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Climate Change Is National Security Risk, Congress Members Warn

The Trump administration’s recently released National Security Strategy differs sharply from Obama’s strategy, which identified climate change as a top strategic risk to the country.

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A bipartisan group of more than 100 members of Congress has urged U.S. president Donald Trump to recognize climate change as a national security risk, and they called on him to reconsider this “omission” from the administration’s National Security Strategy issued on 18 December 2017.

“As global temperatures become more volatile, sea levels rise, and landscapes change, our military installations and our communities are increasingly at risk of devastation. It is imperative that the United States address this growing geopolitical threat,” states the letter, signed by a bipartisan group of 106 members of Congress and released on 12 January. Signatories include Rep. Elise Stefanik (R-N.Y.), chair of the House Committee on Armed Services’ Emerging Threats and Capabilities Subcommittee, and Rep. James Langevin (D-R.I.), the committee’s ranking Democratic member.

The letter, which they also sent to Secretary of Defense James Mattis, quotes testimony Mattis gave before the committee in January 2017. He stated then that “I agree that the effects of a changing climate—such as increased maritime access to the Arctic, rising sea levels, desertification, among others—impact our security situation.”

The letter also notes that the National Defense Authorization Act, which Trump signed into law on 12 December 2017, states that climate change “is a direct threat to the national security of the United States” and calls for a report on vulnerabilities to military installations and combatant commander requirements resulting from climate change over the next 20 years.

“Failing to recognize this threat in your National Security Strategy represents a significant step backwards on this issue and discredits those who deal in scientific fact,” the letter to Trump states.

Stark Difference from the Obama Strategy

The White House’s National Security Strategy differs starkly from the Obama administration’s February 2015 strategy, which identified climate change as a top strategic risk to the country, and a September 2016 White House memorandum that cited threats of climate change to national security.

“Leaders throughout the defense and intelligence communities agree that climate change poses a direct threat to our national security, a position that was affirmed by Congress in the 2018 National Defense Authorization Act signed into law by the president himself,” Rep. Langevin told Eos. “We have not yet received a response to our bipartisan request; however, it is my hope that the President will take this opportunity to listen to his own national security experts and reincorporate climate change into the National Security Strategy.”

“Not So Fast”

“The significance of this letter is that it demonstrates there is bipartisan support in Congress for addressing climate security issues,” John Conger, senior policy adviser with the Center for Climate and Security, told Eos. The center is a Washington, D. C.–based nonpartisan policy institute. Conger served in the Department of Defense (DOD) as principal deputy undersecretary from 2015 to 2017. Earlier at DOD, he oversaw a portfolio including climate change and energy security while performing the duties of the assistant secretary of defense for energy, installations, and environment from 2009 to 2015.

Conger said that when the “very forward leaning” Obama administration moved ahead on climate initiatives, Congress said, “not so fast.” Now, with the Trump administration trying “to take a step back on climate,” Congress is also saying, “not so fast.” “There are clearly many Republicans who think that [climate security] does need to be addressed [and] it shouldn’t be ignored,” he continued.

“It’s encouraging to see members of Congress, both Republicans and Democrats, urging the president to include climate change in the National Security Strategy,” Mark Reynolds, executive director of Citizens’ Climate Lobby, told Eos. The lobby is a nonpartisan grassroots advocacy organization based in Coronado, Calif. “The mass migration of millions of climate refugees will create humanitarian crises and destabilize nations. Our armed forces, already stretched to the max, will be called upon to respond to these crises, and so it is foolhardy to ignore the risks posed by climate change.”

Letter Sends a Strong Signal

David Michel, a fellow in the environmental security program at the Stimson Center, a nonpartisan policy research center based in Washington, D. C., noted that Trump based his administration’s new National Security Strategy on four pillars: protecting the United States from threats, promoting American prosperity, preserving peace, and advancing American influence. “The strategy’s failure to recognize global climate change as a serious threat to U.S. welfare at home and our interests abroad undermines all four of these goals. The recent letter to the president, signed by a bipartisan group of over 100 representatives, reflects this conviction,” Michel told Eos.

Although Michel said he doubted that the letter would change the president’s mind, “it does send a strong and public signal of support to the Department of Defense and other agencies for their continuing efforts to identify, evaluate, and prepare for the growing climate risks to America’s security and global stability alike.”

—Randy Showstack (@RandyShowstack), Staff Writer

Correction, 18 January 2018: An earlier version of this article misidentified the speaker of a quote that is now attributed correctly.

Citation: Showstack, R. (2018), Climate change is national security risk, Congress members warn, Eos, 99, https://doi.org/10.1029/2018EO091023. Published on 18 January 2018.
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