On Dec. 12, Donald Trump signed the $700 billion National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2018 into law. Buried among the purchase approval for 13 new Virginia-class submarines and the demand for a report on expanding and privatizing childcare for service-member families is a lengthy passage defining the government position on climate change vis-à-vis the military. The language runs counter to the Trump administration’s irresponsible actions on the issue to date: repealing environmental regulations, withdrawing from the Paris Agreement, and placing climate deniers and skeptics in cabinet positions and other top posts. Is it possible that cooler heads have prevailed?
Section 335 of the act, titled “Report on Effects of Climate Change on Department of Defense,” includes the following declaration: “Climate change is a direct threat to the national security of the United States and is impacting stability in areas of the world both where the United States Armed Forces are operating today, and where strategic implications for future conflict exist.”
Quotes from military and intelligence authorities lend considerable dramatic flair. Here’s former Defense Secretary Robert Gates: “Over the next 20 years and more, certain pressures—population, energy, climate, economic, environmental—could combine with rapid cultural, social, and technological change to produce new sources of deprivation, rage, and instability.”
The legislation goes on to identify areas of risk. “A three-foot rise in sea levels,” for instance, “will threaten the operations of more than 128 United States military sites, and it is possible that many of these at-risk bases could be submerged in the coming years. … In the western United States, drought has amplified the threat of wildfires, and floods have damaged roads, runways, and buildings on military bases.”
Section 335 concludes by calling for a report, within the year, on “vulnerabilities to military installations” and “requirements resulting from climate change over the next 20 years.” Alas, the legislation does not enact climate policy or fund any action.
The Pentagon is one of the world’s largest carbon polluters. According to a 2008 study of the Iraq War by the nonprofit Oil Change International, “If the war was ranked as a country in terms of emissions, it would emit more CO2 each year than 139 of the world’s nations do annually.” Even more compellingly, it reported, “Projected total U.S. spending on the Iraq War could cover all of the global investments in renewable power generation that are needed between now and 2030 in order to halt current warming trends.”
After World War II, our government justified the massive effort to build the interstate highway network in large part on military grounds, as a way to move troops and materiel in case of national emergency. The Pentagon seems the only agency likely to get regular spending increases in the current political milieu. So I fantasize that a sizable chunk of the defense budget gets reallocated, say through the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, for the purpose of designing and constructing resilient, energy-efficient infrastructure nationwide. Is this a pipe dream? We certainly have the resources to combat climate change. We’ll see who controls Congress—and the nation’s purse strings—when the report comes due.