What Liz Cheney got wrong — about climate change

What Liz Cheney got wrong — about climate change
© Greg Nash

Rep. Liz CheneyElizabeth (Liz) Lynn CheneyBush to hold fundraiser for Cheney The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Alibaba - House Democrats plagued by Biden agenda troubles The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Alibaba - Government shutdown fears increase as leaders dig in MORE (R-Wyo.) said a lot last week. While her comments about the future of the GOP grabbed headlines, her comments about the future of the planet flew under the radar. Here’s why they shouldn’t.

The former House Republican Conference chair Cheney told reporters at a defense industry conference that she and Republicans would resist including funding for climate change projects in the Department of Defense (DoD) budget because what matters is “the lethality of the force.” 

Saying DoD should not invest in climate change is like saying DoD should not invest in computers. We live in the information age. Computing power is an indelible part of the context for modern warfare, and it will be a major determinant of global military dominance. Similarly, global climate change is and will be a major driver of global security, and insecurity, as well as our own forces’ readiness. 

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The mission of DoD is to “provide the military forces needed to deter war and ensure our nation’s security.” Here at home, DoD is already losing training days and spending billions each year responding to climate-related impacts on its installations, from hurricanes to wildfires. Geopolitically, top military commanders have recognized for years that climate change is exacerbating food and water insecurity, mass migration and extremism around the world, and that it poses a significant threat to our national security. 

Extremist groups like the Islamic State (ISIS) have exploited climate-induced environmental degradation for tactical advantage, costing our nation billions of dollars and thousands of lives. In Iraq, ISIS would go to markets after a failed harvest to recruit desperate farmers whose crops had succumbed to drought, extreme heat, or wind. They handed out food baskets, cash, and promised farmers they would provide for their families. Data shows that farmers living further from a river valley (who faced greater desertification pressures) were more likely to join. 

The story is similar in the Sahel region of Africa, where 80 percent of land is degraded, temperatures are rising fast and 50 million people who depend on grazing are competing amongst themselves and with farmers for dwindling productive land and water. Like ISIS, various jihadist groups have successfully recruited from these desperate communities. In Central America, poor harvests and drought help fuel the border crisis here in the United States.

Cheney is absolutely correct that we need to focus on the lethality of our forces — we must purchase next-generation weapons systems and platforms to stay ahead of major global powers. And paying attention to climate change-induced stressors on water and food security in fragile states is not at odds with Great Power Competition. In fact, Beijing is betting big that providing assistance to fragile states will make China more dominant and enhance its security. Like China, we must be able to walk and chew gum at the same time — developing cutting-edge weapons while not turning a blind eye to obvious global security threats spurred by climate change. 

In her roles on both the House Natural Resources Committee and Armed Services Committee, Cheney could make a tremendous contribution to national security if she advocated for cost-effective climate resilience tools that make U.S. bases, as well as geopolitical hot spots around the world, more resilient. 

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We know, for example, that our expeditionary forces powered by mobile, renewable sources of energy like solar-powered batteries and micro-grids can travel further, operate more quietly, and for a longer period of time than if they are tethered to a diesel generator on a forward-operating base. We know that regenerative approaches to land management make land more resilient to climate stressors like drought, flooding and heat. These land management approaches are low-tech, cost-effective, and implemented here at home can make U.S. bases more resilient to hurricanes, wildfires and sea level rise. Implemented overseas they would increase availability of water and allow land to support both farmers and herders, making them less vulnerable targets for extremists.

Success stories of regenerative land management abound from Mali, to Mexico, Saudi Arabia and of course the United States. In India, 600,000 farmers who adopted regenerative methods saw their profitability more than double and their crops withstand drought and flooding. Most significantly from a security perspective, they were able to grow crops year-round rather than conventional farming methods which rely on monsoon rains and leave fields fallow for eight months. Now, rather than traveling to cities to find work during those eight months, men in these villages are able to stay on their land, with stable access to food for their families and communities. 

Cheney has spent her career being a strong advocate for national security. Climate change impacts are threatening our military installations and surrounding communities. Food and water insecurity in the most climate-vulnerable areas of the world are known, acute security risks. Investing in climate resilience is cost-effective, it will increase military readiness of U.S. military installations, and increase stability in critical parts of the world that potentially threaten our security. There can be nothing more central to DoD’s mission than that.

Deborah Loomis is a retired naval officer and an environmental attorney with the Department of the Navy. She is also a Public Voices Fellow with the Oped Project in partnership with the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication. The views expressed here are her own and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Department of Defense or Department of the Navy.