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The trouble with Trump leaving climate change to the military

An adaptation-only climate strategy will be ugly indeed.

He doesn’t look convinced.
SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images

Late last week, the Pentagon released the unclassified summary version of America’s new National Defense Strategy. For the first time since 2008, it makes no mention of climate change.

The administration didn’t cite climate change in its National Security Strategy release in December, either. After that, a bipartisan group of 106 lawmakers begged Trump to reconsider, but at this point, there is no reason to think he or his appointees plan to listen. At least formally, they plan to ignore climate change in security and military policy.

This neglect has prompted a great deal of agita in the climate community, where the nexus of climate change and national security is intensely studied. It would be strategically disastrous for the US military to ignore climate change. Practically speaking, it cannot.

James Stavridis, a retired Navy admiral now serving as dean of the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University, succinctly lays out the reasons the military can’t ignore climate change in this piece. Scarcity of water and other resources will drive dislocation and conflict, he writes. Coastal Naval bases are in danger of being inundated by rising seas; the Arctic is melting and opening new areas of geopolitical conflict; the rising cost of climate impacts will squeeze the military budget; and responding to severe weather events will reduce military readiness.

Puerto Rico Faces Extensive Damage After Hurricane Maria
The Army helped distribute food and water in Puerto Rico in the wake of Hurricane Maria.
Joe Raedle/Getty Images

The military is taking climate change seriously because it has to. Unlike its Commander in Chief, it is not involved in a reality show — it has to deal with actual reality.

When I contemplate the military’s approach to climate change, however, I don’t worry so much that Trump will stop or derail it. Concern about adapting to climate change is already deeply embedded in the military. It would take sustained, focused effort to root it out, and thus far the administration has not distinguished itself in the area of sustained, focused effort.

A more likely outcome is that Trump continues to lay waste to domestic regulations and international cooperation on climate, leaving the US with a de facto military-only climate policy. This is something close to a dystopian outcome, especially if it catches on as the post-denial conservative position on climate.

That’s my worry: that the terminal gridlock of US domestic politics will leave us with climate policies that do little but prepare us to dominate a more violent and unequal world.

Climate concern is deeply rooted within US military leadership

The National Defense Strategy has no legal authority — it’s not policy so much as summary of policy priorities. The fact that climate change does not appear in it does not mean that climate has vanished from military thinking.

The US military has been grappling with climate change since well before Obama took office, but Obama spent eight years making staffing and policy decisions that reinforced the effort.

Obama spent his time in office pushing climate-change awareness down through the ranks.
The White House

The Department of Defense is still operating under Obama’s Directive 4715.21, which establishes an elaborate, cross-service effort to assess and respond to concerns over “climate adaptation and resilience.”

Climate concerns are expressed in incredibly strong terms in the recent National Defense Authorization Act, which was signed into law in December by none other than Trump himself (though his administration had little role in shaping it). The NDAA also establishes a broad review of the vulnerability of military bases and facilities to climate change.

And the concern has sunk into the professional military class. Trump’s own secretary of defense, James Mattis, was frank about the threat of climate change in written testimony to the Senate Armed Services Committee. “Climate change is impacting stability in areas of the world where our troops are operating today,” he wrote.

Trump’s nominee to oversee Navy facilities, Phyllis Bayer, testified to the same committee that she agrees with Mattis and that rising seas and other climate impacts are a top threat to the service. Trump’s nominee to oversee Air Force installations echoed the warning about “the increasing severity of weather events and sea level rise due to climate change.”

By and large, US military leadership understands that climate change is happening and is keen to understand the impending impacts on readiness. (See this 2016 report from the National Intelligence Council for more.)

Beyond damage from climate impacts, the military is also increasingly hampered by its reliance on fossil fuel supply lines, the greatest point of vulnerability in Iraq and Afghanistan. I once wrote a story for Outside magazine about the Marines’ (then-)new Expeditionary Energy Office, meant to make increasingly power-hungry forward deployments more independent of fuel convoys through, e.g., field-packable solar panels.

Marines and sailors of India Company, 3rd Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment, and their Afghan national army counterparts, pose in front of a solar array at Patrol Base Sparks, in Sangin District.
Marines and sailors of India Company, 3rd Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment, and their Afghan national army counterparts pose in front of a solar array at Patrol Base Sparks, in Sangin District, Afghanistan.

Speaking of Mattis, here’s an excerpt from that piece:

The tactical need to reduce reliance on fossil fuels is not new to the Pentagon. In 2003, at the outset of the second Iraq war, General James Mattis commanded the 1st Marine Division during the initial drive to Baghdad. He found himself repeatedly outrunning his own fuel resupply lines, forcing him to slow down to remain fully powered. In a post-combat report that has since become a touchstone for military analysts, he called on the Department of Defense to “unleash us from the tether of fuel.”

Mattis’s plea served to highlight the extraordinary costs of fuel to the military in Afghanistan and Iraq—in dollars and lives. By some estimates, fully 70 percent of the convoys crisscrossing the theater of war are involved in “liquid logistics,” the delivery of fuel and water. In Afghanistan, fuel reaches the front lines via tankers and planes that cross the ocean, trucks from Tajikistan or Russia, and (sometimes) helicopters from forward bases. By the time it gets there, the fully burdened cost can reach anywhere from $30 to an astounding $400 per gallon. Then there are the casualties: one for every 24 fuel convoys, according to a 2009 report by the Army Environmental Policy Institute.

Point being, concern about climate change (and reducing reliance on fossil fuels) has been percolating through US military leadership for well over a decade. Programs are underway; the bureaucratic machinery is in gear.

This has led some to view Mattis, and by extension the DOD, as the lone “green hope” in the Trump administration.

Climate’s conspicuous absence from the National Defense Strategy doesn’t exactly auger well for that theory, but even under the best-case scenario, if military engagement with climate change continues full-speed under Trump, it’s not much solace for the climate-concerned.

The military is no kind of hope for climate hawks

There are two basic approaches to climate change: mitigation, reducing carbon emissions to reduce future warming, and adaptation, adjusting to changes in climate conditions.

They are not equivalent, morally or pragmatically, for reasons I explained at length in this post. In a nutshell, mitigation protects everyone (at least to some extent), while adaptation only protects those who adapt.

The military is overwhelmingly focused on adaptation — preparing for the changes on the way, maintaining readiness and allocating resources accordingly. This is as it should be. The military is not the right tool for mitigation, for economy-wide decarbonization.

DOD’s efforts to reduce fossil fuel dependence will have the side effect of reducing some carbon emissions, but that is not their primary purpose; their primary purpose is to enhance warfighting capability. Even if they succeed beyond all expectations, the military will remain an enormous polluter. (Pursuing peace — substantially reducing the US military footprint — could generate substantial emission reductions, but that seems unlikely under either US political party.)

The military is a tool for preparing for climate change, not for preventing it. And it looks like that’s the only tool that will get used under Trump.

If sane leadership is reestablished in 2020 and Trump’s climate approach disappears with him, his four-year reign will “only” be an international embarrassment and a costly delay in climate policy.

My worry is that it won’t disappear with him. The GOP badly needs a position on climate change that doesn’t rest on denying the science, appears more “tough-minded” and “America first” than the Dem position, and doesn’t commit to any domestic policy that might offend fossil fuel donors.

inhofe’s snowball
Not a viable long-term political strategy.
Media Matters

An all-adaptation, no-mitigation climate approach fits the bill, at least for the sort of conservative who mistakes callous myopia for realpolitik. After all, with all its advantages (military not least among them), America could prosper in an increasingly chaotic world, at least for a while. It could sell its abundant oil and gas and profit from fossil fuels while they still dominate. It could tighten its immigration policies and build up its military to guard against the displaced.

Trumpian climate policy — maximize fossil fuel exploitation, minimize domestic regulations, cut off international cooperation, and leave the military to prepare for the consequences — could become the conservative center of gravity on climate change in coming years, extending the legislative deadlock that has gripped climate politics for so long.

But in the long term, such a strategy would be disastrous, dramatically and continuously exacerbating existing inequalities. As things get worse, those who can afford to protect themselves — move their military bases, build sea walls and desalination plants, claim newly navigable land in the Arctic — will pull farther and farther away from those who can’t (the global poor, who did so little to cause the problem).

The US might come out on top in a more violent, chaotic world, but in the end, we do not stand apart. We will sink with it. The only way to save ourselves from climate change is to save everyone.

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