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Five takeaways from Sen. Whitehouse’s environmental policy discussion

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Senator Sheldon Whitehouse holding microphone

Senator Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) delivered the third annual Nancy Weiser Ignatius Lecture on the Environment on November 2. As a member of the US Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works, Whitehouse plays a key role in crafting policies addressing climate change and environmental protection.

Whitehouse spoke about the need for the United States to lead the world in addressing climate change, not only because of humanitarian concerns, but also because of major national security risks. He identified three major security risks created or intensified by climate change: the economic toll on the poor who rely on farms and fisheries, the radicalization of populations dislocated from their homes, and global challenges to market capitalism and democratic government.

We've compiled the top five takeaways from Whitehouse's talk and audience Q&A session that followed:

America's influence in the world is at risk if it fails to act on climate change.

"The world's grudging acknowledgement of our exceptional nature confers on America a soft power that allows us influence without gunpoint and a power of example that draws people to our country, our ideals, and our mode of government. These are tidal forces that have flooded in our favor for generations and helped make America the essential nation. Climate change-or more exactly, an American failure to lead on climate change-could well reverse that tide."

The time for debating the basic science of climate change is past.

"The atmosphere is warming, carbon dioxide concentrations within the atmosphere are at their highest point in human history, ice is melting, droughts are worsening, and seas are warming, rising, and acidifying. We are past theory and well into measurement on those changes."

The security risks caused by climate change will disproportionately impact the world's poorest and most vulnerable.

"This security risk will first hurt farming communities, coastal communities, fishing communities, and those most vulnerable to wildfires and extreme weather. Of course, the poorer you are, the more at hazard you are."

"The poorest, those who live closest to the land and lead subsistence lives, will suffer most the brunt of the coming change. We will be better insulated at the top of the economic pile. Upper income societies will pay a greater share of their wealth for food; marginal societies will go without. Their struggles for water, farmland, and fisheries will be desperate."

"Scarcity of resources leads to conflicts and confrontations. Storms, fires, and floods can make the suffering acute. People who are hungry or dislocated or torn from their roots can become desperate and can become radicalized and violent. That is why the Department of Defense has for many years called climate change a 'catalyst of conflict.'"

Failure to act on climate change will endanger the very underpinnings of American society by projecting to the world that capitalism and democracy have no value when it comes to saving the planet.

"[A third order of security risk] is damage to the keystone institutions of our present world order: market capitalism and democratic government."

"If you believe that the world needs America, if you believe that America is to be the essential and exceptional nation, then getting climate right matters. Failure will make a powerful argument against our democratic experiment. A world forever changed by carbon pollution in ways America foresaw but denied may not believe it has much need for what else America has to offer."

"America has generated the most wealth in the carbon economy. America has been the most profligate emitter of carbon. And America is the most essential nation upon which the world counts for leadership. America will not be able to avoid ownership of this mess."

The fossil fuel industry is fighting against solutions, and Congress has so far been unable or unwilling to fight back.

"The failure to act is bad enough. Worse is the reason why. Fossil fuel producers who are knowingly causing this harm are also aggressively fighting political solutions to the problem. They are fighting with professionally administered misinformation: a massive propaganda effort churning at full steam to deny the carbon emissions problem."

"In Congress, we have shown ourselves unable to resist [the fossil fuel] industry, despite knowing it to be deeply burdened with obvious and enormous conflicts of interest. And despite clear and repeated warnings from our own national security experts."

"When you talk to [Republicans in the Senate] about climate change, it's like talking to prisoners about escape. They'd like to go there, but they look around first to see who's listening; they look up at the guard towers that Citizens United and the fossil fuel industry have been able to build to create a political kill zone. And on the other side of the kill zone, they look at the getaway car, and we all agree on the getaway car."