Brendan McKinnon, Operation Free Veteran and Truman National Security Project Defense Council Member, was featured in the the Boston Herald discussing the Paris Climate Agreement.

Last weekend, hundreds of civic leaders, veterans, and community members gathered at South Boston High School to commemorate the 100-year anniversary of America’s involvement in World War I. Though the event featured tanks and reenactors, stirring speeches, and patriotic musical performances, the highlight of the ceremony was somber.

As military drums stirred, the audience stood in respectful silence while active duty sailors, soldiers, and Marines read the names and displayed the photos of more than one hundred men from this small neighborhood that fell fighting in Europe. It was a moving tribute and a sobering reminder of the catastrophic consequences that follow when America refuses to lead on the world stage. Our ability to hide behind the Atlantic and Pacific made possible our nation’s isolationism in the early stages of World War I—however, when it comes to climate change, we have discovered that we can’t hide behind the oceans when the oceans are the problem.

Nearly a century after world leaders gathered in Paris to put a stop to the carnage on the battlefield in WWI, almost 200 countries sent representatives back to France for the 2015 United Nations Climate Change Conference. Bolstered by American leadership, these meetings concluded with the unanimous adoption of the Paris Agreement, which requires each participating country to enact a plan to cut its emissions and then reconvene every five years to raise those standards and publicly disclose progress. It also ensures financial aid for less-developed countries as they commit to sustainable development. This historic agreement signaled the beginning of a change in global climate policy and solidified America’s role as a world leader on the most pressing issue facing our generation.

As a Coast Guard officer, I saw the effects of climate change firsthand. It was written on the faces of Haitian children forced to flee their homeland on makeshift rafts after a historic drought worsened conditions for almost 4 million people already suffering from food insecurity. It was evident in the Eastern Pacific, where South American farmers and fishermen were forced by cartels to run cocaine shipments hundreds of miles by sea after they could no longer earn a living in their fields or on the water. It’s still apparent every day in Syria, where a massive drought forced a generation of farmers into overpopulated cities and helped ignite a civil war that has raged for years, and now threatens hundreds of American soldiers and Marines.

Rising temperatures and receding waters didn’t cause these problems by themselves, but the Department of Defense has long described climate change as a “threat multiplier” because it makes the jobs of our men and women in uniform harder. More frequent extreme weather events mean more requests for humanitarian aid, and droughts and resource shortages strengthen the very extremist groups our troops face on the battlefield. If we don’t take steps to move away from fossil fuels of the past and towards clean energy of the future, we only make these problems worse—that’s why the military leads the way on clean energy investment and innovation.

The Paris Agreement was a chance for our political leaders to follow our military leaders’ example. Thanks to American leadership, the world collectively took a historic step towards fighting the threat of climate change because everyone committed to pulling their weight, reporting back, and ratcheting up their obligations. The Agreement commits every country, developed and developing alike, to realistic goals aimed at keeping the global increase in temperature under 2 degrees Celsius. Countries hold each other accountable, with each government required to provide updates on their targets and recommit to more ambitious goals every five years.

This Agreement should be a signature moment in our nation’s diplomatic history—but less than a year after American leaders convinced China, India, and other major polluters to join us on this critical issue, the entire system is on the brink of collapse. That’s because the Trump Administration is considering withdrawing from the Agreement, acting on a promise of abandonment that candidate Trump made despite objections from leaders in the military, diplomatic, and business communities.

Withdrawing from the Paris Agreement and abdicating our leadership role in the world, would have a disastrous effect on the climate, the economy, and our national security. I listened to the names of more than one hundred men echo through an auditorium as a solemn reminder of what can happen when America chooses not to lead. Our President has a similar choice before him.

We can remain committed to the Agreement we forged in Paris and ensure the signees remain on the right track, or we can turn our backs on the biggest challenge we face and pretend it does not exist. Whichever choice we make, the world will follow. We cannot afford to be wrong.

Former Lieutenant Brendan McKinnon served ten years in the United States Coast Guard. He is currently a Boston College Law School student and a member of Truman National Security Project’s Defense Council. Views expressed are his own.

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