dependence on oil by promoting energy efficiency and cleaner methods of energy production.


  8. Tom, it is a bit naive to think that the blogosphere will magically provide what MSM doesn’t. It is more likely that the ignorati will turn to that source for the re-confirmation of ideas that they already hold. I once read an essay that referred to the “balkanization of the internet”. That is what we are seeing now.

    We need to be a lot more aggressive than hoping that everyone read climate progress.

  9. Mike, I am of two minds on this. I don’t have the money to compete with the ubiquitous ads for They are selling the magic pill for the wrong disease. In fact, as a pensioner, I don’t have the money for a lot of things that I would like to do.

    What I do have is time. So, I read and I blog… mostly with an audience of Green Party member. Now, that demographic is almost all on board with this issue. Presidential candiate Dr. Kent Mesplay has raised the national security issue over and over again. The leading Green Party candidate, Dr. Jill Stein is quite vocal on the general issue and the specifics of being against Keystone XL.

    So, I write for my local newspaper. If everyone who reads climate progress were to write letters to the editor of every newspaper that covers their communities, we would suddenly see a lot more. The hits at google would go up, editors would take notice.

    When we defeated Richard Pombo in a Republican majority district, one of the tactics was to organize a grassroots level local media blitz that ended up having an anti-Pombo letter appearing in almost every issue of every local paper for months. They came from different sources, mailed or e-mailed at different times, but with a consistent message. The process was organized with a core group of writer, and another level of disseminaters each of whom had their own lists of people likely to participate. It worked in 2006 and it could work again.

  10. clays says:

    I know, but fact remains… we are still vulnerable today. Steps to get off oil are long term… they might be good ideas, but you still have to deal with today. And many of the long term solutions bring increased pain today.

    THAT is the issue. Is the increased pain of today worth the savings we get in the future. But its hard to have that a meaningful debate without honestly admitting the pain today part.

  11. Timeslayer says:

    What part of tax credits for solar panel manufacturers or building high-speed railways hurts our economy? What does hurt our economy is total Republican opposition to such win-win measures.


  12. clays says:

    Tax credits for solar alone don’t hurt too much. But raising taxes or eliminating tax breaks for energy companies, increase cost of production and will increase energy prices. Its one thing Obama praised about his cap and trade plan.

    Doing nothing also hurts now… We have some of the highest gas prices ever right now and Obama will do nothing to help them go down. Reign in speculators? Nope. Increase domestic production by speeding up permits and opening more federal land. Nope. Pipeline to bring more oil from a more stable region (Canada) Nope.

    Why will Obama do nothing? Because in his mind high prices are good, because it causes people to use less. They use less because they have no jobs to go to and no money to buy gas with.

    How do you not even know the positions of the president you support?

  13. Tom King says:

    Fair point Wesley.
    If people don’t withdraw from the MSM they are essentially held hostage to a false debate. Even worse, they provide the ‘controversy’ that sells the news. And this controversy can never be won because the moment the Climate Defenders gain any momentum the MSM will begin running stories crafted to support the opposing side.
    On the other hand, by withdrawing from the MSM, Climate Defenders send a clear signal they will no longer support corrupt media. Concurrently, Climate Deniers will implode via the weight of their own contradictions once the Defenders move to richer pastures. The Defenders might even experience an unexpected IQ boost that comes from escaping the inanity of the Denier Camp.

  14. MarkfromLexington says:

    A friend of mine gave me a ride in his Nissan Leaf yesterday. It is an amazing car. Wow!

    Excellent acceleration, great handling and boy is it quiet!

    When you step on the pedel, the strong acceleration coupled with the sound of the car’s electric motor make you feel like you are flying a jet.