Every year since 1961, the U.S. Congress has passed the National Defense Authorization Act – or the NDAA, as it’s known in acronym-obsessed Washington. The bill essentially determines which agencies are responsible for defense, establishes funding levels, and sets policies under which money will be spent. Last week, the U.S. Congress passed the FY2018 NDAA, and sent it to the President for signature. He is expected to promptly sign it. Interestingly, this year’s NDAA, among many other things, says something loud and clear about climate change: there is a bipartisan majority in Congress that accepts climate change is a “direct threat” to national security, and that the Department of Defense (DoD) must have the authority to prepare for it.
Lawmakers have shifted from being a headwind on climate change as a national security issue to being a tailwind, said John Conger, a senior policy adviser with the Center for Climate and Security.
“During the last administration they [Congress] pushed back — don’t do as much, reduce your funding — now they are saying to do more,” said Conger, who is a former Defense Department deputy comptroller. “I think there is a growing acceptance of the relevance of some of these issues and I think the fact that they put language in the bill reflects that.”
In terms of the content of the bill’s climate and security provision, the Washington Examiner’s Travis Tritten notes:
Changing climate is a “direct threat” to U.S. national security, endangering 128 military bases with sea rise and global destabilization that could fuel terror groups, according to the NDAA, which is a bipartisan compromise struck by the House and Senate.
The bill orders a Pentagon report on the top 10 at-risk bases and what should be done to protect them…
The language on climate change, almost certain to become law, is a sign that under the new Republican administration, Congress is moving toward more acceptance of the phenomenon being a serious security issue, and that the military will continue efforts to assess and plan for the risks.
Though this action by the Congress is not wholly unprecedented (for example, the 2015 defense appropriations bill requested a report from the DoD’s geographic combatant commanders on their efforts to address climate change), the level of vocal bipartisan support for the climate provision (as we saw when 46 House Republicans joined 188 House Democrats to actively defend it) was a very significant sign that the politics of the climate change issue have changed on the Hill. This is good news for the U.S. military, who has long considered climate change an apolitical security issue (during both Republican and Democratic administration). The provision effectively depoliticizes the issue, allowing the department to do its job in managing the threat without fear of admonishment from Capitol Hill. John Conger, again:
When politics affects the debate of what you can and cannot pay attention to or everything we do in this space is somehow politicized, it throws a wrench into the pragmatic apolitical instincts of the military,” Conger said. “The military’s goal is to be pragmatic and apolitical.
Beyond the political significance of the bill, the climate and security provision is also a step forward in terms of substance, particularly as it relates to adapting the nation’s military infrastructure to a changing climate. As Conger states: “the new NDAA report is a shift because it requires the military to say how it will shore up the at-risk bases and what the cost may be.”
Last year, the Center for Climate and Security’s Military Expert Panel released an analysis of the effects of sea level rise on the nation’s coastal military bases and training ranges, and what those effects may mean for the military’s force readiness, operations, and strategy. The NDAA climate provision calls on the DoD to identify which bases and training ranges (not necessarily limited to the coastline) are most at risk from climate change-related threats, which may help focus attention and resources on the most significant problems going forward.
In short, climate change is a matter of national security, and the U.S. military has to deal with it. It is heartening to see the nation’s policy-makers warming up (pun intended) to that reality.