Jon Gensler: Curbing greenhouse gas emissions important step for security, economy

Over the past century, we have relied upon our nation’s reserves of fossil fuels to power our economy and remain the world’s only superpower. Coal has played a critical and undeniable role in that success story, but as so much more than just an energy source; it is a way of life that is an integral part of my history, just as it is for all West Virginians.

Generations of families whose livelihoods have been tied to the coal industry know that our work is a huge part of who we are as individuals and as communities. In my case, I am also a veteran of the U.S. Army.

I joined the military to protect my country just like those who served before me. I wore the uniform because I believe the opportunities and liberties we hold dear should be available everywhere.

The greatest generation beat back the most ruthless tyranny the modern world had ever seen during World War II. Emerging victorious, they proceeded to rebuild Europe and the world by promoting freedom and democracy for all — even while staring down the Soviet threat.

Although the world is very different than it was back then, we must be prepared to again set aside self-interest and confront threats to global security. These new challenges require not only American action but also American leadership.

Climate change is the most urgent, creeping global security threat today. It is a silent enemy that exacerbates every challenge to stability and prosperity because it creates hotbeds of extremism.

Around the globe, we see rising sea levels and increasing frequency and intensity of extreme weather events — droughts, floods, storms and wildfires. These climate impacts are already accelerating and exacerbating the risk of conflict in countries with weak infrastructure and governance.

Destabilized states — like Afghanistan in 2001 and Yemen, Somalia, and Nigeria today — are safe havens for radical groups that sow the seeds of chaos and develop plots to attack our homeland. If we’ve learned anything from the past decade of war, it is that far-flung areas from across the world can have a direct national security impact here at home.

That is why the Environmental Protection Agency’s standard to curb emissions from power plants is so critical. It represents the largest action taken by any government to address the threat of climate change and to drive a transition toward a low-carbon economy. This sort of bold, trend-setting action is expected of the United States in response to a challenge, and through it we will reap huge rewards.

Make no mistake: It is a national security imperative that we meet that standard. And after two tours in Iraq, I know first-hand the true cost of that sacrifice.

I am sure many of you have driven Corridor G from Charleston into coal country. Every time I make that drive, I cross over a bridge dedicated to Captain Benjamin Tiffner, my friend and West Point classmate. Ben was killed in action while serving in Iraq.

Whenever I pass that way, I get out of my car, and I think about why he — and so many of my fellow brothers and sisters in arms — gave their lives in service of this country.

Those who join the military know what they are signing up for, and they are prepared to make the ultimate sacrifice in defense of our nation. But as Americans, we have a responsibility to do everything we can to ensure we do not send them into harm’s way unnecessarily.

If we fail to take action to combat climate change, we are guaranteed to face increasing global instability and greater risk, requiring our troops to defend the peace in volatile regions of the world. Why should we ask them and their families to shoulder that burden when we haven’t taken basic steps now to reduce that risk?

So I challenge those who insist we ignore the threat of climate change — including those who live in this state and represent us in Washington, D.C. — to come visit Ben‘s bridge (and the countless others similarly dedicated) and answer how we can afford to not take action. How could anyone stubbornly oppose economic growth at home, building a better world for generations to come, and working for global security?

But this plan is more than that — it puts the work of devising solutions where it belongs — locally, at the state. Since each state has different resources, challenges and starting points, the plan embraces this in order to optimize each solution locally rather than forcing heavy-handed standards across the board. It is a brilliant display of adaptive thinking — and a true act of leadership. Precisely the type of leadership we see in the military at its best.

We simply must act. And while the EPA’s proposed standard is a strong first step, this fight is far from over. The work is ours, and we must continue to be supportive at every stage of this process, all the way through implementation. This will undoubtedly require some tough choices, but inaction is simply unacceptable.

There is no longer any doubt. Like the greatest generation before us, it is time for Americans to step up to a new challenge. This battle begins at home.

Jon Gensler, a Huntington native and Iraq War veteran, is a Fellow with the Truman National Security Project who currently lives in Brooklyn, N.Y. He is scheduled to testify today at the federal EPA hearing in Pittsburgh about proposed regulations on greenhouse gas emissions.