How Trump’s War on Climate Policy Threatens National Security

by Sarah Flynne

January 31, 2017

We’re only a week in, and the Trump administration has already unleashed an unprecedented attack on federal climate action and environmental programs. Here’s why that’s a big mistake for (among other things) national security.

El Niño Impacts in Northern Thailand

Climate impacts like drought are "threat multipliers" that should be treated as national security concerns, but the Trump administration plans to ignore them.

Donald Trump’s attempts to halt any kind of U.S. action on climate change are already facing a stern test from millions of people like you who know climate action is essential to any kind of livable future. But they could face even more opposition in the form of military and national security programs designed to address climate impacts.

National security advisers have warned since 2004 that climate change is a “threat multiplier” whose impacts could vastly eclipse terrorism. These concerns have increasingly worked their way into U.S. national security strategies, like those spelled out in the Department of Defense’s 2010 and 2014 Quadrennial Defense Review reports, State’s Quadrennial Diplomacy and Development Review (2015) — which describes climate change as “a top priority” — and the White House’s 2015 National Security Strategy.

Somehow, Trump missed the memo.

After calling climate change “bullshit” and a “hoax” in recent years, Trump’s administration of fossil fuel CEOs and climate deniers is following through by dismantling virtually every government climate program it can find. That includes crippling the Environmental Protection Agency “in almost every form,” withdrawing from global commitments included in the Paris Climate Agreement, and ordering a review of all current and pending international multilateral treaties.

At his confirmation hearing, former Exxon CEO and current Secretary of State nominee Rex Tillerson made it clear that his State Department would shift from prioritizing climate change and human rights towards an obsessive focus on “Islamic terrorism.” And Exxon is certain to benefit from lifting sanctions on Russia (where it’s been trying to drill for oil for years), as well as the weakening of programs designed to address fossil fuel-related corruption.

Then there’s Trump’s CIA director Mike Pompeo — a former Kansas Representative who once called President Obama’s climate action efforts “perverse” — who has already stated in front of the Senate that climate change will not be a focus of the U.S. intelligence community under his lead.

These moves represent a drastic change in course that has experts concerned.

In September, national security experts at the Climate and Security Advisory Group (CSAG) recommended comprehensive actions the next president should take to address the security risks of climate change. The Trump administration has not responded or even acknowledged the report. Instead, its foreign policy revolves obsessively around Islamic terrorism, effectively cutting any “wasteful” federal spending on climate change and clean energy.

It’s unclear how Congressional overseers like John McCain (head of the Senate Armed Services Committee) will view this radical shift in priorities, particularly given multiple testimonies before the Senate to how climate change will put U.S. troops abroad at greater risk. But if the Republican-controlled Congress doesn’t take up the question, it won’t be the first time that they have bowed to fossil fuel industry bullies and chosen ideology over national security.

In 2015, House Republicans instructed the CIA and the Pentagon to stop talking about climate change. Both Pompeo and Tillerson dodged questions on climate and national security from Democratic Senators during committee hearings earlier this month.

Pentagon officials, meanwhile, have become increasingly vocal about the effects of climate change, even while on active duty.

Navy Admiral Samuel Locklear said in 2013 that climate change “is probably the most likely thing that is going to happen … that will cripple the security environment, probably more likely than the other scenarios we all often talk about.”

More importantly, the U.S. military has invested billions already in adjusting to these threats, and emerged as a leader in methods to adapt to climate impacts. These include the Navy’s “Great Green Fleet”, the Army’s “Net Zero” initiatives, the Marine Corps’ 10X10 campaign, the Air Force’s 2010 Energy Plan, and the roll-out of microgrids and other technologies that have the potential to save the country billions while protecting military operations from terrorist and cyber attacks.

These programs and the recognition of climate threats are embedded deeply enough in the nation’s defense strategies that they could stall Trump’s climate-denying blitzkrieg. It’s a strange feeling for Greenpeace to find ourselves on the same side of an issue as the Department of Defense, but these are strange times.

Senior research specialist Charlie Cray also contributed to this post.  

Sarah Flynne

By Sarah Flynne

Sarah Flynne is a research and toxics intern at Greenpeace USA. Having recently completed her law degree in Perth, Australia, she plans to specialize in international environmental law.

We Need Your Voice. Join Us!

Want to learn more about tax-deductible giving, donating stock and estate planning?

Visit Greenpeace Fund, a nonprofit, 501(c)(3) charitable entity created to increase public awareness and understanding of environmental issues through research, the media and educational programs.