I can’t help but notice the deep discrepancy in the manner with which President Obama is handling two headline issues: Afghanistan and climate stability. In one case, the President has made deliberate use of executive power and perquisite. In the other, he has struck a strangely passive stance. It is a disparity reinforced by the relative budgetary priorities accorded to these two issues.
On climate, the Obama administration has effectively handed the initiative to a gridlocked Congress whose deliberations are marred by the corrupting influence of money. We know how that’s playing out. Corporate lobbyists succeeded in emasculating the House bill to the point where projected cuts in U.S. greenhouse gas emissions by 2020, relative to the internationally recognized base year of 1990, amount to a measly 4 percent. The Senate version looks to be equally uninspiring.
In the process, the administration has allowed its Copenhagen strategy to be shackled by an unenthusiastic Congress. Instead of climate leadership, the dominant spectacle is one of downplaying expectations, as serious action is delayed until some time next year (the approaching U.S. mid-term elections then may force yet another postponement of critical decisions).
Now contrast that with the President’s approach to Afghanistan. During the election campaign, Obama made it clear that he intended to pour substantial additional resources into the war. Even before his decision to dispatch 30,000 more soldiers, the number of U.S. troops in Afghanistan had already been increased from about 30,000 at the beginning of the year to 68,000 now.
(There are reasons to believe that military escalation is the wrong policy, and that investments in education, jobs, and sustainable agriculture would be more likely to help stabilize Afghanistan than more soldiers and guns are. But the main point here is not to debate the merits of Obama’s choice, but the striking difference in assertion of leadership between these policy areas.)
You notice that Obama didn’t allow himself to become hostage to Congressional deliberations before making further troop commitments. Unlike on climate, he used a prime-time speech to put down the goalposts in the expectation that Congress will follow suit and provide the necessary additional funds.
This is all reflective of the conventional assumption that matters of war and peace are Presidential perquisite, but that climate policy is not—even though the latter represents arguably a far greater threat to global stability, and thus to U.S. security. It is high time, however, to use the Presidential bully pulpit—the authority and stature that comes with the office—to set the agenda and to marshal public opinion around decisive climate action.
Neither the administration nor Congress seems overly troubled about run-away military spending, but are in comparatively penny-pinching mode when it comes to climate-related budgets.
Imagine, however, if the rapidly rising sums spent on the Afghan war had been allocated to get a green transition of the U.S. economy under way. Even before the West Point speech, the Administration’s fiscal year 2010 request included $73 billion for war in Afghanistan, up from $43 billion in FY2008. A September Congressional Research Service report notes that from fiscal years 2001 through 2010, a total of $300 billion will have been spent on Afghanistan operations.
This is part of a skyrocketing war bill in Afghanistan and Iraq, amounting to a cumulative $1 trillion since 2001. Had even a decent portion of that amount been made available for green purposes, the United States could now rightfully claim global leadership in the struggle against climate change and other environmental ills, instead of busily telling the world what it can’t do.