President Joe Biden has repeatedly and rightly called climate change an “existential threat.” The White House, the Pentagon and the intelligence community have all issued reports detailing climate change’s “threat multiplier,” which will worsen food and water scarcity, spread diseases, destabilize countries, and exacerbate mass migration. Most Americans increasingly understand that the threat is critical — and getting worse.
Yet, despite some progress, the United Nations climate summit in Glasgow, Scotland will end this week in disappointment. With China and Russia absent and refusing to accelerate their plans on greenhouse gas emission reductions, the goal of preventing temperature rises beyond 1.5 degrees Celsius becomes ever more fanciful. That condemns the world to deadlier heat waves, more destructive floods, more frequent wildfires and more cataclysmic weather.
To his credit, Biden has insisted that climate be one of the security priorities of his administration, and his Build Back Better plan — even in its reduced state — contains the government’s largest climate investment ever. And yet, the administration has not begun the necessary rethinking needed to address our most pressing national security challenge.
The Biden White House’s first priority, as the Council on Foreign Relations’s Richard Haass noted, has been gearing up for the emerging great-power faceoff with China and Russia. In fact, as the Quincy Institute’s Anatol Lieven writes in an important new report, climate change has already wreaked greater destruction, economic disruption, loss of life and property on Americans than anything threatened by China and Russia could do short of a major war.
In December, for example, Biden will convene his Summit for Democracy, gathering democratic countries to take on the threat to democracy posed by the spread of authoritarianism. But surely any response to authoritarianism would focus on climate-caused dislocation, which already displaced an average of more than 21 million people each year between 2008 and 2016. An estimated 143 million people from vulnerable countries in sub-Saharan Africa, South Asia and Latin America will be forced to move by the middle of the century. That will undoubtedly test the resilience of democracies in those regions. And while most of this movement is likely to be internal, the flood of immigrants to Europe and the United States already has strengthened xenophobic sentiment — a boon to would-be authoritarians in those regions.
To help meet the security threats of climate change, the United States obviously needs to accelerate its own plans to reduce carbon emissions. But more is required. One reform would be a massive reorientation of federal spending toward research and development on alternative energy and on new technologies to bolster resilience. As Adam Tooze points out, citing the American Association for the Advancement of Science, spending on military research and development reached $73 billion in 2020 — 20 times the government’s spending on energy research.
A second major initiative should be to focus U.S. aid programs much more on supplying aid and help with adaptation and resilience to vulnerable countries — particularly Mexico and in Central America — to save lives and limit economic calamities. Lieven suggests that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers should be “established as the most important and best-funded section of the armed forces.”
A third major area of rethinking has to address the emerging face-off with China. Biden has embraced President Donald Trump’s elevation of the great-power rivalry with Beijing. But the two countries were responsible for more than 40% of the world’s total fossil-fuel consumption last year. The Biden administration argues that it can ratchet up pressure on China even while cooperating on climate concerns. Beijing, however, has made it clear that climate cannot be an “oasis” of cooperation in a desert of tensions. Michael Klare, defense correspondent for the Nation, concludes that “if the planet’s two ‘great’ powers refuse to cooperate in a meaningful way in tackling the climate threat, we’re done for.”
The priority for the safety of Americans — and for the rest of the world — is that the two countries join in leading the world to address the growing climate crisis. Chinese human rights abuses are deplorable; its continued economic piracy deeply troubling; its growing menace in the South China Sea foreboding. But none of these come close to the imperative of cooperating on climate.
George Kennan’s famous “long telegram” outlined the strategy of containment at the start of the Cold War with Russia. The establishment Atlantic Council think tank has issued a new version — a “longer telegram” — to outline a confrontation with China. What’s needed, however, is a long telegram to lay out the strategy for engaging China and Russia in facing the real and growing climate threat. If we don’t find a way to join in addressing it, the basic duty of the state — to defend the security of its citizens — will have been forfeited.
Katrina vanden Heuvel, editor and publisher of the Nation magazine, writes a weekly column for The Post. She has also edited or co-edited several books, including “The Change I Believe In: Fighting for Progress in the Age of Obama” (2011) and “Meltdown: How Greed and Corruption Shattered Our Financial System and How We Can Recover”
William J. Bennett was nominated by President Ronald Reagan to be secretary of education and confirmed on Feb. 6, 1985. By year’s end, the feisty 42-year-old had upended the department and was looking for more opportunities to break the grip of leftward drift and institutional ennui among “educrats.” Reagan’s reach into the younger ranks and his choice of a combative intellectual offer a useful model for Glenn Youngkin, as Virginia’s governor-elect considers his two most important appointments: secretary of education and superintendent of schools.
Those choices are critical because Virginia is confronting a pile of education problems: The lingering impact of the COVIDd-19 shutdown and the learning that was lost. Continuing confusion over quarantine rules and vaccinations, for both students and faculty, which has made every school district its own center of controversy. A parent cohort suddenly awake and angry, deeply estranged from schools over shuttered classrooms and wary of returning to a critical-race-theory-infused public school system governed by a permanent education bureaucracy.
In its capacity to set off local blowups, “equity” is the new “common core,” the controversial set of national academic standards adopted in 2010. But at least common core gored all oxen equally. In the brave new world of CRT ideology and indoctrination, there are parents who will be targeted as “Karens” or fundamentalists for simply taking up the attitudes of those alert to agendas that have nothing to do with making their kids ready to compete for college entrance and life after graduation. CRT will identify some parents as the problem — a big difference from the common core battles, and an ominous one.
One such out-of-the-box leader, as I suggested to Youngkin on my radio show last week, is former American Enterprise Institute president and now Harvard Kennedy School professor Arthur C. Brooks. A peripatetic ambassador of happiness, civility and the French horn, Brooks would encourage and inspire education bureaucracies, school boards, superintendents and school boards, parents, teachers and students alike to embrace the idea that learning is not about absorbing any particular thing — it’s about learning to love learning. School is about ensuring that as many children flourish as they can, from K through 12 and beyond. If Brooks isn’t available, find an acolyte.
The education secretary ought to be able to choose his or her own superintendent. Especially given Virginia’s single-term limit for governors, Youngkin cannot afford time for rivalry. He must concentrate on executing his pledges: accelerated math for all who can do it, new emphasis on special education, higher teacher pay, a focus on merit and the exorcism of CRT from the Virginia school system.
Yes, I know — there aren’t any “CRT Grade 9” classes to end, as such. But there are many CRT-influenced memos and rubrics, ideologues and activists who need to be included in the repurposing of the schools on achievement for all or repositioned — outside of the school system.
Athletics needs upgrades. Principals need authority to fire their poorest performers. New teachers need serious subject matter expertise, not masters and doctorates in education. Higher education in the commonwealth needs diversity — intellectual diversity.
Mostly, Youngkin needs speed and results, a sense of dynamic progress, of a commitment to parents in an enduring, serious way. If he opens a charter school in every county, or even a few in the densest urban centers, he will ignite a revolution in the state. If he raises up new centers of excellence, recruits the best and brightest of classical teaching and returns merit to all schools, not just Virginia’s famed Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology, every governor’s debate across the country in 2022 will be about “the Youngkin way.” That has been “the Ducey way” in Arizona under Gov. Doug Ducey, R, but Virginia is always on the mind of the nearby Beltway ruling class.
That ruling class was deeply unnerved by the repudiation of one of their own, Terry McAuliffe. They absorbed the 2016 blow of Hillary Clinton’s defeat and came back despite a horrid political year in the House and states in 2020. They imagined a restoration was unfolding. It’s not.
Virginia was an earthquake, and Youngkin is a nightmare for the governing class. Education was the epicenter of the temblor. Now Youngkin should have something to say and do about education reform and renewal every day. If he brings in the right team and pulls it off, he will be a political force beyond the Old Dominion.
Conservatives who wallow in right-wing media consume a nonstop diet of COVID-19 denial and vaccine skepticism, so it should come as no surprise that they are much more likely to believe disinformation. As a result, they are dying in greater numbers than their better-informed, Democratic neighbors, friends and colleagues.
The Kaiser Family Foundation surveyed Americans on eight pieces of disinformation about covid-19 (e.g., the government is lying about the fatalities, vaccines cause infertility). Its poll found, “Nearly half (46%) of Republicans compared to just 14% of Democrats believe or are unsure about four or more misstatements about COVID-19.” In addition: “84% of Republicans believe or are unsure whether the government is exaggerating the number of COVID-19 deaths by including deaths due to other causes, compared to just one third of Democrats.”
And while 52% of Republicans think pregnant individuals should not get the vaccine or are unsure, just 28% of Democrats do. When it comes to the anti-parasite drug ivermectin, 44% of Republicans think it is safe and effective, contrary to what the Food and Drug Administration has said; only 10% of Democrats say the same.
The role of right-wing media in spreading dangerous disinformation highlights the moral culpability of the hosts, executives, board members and stockholders who make money off selling lies to an unwary audience. The KFF poll finds: “Among those who say they trust COVID-19 information from CNN, MSNBC, network news, NPR, and local TV news, between three in ten and four in ten do not believe any of the eight pieces of misinformation tested in the survey, while small shares (between 11%-16%) believe or are unsure about at least four falsehoods.”
Meanwhile, “Belief in misinformation is higher among those who say they trust COVID-19 information from conservative news sources, with nearly four in ten of those who trust Fox News (36%) and One America News (37%) and nearly half (46%) of those who trust Newsmax for such information saying they have heard at least four of the falsehoods tested in the survey and either believe them to be true or are unsure if they’re true or false.” (Disclosure: I am an MSNBC contributor.)
The results are tragic. David Leonhardt of the New York Times notes, “The vaccines are remarkably effective at preventing severe covid, and almost 40% of Republican adults remain unvaccinated, compared with about 10% of Democratic adults.” As a result, deaths are concentrated in pro-Trump locales. Leonhardt concludes, “[Irrational] fears about vaccine side effects have overwhelmed rational fears about a deadly virus. It stems from disinformation — promoted by right-wing media, like Rupert Murdoch’s Fox News, the Sinclair Broadcast Group and online sources.”
And it’s not just right-wing media exploiting these consumers. Republicans are bombarded with a nonstop barrage of deadly disinformation from a former president who concealed the transmissibility of the coronavirus and held super-spreader campaign events as well as the fleet of Republican House and Senate members spreading dangerous lies. And, it seems, rather than admit that they have been “had,” these Americans choose to get vaccinated only when death rates soar in their immediate area.
Democrats have shied from making a blunt assessment: Republican elites and politicians are contributing to unnecessary deaths of their supporters. Perhaps it is time for some straight talk. Tens of thousands (if not more) Republicans would likely be alive if they had not been victimized by greedy media barons and deceitful politicians. Rarely have we seen a political movement do so much harm to those it claims to protect. Democrats should say so.
Jennifer Rubin writes reported opinion for The Washington Post.