Congress Pressing DOD to Prepare for Climate Change
Congressional Democrats are making the Department of Defense a major focus of their efforts to address climate change by leveraging their influence over the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), a sweeping policy bill that Congress traditionally passes annually.
Building on provisions attached to the last two NDAAs, the House version of this year’s bill would require the military to factor the anticipated impacts of climate change and extreme weather into its facility construction planning. The House Armed Services and Intelligence Committees have also drawn attention to the subject through recent hearings dedicated to the national security implications of climate change. Meanwhile, the version of the NDAA currently advancing in the Republican-controlled Senate also contains a provision that resembles one of the House proposals.
The White House has not publicly weighed in on the matter. However, the National Security Council has reportedly become a key source of resistance within the Trump administration to the scientific consensus on climate change, following the arrival of physicist William Happer as its director for emerging technologies last September.
Lawmakers look to identify at-risk military bases
Congress first required DOD to estimate the effects of climate change and associated extreme weather events on large bases through a provision attached to the NDAA for fiscal year 2018. Though there was an attempt to strip the provision from the bill, it was retained with bipartisan support . Lawmakers continued their efforts in the following year’s NDAA, including a provision requiring that DOD incorporate considerations of resilience to climate change and extreme weather into its master plans for “major military installations.”
DOD delivered its report on base vulnerabilities this January. Assessing the impacts of climate change on 79 military installations, it found that 53 are currently vulnerable to recurrent flooding, 43 to drought, 36 to wildfire, and one to thawing permafrost. In its version of this year’s NDAA, the House Armed Services Committee commends DOD’s report for “unequivocally stating that the majority of its installations assessed in the report are vulnerable to climate and weather impacts,” but notes the department failed to include a required list of military bases at the highest risk and the estimated costs of mitigation measures. “The deficiencies of this report are particularly acute in light of the extreme weather events that caused billions of dollars in damage to military installations in 2018,” it continues, citing the impacts of Hurricanes Florence and Michael.
After the committee first criticized the report in January, DOD provided Congress with initial lists of the 10 most vulnerable military bases in particular service branches but has still not provided cost estimates of mitigation measures. Pressing the subject, the committee now instructs DOD to perform a follow-on study that estimates the replacement value for buildings in vulnerable areas such as hurricane-prone regions.
This year’s bill also directs the department to assess the feasibility of “transitioning from 100-year floodplain data to a forward-looking predictive model that takes into account the impacts of sea-level rise.” Another new provision would require DOD to certify that proposed construction projects have accounted for “known extreme weather risks” prior to approval.
The Senate Armed Services Committee has joined its House counterpart in seeking to improve the resilience of military infrastructure to natural hazards, though its report accompanying the bill does not explicitly mention climate change.
The Senate bill would require DOD to detail its spending on adaption and mitigation efforts specific to extreme weather, which it defines as “recurrent flooding, drought, desertification, wildfires, and thawing permafrost.” Another provision would update requirements that DOD incorporate projections of “changing environmental conditions” into its facility master plans, adding to a list of authorized sources for such projections. The initial list was established through last year’s NDAA and includes the U.S. Global Change Research Program and the National Climate Assessment, among other sources.
DOD has yet to fully implement last year’s provision, according to a Government Accountability Office report released this month. The report finds that officials managing military installations and construction projects were not utilizing climate projections in their analyses because they lack guidance on how to incorporate them. Accordingly, it recommends that DOD issue such guidance including on “what sources of climate projections to use, how to use projections involving multiple future scenarios, and what future time periods to consider.”
Climate security hearing spotlights rift with White House
Members of the House Intelligence Committee have expressed their own interest in bolstering agencies’ ability to assess the impacts of climate change. At a hearing earlier this month, members probed whether the intelligence community should do more to integrate climate considerations into its analyses.
Rep. Denny Heck (D-WA) noted he was introducing a bill to establish a “Climate Security Intelligence Center” at the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI). Intelligence Committee Chair Adam Schiff (D-CA), who is cosponsoring the bill, also raised the option of restarting the MEDEA program , which gave climate scientists access to data collected through classified systems.
The hearing also touched on ways to improve the flow of climate information from civilian agencies such as NASA to the intelligence community. Rob Schoonover, a scientist at the State Department, attested that barriers are “largely ad hoc” rather than formalized, noting that he has relied on personal relationships to acquire information.
Summarizing the role and conclusions of intelligence officials in estimating climate impacts, he remarked, “The intelligence community’s role is not to predict the future, but rather to assess risk and strategic warning. Absent extensive mitigating factors or events, we see few plausible future scenarios where significant harm does not arise from the compounded effects of climate change.”
Soon after the hearing concluded, the particulars of the discussion were quickly overshadowed when it came to light that the White House blocked Schoonover from submitting written testimony on the grounds that it did not conform with the administration’s stance on climate change. The New York Times published a draft of the testimony showing extensive edits by a White House official, thought to be William Happer, disputing various references to scientific studies on the expected negative impacts of climate change.
Happer is a prominent physicist at Princeton University and a vocal opponent of the scientific consensus on climate change, who has often expressed the view that increased atmospheric carbon dioxide will prove beneficial on balance. He has held a variety of positions in government science policy, including as director of the Department of Energy’s science programs under President George H. W. Bush, and in 2017 he interviewed to be President Trump’s director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy.
This year, Happer has reportedly advocated for the White House to establish a panel that would scrutinize recent government assessments of climate change impacts, drawing the ire of congressional Democrats . The scope of the proposed assessment remains unclear, though it was initially reported to focus on the national security implications of climate change and later shifted to the integrity of climate assessments more generally.
How aggressively the White House will press its views on climate science remains to be seen, but congressional Democrats have begun to scrutinize its tactics. Responding to the White House’s interference with Schoonover’s testimony, Schiff sent letters to the State Department and ODNI seeking details on their interactions with the White House by June 21.