On July 13, the U.S. House of Representatives defended a provision in the FY2018 National Defense Authorization Act which identifies climate change as a “direct threat to the national security of the United States,” and requests a report from the Department of Defense on climate change risks to its mission over the next 20 years. Forty-six Republicans joined 188 Democrats in supporting the provision, for a vote tally of 234-185. A number of representatives spoke in favor of the provision, and cited Secretary of Defense James Mattis’s words in his responses to the Senate Armed Services Committee, wherein he noted that climate change is a current threat that is altering the strategic environment, and presenting a range of risks to military readiness and operations. Secretary Mattis’s statements were supported in a range of Congressional briefings that preceded the NDAA vote, held by the Center for Climate and Security and its partners on April 27, May 17, June 5, and July 12.
On the House floor, Republican Representative Elise Stefanik stated:
We would be remiss in our efforts to protect our national security to not fully account for the risk climate change poses to our bases, our readiness, and to the fulfillment of our armed forces’ mission.
She was joined by fellow Florida Republican Ileana Ros-Lehtinen who noted:
I have a Coast Guard base in my district. Coast Guard Base Miami, located right there on the water in Miami Beach. And we know the impact of sea level rise in that area.
Some, such as the leadership of the bipartisan Climate Solutions Caucus, are hailing the vote as the strongest bipartisan showing on climate change in years, and evidence that there is a strong bipartisan majority in Congress that supports national policy actions on climate change. Technically-speaking, the provision in question (passed almost unanimously by the House Armed Services Committee) simply asks for a report on what the Department of Defense is likely already aware of, and planning for, on climate change. So it’s not a seismic event in terms of its immediate policy implications. However, more broadly, the provision sends a very important, supportive signal from the U.S. Congress to the Department of Defense that it respects the Pentagon’s concerns about climate risks, and supports it in its efforts to mitigate them. The vote also communicates to the Executive Branch as a whole that this is an issue of importance to both Republicans and Democrats in the U.S. Congress.
At the highest level, the action demonstrates a growing bipartisan political consensus in the United States that climate change is a national security risk, and cannot be ignored. As climate change-exacerbated impacts such as sea level rise, droughts and wildfires are felt on the ground in Congressional districts across the U.S. – including districts that house important military bases and training ranges – it is becoming increasingly apparent that climate change is no longer a theoretical, future problem. The risks are present and real, and they have both practical and political consequences. (See the Center’s Military Expert Panel Report on Sea Level Rise and the U.S. Military’s Mission, for more on this topic).
This seemingly obscure vote on July 13, 2017 may ultimately be a marker in the historical sands, indicating a tipping point in concern about the national security risks of a changing climate. Stay tuned to see if that turns out to be an accurate prognosis.