On rare occasions, transformative political change emerges with a dramatic flourish, sometimes through elections (Reagan in 1980, Obama in 2008) or key mass mobilizations (the March on Washington in 1963), or even court cases (the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court decision declaring marriage inequality unconstitutional.)
But most of the time, transformations happen slowly, step by arduous step, along a path that may be hard to follow and can only be discerned clearly in hindsight.
I believe that we are on such a path when it comes to Republican members of Congress acknowledging climate science and ultimately the need to act. I see some encouraging indications that rank and file Republican members of Congress are heading in the right direction.
In February, 2016, Democratic Congressman Ted Deutch and Republican Congressman Carlos Curbelo, launched the Climate Solutions Caucus, whose mission is “to educate members on economically-viable options to reduce climate risk and to explore bipartisan policy options that address the impacts, causes, and challenges of our changing climate.” Its ranks have now swelled to 48 members, 24 Republicans and 24 Democrats.
Last week, this group flexed its muscle. At issue was UCS-backed language in the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA). The provision, authored by Democratic Congressman Jim Langevin, would require the Pentagon to do a report on the vulnerabilities to military instillations and combatant commander requirements resulting from climate change over the next 20 years. The provision also states as follows:
Climate change is a direct threat to the national security of the United States and is impacting stability in areas of the world where the United States armed forces are operating today, and where strategic implications for future conflicts exist.
Republican leadership led an aggressive effort to strip the language from the NDAA on the House floor through an amendment offered by Representative Perry (PA-R). But in the end, 46 Republican members (including all but one of the entire climate solutions caucus) voted against it, and fortunately it was not adopted.
We are hopeful this important provision will be included in the final NDAA bill that passes the senate, and then on to President Trump for his signature. He probably won’t like this language, but it seems doubtful that he will veto a military spending bill.
One shouldn’t read too much into this. The amendment is largely symbolic, and the only thing it requires is that the defense department conduct a study on climate change and national security. There is a long way to go from a vote such as this one to the enactment of actual policies to cut the greenhouse gas emissions that are the primary cause of climate change.
But, it is an important stepping stone. If this bill becomes law, a bipartisan congressional finding that climate change endangers national security becomes the law of the land. Among other things, this should offer a strong rebuttal to those who sow doubt about climate science.
It is also a validation of a strategy that UCS has employed for many years—to highlight the impacts of climate change in fresh new ways that resonate with conservative values. This was the thinking behind our National Landmarks at Risk report, which shows how iconic American landmarks are threatened by climate change.
This was also our strategy behind our recent report which highlights the vulnerability of coastal military bases to sea level rise. This report was cited and relied upon by Congressman Langevin in his advocacy for the amendment.
UCS will work to make sure that this language is included in the final bill, and we will continue to find other ways to cultivate bi-partisan support for addressing climate change. There will be much more difficult votes ahead than this one. But for now, I want to thank the Republican members of Congress for this important vote, and make sure our members and supporters know that the efforts of ours and so many others to work with Republicans and Democrats, and to bring the best science to their attention, is paying off.