Military leaders keep breaking with Trump on climate

Source: Scott Waldman, E&E News reporter • Posted: Friday, April 19, 2019

Military leaders have repeatedly told lawmakers they are planning for the climate risks that the White House hopes to downplay.

The U.S. military believes that drought, wildfires, recurrent floods, desertification and thawing permafrost will threaten dozens of bases around the country, a top Defense Department official recently wrote to lawmakers.

What’s more, in congressional hearings over the last few weeks, military leaders have warned about specific risks posed to the country by a warming planet. Those include Russian movement of weapons into a warming Arctic and severe droughts driving conflicts in the Middle East.

It’s a powerful rejoinder to the band of climate skeptics that the National Security Council has recruited to sow doubt in the field of research that links climate change to national security threats (Climatewire, April 12).

And observers said it’s significant that the counterpoint to the White House “adversarial” review of climate science is not being driven by environmental groups or Trump administration critics — but by military brass looking to keep installations and the American population safe from risk.

“What you’re seeing is a very, very consistent message both by senior civilians and rear admirals and generals,” said retired Navy Rear Adm. David Titley, director of the Center for Solutions to Weather and Climate Risk at Pennsylvania State University and founder of the Navy’s Task Force Climate Change.

That military leaders are speaking up now about climate risks is no accident. Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), who is running for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination, and other Democrats have pushed military officials to establish a significant record of testimony that shows how they are worried about climate change and what they are doing about it.

Just this week, Warren sent an eight-page letter to Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Joseph Dunford seeking answers on the ways in which the military is addressing climate change. Warren, who asked for an unclassified response by May 13, said the recent testimony highlights the importance of ensuring the military is preparing for climate risks.

“Each of these military leaders has acknowledged the threat of climate change to our military’s infrastructure and operations, and that adapting to climate change is a factor in military readiness,” Warren wrote. “None has denied the threat of climate change. This uniformity of opinion among military leaders underscores my concern about the need to act vigorously and expeditiously to mitigate this threat.”

Top officials from the Army, Air Force and Navy have all weighed in on climate change in recent weeks.

At a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing earlier this month, for example, Navy Secretary Richard Spencer told lawmakers that the Navy is planning for a future where climate change poses an increasing national security threat.

“You would agree that climate change is a national security issue, correct?” Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) asked Spencer.

“Rising waters are a threat to me at all times, yes, sir,” Spencer replied.

“And the prospect of famine, of flooding, drought, wildfires, the disruption that climate change causes around the world is a national security threat, correct?” Blumenthal asked.

“I would agree with you, sir,” Spencer said.

“Do you believe that opinion is shared throughout the Department of Defense among your fellow service secretaries?” Blumenthal asked.

“I loathe to comment on something I haven’t asked them about, but I know that in discussions, we share concerns about the events that you just discussed,” Spencer said.

That exchange came just days after other military leaders also told lawmakers that they were concerned not only about how climate change would affect military operations, but also about the security risks it has already presented. Gen. David Goldfein, the Air Force’s chief of staff, told lawmakers that adapting military bases and other infrastructure to climate change contributes to Air Force readiness.

He also connected climate change to some of the conflicts that have engaged military officials in recent years, including Syria.

“If you take a look at Syria, for example, most don’t realize what caused the Syria conflict to start. It started because of a 10-year drought,” Goldfein said, adding later, “We have to respond militarily very often to the effects, globally, of climate change” (Climatewire, April 8).

Last month, two Army generals also told Warren that climate change is causing the military to alter its plans in the Arctic as Russia takes advantage of a warming world to deploy radar and personnel to thawing regions.

Army Gen. Curtis Scaparrotti, commander of the U.S. European Command, told Warren that climate is among the top “drivers for potential conflict, or at least very difficult situations that nations have to deal with” (Climatewire, March 6).

The Department of Defense last month provided lawmakers with a list of dozens of bases that are at risk as a result of climate change and that it was working to protect to preserve national security. The list ranked a naval air station in the Florida Keys, an Air Force base in Utah and the Fort Hood Army base in Texas among the installations that face the most serious levels of risk from climate change.

“The Department has been and will continue to be proactive in developing comprehensive policy, guidance, and tools to mitigate potential climate impacts, with a focus on robust infrastructure, sound land management policies, and increased energy resilience,” wrote Ellen Lord, undersecretary of Defense for acquisition and sustainment, to lawmakers.

John Conger, director of the Center for Climate and Security and former deputy undersecretary for Defense, said military leaders are basing their assessments on what is happening today — not projections about climate change.

He said “one rogue” staffer at the National Security Council is not going to be an effective counterweight to the comments by four-star generals and the secretaries of military departments.

“The military is one of the most trusted institutions, if not the most trusted institution in America,” he said. “It carries a lot of weight when military officials say, ‘This is part of my job; you have to let me take this into account in order to let me do my job and defend the country; you cannot enforce a blind spot on me’ — and that’s the message that they’re giving.”

The military relies heavily on the nation’s science agencies in its planning, including for climate change research, said Titley, the director of the Penn State climate center. It’s particularly notable that military leaders are willing to be vocal about the issue, he said, and show that planning for global warming is part of their mission.

No White House panel will undo that assessment, he said.

“To think that three guys and four beers in a back closet of the National Security Council are somehow going to overturn 150 years of climate science is just ludicrous,” he said.