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When Promoting Clean Energy, Patriotism Beats Moralizing

The debate over whether to go green is not a debate over whether to incur costs. It is a debate over which set of costs to incur, and people’s willingness to bear tangible burdens to achieve goals supported by affluent, educated progressives is limited.”

Earth Day has an almost religious feel to it. With reverence for the planet and concern for its inhabitants, it serves as a sublime experience for many people who do not find the sublime in religion. Concern for Earth’s health has as much a moral rationale as a practical one, even when it aligns with the scientific consensus on climate change.

Scientific facts, however, do not dictate political choices. Equally reasonable, compassionate, public-spirited people can absorb the same facts and reach different conclusions about what to do with them. For environmentalists, moralizing is something to avoid as a practical matter.

The fact that Earth is warming due to humans burning fossil fuels does not automatically mean humanity must shift rapidly to non-fossil energy. There are many excellent reasons for societies to reduce drastically their use of fossil fuels and to embrace solar panels, wind turbines, advanced nuclear reactors, electric cars, public transit, and high-speed rail. But that is not the only option they have.

Societies could choose instead to adapt to a warmer planet. This would entail costs. The political, economic, social, and public health costs of living on an Earth warmer than modern humans are used to would be vast. But a shift to clean energy has costs, too. The loss of jobs in coal mining and oil drilling; the social effects on communities dependent on those jobs; the geopolitical shift of power away from petrostates; higher prices for electricity and transportation during the transition period—none of these are cheap. It is not inherently immoral or irrational to accept the facts about climate change and conclude that green policies are still too expensive.

The debate over whether to go green is not a debate over whether to incur costs. It is a debate over which set of costs to incur, and people’s willingness to bear tangible burdens to achieve goals supported by affluent, educated progressives is limited. As Ruy Teixeira observed last year in The Liberal Patriot, most working class Americans are not willing to see their energy bills go up for the sake of going green. Fortunately, there are other lenses through which Americans can view climate policy, one of which can be helpful when trying to persuade people.

Fewer than 150 miles southeast of the District of Columbia is Naval Station Norfolk. It is the largest naval base in the world, home to six of the United States Navy’s eleven aircraft carriers. The security of this base, including its ability to withstand natural disasters, is essential to the security of the United States.

The fact that floods are a major problem at Norfolk is thus a major concern. If the Navy cannot house and repair its ships safely, it cannot play its part in deterring China, Russia, Iran, and other threats to American interests. Norfolk is not alone—military installations around the world are threatened by rising sea levels and more intense storms. The Department of Defense takes climate change very seriously.

It is partly for this reason that the United States military has invested heavily in non-fossil sources of energy, even during the term of a President for whom climate change was a Chinese hoax (though his various statements and actions on climate change over time ran the gamut). The United States Army is developing electric and hydrogen-powered vehicles and installing solar-powered microgrids at its bases. The United States Marine Corps developed solar-powered generators for its remote bases in Afghanistan. The Navy’s Great Green Fleet experiment demonstrated that partially replacing diesel with biofuels does not compromise capabilities.

The military also has other incentives to break free of fossil fuels. The need to bring fuel to forward bases was a factor in American casualties in recent wars. From 2003 to 2007, one in every 24 Army fuel resupply convoys in Afghanistan, and one in every 38 in Iraq, resulted in a casualty. The Marine Corps’ decision to go big on small-scale solar came from the fact that one in 50 of its fuel and water convoys led to a dead or wounded Marine. As Army veteran Adam Tiffen put it in a 2014 article for War on the Rocks, going green on the battlefield saves lives.

The national security case for clean energy may resonate with many Americans who find the green case off-putting. President Joe Biden has emphasized national security when promoting his climate agenda. Certain officeholders with military experience—such as Representatives Jason Crow of Colorado and Mikie Sherrill of New Jersey—have made the connection, too. But patriots in uniforms usually do not come to mind when Americans hear the words “clean energy.” They likely visualize judgmental types who loudly proclaim their concern for the planet and condemn anyone uneasy about a shift to renewables.

On a complex problem like climate change, moralizing does not win over nearly enough converts. Appealing to patriotism has a much better chance of making an impact. Greens would be well advised to temper their moral enthusiasm with the practical matter of winning support, including from people who lack the zeal of true believers.

Michael D. Purzycki is an analyst, writer, and editor based in Arlington, Virginia. He is the international relations editor at Merion West, and has written for the Center for Maritime Strategy, Divergent Options, the Liberal Patriot, and Wisdom of Crowds, among other outlets.

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