Secretary of Defense James Mattis: The Lone Climate Change Soldier in this Administration’s Cabinet

March 17, 2017 | 1:13 pm
Shana Udvardy
Senior Climate Resilience Policy Analyst

Since the inauguration, we have witnessed President Trump filling his Cabinet with climate deniers and billionaires.  As each day passed, the reality of what we can expect from this administration has become all too clear.

Yesterday President Trump released his proposed “skinny budget” officially titled “America First: A Budget Blueprint to Make America Great Again.”  Ken Kimmell, president of the Union of Concerned Scientists, put a fine point on the implications of the skinny budget stating that it disregards science, placing communities at risk. Regarding the budget cuts at FEMA, NOAA, and NASA, he says that these cuts:

…will undermine our nation’s ability to forecast weather, prepare for and recover from disasters, and safeguard national security. These cuts will also limit our ability to monitor the impacts of ever-worsening global climate change. Such misguided changes will put the safety of Americans at risk, while costing taxpayers more in disaster assistance over the long haul.”

Indeed, all six mentions of climate change are related to cuts. In case the budget cuts to FEMA, NOAA, and NASA don’t speak for themselves, OMB budget chief, Mick Mulvaney said that President Trump sees spending on climate change programs as a ‘waste of your money’:
“As to climate change, I think the president was fairly straightforward: We’re not spending money on that anymore,” “We consider that to be a waste of your money to go out and do that, so that is a specific tie to his campaign.”

OMB Director Mulvaney: “We consider spending on climate change to be a waste of money.” Photo by

The question is, how will President Trump’s Secretary of Defense James Mattis, arguably the lone climate change marine within this Administration’s Cabinet, navigate his way between his deep understanding  of the impacts of climate change and the anti-science, climate change denying administration?

Earlier this week ProPublica’s Andrew Revkin published a story on Defense Secretary Mattis’ unpublished 58-page testimony, a document that answers the Senate Armed Services Committee questions raised during his confirmation hearing back in early January. In no uncertain terms, Secretary Mattis said that climate change is a national security challenge.  According to Revkin, five Democratic senators on the committee asked about climate change, including Jack Reed of Rhode Island, the ranking member, Tim Kaine of Virginia, Mazie Hirono of Hawaii, Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire and Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts.

Here’s what Defense Secretary Mattis had to say on climate change in his unpublished testimony:

#1 Climate change is impacting where troops are operating today and is a national security challenge:

Climate change is impacting stability in areas of the world where our troops are operating today,” and “It is appropriate for the Combatant Commands to incorporate drivers of instability that impact the security environment in their areas into their planning.” And “Climate change can be a driver of instability and the Department of Defense must pay attention to potential adverse impacts generated by this phenomenon.”

Yes, the Union of Concerned Scientists agrees with Defense Secretary Mattis, as do other U.S. military leaders who applauded Secretary Mattis’ “clear-eyed view on climate change and security”.

In UCS’s report The US Military on the Front Lines of Rising Seas we looked at the impacts of sea level rise and we found that the military is at risk of losing land where vital infrastructure, training and testing grounds, and housing for thousands of its personnel currently exist.

#2 Climate change requires whole of government response:

As I noted above, climate change is a challenge that requires a broader, whole-of government response. If confirmed, I will ensure that the Department of Defense plays its appropriate role within such a response by addressing national security aspects.”

Yes, the Union of Concerned Scientists agrees with Defense Secretary Mattis as do other U.S. military leaders.

In our report, Toward Climate Resilience:  A Framework and Principles for Science-Based Adaptation, we outline 15 principles organized around three themes: science, equity, and commonsense ambition. The principles are designed to be used by decision makers and practitioners from the local to the federal level and are recognition of the harm communities are facing due to human caused climate change; the damaging impacts are growing, and so is the need for ambitious action on both climate change mitigation and adaptation.

In September of 2016, a non-partisan group of 43 military and foreign policy experts (the Climate and Security Advisory Group), released a briefing book on how a new administration should address climate change. The expert group recommended that a new administration should:

comprehensively address the security risks of climate change at all levels of national security planning, elevate and integrate attention to these risks across the US government strengthen existing institutions and create new ones for addressing them.”

#3 The many effects of a changing climate require the military to be prepared

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. I will ensure that the department continues to be prepared to conduct operations today and in the future, and that we are prepared to address the effects of a changing climate on our threat assessments, resources, and readiness.”

Yes, the Union of Concerned Scientists agrees with Defense Secretary Mattis on the consequences of a changing climate such as maritime access to the Arctic, and that it is critical that DoD continues to address these. On our Arctic Climate Impact Assessment page, among other changes, we speak to how the Northern Sea Route navigation season is likely to increase from the current 20 to 30 days per year to almost 100 days per year by 2080.  And in this blog, Global Warming in the Arctic: A Sensitive Climate Gone Off the Rails, Erika Spanger-Siegfried notes that:

The degree to which current Arctic conditions are straying from the norm may prove to be the greatest change yet measured there—the latest signal from the Arctic that all is not well.”

For more on the impacts of a changing climate on the Arctic, see the Arctic Report Card and watch this video.

The DoD and retired Military understand the security issues of a changing Arctic as well. DoD’s Arctic Strategy outlines how the DoD will prepare for the changing conditions. Back in 2009, National Security Presidential Directive (NSPD)-66 established U.S. policy on the Arctic and documented both the national security and homeland security interests in the region.

The age of the sea ice in the Arctic Ocean at winter maximum in March 1985 (left) compared with March 2016 (right). The darker the blue, the younger the ice. The first age class on the scale (1, darkest blue) means “first-year ice,” which formed in the most recent winter. The oldest ice (7+, white) is ice that is more than seven years old. Historically, most of the ice pack was many years old. Today, only a fraction of that very old ice reamins. NOAA maps, based on NOAA/NASA data provided by Mark Tschudi.

Stanford University’s world renowned Hoover Institution has the Artic Security program dedicated to this very issue because “the changing Arctic is the most significant physical global event since the end of the last Ice Age.” For an in-depth overview of the national security issues see the Hoover Institution’s video of Admiral Gary Roughead.

Regarding planning, the Department of Defense’s Environmental Research Programs, which includes the Strategic Environmental Research and Development Program (SERDP) and the Environmental Security Technology Certification Program (ESTCP), released a report entitled Regional Sea Level Scenarios for Coastal Risk Management that provides a scenario planning tool for 1,774 military sites worldwide to plan for sea level rise.

DoD’s 2014 Climate Change Adaptation Roadmap provides actions and plans to increase its resilience to the impacts of climate change. DoD sharpened its efforts last year with Directive 4715.21 Climate Change Adaptation and Resilience, which assigns responsibilities to each of the branches.

Navigating the Anti-science Administration

Secretary of Defense Mattis’ unpublished testimony underscores that climate change is a national security issue, it requires a whole of government approach, and the DoD needs resources to adequately prepare for these changes. While it can be argued that President Trump has a wrecking ball that is aimed on climate, it can also be argued that the DoD has climate change mainstreamed into all it does (as do other agencies).  For instance, in my recent blog, I speak to how climate change is a backyard issue for Naval Station Norfolk.  But Naval Station Norfolk is just one of many installations that have climate mitigation and adaptation measures embedded in their operations.

So whether or not we see congressional attempts again to halt the Pentagon’s climate change work, my guess is that “Mad Dog Mattis” won’t back down on ensuring the readiness of the military in the face of climate change.

(For more background on what the implications of the skinny budget and what you can do, see this blog.)