Trump is jeopardizing Pentagon’s efforts to fight climate change, retired military leaders fear

Unlike Republicans, Department of Defense does not view climate change as a partisan issue.

USS George Washington travels through downtown Norfolk, Virginia, after leaving the flood-prone Norfolk Naval Station. CREDIT: Mate 3rd Class Summer M. Anderson
USS George Washington travels through downtown Norfolk, Virginia, after leaving the flood-prone Norfolk Naval Station. CREDIT: Mate 3rd Class Summer M. Anderson

For more than a decade, the U.S. Department of Defense has been warning that climate change poses a critical national security threat. Now, former military officials are worried the Trump administration’s anti-climate action policy positions will harm the nation’s ability to prepare for major changes domestically and internationally — many of which are already occurring — caused by climate change.

Whatever climate mitigation and adaptation steps the military takes will need a major funding commitment from Congress, warned Stephen Cheney, a retired brigadier general in the U.S. Marine Corps, who now serves as CEO of the American Security Project. “You’re either going to have to move bases or move buildings higher or build piers higher,” he said. “There’s going to be tremendous expense involved near term and long term.”

However, getting funding for climate mitigation and adaptation programs will be a struggle, with Republicans in control of the White House and Congress. Over the past eight years, a time in which the Pentagon has made addressing climate change one of its top priorities, climate politics have become intensely partisan, Cheney said.

“Those programs are in little bit of jeopardy,” Cheney said. For instance, the Trump administration could weaken the “net-zero” program, which aims to have bases produce onsite as much energy as they use. The program was started in 2008 by the U.S. Army and the Department of Energy, Cheney said Wednesday at a hearing convened by Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX), ranking member of the House Science Committee.

The hearing, chaired by Rep. Don Beyer (D-VA), vice-ranking member of the committee, was held to discuss the national security implications of climate change. Rep. Ryan Costello (PA), a member of the bipartisan House Climate Solutions Caucus, was the only Republican to attend the hearing and ask a question of the panelists.

The election of a president who frequently referred to climate change as a “hoax” highlighted the partisan divide. Once in office, President Donald Trump made good on his promise to withdraw from the Paris climate agreement, a pact in which 196 nations agreed in December 2015 to adopt green energy sources, cut down on climate change emissions, and limit the rise of global temperatures.

“Pulling out of the Paris accord was a huge mistake,” Cheney said.

Even though parts of the world are already experiencing dangerous effects of climate change, the most important step remains climate mitigation, Cheney told the lawmakers. As the world’s largest consumer of fossil fuels, the U.S. military must make reducing its huge carbon footprint a top priority, he said. Biofuels are becoming less expensive as a fuel for military transportation and more bases are converting to solar energy, he noted.

Unlike Republicans in Congress, the Department of Defense does not view climate change as a partisan issue, said David Titley, a retired rear admiral in the U.S. Navy and director of the Center for Solutions to Weather and Climate Risk at Pennsylvania State University.

The Defense Department is studying how a changing physical environment caused by climate change will affect where the U.S. military operates. Even more important, though, is adopting measures that will reverse climate change so that climate-caused social instability in parts of the world can be avoided, thereby making it less likely U.S. policymakers will choose to intervene in those regions.

In his opening remarks, Beyer emphasized that “ignoring climate change is not a risk worth taking” for the military and society as a whole.

Sherri Goodman, senior fellow at the Wilson Center Environmental Change and Security Program and Polar Initiative and former deputy under secretary of defense for environmental security, highlighted one of those risks. She told the lawmakers the world is witnessing a large number of refugees, perhaps even more than after World War II, a trend that has been “exacerbated by climate change.”

Ten years ago, Goodman coined the term “threat multiplier” to describe how climate change creates situations like years-long droughts that may help to spur civil conflict or stronger hurricanes that damage ships at sea. “I believe that climate change is acting as a threat multiplier that will lead to whole wave of climate refugees that we are now experiencing and that will continue to grow in future years with sea level rise, extreme weather events, and increased drought,” she said in her testimony.

With Trump moving the nation away from climate action, Goodman said she is deeply concerned the United States is “becoming somewhat of global pariah.”

The decline of the U.S. government’s leadership role also is having economic impacts. China and other countries are likely going to overtake the United States as it takes a backseat on the clean energy revolution, she said.

“The whole energy system is in transition now. Of course we will still use fossil fuels for many more years, but we are … developing a whole new generation of energy and energy infrastructure that’s not based on fossil fuels,” Goodman explained.

While climate mitigation efforts are expected to suffer under Trump, the U.S. military also is facing difficulties in developing plans to adapt its domestic installations to the effects of climate change.

The government still has not developed forecasts of how climate change will impact sea level rise at coastal military installations. When recently asked by a congressional staffer for projections of sea level rise in the Norfolk, Virginia, area, home to the world’s largest naval base, Titley, a former chief oceanographer for the Navy, could not provide the data.

“The science is to the point where you can have authoritative data” on how climate change will affect sea level, but the government has decided not to make it a priority, he said at the hearing.

With sea level rise in the Hampton Roads region of Virginia occurring at a rate second only to New Orleans, military officials are examining ways to protect the numerous military installations in the region and are reaching out to businesses that work closely with the military, according to Ann Phillips, a retired rear admiral for the Navy, who served as chief of naval operations’ climate change task force and now works as a consultant and is a member of the Center for Climate and Security’s Advisory Board.

A sailor walks through parking lot during Hurricane Sandy at the Naval Air Station Oceana in Virginia Beach, Virginia, on Oct. 29, 2012 CREDIT: U.S. Navy/ Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Antonio P. Turretto Ramos
A sailor walks through parking lot during Hurricane Sandy at the Naval Air Station Oceana in Virginia Beach, Virginia, on Oct. 29, 2012 CREDIT: U.S. Navy/ Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Antonio P. Turretto Ramos

The Hampton Roads region is home to military installations like the Norfolk naval station and the Langley Air Force Base that experience routine flooding that hampers travel and operations at the facilities. The flooding has put the region “on the front lines of climate impact,” Phillips told the lawmakers.

The Department of Defense has a long history of taking climate change seriously, Phillips said. But communication between the military and the private sector in the Hampton Roads area needs to improve, she emphasized.

“I would submit that having that conversation openly is something that has not quite happened yet,” Phillips said of discussion between the military and contractors. “Many of them are starting to take action … to make themselves more resilient. But an open dialogue in the context of the business community in Hampton Roads is only just beginning.”

According to Phillips, the focus need to be placed on creating standards to improve resilience to climate change. Sharing examples of efforts that will improve resilience is absolutely critical for cities and regions and will make it easier for them to develop master plans to deal with climate change, she stated.

In the Hampton Roads area, the military, local jurisdictions, and the private sector are still struggling to develop a long-term strategy. Questions such as whether to harden facilities to handle sea level rise or move ships to different areas will need to be addressed, Phillips said.

This article has been updated to include comments of Rep. Don Beyer (D-VA), the vice-ranking member of the House Science Committee.