An amendment to the annual defense policy bill requiring the Pentagon to submit a report on the national-security threats posed by climate change was approved by members of the Republican-led House Armed Services Committee on Wednesday.
The text, co-sponsored by every Democratic member of the committee, calls climate change “a direct threat to the national security of the United States,” and cites similar statements made by Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis and other top military brass, highlighting the rift between President Donald Trump and the Pentagon when it comes to global warming.
“By talking about it in terms of national security, it makes it difficult, if not impossible, to ignore the fact that climate change is here, it’s real, it’s happening,” Rep. Jim Langevin, D-R.I., who proposed the amendment, told McClatchy.
The Pentagon would have a year to submit an assesment of the 10 military bases within each service most threatened by rising sea levels, drought and thawing permafrost. It also asks for the costs of mitigating those effects.
Only one lawmaker, Rep. Liz Cheney, R-Wyo., spoke against the amendment, saying “there is no evidence that climate change causes war.” Some Republicans backed the measure, saying it was a small, common-sense step.
“We are talking about a report,” said Rep. Jim Bridenstine, R-Okla. “It is just a report.”
Ultimately, most Republicans on the GOP-controlled commitee sided with the Pentagon’s long-held view that the effects of climate change pose an increasingly urgent security threat. The final bill still has to be approved by the full House.
128 U.S. military bases threatened by a three-foot sea level rise, which are valued at $100 billion.
“I know there are many individuals on the other side of the aisle who don’t want to talk about climate change, or don’t believe it’s man-made, [but] we’re not even getting into what the causes are,” Langevin said. “We have to deal with it. We can’t just put our heads in the sand and hope it’s going to go away.”
This isn’t new for the military. For more than a decade, as climate change became a political football, the Pentagon was quietly gathering data, publishing roadmaps for climate change adaptation, and assessing how to mitigate the the risks.
The Defense Department “is by its very nature an organization that prepares for contingencies and focuses on managing the unavoidable,” said John Conger, who served as principal deputy undersecretary in the Pentagon comptroller's office and assistant secretary of defense for energy, installations and environment.
Scientists estimate that rising sea levels threaten at least 128 U.S. military bases and installations, nine of which are major hubs for the U.S. Navy. Military installations on waterfront properties are facing hundreds of floods a year, and some could be mostly submerged by 2100, according to a report from the Union of Concerned Scientists.
Military leaders have consistently warned that extreme weather patterns, drought and floods are aggravating social tensions, destabilizing regions and feeding the rise of extremist groups like al Qaida and the Islamic State.
At his confirmation hearing, Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis called climate change a “driver of instability” that requires a “whole-of-government response” to address. The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Joseph Dunford, has said that climate change and rising sea levels pose the most serious long-term security threat to the country. In a letter supporting the amendment, retired Admiral James Stavridis, the former supreme allied commander for NATO, urged Congress to support incorporating climate science into strategic planning to take “concrete action” to mitigate the “pressing national security issue.”
Only by taking concrete action can we truly understand and mitigate this threat.
Ret. Adm. James Stavridis, former supreme allied commander for NATO
In stark contrast, Trump has frequently and openly questioned climate change, calling it “bullshit” and “a hoax” and saying that that global warming was a concept “created by and for the Chinese” to hurt U.S. manufacturing. Earlier this month, he withdrew the United States from the Paris climate agreement. His pick to lead the Environmental Protection Agency, Scott Pruitt, has expressed skepticism about global warming and said during his confirmation hearings that it had leveled off, an assertion refuted by scientists.
“It will take some time to see what the practical implications will be, with a skeptical White House and a supportive Secretary of Defense,” Conger said of the Pentagon’s work on climate change. “The more that you involve the use of DoD resources, the more potentially political things could get.”
However, a lot of the Pentagon’s efforts center on more forward-thinking planning when it comes to spending the money it already has, he said.
“If I’m building an installation, do I build it on a floodplain or higher ground? If the sea level is rising and there is current flooding at a base, does that take away mission availability?” Conger said. “Planning ahead of time, with some forethought, that’s what we are doing.”
That planning is unlikely to be affected by talk from the White House, although the tone set at the top, through actions such as Trump’s decision to withdraw from the Paris climate agreement, can trickle down.
“It all comes down to leadership, and Secretary Mattis has been clear that climate change is already acting as a threat multiplier where our forces are deployed today,” said Sherri Goodman, who served as the Pentagon’s first deputy under secretary of defense for environmental security under President Bill Clinton. “But if there’s a sense that maybe the administration isn’t serious about this, it could lead to some saying, ‘If we want to we can ignore it, we can prioritize something else.’”
For the moment, some of the work has also slowed due to the Trump administration’s pace in filling Pentagon vacancies, she said. Earlier this month, Trump nominated an experienced consultant and former Senate Committee on Armed Services staffer, Lucian Niemeyer, for assistant secretary of defense for energy, installations and environment.
I agree that the effects of a changing climate (...) impact our security situation.
Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis
Tracking how climate change leads to political instability and feeds the rise of terrorist groups can be a life-or-death matter when it comes to sending troops into foreign conflicts, Goodman said.
“In our overseas strategy and military operations, we have to get better at forecasting and predicting where natural-resource issues multiply the threat in different conflicts,” she said. “We don’t really know it now until after the fact, which isn’t really good enough for our troops.”
The military needs to be ready to constantly adapt how it operates, from getting weapons systems to work under more extreme conditions to moving aircraft on terrain that is much hotter.
When the big storms come and they’re bigger and badder than they were before, the military is going to have to be ready for that.
“This will change how you conduct battle,” said Gerald Galloway, a retired Army Corps of Engineers general who is now an engineering professor at the University of Maryland. “We need to prepare to deal with how things like rising sea levels and intense storms affect potential future battlefields.”
However, discussing climate change in the context of national security makes it hard to argue about the impact, Galloway says, and a White House that has been deferential to the military is unlikely to get involved.
“Will they have a party in front of the White House to celebrate something like this, increasing resiliency in the face of climate change? Probably not.,” he said. “But [Trump] doesn’t need to say anything. Why get into an argument with your Secretary of Defense? There’s nothing to be gained by it.”
Galloway, who travels around the country speaking about adaptation to environmental change, says that when put into the context of military and defense, even people who balk at hearing the words “climate change” tend to quickly agree about the need to address and plan for it.
“I say, do you want your sons and daughters to not be well prepared going into the battlefield when they could have been better prepared? Because climate change is not a tomorrow issue, it’s a long issue but it already includes tomorrow and today.”