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.


Members of Congress were justifiably unimpressed. House Armed Services Committee Chairman Adam SmithDavid (Adam) Adam SmithOvernight Defense: Pentagon watchdog to probe extremism in US military | FBI chief warns of 'online chatter' ahead of inauguration | House conservative bloc opposes Austin waiver Conservative caucus opposes waiver for Biden's Pentagon pick 'I saw my life flash before my eyes': An oral history of the Capitol attack MORE (D-Wash.) and Rep. Jim LangevinJames (Jim) R. LangevinHillicon Valley: Parler sues Amazon, asks court to reinstate platform | Twitter stock falls after Trump ban | Facebook pauses political spending in wake of Capitol attack Cyber czar to draw on new powers from defense bill Senate approves defense bill establishing cyber czar position, subpoena power for cyber agency 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 ReedJack ReedWhat to watch for in Biden Defense pick's confirmation hearing Congress overrides Trump veto for the first time Biden calls for the nation to 'unite, heal and rebuild in 2021' 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 TrumpGiuliani used provisional ballot to vote in 2020 election, same method he disparaged in fighting to overturn results Trump gets lowest job approval rating in final days as president Fox News' DC managing editor Bill Sammon to retire 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.