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Afghanistan’s Lessons for the Climate Debate

The unfolding crisis in Afghanistan raises two sobering questions for anyone concerned about global climate change.

First, can a nation that can’t maintain a long-term commitment against a foe that killed 3,000 Americans and would like to obtain weapons of mass destruction maintain a long-term commitment to reducing the uncertain risks of global climate change?

Second, can an administration that blindsided our allies as it conducted a humiliating, unnecessary and botched withdrawal, using a deadline dictated by the Taliban that will leave allies and possibly Americans behind, be trusted to lead an international effort to combat global climate change?

The answer to the first question is a cautious yes. The answer to the second question is an emphatic no.

On question one, former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, who is hardly a reflexive Biden critic, offers a must-read perspective. Blair writes on Afghanistan and the West’s place in the world:

“[H]as the West lost its strategic will? Meaning: is it able to learn from experience, think strategically, define our interests strategically and on that basis commit strategically? Is long term a concept we are still capable of grasping? Is the nature of our politics now inconsistent with the assertion of our traditional global leadership role? And do we care?

“The world is now uncertain of where the West stands because it is so obvious that the decision to withdraw from Afghanistan in this way was driven not by grand strategy but by politics.

“We didn’t need to do it. We chose to do it. We did it in obedience to an imbecilic political slogan about ending “the forever wars”, as if our engagement in 2021 was remotely comparable to our commitment 20 or even ten years ago, and in circumstances in which troop numbers had declined to a minimum and no allied soldier had lost their life in combat for 18 months.”

Blair asks the right questions and offers a brutal but fair indictment. It is absurd for the Biden administration to argue that its hands were tied in Afghanistan. It was a choice. If Biden could reverse Trump’s positions on the Keystone Pipeline and the Paris Agreement, as well as a host of other energy and health care executive orders, he could have done the same with Trump’s ill-conceived deal with the Taliban. Conversely, it is absurd for Trumpists to argue they bear no responsibility. Biden didn’t make his political decision in a vacuum. He made it in a political space filled with an “imbecilic” neo-isolationist justification, aggressively peddled by Trump, that retreating from a war Radical Islam declared against us was a form of winning. In short, Trump argued for a bad policy Biden then badly executed.  

Does Afghanistan suggest we are doomed to short-term thinking on climate? Not necessarily.  Former Bush advisor and MSNBC host Nicolle Wallace predicted that 95 percent of the public would support Biden’s Afghanistan decision while 95 percent of the press would disagree. Polls are thankfully suggesting that Wallace’s fatalism is misplaced. Biden’s approval rating is down nine points (from 50 to 41 percent) due to his handling of Afghanistan and the public is ambivalent and open to persuasion about the underlying policy questions. FiveThirtyEight offers this helpful insight:

“How pollsters word their questions can change the poll’s results … when Morning Consult/Politico asked, ‘Do you believe the U.S. should still withdraw its military presence in Afghanistan if it means the Taliban regains control of most of Afghanistan?’ — something that has indeed come to pass — only 38 percent of registered voters responded that troops should still withdraw, while 45 percent said that they should not.

“And sometimes, respondents outright contradicted themselves. In the Ipsos/Reuters poll, Americans supported completing the withdrawal of troops on schedule, 61 percent to 25 percent. But they also said, 50 percent to 36 percent, that they supported ‘sending combat troops back into Afghanistan to fight the Taliban.’”

For the climate debate, these are clues that the body politic is, in fact, capable of acting with enlightened self-interest, especially if it is encouraged by principled leaders who put long-term goals ahead of their short-term political interests.

On the second question, Biden has badly damaged not just the reputation of his administration but America’s prestige and the West’s credibility. His refusal to accept any responsibility or admit to miscalculations is an unwelcome continuation of the last administration’s posture that tended to describe all its actions as perfect and beautiful.  

Biden’s incompetent management of Afghanistan will rightly raise questions about his competence across the board. In the climate debate, that would be a welcome development. The dominant progressive strategy – The Green New Deal – is the Biden Afghanistan “strategy” that has not been implemented. If it were to be implemented, it would fail catastrophically. It is unilateral and sanctimonious and has no hope of working in the real world.

>>>The Unreported Good News About Climate Change

Conservatives should respond to this power and leadership vacuum by offering superior ideas, superior strategy, and superior leadership. American conservatives should lead an international coalition of the willing and serious that acknowledges the real risks of climate change – the known unknowns, and the unknown unknowns – and offer durable solutions that fit within a framework of economic freedom. As Nick Loris writes, free economies are clean economies. In the real world, we’re cleaned by capitalism.

A Marshall Plan-like effort built on the principles of economic freedom – less regulation, lower taxes, less government, the rule of law and private property rights – that recognizes we’re in a great power struggle with China (appeasement is not the answer) is a way for the West to redeem the Afghanistan debacle.

After leaving friends, allies and possibly Americans behind to die in Afghanistan, progressives are going to have a much harder time portraying themselves as climate leaders who “care.” Progressives seem to want a participation trophy for rejoining the Paris Agreement and offering targets such as pledging to hit net zero carbon emissions by 2050. That is fine and well, but what matters more than setting targets is staying on target and then hitting the target.

Biden’s other strategy to simply borrow and spend our way to carbon reductions is equally reckless. Biden’s proposed $5 trillion in new borrowing and money printing would likely lead to higher inflation and undermine the ability of American entrepreneurs to innovate and deploy clean energy technology. Biden isn’t “Building Back Better.” He’s “Borrowing Back Bigger.” Handing economic leverage to China won’t be any more productive than handing our military equipment to the Taliban.

For leaders willing to join citizens in the real world of hard choices and priorities, finding savings is not hard. In 2011, we in Senator Tom Coburn’s office offered $9 trillion in savings over ten years to pressure the Simpson-Bowles Commission to downsize, rethink and improve government performance. If Biden, AOC and Bernie Sanders want to be taken seriously on climate they can start by offering programs they would cut to finance a transition to clean energy or to fund research and development. What program or agency is worth cutting to save earth? If the choice is between the Department of Education and Planet Earth, what would they choose? Until they have an answer, they are not serious.

American conservatives should lock arms with leaders in other countries who are serious about setting priorities and committed to an “all of the above” energy strategy that promotes a responsible mix of renewables, nuclear, and yes, cleaner burning natural gas. Like it or not, fossil fuels lifted millions of people out of poverty and will be part of the global growth and development process that will get us to net zero. If the Biden Administration hated the Taliban half as much as they hate the fossil fuel industry perhaps they wouldn’t have been so willing to reopen Al-Qaeda’s nation-state training camp.

Unserious progressives should also overcome their irrational and anti-science aversion to nuclear energy. MIT’s Kerry Emanuel estimates that the world could transition to nuclear energy by 2040 at a net cost of $100 billion per year or 0.1 percent of Gross World Product. That is an imminently achievable goal in an American-led coalition of the serious.

Hard choices and real actions, rather than virtue signaling and self-congratulations, could substantially reduce the risks of climate change. Existing technology and financial resources should be leveraged to make a positive difference for future generations. What’s lacking is moral clarity, courage and common sense. It’s no surprise the Taliban hopes to further manipulate the Biden Administration and humiliate the West by pledging to fight climate change.   

Events like Afghanistan are rare moments that lance a boil in the body politic. The past few days have raised fundamental questions about who we are and how we should respond to the great challenges of our day. We can’t undo our mistakes in Afghanistan, but we can and must learn from them and offer leadership that will pass on the blessings of liberty to future generations.  

The views and opinions expressed are those of the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of C3.

Copyright © 2020 Conservative Coalition for Climate Solutions

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