Commentary: Climate change is a threat to national security

Earlier this month, the Department of Defense released an overdue report on the effects of climate change on military bases in the United States. The report, required by law under the 2018 National Defense Authorization Act (that was passed by the Republican-controlled Congress and signed by President Trump), was intended to provide a full accounting of “vulnerabilities to the military resulting from climate change over the next 20 years.”

What we got fell short, to say the least.

Graham West

Set aside, for a moment, the fact that the report was not initially released to the public and only saw the light of day thanks to environmental groups’ activism. The document mentioned only 79 facilities, failing to consider all military bases or include any Marine Corps installations. It was also missing key portions it should have included as directed by law, like a list of the top ten installations threatened by climate consequences for each military branch or a cost mitigation plan for dealing with these problems. These failings and more have earned the ire of some lawmakers: Senator Jack Reed, a Democrat from Rhode Island, called the report “an alphabetical list” and said it “reads like an introductory primer and carries about as much weight as a phone book.”

Yet despite its reduced form, the report was astounding in its own way. Because even the Trump Administration – stubborn as a mule about accepting climate change, let alone fighting it – could not hide the truth: Climate change is having an impact on our military readiness and operations here at home.

Those effects, of course, go far beyond the flooding, droughts, and wildfires that are (how-ever reluctantly) cited in the report. Rising sea levels are already costing our coastal installations, and the damage will only increase as flooding damage increases in the decades to come. Extreme heat stresses our power grid and leads to outages, which can in turn cut off critical support for ongoing missions in the field. And increasingly powerful natural disasters that strike our cities, destroy our infrastructure, and kill our citizens necessarily sap military resources when it comes time for recovery efforts.

To be clear, the report is far from enough – such a halfhearted effort hardly deserves praise. It fails to go into the depth specified by Congress, and it is dangerously light on proposed solutions or even a ranked-by-urgency assessment of the (incomplete) list of problems it does identify. Worse, there is little hope that the president himself will react appropriately; he has continuously disregarded climate reports, from his own administration and international organizations alike, as inconsequential to his worldview and his policymaking.

Nonetheless, the report it is a sobering reminder that climate change poses a national security threat not just abroad, but here at home at well – whether our lawmakers choose to acknowledge it or not. Such a reminder seems hardly necessary given the death and destruction we’ve seen from superstorms and wildfires over the past year. And of course, there’s the fact that national security leaders have been making these same arguments in a nonpartisan manner since the Bush Administration.

Some folks in the Trump Administration, it seems, are still a little slow to come along. Here’s hoping they figure out how to lead, follow, or get out of the way – before the rest of us suffer the consequences of their negligence.

Graham F. West is the Communications Director for Truman Center for National Policy and Tru-man National Security Project.

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