GOP's warped priorities: While they focus on Planned Parenthood, refugee crisis foreshadows a grim future under climate change

It's unsurprising -- but still depressing -- that a party of science deniers & xenophobes can't see real threats

By Sean Illing
Published October 5, 2015 5:00PM (EDT)
  (AP/Reuters/Lenny Ignelzi/Chris Keane/Jim Cole)
(AP/Reuters/Lenny Ignelzi/Chris Keane/Jim Cole)

It’s estimated that 9 million Syrians have fled their homes since a civil war erupted in that country in 2011. The refugee crisis, likely the worst the world has seen since World War II, is putting an enormous strain on neighboring countries like Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, and Iraq, which collectively have absorbed over 3 million displaced Syrians. Something like 150,000 refugees are also seeking asylum in the European Union, particularly in Germany, Sweden, and Denmark.

The Syrian refugee crisis has become a recurring issue in the presidential campaign as well. Most candidates believe America should accept its fair share of refugees. Clinton and Sanders both believe the United States should do its part, as do Lindsey Graham, Marco Rubio, John Kasich, Rand Paul, and Jeb Bush. The three leading Republican candidates, however, have taken the opposite stand.

“We have our own problems,” Donald Trump said. “We’re not gonna have a country if we don’t start getting smart. We cannot help everybody throughout the world.” By “getting smart,” Trump means closing the border to foreigners and purging the ones already here as humanely as possible. Ben Carson, always on the lookout for incoming jihadists, doesn’t think America should open its doors either. “To bring into this country groups affiliated with jihadists makes no sense. Why would you do something like that?” Carly Fiorina, also worried about marauding Muslims, says the “United States honestly, sadly, cannot relax our entrance criteria,” adding that we’ve done our “fair share in terms of humanitarian aid.”

Trump, Carson and Fiorina, like many Republican voters, want to bury their hands in the sand while Syria burns. Perhaps that’s possible in the case of Syria, though many would rightly argue America has a moral obligation to do its part. But the migration crisis currently enveloping Europe and the Middle East, as Elon Musk recently warned, is likely a glimpse of everyone’s future if we continue to ignore climate change.

In a speech at the Federal Ministry for Economic Affairs and Energy in Berlin, Musk spoke ominously about the possibility of climate-driven refugee crises:

Today’s refugee problem is perhaps a small indication of what the future will be like if we do not take action with respect to climate change. Today the challenge is based on millions of people, but in the future, based on what the scientific consensus is the problem will be hundreds of millions and much more severe…In 20, 30, 40 years in the future, what do you say to your kids or your grandkids when they ask, ‘Why didn’t you do anything?’ What will you tell them?

This one of the most frustrating aspects of climate denialism, which is almost exclusively a Republican phenomenon at this point. People on the right can’t help but think of climate change as an environmental issue, which it obviously is, but it’s also a political and security issue. There’s a reason the Pentagon considers climate change one of the gravest and most imminent security risks facing the country and the world. Droughts, superstorms, resource competition, border disputes, infectious diseases, food shortages, and yes, refugee crises, will define our political future if current climate trends continue.

And yet virtually every Republican candidate for president, with the exception of George Pataki, appears to doubt the reality of human-aided climate change. Indeed, we can’t even have a conversation about how best to deal with it because the GOP either doesn’t believe in it or is more worried about the economy. What hasn’t yet sunk in is that the economy won’t matter in a world torn asunder by a hostile climate. Without order, without food security, without borders, what matters our jobs or anything else? The mass migration movements we’re likely to see as a result of climate change will upend the international political system on which America depends for economic stability – addressing it ought to be an existential imperative. But it’s not seen as such, not here at least, because one of our two major parties refuses to believe in reality.

Musk is right: What’s happening in Syria and the surrounding region foreshadows our future. The world is too small and connected to isolate a problem like climate change. America may be able to sit on the sidelines while Syria descends, but inaction on climate change is a luxury we can’t afford. Soon enough there will be nowhere to send refugees back to, just as there won’t be a sustainable economy to preserve.

Don’t expect to hear that at the next Republican debate, though. They’ve got more important things on the agenda, like building a big wall on the Southern border or, even more urgent, defunding Planned Parenthood, because Mexicans and Pap smears are the real threats to America's future.

Sean Illing

Sean Illing is a USAF veteran who previously taught philosophy and politics at Loyola and LSU. He is currently Salon's politics writer. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter. Read his blog here. Email at

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