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.