Green soldiersThe U.S. military recognizes climate change as a serious threat to national security. The CIA has established a Center for the Study of Climate Change. The scientific community is in widespread agreement that climate change is happening, that it’s caused by human activity, and that its catastrophic effects — such as a sea-level rise of at least a meter — will be felt within our lifetimes (hell — look out the window). But compared to other security threats with less clear-cut causes and solutions, the U.S. government has expended relatively far fewer resources to address the risks of climate change. An article in the latest issue of the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists lays out a comparison:

  • WMD proliferation: The Defense Department requested $19.1 billion in 2010 alone for combating weapons of mass destruction. Lest anyone forget, false rumors of WMD in Iraq were used as chief justification for the U.S. invasion in 2002 that has stretched into an almost 10-year war.
  • International terrorism: Terrorism is possibly the most ill-defined and elusive enemy in U.S. pursuit. The country has spent $1.12 trillion on international counterterrorism efforts through September 2010. Oh yeah, and started another war.
  • Economic crisis: Policymakers acted swiftly to pass a $789 billion stimulus package after the 2008 financial meltdown, even as economists were still debating the best solution to the crisis.
  • Grist thanks its sponsors. Become one.

  • Climate change: The U.S. spent just $1.7 billion in 2010 on “international climate change financing” (whatever that even means), and most of the international agreements addressing the threat have resulted in little more than honor system pledges to act.

So why are we so squeamish about preemptive action against climate change? Not so long ago, preemptive action was seen as the way to go — at least  when it came to terrorism and the (nonexistent) threat of WMDs in Iraq. We toppled Saddam Hussein and, in a J.K. Rowling-esque triumph of good over evil, finally killed Osama bin Laden. But we also lost thousands of our own people and spent up to trillions of dollars in the process, and Iraq and Afghanistan are still f*cked up.

But when it comes to acting on climate change, the relative risk of a preemptive strike against the planet’s destruction seems to like a no-brainer. For once, we really have nothing to lose. The only drawback politicians can seem to drag up as a lame excuse for their inaction is the economic cost of climate policy — but wouldn’t we rather be betting dollars on new companies and technologies with a clean slate, instead of investing in the same hacks (I’m looking at you, Big Oil) who screwed us over in the first place?

Grist thanks its sponsors. Become one.

Even the climate deniers should be able to see the irony. WMDs in Iraq turned out not to be a real thing. In the extremely unlikely event that, as skeptics want to believe, climate change also turns out not to be a real thing, at least this time we won’t have paid for our mistake in sunk costs, human lives, and the further destabilization of an entire region. We’ll have paid for it by creating jobs, lowering energy and fuel costs, and stimulating the economy. Last time I checked, that was what the government was supposed to be doing anyway.