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Clinton v. Paul: Competing Visions for America's Energy and Climate Future

When it comes to our next Commander-in-Chief, we need a perspective broad enough to connect the dots between our energy use, climate change, and the instability we're already seeing around the globe.
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Last week, we saw two starkly contrasting visions of America's role in confronting climate change. At the National Clean Energy Summit in Las Vegas, Hillary Clinton articulated a vision of an American clean energy economy that would make this country stronger, safer, and more prosperous. The language Secretary Clinton used was even more encouraging. She envisioned transforming the United States into the "clean energy superpower of the 21st century."

Senator Rand Paul, fully entrenched in a frantic attempt to convince mainstream Republicans that he can parrot the party line like any other presidential contender, tried to fire back. On Fox News later that day, he said that Clinton's sense of urgency at the challenges posed by climate change demonstrated that she lacks "the wisdom to lead the country." Later, he went even further, saying, "I don't think we want a Commander-in-Chief who's battling climate change instead of terrorism" -- as though the two issues were unrelated.

Senator Paul just doesn't get it. Luckily, a consensus of our military and security leaders does: climate change is a catalyst of conflict, driving the global instability that fuels terrorist groups like ISIL. In fact, severe and unprecedented drought was one spark that lit the tinderbox of the Syrian civil war. Further, oil smuggled out of ISIL controlled territory into Turkey is a major source of funding for terrorist operations, raising more than a million dollars a day according to some estimates. The revenue stream is so lucrative that ISIL recently appointed an oil minister to coordinate its sales and smuggling.

Our reliance on fossil fuels creates opportunities for our adversaries and vulnerabilities for America and our allies, and battles with vicious insurgents in Iraq and Syria only provide small snapshots of a larger geopolitical problem. From conflict in Ukraine to Sino-Russian natural gas pipelines to more than 30 U.S. military installations threatened by sea level rise, we face risks around the globe as a direct result of the way we use energy.

Clinton understands that these risks, dire though they may be, actually present a huge opportunity for American leadership in the world. Climate change transcends borders, and confronting its effects will require an enormous, coordinated global effort. Only the United States has the economic, political, and technical resources to lead a clean energy revolution. Countries with fast-growing economies and carbon emissions rates like China and India will need to see U.S. commitment to deploying clean energy before they will follow.

We must begin by setting a good example here at home. President Obama's Climate Action Plan was a bold start. It will help generate much-needed credibility before critical international climate change talks in Paris in December 2015. Clinton recognizes the opportunity we have in the next decade to shape our energy future, and how important that will be to shaping the world's response to climate change. As she put it, "Our economic recovery, our efforts against climate change, our strategic position in the world all will improve if we can build a safe bridge to a clean energy economy."

When it comes to our next Commander-in-Chief, we need a perspective broad enough to connect the dots between our energy use, climate change, and the instability we're already seeing around the globe. We need a vision of America's role in the world as a vibrant, dynamic leader capable of taking advantage of our opportunities. And we need a sense of resolve that insists our best days are still in front of us.

I think it's clear which vision of America's future deserves our support.