Trump breaks with military leaders, removes climate change from list of national security threats

For more than a decade, military officials have argued climate change poses a critical threat.

Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis, right, has stated that climate change is real and a threat to the military’s assets and activities. CREDIT: AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta
Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis, right, has stated that climate change is real and a threat to the military’s assets and activities. CREDIT: AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta

President Donald Trump’s new National Security Strategy, released Monday, removed all mentions of climate change as a national security threat, a decision in line with major steps taken by the administration over the past 11 months to downplay the perils of climate change. Two years ago, the Obama administration issued a strategy that identified climate change as “an urgent and growing threat to our national security.”

Trump’s decision to exclude climate change from current national security threats comes only a month after government scientists released the Fourth National Climate Assessment, which contained a dire warning on the impact of climate change, including an increase in wildfires due to heat waves and severe droughts. In a separate report on climate change adaptation, released last week, the Government Accountability Office explained that the expected impacts associated with climate change pose operational risks to Department of Defense overseas installations.

“The United States will remain a global leader in reducing traditional pollution, as well as greenhouse gases, while expanding our economy. ­This achievement, which can serve as a model to other countries, flows from innovation, technology breakthroughs, and energy efficiency gains, not from onerous regulation,” the Trump administration wrote in the strategy.

While China emits the most carbon dioxide per year, the United States remains the largest emitter of carbon dioxide per capita in the world from the burning of fossil fuels. And yet the Trump administration is in the process of gutting federal programs to fight climate change caused by the emitting of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases.

In the strategy, the administration noted that “climate policies will continue to shape the global energy system.” U.S. leadership will be indispensable to countering this “anti-growth energy agenda that is detrimental to U.S. economic and energy security interests,” the administration said.

However, data show that the U.S. economy has grown significantly since 2007, while electricity consumption has been flat, and total energy demand actually dropped.

Despite no mention of climate change in the new strategy, the Department of Defense has been warning that climate change poses a critical national security threat. James Mattis, Trump’s Secretary of Defense, has stated that climate change is real and a threat to the military’s assets and activities, a position at odds with the views and actions of the president. Mattis also believes the U.S. military needs to cut its dependence on fossil fuels and use renewable energy where it makes sense.

“This is an incredibly senseless move from a president whose first term was marked by devastating superstorms and wildfires,” Kassie Siegel, director of the Center for Biological Diversity’s Climate Law Institute, said in a statement Monday. “Climate change will exacerbate future extreme weather events, fueling geopolitical instability, and threatening security around the world. Trump’s single-minded mission to protect fossil fuel companies gravely endangers the health, safety and security of Americans at home and abroad.”

Trump and his backers have not succeeded on all fronts to downgrade climate change as a government priority. In July, Rep. Scott Perry (R-PA) tried to get language removed from the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) that recognizes climate change as a “direct threat” to the national security of the United States. But the effort ultimately failed. Forty-six House Republicans, including almost all of the GOP members of the bipartisan House Climate Solutions Caucus, joined Democrats to defeat the amendment. Trump ended up signing the nearly $700 billion annual defense policy bill last week, even though it contained the climate change language.

The National Security Strategy, a document prepared periodically by the executive branch for Congress, outlines the major national security concerns of the nation and how the administration plans to deal with them. In 2015, the Obama administration released a National Security Strategy that stressed climate change was contributing to increased natural disasters, refugee flows, and conflicts over basic resources like food and water.

Trump’s decision to shift the government’s attention away from fighting climate change has been far-reaching since he took office in January. In June, the president officially announced his intention to withdraw the United States from the Paris climate agreement, an historic global effort that sets out a global action plan to put the world on track to avoid dangerous climate change by limiting global warming. Trump’s 2018 budget proposal also singled out climate change research programs for elimination. Furthermore, at his Environmental Protection Agency, efforts are underway to repeal the Clean Power Plan, an Obama administration effort to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from power plants.

In March, Trump also issued an executive order that cancels federal climate change risk management strategies. Prior to the order, federal agencies, including the Department of Defense, Department of Homeland Security, the Department of the Interior, and the Department of Housing and Urban Development, have been taking action to reduce climate change risks to federal assets and communities.

For the past several years, however, the Defense Department has been seeking to reduce the risks from extreme heat, severe storms, and sea level rise to U.S. troops and military bases by installing flood protections, improving stormwater management, adjusting training schedules and locations, and improving energy efficiency. Last year, the department instituted a “climate change adaptation and resilience” directive.

“Our military leadership realizes that climate change is a significant threat to stability around the world, and it must be addressed,” Jon Powers, former federal chief sustainability officer and special adviser on energy to the U.S. Army in the Obama administration, said in a statement Monday. “It is unfortunate that the Trump administration’s decision to ignore climate change as a national security risk is counter to experts, including his own Secretary of Defense, and putting us all at greater risk.”

Outside of the national security realm, with Trump as president, there has been a decline in the number of grants awarded by the National Science Foundation with the phrase “climate change” either in the title or the summary, according to an NPR analysis. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) also is shying away from addressing issues related to climate change under the Trump administration.

Michael Halpern, deputy director of the Center for Science and Democracy at the Union of Concerned Scientists, wrote in a Saturday blog post that CDC staff “took the unusual and unfortunate step of canceling a conference on climate change and public health even before the inauguration.”

American Public Health Association Executive Director Georges Benjamin told the Washington Post that agency officials decided to preemptively call off the January 23 event, rather than risk running afoul of an incoming president who has repeatedly called climate change a “hoax” and has nominated climate change skeptics to his cabinet.

In most countries of the world, climate change is taken seriously by policymakers and the public and isn’t getting scrubbed from websites by government officials. In a Pew Research Center survey published in August, climate change was cited as second-leading national security threat around the world. ISIS was named as the top threat in a total of 18 countries surveyed, while global climate change was listed as the top-most national security threat in 13 countries.

Earlier this year, 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, told U.S. 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” and one that poses a national security threat.

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.