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U.S. Army veteran J. David Thompson explains why Trump’s decision to pull out of the Paris Agreement on climate change sabotages U.S. national security and the international rules-based system. Thompson saw first-hand how the international system works to America’s advantage during his service in Afghanistan.

A Myanmar woman carries buckets to collect drinking water (Myanmar may face drinking water shortages during the summer due to climate change)

A Myanmar woman carries buckets to collect drinking water (Myanmar may face drinking water shortages during the summer due to climate change) Photo Credit: EPA

In 2014, the United States Department of Defense published a Climate Change Adaptation Roadmap. Former Republican Senator and Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel stated, “Rising global temperatures, changing precipitation patterns, climbing sea levels, and more extreme weather events will intensify the challenges of global instability, hunger, poverty, and conflict.” The result was clear: “water shortages, pandemic diseases, disputes over refugees and resources, and destruction by natural disasters.” These are issues we already see throughout the world. Indeed, the climate is changing before our very eyes.


The 2015 National Security Strategy, which is the last one published, prioritized the threats posed by climate change. It further stipulated that the U.S. would lead with global partners and use a long-term perspective—both efforts that have now been undermined by US President Donald Trump.

Despite these documents—one being from the White House and the other from the Department of Defense—identifying climate change as one of the leading threats to U.S. national security, Trump unilaterally withdrew from the Paris Agreement. The “Negotiator in Chief” violated the first rule of negotiations: never give up something for nothing. Just as he did in the Trans-Pacific Partnership, he walked away with nothing in return. The contrast between President Truman’s “Present at the Creation” and Donald Trump’s “Present at the Collapse” could not be more striking.

Trump continues to sabotage U.S. national security and the international rules-based system that the U.S. helped build. President Trump and his supporters in Congress made the decision to leave the Paris Agreement out of ignorance and careless disregard for the future. We are experiencing the unraveling of the world order that has guided us since the end of World War II.

There were 195 countries in the Paris Agreement. American leadership made this happen. Nicaragua, one of the two other non-signatories, did not agree to the deal because it did not do enough to combat climate change. Syria, the other non-signatory, was fighting its internal civil war, which continues to linger. Now, we tell the world that we lack both credibility and dependability. There is a vacuum for another country to become the global leader, setting the agenda for other nations to follow.


Trump Photo Credit: Reuters/Channel 2 News

As an Army officer interacting with our NATO allies in Afghanistan, I saw first-hand how this rules-based system works to our advantage. Our NATO allies fought alongside US forces and provided support. While working alongside with the United Nations in Afghanistan and Jordan, we had a very positive collaboration to reach our mutual objectives. We worked together to help stop the spread of infectious diseases, provide education, establish refugee camps, and more. Imagine, for example, how the rules-based international order would differ if, instead of the United States writing the rules, they were written by Mozambique. Now, having written the rules and provided the leadership to enact these rules across the world, we simply walk away with nothing in return.

I also saw first-hand climate change adaptation. Jordan is the second driest nation in the world. Access to water can be difficult. Now, that access is even more strained as Jordan continues to lift more than its share of the burden of hosting refugees. The world owes a debt of gratitude to Jordan. Afghanistan also faces severe climate change problems, and the 2012 Global Adaptation Index ranked Afghanistan as one of the most vulnerable in the world. In the past decade, Afghanistan has had many floods and droughts. In an agrarian society, farming can be difficult to impossible when weather patterns are inconsistent. As people’s livelihoods become jeopardized, the susceptibility to be radicalized increases.

Critics may argue that the Agreement was unfair on its burden to the U.S.; however, as a developed nation, the U.S. has contributed more to climate change than any other country. If we want to be Ronald Reagan’s “shining city upon a hill,” we must recognize that it is not free. As we look at equitable burden sharing and access to development, we must ensure lesser developed countries have viable alternatives to ones with high carbon emissions. We also must look to increased development and opportunities for prosperity because we will never solve climate change without addressing extreme poverty. The Paris Agreement was the major, worldwide agreement to tackle these issues. Again, we left and received nothing in return.

Climate change and US debt-to-GDP continue to be the slow, creeping problems that we fail to acknowledge. Our failure of leadership—particularly, our failure of leaders—to address these issues hinders our national security, military readiness, and enables another country to become the global leader.