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I joined the military so I could serve my country and defend the values that define the American way of life. Active leadership of the United States on the world stage has proven essential to solving the great global challenges of the past.
As a nation, we have proved time and time again our ability to act outside of narrow self-interest in order to confront threats to global security, restore peace, and preserve equal opportunity for all.
In the last century, the greatest generation halted expanding tyranny during World War II. In the wake of the destruction following that epic conflict, the United States rebuilt a world grounded in the principles of freedom and democracy. In doing so, the men and women of our grandparents’ generation understood that America’s strength and security is inextricably intertwined with the fate of all nations.
However, as President Barack Obama noted in his recent address to the graduating class of West Point, the world is changing at an accelerating pace. While technology and information brings us closer together as a global community, our strength and security is challenged by new threats that transcend national borders.
The need for American leadership to confront these new challenges has never been more pressing. Today, we face a creeping threat that has the potential to undermine all of our efforts towards global security: climate change.
Climate change is the silent enemy in the defining challenge of this century to defend the world’s most vulnerable populations from extremism. The effects of climate change take many forms, among them rising sea levels, resource scarcity, and the increasing frequency and intensity of extreme weather events like droughts, storms and floods.
These environmental shifts are exacerbating every struggle for security, reducing economic opportunity and accelerating instability from the Middle East to Africa to the Pacific Rim. These changes will test the strength of government institutions and the will of the international community to protect those populations that are most vulnerable to destabilization.
During my deployments, I saw firsthand the violence and chaos that occurs when some of the most impoverished places in the world are destabilized by conflict. The strong prey upon the weak. Civil society breaks down, replaced by extremism. Nations break into tribes, and tribes turn upon each other. The most vulnerable inevitably bear the brunt of the conflict.
Extremism naturally finds a foothold where environmental stressors and weak governance have already created a vacuum of power. All too often, this void is filled by non-state actors who provide basic services in exchange for promoting ideologies that spread chaos and violence. And if we as a country have learned anything over the past fifteen years, it is that events halfway around the globe have a direct impact on our security at home.
It is undeniable that climate change puts the future of global stability and strength of democratic institutions at risk. These impacts exacerbate challenges to the values America has worked hard to promote around the world, and we must act to counter them.
This is why the EPA’s Clean Power Plan is so critical: The fight begins with a robust strategy to curb emissions here at home. America’s leadership is critical to inspiring the efforts of other global players.
There is no shortage of naysayers — particularly in Congress — who stubbornly insist that action here at home is irrelevant so long as other nations, such as China and India, continue to pollute. This view is as self-indulgent as it is shortsighted. No nation catalyzes global action better than the United States. We not only have an obligation to act, but also to lead all nations to act.
Next year, we will have an opportunity to create a binding international agreement as the world comes together for another round of international climate negotiations at the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Paris, France. The United States must come to the table both ready to take action, and serve as a strong moral and practical example. The world is watching to see if this is just a meaningless political maneuver or a pivot to serious American action on a critical issue.
This is why it is imperative that all Americans engage in this process and demonstrate strong support for the standard’s successful implementation. Some in Congress — including Sens. Mitch McConnell and James M. Inhofe — have already signaled their intentions to torpedo this smart move by means of a Congressional Review Act report. Any further efforts to delay and perhaps even invalidate the new standard before it has a chance to produce positive results would be self-serving political posturing.
It is up to mainstream America to push back against these naysayers who would abdicate American leadership. Climate change is a monumental threat recognized by leaders in science and defense — traditionally two of America’s strongest suits. The EPA’s Clean Power Plan is the first step in a long fight, and Americans must demand action and stave off congressional interference so that we can step up to one of the greatest global challenges of our generation.
Adam Tiffen is a member of the Truman National Security Project’s Defense Council and a veteran of three tours of duty in Iraq and Afghanistan. He is also a co-founder of Tri-Star Collaborative, a firm specializing in sustainable development in emerging markets and post-conflict environments.