Straight Talk on Climate Change From a GOP Icon

By Alice Thomas
A young boy whose family was displaced during last summer's Sahel food crisis.

After a 20 year absence from Capitol Hill, former Secretary of State George Shultz returned last Friday to urge members of Congress to act on climate change.

Many might find this surprising since Shultz served under President Ronald Reagan and few of his fellow Republicans support action to combat climate change. But it is Shultz’s economic and national security expertise that spurred his case for U.S. leadership on this issue.

Currently a distinguished fellow at Stanford’s Hoover Institution, where he is deeply engaged in energy policy, Shultz is advocating for a tax on carbon that would fund research and development into alternative energy, which he sees as good for U.S. economic interests.

Shultz has also warned of the national security implications of U.S. inaction on climate change. Indeed, he was one of 38 signatories to a recent letter urging President Obama and Congress to take this threat seriously. That letter was signed by an impressive, bi-partisan group of former members of Congress, generals, admirals, and other high-level officials.

“Without precautionary measures, climate change impacts abroad could spur mass migrations, influence civil conflict and ultimately lead to a more unpredictable world,” the letter reads. “In fact, we may already be seeing signs of this as vulnerable communities in some of the most fragile and conflict-ridden states are increasingly displaced by floods, droughts and other natural disasters. Protecting U.S. interests under these conditions would progressively exhaust American military, diplomatic and development resources as we struggle to meet growing demands for emergency international engagement.”

I know that in my own work I’m already seeing the impacts of changing weather on the world’s most vulnerable people. During two recent trips to West Africa’s Sahel region, I met with people fleeing both a food crisis brought on by drought and the violent conflict that had broken out in Mali.

Refugees International has been urging stronger U.S. humanitarian support to meet the needs of displaced and food-insecure communities in Mali and its Sahelian neighbors. But with several humanitarian emergencies raging elsewhere around the globe, and with severe fiscal constraints here at home, U.S. foreign assistance is falling far short of that region’s needs.

In the Sahel and elsewhere, more extreme and erratic weather is acting as a stress multiplier, with serious implications for human security. What many in Congress fail to see, however, is that smart, strategic investments in climate action today make fiscal sense, whereas failing to act locks us in to higher humanitarian response costs, greater setbacks in development, and more needless human suffering. It is encouraging to see practically-minded, experienced statesmen like Shultz trying to put us on the right path.