Pentagon Confirms Climate Change Is A National Security Threat, Contradicting Trump

The military walks a fine line between the White House's official climate denialism and the stark realities of a warming planet.
A U.S. Air Force member assigned to the South Carolina Air National Guard assists citizens during evacuation efforts after Hurricane Florence hit in September 2018.
A U.S. Air Force member assigned to the South Carolina Air National Guard assists citizens during evacuation efforts after Hurricane Florence hit in September 2018.
U.S. Army National Guard via Getty Images

More than a year after President Donald Trump nixed climate change from his administration’s list of national security threats, the Pentagon has released an alarming report detailing how dozens of U.S. military bases are already threatened by rising seas, drought and wildfire.

“The effects of a changing climate are a national security issue with potential impacts to Department of Defense missions, operational plans, and installations,” states the 22-page document, which was published Thursday.

The congressionally mandated analysis looked at a total of 79 military installations around the country. The Defense Department found that 53 sites are currently vulnerable to repeat flooding. Langley Air Force Base in Virginia, for example, has experienced 14 inches of sea level rise since 1930. Additionally, more than half of the 79 bases are at risk from drought, while nearly half are vulnerable to wildfire.

These climate impacts are expected to pose a risk to several other installations over the next two decades, and the report notes that “projected changes will likely be more pronounced at the mid-century mark” if climate adaptation measures are not taken.

While the report is a clear recognition of the immediate threat that climate change poses to the nation’s military infrastructure, it makes no mention of the greenhouse gas emissions driving the crisis. It also doesn’t mention some of the most recent climate-related devastation to military bases, including the estimated $3.6 billion in damages that Camp Lejeune in North Carolina suffered during Hurricane Florence last year.

President Donald Trump removed any reference to climate change from the White House's National Security Strategy report in 2017.
President Donald Trump removed any reference to climate change from the White House's National Security Strategy report in 2017.
Bloomberg via Getty Images

The Pentagon’s assessment comes just over a year after Trump eliminated any reference to climate change from the White House’s 2017 National Security Strategy report, breaking with two decades of military planning.

Even then, there was dissonance between the Defense Department and the White House.

A week earlier, Trump had signed the National Defense Authorization Act, which devoted about 870 words to the “vulnerabilities to military installations” over the next two decades and warned that rising temperatures, droughts and famines might lead to more failed states ― which are “breeding grounds of extremist and terrorist organizations.” “Climate change is a national security issue,” the legislation said, quoting then-Defense Secretary Jim Mattis; Gen. Joseph Dunford, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff; and four other former top military commanders. And it said that the Air Force’s $1 billion radar installation on a Marshall Islands atoll “is projected to be underwater within two decades.”

Yet a month later, in January 2018, the Pentagon followed Trump’s lead and scrubbed its National Defense Strategy of all references to climate change.

In Thursday’s report, the Defense Department describes climate change as “a global issue” and says it is “continuing to work with partner nations to understand and plan for future potential mission impacts.”

The department said in a statement to HuffPost that the report delivers a “high-level assessment of the vulnerability of DOD installations.”

“DOD must be able to adapt current and future operations to address the impacts of a wide variety of threats and conditions, to include those from weather, climate and natural events,” Pentagon spokeswoman Heather Babb said by email. “DOD will focus on ensuring it remains ready and able to adapt to a wide variety of threats ― regardless of the source ― to fulfill our mission to deter war and ensure our nation’s security.”

The department did not respond to HuffPost’s questions about any White House role in the report.

Oddly, the new analysis omits the Marine Corps. It also doesn’t identify the top 10 military bases within each service branch that are most vulnerable to climate impacts, a requirement of the defense bill that Trump signed into law in December 2017.

“They don’t have the prioritization of impact. That’s confusing,” said John Conger, a former principal deputy under secretary of defense in the Obama administration and current director of the research group Center for Climate and Security.

Conger said he expects that Congress will tell the Pentagon to go back and fulfill its request.

Climate change was first publicly recognized as a major concern for the Pentagon in May 1990, when the U.S. Naval War College issued a 73-page report, titled “Global Climate Change Implications for the United States,” which found that “Naval operations in the coming half century may be drastically affected by the impact of global climate change.”

The issue gained prominence under President George W. Bush, despite that administration’s embrace of climate change denialism. In October 2003, the National Defense University published a report stating that “global warming could have a chilling effect on the military.”

Today, the military still walks a fine line when discussing climate issues, particularly given that many congressional Republicans reject the realities of human-driven warming. Officials at Naval Station Norfolk in Virginia, the world’s largest naval station, have admitted to avoiding language such as “sea level rise” when requesting maintenance funds to raise docks, according to journalist Jeff Goodell’s recent book The Water Will Come.

Sen. Jack Reed (D-R.I.), the ranking member on the Senate Armed Services Committee, called the new report “inadequate” and criticized the Trump-era Defense Department for “treating climate change as a back burner issue.”

“President Trump’s climate change denial must not adversely impact the security environment where our troops live, work, and serve,” Reed said in a Friday statement. “Whether the Trump Administration wants to admit it or not, climate change is already costing the Department significant amounts of taxpayer resources and impacting military readiness.”

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