Which Government Agency Should Be Responsible For Fighting Climate Change?

Democratic Presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg is calling for the Department of Defense to take a leading role in combating climate change. Is he right?
Main entrance of U.S. EPA Headquarters; the William Jefferson Clinton Federal Building on 12th Street, N.W., Washington, D.C. (Moreau1, Public domain)

Main entrance of U.S. EPA Headquarters; the William Jefferson Clinton Federal Building on 12th Street, N.W., Washington, D.C. (Moreau1, Public domain)

According to CNN, Democratic Presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg is proposing that the Department of Defense create a senior role and an internal group tasked with addressing the effects of climate change, essentially putting the department in charge of implementing the Smart Cities initiative laid out by the Obama administration. He also proposed paying rural communities to help sequester carbon, creating a financial incentive to transition to renewable energy sources and lower emissions, ideas already popular in even the reddest of red states and counties despite heavy Republican opposition.

But all this may seem to be at best tangential to the Department of Defense’s role. Yes, the massive agency overseeing all military operations does cite climate change as one of its biggest threats in the 21st century and says its effects threaten two thirds of its “mission critical” bases, as well as serve as incubators for worldwide conflicts and disease which are projected to kill nearly half a million people per year by the 2030s. However, since it’s in charge of bombers, tanks, and warships, having it run point in infrastructure modernization seems more like a political move to highlight the importance of the problem than a practical solution.

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So, if the military shouldn’t really be in charge of environmental projects because it already has plenty to manage, what agency should actually be tasked with this problem? Well, two, in particular, come to mind. First is the Department of Energy, which is already supposed to be promoting renewable sources over fossil fuels and funding research and development of new energy infrastructures. New solar farms, geothermal plants, and wind installations would already fall under its purview, and its requested $31.7 billion budget for 2020 would have plenty of room for facilitating and accelerating programs meant to get the most out of renewables.

In an ideal world, it would also spearhead research into blue sky ideas which see today’s massive nationwide patchwork of electrical grids as a relic of the past and explore how to make each building energy independent, making it impossible to use computer viruses to cut off power to crucial infrastructure, as some adversaries are trying to do, and giving our cities a more resilient infrastructure during natural disasters because we won’t rely on frail power lines feeding into our homes. Again, all of this tracks closely with the DOE’s mission and purpose, and there’s plenty of demand for such projects by both eco-conscious urbanites, and farmers trying to take care of their land.

The second key agency in combating climate change is the Environmental Protection Agency, which should, at least on paper, regulate emissions of harmful greenhouse gases and pollution leaching into our waterways and aquifers. By cracking down on polluters who belch carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide, and methane into the atmosphere, its efforts could combine with a renewable energy drive by the DOE for a one-two punch against global warming, slowing the effects of climate change, and giving the planet a fighting chance to sequester and break down existing greenhouse gases to a more stable level. Another net positive of this enforcement action would be a drop in deaths from respiratory illnesses as air quality improves.

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Of course, this doesn’t mean that the DOD or the Department of Homeland Security don’t have roles to play in tackling climate change. Droughts and famines in politically unstable nations will drive waves of migration and outbreaks of war as governments fail and tensions overheat, something we saw happening in Somalia and Syria. The Pentagon will need to be ready to respond to violent skirmishes and work with partners to help stabilize and prevent crises leading to armed clashes. The lion’s share of the work will likely fall to forces in the Pacific, Africa, and the Middle East, so these command nodes should be trained to identify the warning signs of a climate-driven emergency and bolstered to properly handle it.

Meanwhile, the DHS must have plans and policies in place for identifying and dealing with waves of climate refugees so it’s not caught off guard as there are more applications and attempts to immigrate by those whose homelands are turning into semi-uninhabitable deserts, being slowly flooded out of existence, or devastated beyond repair by stronger and longer-lasting storms. It could also be assisted by the State Department giving grants and encouraging entrepreneurship and modernization efforts in nations either facing the brunt of climate change and in need of help to stabilize their economies, or who are contributors to it and need to be incentivized to invest in renewables and cleaning up their pollution through a combination of carrots and sticks.

The bottom line is that a complex and multifaceted problem like climate change can’t, and really shouldn’t be tackled by just one agency, no matter how big. Instead, the DOE and EPA would need to focus on cleaning up and modernizing domestic infrastructures as the DHS, DOD, and the State Department tackle external risks, threats, and side-effects. While this would lack the optics framing climate change as a national security threat in the most blatant and obvious way, it would utilize existing agencies and frameworks already well suited to take on the task, and capable of doing it effectively given some political goodwill and appointees who understand the threat and full gravity of the problem they’re supposed to be fighting.

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Politech // Climate Change / Government / Pete Buttigieg