DOD and EPA Go Mano a Mano on Climate Change

Chris Kleponis/picture-alliance/dpa/AP Images

Secretary of Defense James Mattis speaks to members of the military before President Donald Trump addresses a joint session of Congress on February 28, 2017. 

Awkward is one way to describe having two men with polar opposite views on an issue advise the president of the United States. Secretary of Defense James Mattis views climate change as a national security threat; Environmental Protection Agency administrator Scott Pruitt asserts that human activity is not a primary contributor to a warming planet. One man has expressed concerns about how his department and the country will meet the threat; the other appears poised to virtually erase the agency tasked with ameliorating its effects. In this science-phobic administration, climate change is a nuisance to be ignored. But President Trump, a climate change denier, and his EPA chief, a fossil fuels proponent, may have met their match in Mattis and the Pentagon.

In 1970, Richard Nixon established the EPA. “The Congress, the administration and the public all share a profound commitment to the rescue of our natural environment, and the preservation of the Earth as a place both habitable by and hospitable to man,” he said in a special message to Congress establishing the agency. Nearly 50 years later, Nixon looks like an eco-warrior compared to Trump, who has installed a man with longstanding relationships with the fossil fuel industry to roll back EPA regulations and run the agency into the ground. The Obama administration’s climate and fuel efficiency standards have already been tossed overboard. Putting the agency on a starvation budget is the next task: In the budget blueprint Trump released yesterday, EPA saw the largest proposed cuts of any federal agency, at 31.4 percent.

Pruitt may well continue to make friends and influence people in the traditional energy sector. But rejecting the human role in climate change is a discredited stance, akin to believing that the sun revolves around the earth. The 2013 declaration by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change that scientists are convinced that humans are the main cause of climate change removed any remaining doubt. As Keith Seitter, the American Meteorological Society’s executive director, said in a letter to Pruitt, “mischaracterizing the science is not the best starting point for a constructive dialogue.” But arguing that climate change science is still inconclusive is merely one tool for ginning up public support for coal and oil exploration, extraction and usage. The other is to quash the EPA and its pesky regulations.

For decades, even when the causes were still up for debate, DOD has expressed concerns about climate change and how it should respond. In 1990, a Naval War College paper noted that sea level rise and the warming of the oceans and the atmosphere would have “significant effects” on the branch’s operations. In 2011, a DOD report noted that the given length of time greenhouse gases remain in the atmosphere (thousands of years in the case of carbon dioxide) the resulting impacts could not be “solved” but had to be “managed for the long-term.” The paper also listed the EPA’s Climate Program Office as one department that offered “much needed expertise.” (In January, the Trump administration had to back down from an attempt to delete climate information from the EPA website.) Two years ago, DOD submitted an analysis to Congress that outlined the instability that climate change can provoke at home and abroad. Drought, more frequent and severe natural disasters, and conflicts over food, water, and territory will degrade national security, the agency found. Mattis himself proposed that the Pentagon experiment with other energy options that can reduce the need for traditional fuel sources by troops in the field—moves the department has taken up,  achievements that won’t endear him to Pruitt’s EPA.  

During his confirmation hearings, Mattis responded to written questions from five Senate Armed Service Committee Democrats about climate change. According to unpublished testimony obtained by ProPublica, New Hampshire Senator Jeanne Shaheen asked Mattis how DOD plans to respond to that threat. “Climate change is a challenge that requires a broader, whole-of-government response,” Mattis said, adding: “I agree that the effects of a changing climate—such as increased maritime access to the Arctic, rising sea levels, desertification, among others—impact our security situation.” 

Cultivating a “team of rivals” is not unusual for any president who wants to solicit a diverse array of opinions from his advisers. But Trump’s selection of Pruitt to head the EPA amounts to presidential malpractice. After nearly 30 years of internal studies alone, the country’s military leaders have declared the U.S. must treat climate change as a national security issue. So it is all the more reprehensible that the president has moved to emasculate the Republican-created EPA.

Trump appears determined to thread the needle between the extremes of Mattis and Pruitt on climate change. Internal discordance is a trademark of the New Yorker, a man who promotes intellectual torpor, backstabbing, and chaos among the people who work for him, believing that keeping them off kilter and setting them against each other makes him superior leader. Instead, the opposite is true.

This DOD-EPA “diversity” is of little advisory value. “A whole-of government response” is not what Mattis is getting from his commander in chief on climate change. Can climate change resources establish a beachhead within the Defense Department? While Pruitt and others continue to deny the human role in climate change, military leaders like Mattis must respond to the data and the evidence in front of their faces. Trump’s budget, which has already hit a wall of skepticism on Capitol Hill, offers an early preview of the skirmishes ahead for DOD on climate as the administration continues its fusillades against science.

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