AREDay in Aspen: U.S. military sold on threat posed by climate change; Event kicks off by ‘Putting Carbon in Context’

By Scott Condon
The Aspen Times
August 20, 2010

ASPEN — While the fight over the threat posed by climate change rages on at Capitol Hill — not to mention many neighborhood bars — the folks at the Pentagon don’t need convincing.

The U.S. military has acknowledged, in two key planning documents released recently, that the effects of global warming will play roles in international events and help shape national security strategy, Col. Mark “Puck” Mykleby, U.S. Marine Corps, said Thursday.

Mykleby is special strategic assistant to the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. He spoke as part of a panel at an opening presentation at American Renewable Energy Day (AREDay) at the Hotel Jerome in Aspen.

Issues from food shortages and crop failures to migrations of people due to natural disasters will affect world events, Mykleby said. Such events have the potential to cause upheaval and event conflict, and the Pentagon sees a link to national security.

Another panel member, Christine Todd Whitman, said the cataclysmic flooding besieging Pakistan demonstrates the connection between climate change and U.S. national security. While scientists are generally loathe to tie a specific weather event to climate change, it’s different with the catastrophe in Pakistan. Extended drought made it difficult for the hardened soil to absorb rain. And the deluge came in epic proportion.

“On this one they’re almost all coming together saying, ‘This is what we’re talking about,’” said Whitman, former governor of New Jersey and administrator of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency under President George W. Bush. She resigned in 2003 and later acknowledged difficulty with some administration policies.

The flooding threatens to further destabilize the country and make it ripe for the terrorist groups the United States are fighting.

“I can’t think of anything more scary than a Taliban-controlled Pakistan,” Whitman said. “Right now that is a real possibility because of the stress being put on the government.”

AREDay kicked off with presentations centered around the theme of “Putting Carbon in Context.” The link was explored as part of climate change and food security, politics and political will, as well as national security.

The conference goes through Sunday. There are scores of leading environmental speakers, including Ted Turner and T. Boone Pickens, famed entrepreneurs who have invested in green energy, and movie director and producer James Cameron.

Professor David Orr of Oberlin College got the conference rolling Thursday by noting the challenges the country and the world face in reducing carbon emissions. The world remains essentially “pedal to the metal” on fossil-fuel use, he said. Domestically, President Obama has been diverted from working on climate change because of other major issues.

“We have no policy at this point,” Orr lamented.

Climate change is “the perfect problem” because it is so easy to procrastinate on solutions, Orr said. He challenged the audience to be part of the generation that causes “the great turn.”

Some audience members expressed optimism that the military’s acknowledgment of climate change as a problem would convince the global-warming deniers — as skeptics are labeled — to change their opinion. Mykleby and Whitman weren’t so certain.

Whitman said there must be an educational effort that strips the emotions out of the climate-change debate and demonstrates to the American people that taking steps to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions can also be steps to provide jobs and keep the air clean. Highly efficient, affordable construction, for example, is not only good for the environment, it benefits home buyers.

If there is a grassroots movement to implement practices that reduce carbon emissions, the politicians will follow, she said.

Mykleby noted that America these days seems so focused on threats and risks that it’s lost sight of opportunities. He stressed that he steers clear of political debates and partisan politics. But in the current policy debate on how to get the country out of the recession, the two options are austerity or spending our way out. Mykleby proposed a third step — creating a whole new economic sector based on green energy.

Like Whitman, a step in that direction needs to come from the bottom up.

“That’s the beauty of our system, citizens do have a voice,” he said.