Stories

Expert Voices

Ignoring climate change only compounds its national security risks

aircraft carriers in port at Norfolk Naval Base
Aircraft carriers in port at Naval Station Norfolk, Virgina, which is prone to floods that have worsened with sea level rise. Photo: MC2 Ernest R. Scott/U.S. Navy/Handout/Navy Media Content Service/Corbis via Getty Images

President Trump’s Defense Department cut all but 1 of 23 mentions of “climate change” from the final draft of a Congressionally mandated report on climate risks — increased flooding, drought, wildfire and extreme temperatures — to U.S. military installations.

Why it matters: This wordsmithing signals to the thousands of men and women in uniform that climate change is not an important issue for them. Refusing to acknowledge climate change in U.S. national security policy doesn’t make the threat any less real — it only impedes the formulation of concrete, necessary plans.

The big picture: Every secretary of defense since Robert Gates in 2006 has recognized climate change as a national security threat. Under questioning, even President Trump’s defense secretary, James Mattis, has made plain that "climate change is impacting stability in areas of the world where our troops are operating."

Despite longstanding Department of Defense doctrine, however, ever since President Trump moved into the White House, the phrase "climate change" has evaporated from key strategic documents, including the National Security Strategy, the National Defense Strategy and the Department of Homeland Security’s Strategic Plan for FEMA.

Omitting the words "climate change" does not help to ensure the operational readiness and effectiveness of U.S. troops and military facilities in the face of rising seas and more heat. Instead, it increases the likelihood that costly mistakes occur — mistakes like failing to account for sea level rise when building expensive critical infrastructure, as the Department of Defense recently did with a billion dollar space radar system on the tiny Pacific island of Kwajalein, which may be uninhabitable in a matter of decades.

The bottom line: These omissions force national security decision-makers to rely on code words or, worse, to ignore the threats from climate change altogether. Neither approach helps keep the country safe. 

Alice Hill is a research fellow at the Hoover Institution and a former senior director for resilience at the National Security Council.