Congress ignores biggest security risk: climate change

By Jonathan Marshall | January 16, 2018

Just two weeks before Christmas, President Trump signed into law the 2018 National Defense Authorization Act, a nearly $700 billion wish list of Pentagon programs. Running about $90 billion above last year’s total budget, it sent a powerful message to voters that Congress and the White House won’t let anyone mess with American security.

But as conservatives used to remind us, throwing money at programs doesn’t guarantee good outcomes. Spending billions of dollars on missile defense systems that still have serious operational flaws and test failures, and billions of dollars more to “modernize” our already oversize stockpile of city-busting nuclear warheads, should make Americans feel poorer, not more secure.

Moreover, there are good reasons to question just how committed Congress and the president really are to protecting our nation’s security.

Just days earlier, for example, Trump signed into law a GOP tax overhaul that will increase the national debt by at least $1 trillion over the next decade — hardly a sign of serious intent to keep paying for a robust and sustainable national defense.

The tax bill also included provisions that run directly counter to U.S. national security interests, as delineated in the defense authorization act itself. The latter act states, “It is the sense of Congress that 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.”

The act also warns that rising sea levels “will threaten the operations of more than 128 United States military sites,” that permafrost melting is jeopardizing “radar and communication installations, runways, seawalls, and training areas” in the Arctic, and that drought-fed wildfires have damaged “roads, runways, and buildings on military bases” in the Western United States.

Yet in the recent tax bill, Congress for the first time approved oil drilling in the pristine Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Promoting greater use of fossil fuels can only accelerate the threat of global warming, which contributed to storms and fires that cost the United States a record $300 billion in 2017, according to a recent analysis issued by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

In addition, the Washington Post reports, “Congressional Republicans allowed a tax on oil companies that generated hundreds of millions of dollars annually for federal oil-spill response efforts to expire” at the beginning of the year, “a move that amounts to another corporate break in the wake of lawmakers’ sweeping tax overhaul late last month.”

If allowed to stand, this 9-cents-per-barrel tax break on domestic and imported crude oil will give another boost to the production of fossil fuels just when carbon dioxide levels in the Earth’s atmosphere are accelerating at an unprecedented rate, with potentially dire consequences.

In a letter sent to Trump on Jan. 11, a bipartisan group of 106 members of the House of Representatives asked him to heed the “direct threat to America’s national security and to the stability of the world at large” posed by climate change. In particular, they decried the failure of his administration’s National Security Strategy report, issued in December, to address the issue.

They were right, of course, to sound the alarm. But trying to convince Trump, who once derided global warming as a Chinese hoax, is a losing battle. Reminding him that “failing to address this threat … discredits those who deal in scientific fact” ignores the Trump administration’s consistent record of attacking science, even blocking federal climate researchers from publicly presenting their findings.

The signers should, instead, be directing their fire at colleagues who profess to be conservative patriots while continuing to put America’s security at risk by sabotaging programs to address the dangers of climate disruption.

The U.S. military has understood for years now that climate change is a national security issue. It’s long overdue for our representatives in Congress to stop denying the obvious and get on with finding solutions.

Jonathan Marshall is former economics editor of the San Francisco Chronicle and a climate activist living in Marin County.