Immigration reform joins a long list of national issues Congress has chosen to turn into campaign red meat rather than legislation. Yet one piece of President George W. Bush’s immigration policy is proceeding briskly to implementation. His administration has just chosen defense and aerospace giant Boeing to lead the team that will start walling in our southern border.

Three of Boeing’s four competitors for the contract were also large U.S. military contractors: Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman, and Raytheon. It’s fair to ask what the makers of exotic fighter aircraft know about wall building that a garden-variety American construction company doesn’t.

The answer is that the wall the administration envisions would come equipped with the kinds of gold-plated bells and whistles the defense industry has become accustomed to providing: infrared surveillance cameras, robotic aircraft, satellite imaging. Step No. 1 is to hire somebody who can tie all this fancy technology together. And “systems integration” is what the big military contractors pride themselves on these days.

That means they do big projects; they make extremely complex pieces fit together. Are they the only American companies that can? Pretty much. Because for the most part, the big projects the government has asked its manufacturers to take on in recent years have been military.

Other tasks have fallen by the wayside. Back in the early ’90s, federal officials tried to think big about knitting together our transportation systems into a coherent, cleaner and more efficient whole. That’s the kind of project they’ve largely abandoned. The transportation bill Congress passed last year was a 1,700-page panoply of 6,000 separate pork projects–a 6,000-piece puzzle that no one even tried to put together.

The story of energy policy this year is equally sad. Bush’s State of the Union call for treatment of our oil addiction inspired a raft of bills in Congress, including at least two bipartisan, big-think proposals to cut oil consumption in half over the next 25 years by promoting energy efficiency and alternative fuels. The Republicans who comprise the Senate leadership, preoccupied by such issues as defending the Pledge of Allegiance and criminalizing flag burning, never got around to debating them.

This summer’s record-breaking heat wave and the recent Katrina anniversary are graphic reminders of why these neglected tasks can’t wait any longer. Study after study confirms the link between extreme weather trends and human carbon-generating activity.

Clean transportation and clean power are the keys to solving the big complex problem of reducing greenhouse gases and averting irreversible climate disaster.

But at the federal government’s direction, our “systems integrators” are busy on other things, like militarizing the border. Meanwhile, problems not susceptible to military solutions, such as rising global temperatures, continue to fester. Solving them will require systems integration on a massive scale–and reinvigorating and redirecting a manufacturing base that the weight of big federal contracts has mostly steered toward military technology.

The Pentagon has given some thought to the very big security problems that climate change would create for it down the road. In 2003 it commissioned a study titled “An Abrupt Climate Change Scenario and Its Implications for United States National Security.” The study described the United States facing “the intractable problem–of calming the mounting military tension around the world–[as] many countries’ needs will exceed their carrying capacity–creat[ing] a sense of desperation, which is likely to lead to offensive aggression in order to reclaim balance.”

The study (which has been taken down from the Defense Department’s website) was light on ideas about what to do, beyond strengthening the border. But all the surveillance cameras, sensors and reinforced concrete in the world will not hold back rising worldwide sea levels or prevent the sorts of crop losses from drought that this year have cost Texas farmers alone more than $4 billion.

It will require serious, integrated federal policymaking to shift our transportation and energy infrastructure to clean, renewable sources. U.S. manufacturers could be rising to this challenge. But since they haven’t been asked, their current competence in integrating systems mostly lies elsewhere. We are way behind the curve on tackling a problem of human security the likes and magnitude of which we have never faced. And the weight of scientific evidence tells us the curve is coming up fast.

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