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At the September 4 CNN climate town hall, Kamala Harris sounded like a candidate serious about climate change. She came out for bans on fracking and off-shore drilling, pledged to stop drilling on public land, and vowed to get rid of the Senate filibuster in order to pass a Green New Deal. She spoke derisively about Congress debating whether science should be the basis of public policy, and called climate change “an existential threat to who we are as human beings.”
Any president will face many challenges to the bold climate agendas outlined at the town hall. For Harris, those challenges could include her own foreign policy advisor.
Harris is being advised by Michèle Flournoy, a career Pentagon official who has repeatedly urged increasing domestic fossil fuel extraction as a key part of U.S. foreign policy, and supported several policies that have helped turn the U.S. into one of the world’s worst carbon polluters, such as Obama’s repeal of the ban on domestic oil exports.
Foreign policy will be critical to any successful effort to prevent climate catastrophe — and not only because of ongoing global climate negotiations and the responsibility of the U.S. to assist other nations’ energy transitions. Current U.S. foreign policy is also a major driver of climate change, whether through the massive and carbon-intensive global military footprint, or the use of oil and gas exports as a lever of power.
Flournoy was considered Hillary Clinton’s secretary of defense-in-waiting in 2016 and is rumored to be a top candidate to run the Pentagon under almost any future Democratic administration, which, based on her public positions, could portend a more fossil fuel-friendly foreign policy than many climate-conscious voters may be comfortable with.
Flournoy co-wrote a 2015 Washington Post op-ed outlining a “bipartisan national security agenda for America’s divided government.” Besides cancelling the planned 2016 withdrawal from Afghanistan and signing the controversial, corporate-friendly Trans-Pacific Partnership, her recommendations included a remit to “permit crude oil exports, expand liquefied-natural-gas export permits and fully leverage America’s newfound energy position.” U.S. energy production “has emerged as a new source of strength,” she wrote, and “Washington should take maximum advantage of these developments,” including by lifting the decades-old ban on exporting crude oil from the United States.
In a similar op-ed in the Wall Street Journal four months later, Flournoy again called for unleashing U.S. fossil fuel production as part of a “bold and bipartisan international economic agenda” dedicated to maintaining the United States’ superpower status. She called the 1975 oil export ban “outdated and counterproductive” and urged Obama to “speed the issuance of permits for the export of liquefied natural gas” to U.S. allies in Europe and Asia.
Flournoy again urged this course of action in 2016, when she endorsed a report produced by the Center for a New American Security, a centrist foreign policy think-tank she co-founded in 2007, titled “Extending American Power: Strategies to Expand US Engagement in a Competitive World Order.” Among other things, the report praised the U.S. “energy revolution” wrought by fracking and horizontal drilling, which was an “area of strategic advantage” that could “help extend American power.” Owing partly to Flournoy’s involvement, the report was perceived at the time as a preview of what a President Hillary Clinton’s foreign policy might look like.
Flournoy saw energy exports as critical to maintaining the United States’ superpower status. On the one hand, Washington could leverage fossil fuel exports to box out adversaries like Russia and Iran from regional influence. At the same time, with the U.S. economy “the foundation of its military and political power,” and since “the demand for U.S. power is higher than it has been in decades,” the United States could use the consequent economic gains to continue to intervene and have its influence felt across the world from Asia, to the Middle East to Europe.
This vision runs up against not just Harris’ commitment to tackling climate change, but the views of environmental groups.
“Exporting drilling, fracking, mining for some supposed geopolitical gain is in fact going to undermine global geopolitical stability,” said Mitch Jones, climate and energy program director at Food & Water Watch, explaining that, as the Pentagon itself has acknowledged for years, the devastating effects of climate change will fuel national security threats around the globe. “You cannot have a secretary of defense, president, or secretary of state who is going to be promoting the export of fossil fuels from the US.”
“We’re way past the time of ‘all of the above’ and ‘Drill, baby, drill,’” says Greenpeace USA Climate Campaigner Charlie Jiang.
Asked about the disconnect between Flournoy and Harris’s statements, Jiang says: “It’s absolutely true that personnel is policy.”
The Harris campaign did not respond by deadline to a request for comment.
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Branko Marcetic is a staff writer at Jacobin magazine and a 2019-2020 Leonard C. Goodman Institute for Investigative Reporting fellow. He is the author of Yesterday’s Man: The Case Against Joe Biden.