The State of the Union on Climate Change is Not Strong

February 1, 2019 | 10:02 am
Shana Udvardy
Senior Climate Resilience Policy Analyst

Last Tuesday, Dan Coats, director of National Intelligence, spoke to the Senate Select Committee on National Intelligence about the annual 2019 Worldwide Threat Assessment of the US Intelligence Community report. His testimony, which stressed the grave threat climate change poses to national security, was just the latest in a long line of warnings from intelligence, military and scientific experts who President Trump continues to attack. At his State of the Union speech next week, Trump is likely to continue this pattern, once again showing his disregard for the health and safety of Americans who are already grappling with the costly and harmful impacts of climate change.

Coats’ assessment: climate change is a national security risk

An independent agency, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) serves the 17 organizations that comprise the intelligence community to provide intelligence to protect American lives and America’s interests throughout the world. The Worldwide Threat Assessment is a new, unclassified report but it has been argued that the findings in the report aren’t really “news.”

However, in the age of Trump, what is significant is Coats’ testimony that climate change is a national security threat. In his opening oral statement before turning to his prepared remarks, Coats emphasized that ODNI’s mission is to “seek the truth and speak the truth.”

Climate change is specifically mentioned in the Human Security section of the report:

“Global environmental and ecological degradation, as well as climate change, are likely to fuel competition for resources, economic distress, and social discontent through 2019 and beyond. Climate hazards such as extreme weather, higher temperatures, droughts, floods, wildfires, storms, sea level rise, soil degradation, and acidifying oceans are intensifying, threatening infrastructure, health, and water and food security. Irreversible damage to ecosystems and habitats will undermine the economic benefits they provide, worsened by air, soil, water, and marine pollution.”

This year is the third time during the Trump administration (see the 2018 and 2017 annual reports) that climate change was included in the annual threat assessment report. While rare, it’s not the first time the Trump administration released climate change findings and policies. In 2017, Trump signed the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) fiscal year 2018 (FY 18) into law. The NDAA FY18 mandated that the Department of Defense (DoD) develop a report on the military sites most vulnerable to climate-related risks.  DoD has recently released that report which finds that installations across military branches are already affected by a number of climate change impacts:

  • two-thirds of the 79 installations it reviewed are vulnerable to current or future recurrent flooding;
  • more than 50 percent are vulnerable to current or future drought; and
  • roughly half are vulnerable to wildfires.

The military will not stand down on its watch to ensure mission readiness, whether it’s a threat from terrorism or climate change. But given the current administration, it is still a relief to see confirmed in this report that DoD is indeed integrating climate change resilience throughout all planning and decision-making processes.

The 2019 threat assessment is also reassuring to military experts in that it represents strong bipartisan consensus regarding the security risks of climate change and reflects similar findings across multiple administrations.

President Trump’s climate change denial undermines national security

 In response to Winter Storm Jayden,  Trump tweeted about needing global warming to come back (clearly pandering to fossil fuel interests).  Scientists and journalists rose to the occasion, once again, to correct the president’s scientifically false statements conflating weather and climate change.

The administration’s scientists at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) did their best to explain that winter storms don’t prove that global warming isn’t happening.

It’s more than an unfortunate thing that the Trump flaunts his climate change denial and confuses the issues.  He does a grave disservice to the people of our country struggling to cope with climate impacts like worsening flooding, drought and wildfires already—and the many more who will be at risk in the years to come.

Trump’s numerous attacks on science over the past two years, and removal  of any mention of climate change from the National Security Strategy in 2017 and the National Defense Strategy  in 2018.  The National Security Strategy is the administration’s framework to guide DoD on his national security vision and the National Defense Strategy is DoD’s plan for implementing this vision.  Not having climate change addressed explicitly in these national security and defense strategy documents (as have other versions under previous administrations) reduces the momentum so badly needed to minimize future impacts through emissions reductions and investing in risk reduction. By doing so, Trump is putting more and more communities and our military installations and families at risk of suffering from more frequent extreme weather events.

Coast Guard Shallow-Water Response Boat Team 3 crew members and members of the North Carolina National Guard assist residents of Old Dock, North Carolina, evacuate after flooding forced them from their homes Sept. 17, 2018.

The 2019 World Threat Assessment comes on the heels of other dire findings in recent climate reports including the administration’s own comprehensive assessment prepared by a consortium of 13 US federal government agencies, the Fourth National Climate Assessment (NCA4), the intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Special Report on Global Warming of 1.5°C, and the World Economic Forum’s (WEF) 2019 Global Risks Report.

  • The NCA4 report out of this Administration shows how the United States is already suffering damages from climate change and that residents are forced to cope with dangerously high temperatures, rising seas, deadly wildfires, torrential rainfalls and devastating hurricanes.
  • The IPCC report tells us that there is a “fierce urgency of now” to keep global temperatures from rising above 1.5°C and that we need to implement a suite of policies to reduce carbon emissions and build climate resilience.
  • And the WEF Global Risks report again this year indicates that survey respondents find extreme weather events and inaction on climate change to be extremely concerning. The authors summarize the resounding responses to environmental risks to say that “the world is most clearly sleepwalking into catastrophe.”

The federal government and climate change have three things in common – they are extremely complex, cross-cutting, and expensive. Because climate change presents a significant financial risk to the federal government, the Governmental Accountability Office (GAO) included climate change as a high risk for the first time in their High Risk report in 2013 to help spur action on solutions.  Yet, climate change remains in the 2017 report indicating that Congress and this administration to have a heavy lift when it comes to limiting the federal government’s fiscal exposure by better managing climate change risks.

Each year communities and our U.S. military are affected by more extreme hurricanes, heavy precipitation events, wildfires, drought, and extreme heat. The cost of each individual event alone can be eye-popping.  Take for example the damages from Hurricane Florence on Marine Corps’ Camp Lejeune, which alone are estimated at $3.6 billion or the estimated funds needed for Tyndall Air Force base to recover from Hurricane Michael at $5 billion.  NOAA tracks the costs of individual extreme weather events annually and the trend is not a pretty picture: the costs are rising and are on track to continue to grow.

Trump must fall in step with his own national intelligence, military, and science communities on climate change

The chorus of national intelligence, military, and science voices are telling us that across America (and globally), climate change is already disrupting lives, changing ways of life from one generation to the next, placing huge costs on the U.S. economy, and straining our national security. Defense experts agree that today with the unprecedented risks and unprecedented foresight, we have a responsibility to prepare and to do all we can do to limit climate-related risks by reducing heat-trapping emissions.

A while back, Live Science covered a study on why it is so important for troops to march in unison noting that “when soldiers march in unison, it not only intimidates enemies, it also gives the soldiers a confidence boost.

By marching in step with his federal agencies on climate change, the President could bring the power needed to make a real dent in combating climate change and provide more confidence to the American people that together we can make a real difference to reduce the “increasingly destructive and irreversible impacts on life on Earth” in a warming world.  

 He can start next week in his State of the Union speech by speaking truth to the science on climate change.