Obama to Coast Guard Grads: Focus on Climate Change

May 21, 2015

Sending the newest class of Coast Guard officers out into the world yesterday, dangerous as it is, President Obama decided that the most pressing issue they needed to hear about from their commander in chief was the threat of climate change. There were plenty of objectionable elements to the remarks. The implication that an anticipated rise in sea levels is more of a concern to the uniformed services than terrorism certainly grated, as did Obama's anti-democratic insistence that the issue "cannot be subject to the usual politics and the usual rhetoric," presumably because things have reached such a crisis that we all must just do what he says. The notion that climate change poses risks of "instability" and "conflict," not to say the possibility of "climate refugees," sounded just delusional, considering how much instability and conflict, and how many refugees, are out there right now because of the the various crises caused by American withdrawal from the world.

One of the president's attempts to generate alarm stood out as particularly silly. In his parade of apocalyptic horribles that we will face or are facing as a result of global warming—a list that now includes the war in Syria—Obama remarked that, "It’s estimated that a further increase in sea level of just one foot by the end of this century could cost our nation $200 billion." If the president is trying to scare people into action, he will have to do better than this. Federal expenditures for FY2014 were in the neighborhood of $3.5 trillion. That's for one year of government spending. So let's say that the president is lowballing the potential sea-level rise, and we can expect, say, a four foot increase in sea levels between now and 2100. (Every other warming-related apocalyptic prediction made over the last forty years has failed to come to pass, but work with me here.) Assuming a simple relationship between the rise in sea levels and the cost, that brings the expected damage up to $800 billion, which is still less than one-fourth of one year's federal budget today. Spread out over 85 years.

Ramadi fell this week. Iran is threatening shipping (relevant to the Coast Guard!) and pursuing nuclear weapons, which has stoked a regional nuclear arms race. China is modernizing its nuclear weapons. Putin acts belligerently towards Europe. Compared with the threats out there to a rules-based world order, the possibility that a series of increasingly high tides will cost the United States a fraction of a single year's federal budget before the turn of the century can only be scary to those who can't understand math. The uniformed services, including the Coasties, have serious work to do. I hope that the graduates Obama spoke to don't have to find out the hard way that climate change isn't even close to the greatest threat that they will face this century.