How a Republican House could continue progress on climate
A new Republican majority in the House of Representatives doesn’t spell an end to progress on climate policy. In fact, the record from the last time they led the chamber points to significant opportunities for bipartisan cooperation where climate intersects with security. Indeed, there’s been a growing consensus on the national security threat posed by climate change for many years, and good reason to plan for continued momentum in the next Congress.
In one key moment in 2017, a bipartisan vote in the House Armed Services Committee led to the declaration that “climate change is a direct threat to the national security of the United States” within the 2018 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) and led to a series of constructive provisions on climate and resilience in subsequent defense bills.
In a 2019 House Armed Services Committee hearing on climate and national security, Rep. Doug Lamborn (R-Colo.) invoked that record of accomplishment noting that, “There are scores of provisions that on a bipartisan basis we put into the NDAA over the last two years when Republicans were in the majority.” And in a 2021 appropriations hearing, Rep. Ken Calvert (R-Calif.), the Ranking Republican of the House Defense Appropriations Subcommittee, said he welcomed Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin’s announcement that he would be integrating climate considerations into Department of Defense (DOD) activities.
As Lamborn noted, Republicans took multiple steps to increase the resilience of military installations — an issue with which many of them became particularly familiar due to climate impacts and the billions of dollars of costs at installations like Tyndall AFB, Fla., Camp Lejeune, N.C., and Offutt AFB, Neb. Each of those installations happen to be represented by Republicans in the House (and the Senate). Many more installations are at risk now and will face growing risks in the years to come, whether from hurricanes and extreme weather, flooding and sea-level rise, thawing permafrost or drought and wildfires.
Notably, Republicans imposed new building codes on military installations to withstand climate impacts, including a specific requirement to accommodate higher and more frequent flooding in designated flood plains. They also expanded several existing programs to incorporate resilience authorities. Taken together, the message was clear — installation leaders should start planning to endure and operate through a changing climate.
While emissions reductions have not historically been a top priority for Republicans, they have certainly supported and are likely to continue supporting renewable energy, battery storage and vehicle electrification efforts that focus on reducing costs and increasing installation resilience. In addition, nuclear energy efforts should see increased emphasis, lining up well with DOD’s plans to explore small reactors on some installations.
The opportunity for progress extends outside the fence line too, given past support for programs such as the Defense Community Infrastructure Program, the Readiness and Environmental Protection Integration Program, Defense Access Roads authorities and other programs that support DOD involvement in and funding for projects outside an installation to promote the resilience of the installation itself.
In addition to progress on resilience, recent history points to an opportunity for progress in using the climate consensus to counter threats from China and Russia, particularly in the Arctic. When they were last in the majority, Republicans demanded that DOD develop a new Arctic Strategy, authorized construction of a half dozen new icebreakers, and directed the inclusion of Arctic elements into a new strategy on China.
Further, there is growing concern that China has made diplomatic inroads with vulnerable nations by sympathizing with their climate concerns and helping to fund a wide range of infrastructure projects — including resilience projects. This could be a driver for Congress to consider the strategic security benefits of U.S. investments in these nations. Former Secretary of Defense James Mattis highlighted the implications climate change had on instability in regions of the world where American troops operate now or may have to operate in the future. Investing in stability, therefore, has a direct benefit to U.S. military posture, particularly where it helps the U.S. counterbalance China’s efforts to replace the United States as the “strategic partner of choice.” This isn’t “climate finance” the way it has been advocated by the Biden administration, but it is an opportunity for targeted initiatives.
The need to address issues related to critical and strategic minerals are also part of this dynamic. There are many members of Congress of both parties concerned about the dominance China has in the critical mineral supply chain, particularly as it impacts critical defense systems. Increased efforts to develop domestic or allied suppliers and refiners of these elements, and stockpiling them to reduce China’s influence on U.S. capabilities, will be an increased focus of both parties. This, of course, affects climate security because the same supply chain challenges exist both for key defense systems and platforms and for clean energy systems like solar panels and large-scale battery systems.
The track record on climate and security in the congressional committees focused on security is clear. On these committees, members of both parties have a history of supporting pragmatic measures to protect military capabilities, readiness and resilience in a global environment being reshaped by climate change. Even as we enter an era of divided government, this is a real opportunity for bipartisan progress.
John Conger is senior adviser to the Council on Strategic Risks and former principal deputy under secretary of Defense (comptroller).