Analysis & Opinions - Foreign Policy

By Not Acting on Climate, Congress Endangers U.S. National Security

| July 21, 2022

Last week, U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin seemingly dashed Democrats’ hopes for congressional action to slow climate change. Sen. Bernie Sanders accused Manchin of “sabotag[ing] the president’s agenda”; Rep. John Yarmuth, when asked about the consequences of Congress not acting on climate change, said, “We’re all going to die”; and climate activists, as well as some Democrats in Congress, wondered if Manchin should be removed as chair of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee.

Without a doubt, the failure to act now to slow climate change will move the United States further away from its goals to reduce carbon emissions, with serious implications for the climate and the planet. But Manchin’s rejection of the Biden administration’s energy package should not only be viewed as a tragedy for the climate; it’s also bad for U.S. national security and energy security.

In the years to come, the United States’ resilience and geopolitical influence will require the country to lead on all forms of energy—not just in oil and gas but also in a broad range of clean energy technologies and materials. It was these clean energy sources that the Democrats’ reconciliation bill included provisions to support. A failure to move these energy provisions forward leaves the United States more energy insecure, more vulnerable to the energy-inspired blackmail that Europe is experiencing right now, and less able to advance U.S. geopolitical interests abroad.

Take nuclear energy. The package Manchin rejected provides for the extension of tax credits for existing nuclear power plants. Without this support, nuclear power in the U.S. energy mix is projected to decline. This downward trajectory is worrisome not only because the world needs all the zero-carbon energy it can muster but also because experiences in California and Germany, to name just two, demonstrate that when nuclear power declines, it is largely replaced by natural gas. Not only would U.S. emissions rise, but there are national security downsides. Burning more natural gas at home pushes up domestic prices and crimps the ability of the United States to help export energy and inoculate Europe and other parts of the world from events like Russia’s current energy squeeze, which has Europeans leaders bracing for the worst and planning for emergency gas rationing.

A decline in U.S. nuclear power also relinquishes an opportunity for the United States to reclaim its waning standing as the premier global supplier of civilian nuclear power and the geopolitical influence that comes with it. Of the nuclear reactors planned or under construction outside Russia’s borders in 2018, more than 50 percent involved Russian companies, and around 20 percent involved Chinese ones; fewer than 3 percent were being built by U.S. companies. With Russia’s credibility as a competent and reliable partner in question, now may be the opportunity for the United States to reassert its global leadership in the nuclear realm—before China succeeds in stepping in where Russia recedes. Not only would U.S. leadership in nuclear energy be a boon for U.S. companies, but it would help minimize security and proliferation risks by ensuring more countries adhere to higher U.S. standards.

For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Bordoff, Jason and Meghan L. O'Sullivan.“By Not Acting on Climate, Congress Endangers U.S. National Security.” Foreign Policy, July 21, 2022.

The Authors

Meghan O'Sullivan