Energy and the Environment: National Security Implications

William Antholis, managing director of the Brookings Institution, says the next administration will see climate change becoming the single most important issue. Antholis discussed energy and the environment and their national security implications at his Brookings office with Politico’s David Mark.

Here are some excerpts.

Q: When it comes to energy, what is the worst-case scenario you can realistically envision that the next president — whoever it is — may face?

A: Energy security as a cluster has several bad scenarios. On climate change, from a scientific standpoint, it’s something really destabilizing happening to the polar ice caps. This year, we’ve done pretty well.

But in the next two or three years, if the melting of the polar ice caps goes above a certain threshold, it could bring about flooding, drought and other catastrophic conditions. It would add fuel to the fire of the current economic slowdown.

But climate change is only one dangerous scenario. Also, there’s oil flow, from Saudi Arabia and other [Persian] Gulf countries. If something major politically, economically or socially happened, something that disrupted oil flow, it could have real impacts on the economy. You could see spikes sending oil prices going back above $200 a barrel.

Or, you look at the volatility of many oil-rich nations, be it Venezuela, Nigeria, even Russia. One could imagine security threats coming out of those places.

Q: How would you rate the presidential candidates’ approach to energy-related issues on the campaign trail?

A: John McCain has, over the past eight years, come to embrace climate change as an important issue, but he also has a skepticism of corn-based ethanol. But McCain has dismissed concerns about nuclear energy. The disposal of nuclear waste remains a contentious issue. What you see are the candidates jockeying on the margins, but they agree on so much more than they disagree on.

Then the question is who is in a position to get things done once elected. My sense is that Barack Obama would have much greater support in his own party. But McCain could make this a signature issue to reach across party lines to get things done.

In terms of ridding the nation from dependence on foreign oil, I applaud both candidates for making energy security a high priority. However, the rhetoric is misleading, in part. It’s misleading because to the extent we use petroleum, the petroleum will always have a foreign component. The bigger problem is that well over a fifth of our economy — transportation — only has one fuel source, and that’s oil. You only have a choice between different flavors of one commodity.

Read the full interview »