Papering over climate change impacts is indefensible

The Trump administration recently delivered to Congress its much anticipated report on the impact of climate change on the military. To say the least, it is a disappointment.

The first sentence actually gets it right, stating: “The effects of a changing climate are a national security issue with potential impacts to Department of Defense missions, operational plans, and installations.” The report also includes a host of alarming examples of the impact of climate change on military installations and readiness. Unfortunately, it contains little evidence that the administration has any real plan to deal with climate-related challenges. Instead, the report simply rehashes a handful of existing programs, most of which are a product of Obama administration efforts.

The administration also ignored Congress’s directive to produce a list of military bases most vulnerable to climate change. The report leaves out any discussion of overseas military bases. And it doesn’t even mention how climate impacts will affect the Marine Corps. The latter omission is especially baffling. In just the past year, Hurricane Florence battered Camp Lejeune in North Carolina, causing billions of dollars in damage. Meanwhile, on the west coast, wildfires torched areas of Camp Pendleton, forcing the Marines to evacuate hundreds of homes on the base.

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Members of Congress were justifiably unimpressed. House Armed Services Committee Chairman Adam SmithDavid (Adam) Adam SmithOvernight Defense: Iran worries dominate foreign policy talk | Pentagon reportedly to send WH plans for 10K troops in Mideast | Democrats warn Trump may push through Saudi arms sale | Lawmakers blast new Pentagon policy on sharing info Shanahan orders new restrictions on sharing of military operations with Congress: report Trump officials say US efforts to deter Iran have worked MORE (D-Wash.) and Rep. Jim LangevinJames (Jim) R. LangevinHillicon Valley: Assange hit with 17 more charges | Facebook removes record 2.2B fake profiles | Senate passes anti-robocall bill | Senators offer bill to help companies remove Huawei equipment Hillicon Valley: Lawmakers seek 'time out' on facial recognition tech | DHS asks cybersecurity staff to volunteer for border help | Judge rules Qualcomm broke antitrust law | Bill calls for 5G national security strategy DHS suggests new role for cybersecurity staff — helping with border crisis MORE (D-R.I.), who authored the report requirement, blasted the report as “half baked” with Smith saying it “demonstrates a continued unwillingness to seriously recognize and address the threat that climate change poses to our national security and military readiness.” Likewise, Senate Armed Services Committee ranking member Sen. Jack ReedJohn (Jack) Francis ReedSenate panel advances Trump's Space Force Senate panel rejects Trump plan to skirt budget caps, advances defense bill that backfills wall money Overnight Defense: Iran worries dominate foreign policy talk | Pentagon reportedly to send WH plans for 10K troops in Mideast | Democrats warn Trump may push through Saudi arms sale | Lawmakers blast new Pentagon policy on sharing info MORE (D-R.I.) said DOD’s current leadership is “treating climate change as a back burner issue.” This, Reed pointed out, is despite the potentially massive impacts of climate change on defense infrastructure and the budget. Just consider the $5 billion in damage Hurricane Michael inflicted on Tyndall Air Force Base last year.

The report also fails to meaningfully address how climate change will affect national security requirements beyond the confines of military bases. It quotes Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Joe Dunford that climate change is “in the category of sources of conflict around the world” and that it “can be great devastation requiring humanitarian assistance — disaster relief — which the U.S. military certainly conducts routinely.” General Dunford is dead right. Defense and intelligence agencies have been making those same points for years. 

The 2014 Quadrennial Defense Review called the effects of climate change “threat multipliers that will aggravate stressors abroad such as poverty, environmental degradation, political instability, and social tensions — conditions that can enable terrorist activity and other forms of violence.” The Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) said much the same in a 2016 assessment, stating that ‘‘[m]any countries will encounter climate-induced disruptions — such as weather-related disasters, drought, famine, or damage to infrastructure — that stress their capacity to respond, cope with, or adapt.”

With respect to humanitarian assistance, recent hurricane seasons are just the latest reminders of how much of our response efforts rely on the military. In the wake of devastating storms, DOD has conducted search and rescue operations, transported food and water to affected areas, cleared roads, and repaired airports and sea ports. Following Hurricane Maria, the hospital ship USNS Comfort provided critical medical care. Meanwhile U.S. Transportation Command flew thousands of flights in support of hurricane relief operations and the Defense Logistics Agency supplied tens of millions of meals and millions of liters of water in Puerto Rico alone.

It is important to understand how climate change will impact future demands for humanitarian assistance or the military’s ability to provide it. These are serious questions that merit thorough analysis and thoughtful planning. The administration’s report includes neither.

A day after the report was delivered to Congress, President TrumpDonald John TrumpNASA exec leading moon mission quits weeks after appointment The Hill's Morning Report — After contentious week, Trump heads for Japan Frustration boils over with Senate's 'legislative graveyard' MORE commented on the winter weather impacting parts of the country. “Amazing how big this system is,” he said. “Wouldn’t be bad to have a little of that good old fashioned Global Warming right now!” Our military is full of capable people who understand the national security implications of inaction on climate. Unfortunately, the Commander in Chief appears not to.

Joe Bryan is a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Global Energy Center and is a former Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Navy for energy.