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As White House questions climate change, U.S. military is planning for it


APRIL 8, 2019

In New York, there’s a plan to extend the Lower Manhattan coastline to guard against rising sea levels and other effects of climate change. – Drew Angerer/Getty Images

WASHINGTON, D.C. – In February, the White House devised a plan to challenge the scientific consensus that the burning of fossil fuels is a main driver of climate change and poses increasingly serious economic and health threats to the United States and the world.

But so far, the rest of the federal government hasn’t helped the Trump administration in its quest.

Several agencies have informed the National Security Council, which launched the initiative, that they do not anticipate taking part. Others, including some spearheading the government’s climate research, such as NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, say that no one has contacted them about it. And last week, four top U.S. military officials testified before Congress that they continue to see climate change as a significant security threat.

On Tuesday, the House Oversight Committee is scheduled to hold a hearing devoted to the topic, featuring former secretary of state John F. Kerry and former defense secretary Chuck Hagel.

Jon Powers, an Iraq War veteran who served as federal chief sustainability officer, said the military has become attuned to climate change given its global footprint and massive energy consumption.

“People are acting on climate not for political reasons, but [because] it really affects their mission,” said Powers, president and chief executive of the investment firm CleanCapital. “With the military, it’s now ingrained in the culture and mission there, which I think is the biggest change over the last 10 years.”

That doesn’t mean the White House effort is dead. Administration officials are considering establishing a federal advisory panel, which would allow them to appoint outsiders to scrutinize government findings.

Myron Ebell, a director at the conservative Competitive Enterprise Institute, said there was no point in enlisting federal scientists to challenge the government’s own climate reports. “They will only confirm what they’ve already done.”

For months, White House officials have looked for ways to question the scientific underpinnings of climate change and whether the issue actually presents an imminent national security threat.

The effort has been championed by William Happer, an NSC senior director. An emeritus professor of physics at Princeton University, Happer once headed an advocacy group that touted carbon dioxide as an asset rather than a pollutant.

During the early months of the administration, some Trump officials weighed the idea of conducting a “red team-blue team” exercise on climate change, an idea espoused by Scott Pruitt, then the head of the Environmental Protection Agency. White House aides, including then-Chief of Staff John F. Kelly, blocked the idea at the time.

But the effort got new life in recent months, after Happer’s arrival.

An NSC spokesman, who declined to be named in keeping with the council’s press policy, said the idea of an independent federal advisory committee remains on the table.

Speaking before the Senate Armed Forces Committee on Thursday, Gen. David L. Goldfein, Air Force chief of staff, cited the conflict in Syria as an example of how climate change’s impact is already destabilizing some nations. Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) asked about recent comments made by Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Joseph F. Dunford Jr.

“Most don’t remember what caused the Syria conflict to start,” Goldfein said. “It started because of a 10-year drought.”

“I think what . . . Chairman Dunford was talking about was that we have to respond militarily very often to the effects of, globally, of climate change.”

Goldfein’s remarks came two days after the commanders of U.S. European Command and U.S. Transportation Command voiced similar views before the same Senate panel.

After Warren asked Army Gen. Curtis M. Scaparrotti, who also serves as NATO’s supreme allied commander for Europe, whether he agrees with the intelligence community’s assessment that climate change presents a security threat, Scaparrotti replied, “I do, and I believe that, as you noted, much of this will be drivers for potential conflict, or at least very difficult situations that nations have to deal with.”

John Conger, who directs the Center for Climate and Security and served as acting assistant secretary of defense from 2012 to 2014, said the divergent views underscore the current schism within the federal government. After 13 agencies issued a National Climate Assessment warning that the intensifying effects of climate change pose a threat to the United States, President Trump and multiple Cabinet members questioned its findings.

“It’s important not to look at the administration as monolithic,” Conger said. “There are people in the administration who don’t think climate change is a risk, or is real, and there are people in the administration who do think it’s a risk and is real.”

Several agencies — including the Defense and State departments, along with the EPA and Office of the Director of National Intelligence — have yet to offer experts for the White House effort, according to three people familiar with the matter who asked for anonymity to discuss private deliberations.

One intelligence official said the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, who serves as the head of the intelligence community, “recommended the [intelligence community] be excluded from the committee’s scope of review given [its] role is not to conduct scientific climate change studies but to assess and analyze national security implications of climate change.”

Defense Department spokesman Johnny Michael referred questions about Pentagon participation in the panel to the White House.

“What I can tell you is that the effects of a changing climate are a national security issue with potential impacts to [Defense Department] missions, operational plans and installations,” he said in an email. The Pentagon “will focus on ensuring it remains ready and able to adapt to a wide variety of threats — regardless of the source — to fulfill our mission to deter war and ensure our nation’s security.”

An official at NASA said Friday the agency was unaware of any White House panel to reexamine climate change. A spokeswoman for Interior, which also conducts climate research, said the department had not been contacted about it and was not involved in any such effort.

In a recent hearing on Capitol Hill, NOAA’s acting administrator, Neil Jacobs, said he had not been asked to participate and defended the National Climate Assessment.

“I don’t know that there’s any ad hoc working group that’s been formed,” Jacobs said.