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Time for real leadership on climate change, energy, national security

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    Allied leaders: (l-r) Vittorio Orlando of Italy, Lloyd George of Great Britain, Georges Clemenceaus of France and US President Woodrow Wilson, at work on World War I Peace Treaty in Paris.AP

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    American men of Company K, 165th Infantry of the Fighting 69th, Old Rainbow Division, are on their way to the trenches at St. Clement, France during World War I in March 1918.AP

The parallels between the political decisions regarding climate change we have made and the decisions that led Europe to World War One are striking – and sobering.  The decisions made in 1914 reflected political policies pursued for short-term gains and benefits, coupled with institutional hubris, and a failure to imagine and understand the risks or to learn from recent history.  The result was a disaster in many ways; its reverberations continue to shape Europe and indeed the entire world today.

2014 marks the centennial anniversary of the commencement of World War One, 15 years since the fall of the Berlin Wall, and 10 years since the 9/11 Commission’s sobering report on the last great external threat that impacted all Americans.  

Today, the Russians are on the move in the Crimea, the U.S. Department of Defense just released their capstone strategic document, and all the while we witness another unprecedented hot summer in Australia, a new Ocean opening in the Arctic and the wettest January on record for England and Wales.  Any connection?

The connection is what choices we make and how we make them when confronting complex world security situations where the future seems obvious only in retrospect and the dynamic present can feel overwhelming, what former secretary of state George P. Shultz refers to as a “world awash in change.”

Once again nations face a challenge – climate change -- which, if left unmanaged, has the potential to bring tremendous pain to tens of millions of people, and disrupt seriously the existing economic, political, and security orders of the day.  

While we do not know exactly how climate change will evolve, we do know that ignoring climate change is the same as assuming that there will be no change.  And that is exceeding unlikely.  And like the leaders on whose watch World War One started, today’s climate change policies of denial and delay are ‘supremely dangerous’.

So what to do?

We need to have adequate warning of truly extreme conditions or abrupt, unexpected changes in the world’s climate.  

Public and private-sector decision-makers require more understandable, more relevant, and more actionable information so they can better balance the risks, needs, and costs of adaptation with their many other competing political and economic concerns and responsibilities.  

This goal cannot be achieved without significantly improving our ability to monitor the earth’s systems so we can better understand when, why, and how the details of our climate are changing.

It’s all about the water.  We must sharpen our focus on, and devote greater resources to, the management and efficient use of freshwater, both within national borders and in a cross-border context. 

Changes and variations in rainfall frequency, intensity and distribution, with some places drying out and other regions getting wetter, will affect virtually every aspect of our lives.  

Closely related to the changes in water supply will be changes and challenges in how we grow our future food.  And we must begin to seriously address another water challenge -- the inexorable rise in sea level, which threatens our coastal communities, vital economic and security infrastructure, and the lives of tens of millions of Americans and billions of people worldwide.

Finally, we must attack and solve the root cause of the challenge:  unchecked carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gasses entering the atmosphere.  

We must incentivize and transform research and development into reliable and economically viable low to no carbon baseline power generation and transportation fuels; a revenue-neutral carbon tax is a great place to start.  

We must think about how we make these new and existing technologies available to, and affordable for, the entire world. 

We must size the opportunity to focus our best minds on this challenge, then develop the needed technologies and drive their costs down so that we can be the world leader in supplying these capabilities to the world.  Ubiquitous non-carbon based power and clean water can change the world in a huge way – for the better – and the U.S. can lead the way.

So here we are in 2014, facing uncertainties and choices of enormous consequence, just as the European powers faced their choices in 1914.  

The data and projections are laid out in front of us, as they were for them.  Will future historians, looking back at the choices we make now, come to a similar conclusion as the 9/11 Commission:  “the most important failure was one of imagination”?  

Perhaps not – We see signs of hope and progress.  

The U.S. Department of Defense in its recently released Quadrennial Defense Review treats climate change in a strategically coherent manner – linking its impacts with other global trends such as population change, growing affluence and globalization.  

The three proposals listed above are all feasible and affordable.  Our nation, when focused, can perform amazing, nearly miraculous feats.  But it requires leadership.  We sincerely hope our political leadership remembers those ghosts from history nearly a century ago -- and this time averts the crisis.

David M. Slayton is a research fellow at the Hoover Institution and Co-Chair of the Hoover Institution’s Arctic Security Initiative.

David Titley is a Professor of Practice in Meteorology at Penn State and the founding director of Penn State’s Center for Solutions to Weather and Climate Risk.