Pentagon Drops Climate From National Defense Strategy In Retreat From Bush-Era Policy

The National Defense Strategy has included climate change as a threat since 2008.

The Pentagon scrubbed its latest National Defense Strategy of all references to climate change, an Orwellian rhetorical shift away from a scientific reality at an agency that has long avoided the issue’s politics.

A summary document released Friday morning makes no mention of “climate,” “warming,” “planet,” “sea levels” or even “temperature.” All 22 uses of the word “environment” refer to the strategic or security landscape. The 11-page memo, signed by Defense Secretary James Mattis, is the first update to the policy in a decade.

It’s unlikely the Department of Defense will release a full National Defense Strategy report; instead, the document is expected to remain classified. The Pentagon did not immediately return a call requesting comment.

The move comes a month after the White House dropped climate change from the list of threats in its National Security Strategy. But it was not unexpected. Days after the president released his security memo, the Pentagon’s No. 2 civilian official said the National Defense Strategy would not “specifically address climate change.”

“It really reflects the high priorities of the department,” Deputy Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan told reporters at the time.

The George W. Bush administration first added climate change to its 32-page National Defense Strategy report in 2008, clearly stating: “[C]hanges with existing and future resource, environmental, and climate pressures may generate new security challenges ... These risks will require managing the divergent needs of massively increasing energy demand to maintain economic development and the need to tackle climate change.”

The new strategy contradicts Mattis, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Joseph Dunford and four other former top military commanders who were quoted in the defense bill President Donald Trump signed last month saying things such as, “Climate change is a national security issue.” The National Defense Authorization Act devoted roughly 870 words to the “vulnerabilities to military installations” linked to global warming and sea level rise over the next two decades, and warned that climate-linked droughts and famines could lead to more failed states and propagate terrorist organizations.

President Trump delivers a speech aboard the U.S. Navy aircraft carrier Gerald R. Ford in Newport News, Virginia.
President Trump delivers a speech aboard the U.S. Navy aircraft carrier Gerald R. Ford in Newport News, Virginia.
Jonathan Ernst / Reuters

The military began studying climate change as far back as May 1990, when the U.S. Naval War College issued a 73-page report titled “Global Climate Change Implications for the United States.” The report found that Naval operations in the coming half century may be drastically affected by the impact of global climate change.

Despite the Bush administration’s official opposition to greenhouse gas regulations, the National Defense University published a report in October 2003 warning that “global warming could have a chilling effect on the military.” That same month, the Defense Department’s Office of Net Assessment drafted a report urging immediate action to prepare for the “not the most likely” but “plausible” scenario in which climate change became a problem.

Yet the military remains woefully unprepared. The Naval Station Norfolk, the world’s largest naval base, suffers from routine flooding, even when the sun is shining, and there is no plan in place to fix it, InsideClimate News reported.

In one chapter of journalist Jeff Goodell’s new book, “The Water Will Come,” officials at the base admit that they bill efforts to raise docks as maintenance projects without referencing sea level rise.

Yet the issue has become impossible to ignore. Phyllis Bayer, Trump’s nominee to oversee Navy facilities, said climate change and sea level rise “is one of my top priorities if confirmed in the job” at a Senate confirmation hearing Thursday.

“We can talk about climate change in a variety of ways, but one is sea level rise. And it’s happening, it’s visible and it seems to be accelerating,” Sen. Angus King (I-Maine) said. “I think we need to know where our problems are.”

Bayer replied, “Exactly, senator. It’s a real problem.”

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