The Pentagon Wants to Tackle Climate Change -- But Congress Forbids It

As rising sea levels begin to engulf naval bases and extreme weather exacerbates conflicts worldwide, the military has sounded the alarm that climate change poses a long-term threat to U.S. security. The GOP response? It passed legislation that blocks funding for any Pentagon program that tackles climate change.

Just prior to Memorial Day weekend, the House of Representatives stuck an amendment onto the National Defense Authorization Act, which stipulates that:

None of the funds authorized to be appropriated or otherwise made available by this Act may be used to implement the U.S. Global Change Research Program National Climate Assessment, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change's Fifth Assessment Report, the United Nation's Agenda 21 sustainable development plan, or the May 2013 Technical Update of the Social Cost of Carbon for Regulatory Impact Analysis Under Executive Order.

In other words, don't even THINK about initiating programs to prepare for the potential impacts of climate change, either in the United States or abroad.

The amendment, which was approved by the Republican-controlled House in a 231-192 vote, was introduced by Rep. David McKinley (R-WV), who said:

Our climate is obviously changing; it has always been changing. With all the unrest around the global [sic], why should Congress divert funds from the mission of our military and national security to support a political ideology. This amendment will ensure we maximize our military might without diverting funds for a politically motivated agenda.

Reps. Henry Waxman (D-CA) and Bobby Rush (D-IL) wrote a letter in strong opposition to the amendment, saying:

The flat earth society is at it again....The McKinley amendment would require the Defense Department to assume that the cost of carbon pollution is zero. That's science denial at its worst and it fails our moral obligation to our children and grandchildren.

The Pentagon's Case for Dealing with Climate Change

The legislation comes at a time when military officials have been cranking up the volume on this issue—notably, through the recent publication of two reports, the 2014 Quadrennial Defense Review (a Congressionally mandated assessment of Department of Defense strategy and priorities) and a study written by an advisory group of retired, high-ranking military officers, titled "National Security and the Accelerating Risks of Climate Change."

The 2014 QDR, which is the second consecutive review that has addressed the implications of climate change for Pentagon planning, observed that:

As greenhouse gas emissions increase, sea levels are rising, average global temperatures are increasing, and severe weather patterns are accelerating. These changes, coupled with other global dynamics....are 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.

This is more than simply a rhetorical nod to an issue that is a high priority for the White House. Comments by military officials over the past few years have made it clear that it's a problem they take very seriously. Last March, the Boston Globe reported, Admiral Samuel Locklear—America's top military officer in charge of monitoring hostile actions by North Korea and escalating tensions between China and Japan—identified climate change as the biggest long-term security threat in the Pacific region. "You have the real potential here in the not-too-distant future of nations displaced by rising sea level," he said. "Certainly weather patterns are more severe than they have been in the past. We are on super typhoon 27 or 28 this year in the Western Pacific. The average is about 17."

The U.S. military, Locklear added, has taken the initiative to reach out to other armed forces in the region. "We have interjected into our multilateral dialogue—even with China and India—the imperative to kind of get military capabilities aligned [for] when the effects of climate change start to impact these massive populations," he told the Boston Globe. "If it goes bad, you could have hundreds of thousands or millions of people displaced and then security will start to crumble pretty quickly.''

"I'm not seeing intransigence [on the issue] in the Pentagon," retired Army Brig. Gen. John Adams told the online publication Defense One. Adams, who is an advisor to the Center for Climate Security, spoke specifically about how climate change is already having an influence on military decision-making near Pensacola, Florida, where he lives. "We have major installations in this area. We predict the sea level will rise here. That means that Navy ship berths will have to change, because they're not floating docks, they're built into the land. And when the sea level rises above the point where it's safe to berth a Navy ship, then you have to change the berthing structure … so climate change will have an effect on our basing structures."

The impact on military facilities is the subject of considerable discussion in the aforementioned report, "National Security and the Accelerating Risks of Climate Change." The study was written by 11 retired U.S. generals and admirals who are members of the CNA Corporation Military Advisory Board (MAB), a respected government-funded military research organization.

The Pentagon Wants to Tackle Climate Change -- But Congress Forbids It

One case study that MAB addressed is the Hampton Roads metropolitan area (see map above), located near the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay in the southeastern part of Virginia:

All military branches and the Coast Guard have facilities in the region. In all, there are 29 military sites in Hampton Roads, including Naval Station Norfolk (the largest naval complex in the world), Joint Base Langley-Eustis, Joint Expeditionary Base Little Creek–Fort Story, and Naval Air Station Oceana, including critical defense industry partners such as Huntington Ingalls Shipyard, which builds half our submarines and all of our aircraft carriers. Many of the facilities are at or only a few meters above sea level.

The area has hundreds of miles of waterfront from three major rivers that all flow into the Chesapeake Bay. It is an extremely low-lying area, which makes it particularly susceptible to flooding from relative sea level rise—a combination of global sea level rise, land subsidence, and ocean circulation.

Estimates of relative sea level rise in the Hampton Roads area range from 1.5 feet over the next 20–50 years to as high as a 7.5-foot rise by 2100 (above the 1992 mean sea level baseline).

"Political posturing and budgetary woes cannot be allowed to inhibit discussion and debate over what so many believe to be a salient national security concern for our nation," MAB added. "Time and tide wait for no one."

Conservatives Respond to the Military

The Pentagon Wants to Tackle Climate Change -- But Congress Forbids It

This kind of talk makes conservatives grouchy. They've spent years making the case that climate change is the latest fad in environmental hysteria, a liberal plot to "create global government" and a scheme for scientists and universities to keep their pockets lined with grant money. And now conservatives find themselves at odds with the guardians of our national security? (Awkward!)

But never underestimate the power of political spin. Over the last few years, conservative commentators have developed a series of talking points to distance themselves from climate change without attacking our active-duty military officers:

Talking point #1: Our military is a victim of political peer pressure

The Weekly Standard:

According to a draft copy of the Quadrennial Defense Review, DoD wonks are planning to mold an already over-tasked military to meet rising challenges associated with global warming climate change.

Consider how drastically the Pentagon has been forced to adapt since the end of the Cold War….Now we are proposing a massive shakeup to Pentagon policy by adding yet another core mission— climate change, which has nothing to do with winning battles— to an already crowded task list....is it wise to continue to violently disrupt a culture which is fueled by tradition and a fierce warrior ethos by forcing them to constantly adjust to the popular political trends of the day?

The National Review:

QDRs are now squarely aimed at defending present budgets and ongoing activities. Worse, they often cannot resist throwing support behind the political hot item of the day.

Talking point #2: Fight wars, not climate change

Forbes:

Let's free up the Navy from responsibility for protecting our planet from natural climate change so that they can concentrate on addressing real man-made threats to our national independence…a mission they can actually do something about!

The National Review:

The QDR sees the potential consequences of global warming—retreating glaciers, extreme weather, rising sea levels and temperatures, food security and water scarcity, disease—as potential contributors to instability and conflict.

This approach leads to recommendations that limit the flexibility of the military by, for example, limiting its options regarding the use of energy. While the QDR asserts that such steps will not undermine the military's ability to perform its missions, it is likely they will. This is like telling the fire department to cut down on hydrant use in order to conserve water.

Talking point #3: The Democrats made them do it!

Forbes:

In 2007, Senate Armed Services Committee members Hillary Clinton (D-NY) and John Warner (R-VA) snuck some language into the National Defense Authorization Act which got our military into the climate protection business whether they wanted to or not. The amendment required DoD to consider the effects of climate change upon their facilities, capabilities and missions. Now, through the QDR, the DoD is incorporating and considering the "threat" of climate change into its long-range strategic plans. This despite the fact that no evidence of a climate crisis, much less any human-caused one, actually exists.

Talking point #4: Military strategists are making decisions based on bad data

National Review:

The link between extreme weather and global warming is debatable….All of this seems to be a very shaky foundation upon which to reshape America's defense strategy. In its oversight role, Congress should challenge the administration's inclusion of climate change as a defense priority.

Talking point #5: Retired military officers yearn for more glory

Senator James Inhofe of Oklahoma, the ranking Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee, described the CNA Corporation Military Advisory Board's report as nothing more than ex-military men seeking attention.

"There is no one in more pursuit of publicity than a retired military officer," Inhofe said of the report's authors. "I look back wistfully at the days of the Cold War. Now you have people who are mentally imbalanced, with the ability to deploy a nuclear weapon. For anyone to say that any type of global warming is anywhere close to the threat that we have with crazy people running around with nuclear weapons, it shows how desperate they are to get the public to buy this."

General Consensus

Climate change deniers in Congress should be worried. The problem for them is not just that the military is a respected voice of authority. Their real problem is that the military is quite adept at communicating the urgency to address climate change. While conservative pundits prattle on about how military culture is defined by "tradition and a fierce warrior ethos," the men and women who serve this country discuss climate change in terms that reflect how the military actually operates—by emphasizing the importance of risk management, logistics and scenario planning.

The Pentagon Wants to Tackle Climate Change -- But Congress Forbids It

Consider some of these excerpts from the MAB report—

The risk of inaction:

Some in the political realm continue to debate the cause of a warming planet and demand more data. Yet MAB member General Gordon Sullivan, United States Army, Retired, has noted: "Speaking as a soldier, we never have 100 percent certainty. If you wait until you have 100 percent certainty, something bad is going to happen on the battlefield."

We recognize that skepticism is important in the scientific process, especially in the continual refinement of theories, and that healthy debate in the area of climate change can serve to advance science, but falling short of 100 percent agreement is not a justifiable reason for inaction. As noted by MAB member Admiral Frank "Skip" Bowman, United States Navy, Retired: "Managing risk is seldom about dealing with absolute certainties but, rather, involves careful analysis of the probability of an event and the resultant consequences of that event occurring. Even very low probability events with devastating consequences must be considered and mitigation/adaptation schemes developed and employed."

We operate our nuclear submarine fleet in this manner. Some may argue that this continuing process results in overdesign and over cautiousness. Maybe so, but our U.S. submarine safety record testifies to the wisdom of this approach. That's where we should be with climate change knowns and unknowns.

Climate vs. weather:

Contributing to the ongoing climate change debate are natural variations in weather patterns. Although pundits may try, no individual weather event or weather season can be attributed decisively to climate change. Weather is what occurs day-to-day; climate describes weather patterns over decades. However, rather than wondering if any specific events are "caused" by climate change, MAB member Rear Admiral David Titley, United States Navy, Retired, suggests an alternative way of thinking about recent weather phenomena: "It is more useful to think of climate as the deck of cards from which our daily weather events are dealt. As the climate changes, so does our deck of cards. For every degree of warming, we add an extra ace into the deck. Over time, unusual hands such as a full house with aces high become more plausible and more common."


The need to build alliances:

Addressing climate change is expensive, so those costs should be shared as much as possible, General Wald agreed. "It's also massive and unpredictable as to where it's going to be," he said. "You'd like to interface with other governments to arrive at an understanding of interoperability issues. When people train together, they become more accepting of what the perceived threat is."

General Stalder said he'd like to see a new multilateral arrangement emerge to address climate change. "From my perspective," he said, "the opportunity that it creates is an operating construct among the coalition of the willing to respond to things in a more cohesive way than is done right now, including a sort of standing command arrangement or coordination arrangement where countries could contribute to that and offer relief more quickly.

The risks of ceding American leadership:

When Admiral Gunn thinks about climate change, he remembers a plaque on the desk of the late Vice Admiral Paul Butcher, a gruff, cigar-chomping figure with whom he served in the 1970s: "Lead, follow, or get the hell out of the way."

"That's the kind of the way I feel about this—we need to be leaders," said Admiral Gunn, a 35-year Navy veteran who is president of CNA's Institute for Public Research…."During the last seven years, it appears that America has begun to surrender world leadership in this collection of issues dealing with climate change and national security," he said. "Ceding this has serious economic and national security implications, and as the U.S. desires to provide security and stability in various parts of the world, the fact that we are ceding our leadership will make it more and more difficult."

It remains to be seen whether the McKinley amendment will make it past the Senate and onto the president's desk. But, no matter what the outcome, it's further proof that Congressional Republicans have abrogated any effort to lead responsibly on this issue. It's time for them to follow—or get out of the way.