The Military Takes Climate Change Seriously. Why Won’t the Commander-in-Chief?

The White House is doing all it can to scrub any mention of global warming from government documents. But the Pentagon may end up pushing back.

February 02, 2018
President Trump with Defense Secretary Jim Mattis walking into the Pentagon

Carolyn Kaster/AP

As we all know by now, the Trump administration is rife with climate deniers. Defense Secretary James Mattis, however, isn’t one of them.

Like many within the defense community—including most of our military leaders—Mattis not only believes in climate change but also believes it’s making his job harder. It’s putting our service members in danger by “impacting stability in areas of the world where our troops are operating today,” he told members of the Senate Armed Services Committee during his confirmation hearings last year. “The effects of a changing climate—such as increased maritime access to the Arctic, rising sea levels, desertification, among others—impact our security situation.” Mattis assured the committee’s members that he would, as defense secretary, work “to address the effects of a changing climate on our threat assessments, resources, and readiness.” But he also affirmed that “climate change is a challenge that requires a broader, whole-of-government response.”

Given the role that national security played in his State of the Union speech on Tuesday night, you’d think the president would be more inclined to take such statements seriously. But apparently not even clearly worded warnings from his own defense secretary are enough to sway Donald Trump on this matter. After all, why should the informed analysis of a highly decorated four-star general outweigh the fatuous ravings of an ex–reality TV star who recently suggested to an interviewer that global warming can’t be real because it’s “getting too cold all over the place” and said the polar ice caps are in such great shape that “they’re setting records”?

Troublingly, there are now signs that Trump is trying to erase climate change from our national security discourse in much the same way that he’s already tried to erase it from our energy and environmental discourse. Since December, the administration has released two public-facing documents relating to our national defense: the National Security Strategy, which is issued by the White House, and an 11-page summary of the National Defense Strategy, which is issued by the Pentagon. Given what we know about the president’s views, it should come as little surprise that in his document, climate change no longer appears on the list of stated threats to our national security—even though presidents of both parties have included it in these same reports going back decades. The omission bothered enough members of Congress that a bipartisan group felt compelled last month to draft a pointed letter to Trump, reproaching him and urging him to reconsider.

More disturbing is the absence of any reference to climate change in the second document, the one issued by the U.S. Department of Defense and signed by the secretary himself. We know Mattis understands that climate change poses a threat to global stability and to our military personnel; he’s already discussed this, forthrightly and on the record. So why would he now decide to scrub it from a document that has regularly made mention of it since 2008, the year that Robert Gates, the secretary of defense under President George W. Bush, first included it?

One all-too-plausible answer is that Mattis was pressured by other members of the administration, or perhaps by Trump himself, to “disappear” climate change from his report. If that’s actually the case, then we’re faced with a disturbing possibility: that the White House is actively compromising our national security—suppressing information about real, measurable threats to our military—in an attempt to bring the Pentagon more in line ideologically with other Cabinet departments where climate denial is the order of the day.

The timing is odd, to say the least. Just last Friday, the Pentagon shared the results of an internal survey that is quite literally all about how climate change is negatively affecting military training and safety. The picture it paints is one in which extreme weather events associated with global warming—e.g., wildfires, dangerously high temperatures, coastal flooding, and droughts—hamper activities at military installations across the country and even “cripple the operational mission of a base” in more than one instance.

At some point later this year, Mattis and his department will be issuing yet another report that will explore the issue in greater detail, identifying those bases and installations around the world that are most at risk. This report, mandated by law, will supply a list of suggested climate change mitigations “necessary to ensure mission resiliency.” It will also—somewhat awkwardly for President Trump and the other climate deniers in his administration—spell out the various impacts of climate change on Defense Department activities overall, such as its efforts to provide humanitarian assistance in areas riven by war and internal strife.

It will be fascinating to see how the White House reacts to that report, which will most certainly not be omitting the phrase climate change from its final version. The president has made his support for our nation’s military a cornerstone of his administration. But what if the Pentagon ends up challenging him on his blatant cynicism, forcing him into a showdown over the language that’s used to describe this clear and present danger to our national security and military preparedness?

In a fight between General Jim “Mad Dog” Mattis and the current occupant of the Oval Office, I know whom I’d bet money on.

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onEarth provides reporting and analysis about environmental science, policy, and culture. All opinions expressed are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the policies or positions of NRDC. Learn more or follow us on Facebook and Twitter.

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