Debate Imbalance

The presidential debates are out of kilter when it comes to the challenges facing our nation. Several recent reports relating to military spending and the health impacts of environmental degradation graphically illustrate this imbalance.

Military spending, or the lack thereof, is frequently referenced on the campaign trail, especially by the Republicans. Meanwhile, adverse environmental impacts on public health tend to receive cursory attention at best from all candidates (except for a brief flurry over the scandalous lead contamination of the water supply in Flint, Michigan).

This disparity in subject matter is inexcusable when you consider the following. According to a report containing the latest annual statistics (2007), some 22,000 fatalities were the direct victims of firepower from military conflicts throughout the world. By contrast, a World Health Organization (WHO) analysis found that more than 12 million of the approximately 56 million deaths around the globe each year were due to pollution exposures and other environmental causes.

A ubiquitous Republican talking point is that under the Obama Administration, our military has been grossly shortchanged and thus reduced to a dangerously diminished state. In the next breath, the GOP critics, seemingly impervious to the incongruity, boast that we have the most powerful armed forces on the planet.

Be that as it may, a recent analysis by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) puts our defense posture in its proper perspective.

Yes, in 2015, our military expenditures declined from the previous year by 2.4 percent while China's and Russia's military budgets increased by 7.4 and 7.5 percent respectively. Does that mean we scrimped at the expense of our national security? Don't jump to the conclusion that we have engaged in unilateral disarmament. According to SIPRI, our military budget of $596 billion still makes us by far the world's top arms spender, with total expenditures almost double that of China and Russia combined.

While many of our conservative politicians never miss the chance to lament the alleged dismantling of our armed forces, little or no campaign discourse is devoted to the formidable environmental threats facing the world at large.

These potentially lethal threats, ranging from climate change to air pollution, are identified in the WHO report, which should serve as a wake-up call to our presidential candidates and the public at large.

It is no consolation that the developing world bears the brunt of the environmentally-related fatalities. In developing countries, lethal environmental degradation contributes to domestic instability that in turn creates refugees. The locales to which these so-called environmental refugees flee are often in the industrialized world, which can be destabilized by the influx.

Lest you think the United States escapes relatively unscathed from sustaining environmental fatalities, there are at least a dozen countries that proportionately are better off. Among them are Canada, Australia, several of the Scandinavian countries, Switzerland, New Zealand, and Japan.

The bottom line is not to let a fixation with armaments undermine our focus on an even more pressing concern--the human condition.