The Debate

Politics and Climate Change

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The Debate

Politics and Climate Change

Newt Gingrich and Mitt Romney seems to have cooled on climate change. Do they mean what they say, or said?

Earlier this month, the Doomsday Clock – popularized by the graphic novel Watchmen – was moved a minute closer to midnight, leaving it set at five minutes to midnight, or “Doomsday.”

This isn’t the closest it has been (that was back in 1953, when the United States and Soviet Union tested thermonuclear devices and the clock was set at 11:58 pm). But at a time of growing international concern over Iran’s nuclear program – and the announcement by Iran that it won’t “grin and bear” newly tightened sanctions and the EU decision to ban the import of Iranian oil – the decision to move the clock is interesting.

What is also interesting, though, is that Iran wasn’t one of the biggest factors driving the latest change. Earlier today, I spoke with Kennette Benedict, executive director of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, the magazine established by Manhattan Project scientists in 1945 that created the Doomsday Clock.

The full transcript from my interview with her will be available online later this week for Diplomat Brief newsletter subscribers, but two of the issues she said were of most concern were the failure of the United States and Russia to significantly reduce their nuclear arsenals, and climate change.

Climate change hasn’t always been a factor in setting the clock’s hands, but was introduced as a consideration in 2007.

“As we consulted with climate scientists and others we began to understand the enormity that the world faces in disruption of climate, and the possibility that we might get to the point of runaway climate change,” she told me.

“We’re mindful of the coming fresh water scarcity, and the possibility of wars being fought over them – wars with nuclear weapons.”

Two nuclear-armed states that she may well have had in mind are India and Pakistan. The Economist ran a sobering piece in November noting that the head of Pakistan’s armed forces, Gen. Ashfaq Kayani, has cited water as justification for his “India-centric” military posture.

“Others take it further. ‘Water is the latest battle cry for jihadis,’ says B.G. Verghese, an Indian writer,” The Economist reported. “‘They shout that water must flow, or blood must flow.’ Lashkar-e-Taiba, a Pakistani terror group, likes to threaten to blow up India’s dams. Last year a Pakistani extremist, Abdur Rehman Makki, told a rally that if India were to ‘block Pakistan’s waters, we will let loose a river of blood.’”

As I suggested at the weekend, one of the foreign policy yardsticks for measuring the seriousness of the Republican presidential candidates could be their position on climate change. Jon Huntsman, for example, took a brave stand last year in saying he trusted climate scientists. (Former?) frontrunner Mitt Romney, meanwhile, had a sounder record as Massachusetts than he than he now wants to take credit for.

Which brings me to the other front runner – Newt Gingrich.

“It’s no secret that Republican presidential contender Newt Gingrich has had a soft spot for climate change in the past,” Mother Jones notes. “He sat on a couch with Nancy Pelosi talking about how we can all work together to solve global warming. He even wrote a book about our collective obligation to care for the planet, the sequel to which is currently in the works.”

Sadly, Gingrich appears to himself have developed a case of the flip-flops. Fast forward a few years to the Iowa caucus campaign and he was keen to reassure gathered voters that global warming “hasn’t been totally proven” and that even if it were, he would still oppose a cap-and-trade solution to combat carbon emissions.

You’d hope that with two nuclear-armed rivals breathing down each other’s parched throats, that a candidate for the most powerful office in the world might have a strong enough incentive not to downplay the challenge global warming poses to international security.

This is one of those cases where voters should hope the politician doesn’t actually mean what he says.