Updated 1:41 p.m. | The ramifications of a changing global climate will rival those of Islamic State attacks like the one last month in Paris, President Barack Obama said Tuesday.
In comments sure to reverberate across the Atlantic and rile hawkish congressional Republicans, Obama said the threats to U.S. and global security from climate change are already “akin” to an Islamic State terrorist attack.
Obama’s comments came moments before he wrapped up his participation in a Paris climate conference he helped organize, and echoed those of a senior White House official from Monday.
The White House ranks climate change among the top threats to the United States — and the “entire world,” Ben Rhodes, deputy national security adviser, told reporters as the first day of the Paris conference ended.
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Asked about Obama’s assessment later Tuesday, Senate Armed Services Chairman John McCain, R-Ariz., said the president “has his priorities upside down.”
“I’m flabbergasted,” McCain said. “We have an evil terrorist group that has just orchestrated an attack on the capital of France. So he goes to the capital of France and gives cosmetic attention to that, but the focus of his attention is climate change. I understand his dedication to the issue of climate change, but to compare it to the evil of ISIS is just delusional.”
But Richard J. Durbin of Illinois, the No. 2 Senate Democrat and ranking member of that chamber’s Appropriations Defense Subcommittee, said Obama appears to be worried about climate change and its possible ramifications down the road.
“When you look at the ultimate threat of climate change, you’re dealing with economic threats and threats to public health that are substantial,” Durbin said Tuesday. “It is not a violent, immediate type of thing like terrorism. But if you’re talking about … the threat to life over the long-term, it is akin.”
Obama struck an optimistic tone on climate change, saying, “I think we’re going to solve it.” He said the biggest issues for world leaders will be “just the pace, and how much damage is done.”
He also dismissed warnings from Republicans in Congress that they will block his $3 billion pledge to the Green Climate Fund as part of a global climate accord, saying the U.S. will deliver on its commitments.
As part of his push on the issue, Obama offered some advice for a potential Republican successor, urging GOP presidential candidates to consider, if elected, “what other countries care about.”
Atop that list, Obama contended, is the changing global climate. He said leaders of other countries who agree on little else are in lockstep about the science that points to a warming planet, and the need to address it.
The White House during the president’s time at the conference struck a pragmatic tone about its prospects of securing congressional approval of the U.S. portion of whatever climate deal emerges from it
On Monday, Press Secretary Josh Earnest said White House officials are “well aware” Republicans doubt the “facts and science and evidence” around climate change.
Senior Obama administration officials appear to be betting their climate change plan — and that portion of the president’s legacy — on a member of his own party moving into the White House in January 2017.
“I’m anticipating a Democrat succeeding me,” Obama said Tuesday. “I’m confident in the wisdom of the American people on that front.”
U.S. officials are spending ample time at the climate conference talking with allies and countries like Russia about the ongoing fight against ISIS and the political future of Syria.
The pace of U.S. airstrikes against the Islamic State since the Nov. 13 attacks in Paris that killed 130 has been dictated not by the availability or number of American warplanes in the region, but by the number of actionable targets, Obama said. He suggested the U.S.-led coalition needs to improve its intelligence collection to improve its target list.
Obama told reporters he spoke to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan about that country doing more to seal its border with Syria, where ISIS fighters both join the fight in Syria and Iraq, and slip out for attacks in Europe. The violent Islamic group uses what Obama said is a 98-kilometer unsealed portion for that purpose, and also to move out oil it uses to finance its operations.
Obama said he and Erdogan discussed how the two countries can “work together to determine how a combination of [coalition] air and Turkish ground forces … can do a better job sealing the border than currently is.”