The military and intelligence communities may soon turn a blinder eye toward some climate change-related threats, indicated by President-Elect Donald Trump’s recent choices of climate-change skeptics for national security jobs, along with his own dismissive comments. But though experts say Trump and his team could roll back some recent initiatives, the momentum of bureaucracy, along with a military need to take the long view, mean climate-related plans are unlikely to be abandoned entirely.
The Department of Defense and the intelligence community have long considered climate change a crucial input into national security planning and policy. Former Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel said climate “can significantly add to the challenges of global instability, hunger, poverty, and conflict.” The Pentagon calls this a “threat multiplier.”
Yet Trump has tapped retired Lieutenant General Michael Flynn to be his national security advisor, and Flynn has ridiculed the idea that climate change poses any particular threat to the country. Congressman Mike Pompeo (R–KS) has been named to head the CIA, and he has questioned the scientific consensus on climate change and has voted for more oil drilling and against any regulation of carbon emissions. Joshua Busby, an associate professor of public affairs at the University of Texas at Austin, who has studied the intersection of climate change and national security, says the appointments mean “some of the gains made by the Pentagon and other executive agencies to prepare for the security consequences of climate change could be undone.”
For instance, Busby says, the National Intelligence Council, which advises the president, “has done a variety of studies on climate and security… and whether or not it continues to do so would depend upon the cast of characters in the incoming administration.” And “if Pompeo takes his climate skepticism in to the CIA, the kind of analytical work the agency used to do on this topic might be limited.”
Without such studies, the intelligence community would have a large, climate-shaped blind spot, says Francesco Femia, the co-founder and president of the Center for Climate and Security, a think tank based in Washington, D.C. Femia lists a number of specific areas this could affect, from wildfire risk at military installations to drought-related geopolitical instability. “A warming ocean in the South China Sea, which is driving fish stocks northward into contested waters, may increase the probability of conflict between China and its neighbors, which could draw the U.S. in,” he says. “These are all dynamics our intelligence community has to take into account to assess the broader picture of security risks to the U.S.”
Trump himself could rescind executive orders and other presidential directives, such as Obama’s recent memorandum instructing heads of executive departments and agencies to “ensure that climate change-related impacts are fully considered in the development of national security doctrine, policies, and plans.” If those impacts are ignored, everything from predicting refugee flows to domestic disaster preparedness could suffer. For example, a directive issued in January 2016 charged one military official with leading preparations for disaster relief, specifically incorporating climate risks; knowing where flooding might be worst in a storm would allow the military to provide aid far more quickly than otherwise.
(Trump’s transition team did not respond to requests for comment. A spokesperson for the Department of Defense declined to answer questions about future policy directions.)
In spite of these trends, the Pentagon itself may be harder to swing away from long-term undertakings such as preparing military bases for climate change. “Bureaucracies are slow to respond, especially if capital projects are involved that are under contract,” says Robert Durand, a professor emeritus of public administration at American University. Many military contracts for procurement or services are multiyear agreements, meaning some of the plans are at least partially irreversible.
Many current military officials also take the need to adapt to climate change seriously. “I imagine that there will be some pushback from the Pentagon if President Trump decides to walk away from all of these efforts, as bases like Naval Station Norfolk are subject to flooding with sea-level rise and storm surge. I anticipate that there will be folks in the military prepared to push investments in preparedness,” Busby says.
Still, investments yet to be made might be easier to postpone or eliminate. The Norfolk base has added four new higher piers already, for instance, but its plans to add another eight, at $100 million each, could be reconsidered or rescheduled. A clearer view of the climate-related national security landscape will only take shape with further appointments, most importantly the Secretary of Defense. Retired Marine General James Mattis is considered the leading candidate for the job, and he has made few—if any—public comments on climate.