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U.S. Secretary of Defense and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs: Climate Change Impacts National Security

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Dr. Mark Esper, U.S. Secretary of Defense, and GEN Mark Milley, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, address climate change threats to the military before the House Armed Services Committee – February 26, 2020

By Dr. Marc Kodack

On February 26, 2020, the House Armed Services Committee held a hearing on “The Fiscal Year 2021 National Defense Authorization Budget Request from the Department of Defense.” Witnesses providing written statements and answering questions included Dr. Mark Esper, U.S. Secretary of Defense and GEN Mark Milley, Chairman, Joint Chiefs of Staff. Both Secretary Esper and General Milley identified climate change as a phenomenon that has impacts on the military and national security, and that investments need to be made now in order to address future risks. Below is a verbatim transcript of the exchanges between Members of Congress and the two witnesses on climate change and climate-related topics.

Dr. Mark Esper, Secretary of Defense (SECDEF)(00:51:48)

“Homeland Security is in the, is in the National Defense Strategy. There’s a lot of things we do that aren’t in the National Defense Strategy. We help people during floods. We help people during hurricanes. We help put out wildfires in the west. I mean there’s a lot of things that we do that aren’t always captured, but it’s the nature of what we do. And when the nation calls upon us to support.”

Representative James Langevin (01:00:29

“I want to go to another issue on, the issue of climate change. In FY18, the NDAA [National Defense Authorization Act] I authorized, I authored legislation that instructed each Service to assess the risks of climate change on the military facilities. Secretary, appreciate that, you as Secretary of the Army, the list that you sent back to the committee, identifying those bases, but the implications of climate change are indisputable. The department manages more than 1,700 military installations in worldwide coastal areas that may be affected by sea level rise. Hurricane Michael and Florence, just by way of example, caused an estimated, $8.3 billion in damage. Secretary Esper, do you agree that the changing climate poses a threat to our readiness and ability to achieve military objectives?”

Dr. Mark Esper, SECDEF (01:01:22)

“Thank you, Mr. Langevin. I agree as I think we reported as, the Chairman and I when we were at the Army, is that climate change poses a challenge for our installations and making sure that we can make sure we can maintain installation readiness to support our forces. We discovered this in the Army the biggest challenge we face was, for example, I think when you and I spoke was desertification out west with many of our bases so it is something I’m aware of. I know we face a challenge in Norfolk with rising tides, it’s something we have to plan on to make sure we can address it so we maintain a strong installational base.”

Representative James Langevin (01:01:51)

“Is it affecting our readiness?”

Dr. Mark Esper, SECDEF (01:01:55)

“I don’t think it’s affecting our readiness right now. I’d have to dig into that and get back to you to give you a more sound answer, but I’ve, it’s not been reported to me that is affecting our readiness presently.”

Representative James Langevin (01:02:05)

“Do you agree that we need to make investments today in order to mitigate the risk that we do face and that we will face in the short, medium, and the long terms? And, what would some of those investments be?”

Dr. Mark Esper, SECDEF (01:02:15)

“Sure, I think we do, where it’s appropriate where we can make a difference. And to me, I mentioned Norfolk I believe it was concerned about, again rising tide what it may do to the dry docks and I think the Navy’s investing in that, but again that’s something I’d like to come back to you on, but we are looking at those issues and tracking them and making appropriate investments.”

Representative James Langevin (01:02:36

“Well, will you commit to working with me and my colleagues to determine the appropriate investments necessary to protect our national security from climate change?”

Dr. Mark Esper, SECDEF (01:02:44)


Representative John Garamendi (01:34:03)

“[To the SECDEF] You also indicated in your response on climate change that it is not affecting the Navy? not affecting the military? Perhaps I heard you wrong, you might look at Tyndall. You might look at Offutt. You might look at Norfolk. You might look across the entire spectrum of the military and recognize that there is a severe impact already as a result of climate change. It’s going to get worse. And, I urge you to pay attention to the current NDAA that requires you, as Secretary, to pay attention to this issue in every single part of the military. With that, I yield back.”

Dr. Mark Esper, SECDEF (01:34:39)

“Mr. Garamendi, I am paying attention. As I said very clearly to Mr. Langevin, I do recognize the impact on the military. In fact, I mentioned Norfolk in particular and I mentioned the impact of desertification on Army bases.”

Representative John Garamendi (01:34:50)

“Yeah and where is it in the budget?”

Representative Adam Smith (01:34:54)

“I’m sorry. Gentleman, his time has expired. I get the feeling that this could go on for a while.”

Representative Rueben Gallego (01:50:18)

“Mr. Secretary, if the President were to declare a national emergency over climate change, would he be able to reprogram money from DoD to respond to that emergency using existing transfer authority?”

Dr. Mark Esper, SECDEF (01:50:29)

“I don’t know Congressman.”

Representative Rueben Gallego (01:50:30)

“You don’t know. Ok. Would there be a limit to how much money the President could reprogram to have the Pentagon pay for that declared national emergency?”

Dr. Mark Esper, SECDEF (01:50:37)

“I just don’t know. It’s speculative. I am not a lawyer, so.“

Representative Rueben Gallego (01:50:40)

“Well you are the Secretary of Defense and just reprogrammed a lot of money away from us. Do you have an opinion on that?”

Dr. Mark Esper, SECDEF (01:50:45)

“I know that it is legally available to us because the DoD lawyers and the White House lawyers and the Department of Homeland Security lawyers have advised me is that it is legally available.”

Representative Rueben Gallego (01:50:54)

“It is legally available because the President has declared that the border is an emergency so therefore if we have any other President declaring something random as an emergency don’t you think that such an authorization would be legal at that point?“

Dr. Mark Esper, SECDEF (01:51:04)

“Well, again, I am not going to speculate.”

Representative Rueben Gallego (01:51:07)

“So there, in that case then, you would not be able to speculate what accounts would be available to reprogram. So, is it ships, troop pay, military construction, all that should be fair game according to the ideology that this President is using in terms of reprogramming?”

Dr. Mark Esper, SECDEF (01:51:20)

“Again, I am not going to speculate.”

Representative Jason Crow (03:05:44)

“Secretary Esper, do you believe that climate change is real?”

Dr. Mark Esper, SECDEF (03:05:48)

“Yes, I do Congressman.”

Representative Jason Crow (03:05:49)

“Do you believe it is a threat to our national security and to our military?”

Dr. Mark Esper, SECDEF (03:05:53)

“I don’t believe it is a threat to our national security as I’ve traditionally defined it. I do believe it is a challenge for our military installations that are confronted with the impact of climate change.”

Representative Jason Crow (03:06:01)

“Do you believe the well-established threat of refugees, increased pandemics, instability and increased terrorism that could result from all that instability pose additional challenges from the perspective of national security?”

Dr. Mark Esper, SECDEF (03:06:12)

“They do, it’s a chain of events, right, that create certain situations, we see that in many conflicts, you know, over time it’s happened.”

Representative Jason Crow (03:06:25)

“So, destabilization and mass migration, refugee, does pose a threat to our national security?”

Dr. Mark Esper, SECDEF (03:06:30)

“Well, it could create the situation by which we are encountered with a national security matter that could involve the military. But that’s a series of ifs and whens, thises and that.”

Representative Jason Crow (03:06:40)

“GEN Milley, do you agree with that characterization?”

GEN Mark Milley, CJCS (03:06:43)

“I think, I think climate change is real. I think it is probably going to result in destabilization, with resource depletion, water and things like that. You’re gonna see things like increases in diseases. There are a lot of second and third order effects. And does it impact on U.S. national security? Yes it does.”

Representative Jason Crow (03:07:01)

“Do you believe that we’re now making the efforts to address those increased threats?”

GEN Mark Milley, CJCS (03:07:04)

“I think we are making reasonable efforts, yes.”

Representative Jason Crow (03:07:07)

“Do you believe there could be more that we could be doing to address the threats?”

GEN Mark Milley, CJCS (03:07:11)

“Right now, in terms of the international piece, no. In terms of our basing and infrastructure here in CONUS [Continental U.S.] which was one of the previous questions, I think, I think we have to look at all of our infrastructure to make sure it can withstand things like rising seas and increased storms, and so on and so forth. That, that is a level of effort that DoD [Department of Defense] has been…”

Representative Elissa Slotkin (03:16:47)

“And then lastly, I was just a little confused on your answer on climate change. I sort of heard from GEN Milley, that yes you believe it is a national security threat. Secretary Esper you were more caveated. The Pentagon itself, your own staffs put out a report in 2014 that climate change was, has an impact on national security, even just like more superstorms etc., means more Guardsmen, more Reservists. Can you say yes or no? Do you believe climate change is a threat to national security?”

Dr. Mark Esper, SECDEF (03:17:15)

“What you said Congresswoman is different. And that’s I agree that climate change creates impacts on national security. The specific question was, do I define it as a national security threat. I don’t in my traditional thinking about how I identify national security threats.”

Representative Elissa Slotkin (03:17:28)

“GEN Milley?”

GEN Mark Milley, CJCS (03:17:29)

“Yeah, I agree with that. What I said is that it has second and third order impacts on national security. I think the significant national security threats to the United States/Department of Defense needs to focus on is China, Russia, North Korea, Iran, and terrorists. And, we can’t do everything for everyone. There’s a lot of threats. There’s infrastructure, there’s education system, there’s climate change, health care system, there’s all kinds of threats all of which could be bundled theoretically under the rubric of national security. But I think, I think climate change has impacts that result in national security challenges, such as resource constraints, instability and those sorts of things in different parts of the world. Absolutely. So, the second and third order impacts there’s national security challenges as a result. But the threats as I define them, are right in accordance with that NDS [National Defense Strategy].”

To watch the hearing, click here.

Members Attending the Hearing and Asking Questions

Adam Smith (D-Washington, Chairman); Mac Thornberry (R-Texas, Ranking Member); James Langevin (D-Rhode Island); John Garamendi (D-California), Vicky Hartzler (R-Missouri); Susan Davis (D-California); Joe Wilson (R-South Carolina), Michael Turner (R-Ohio); Kendra Horn (D-Oklahoma); Mike Rogers (R-Alabama); Liz Cheney (R-Wyoming); Joe Courtney (D-Connecticut); Doug Lamborn (R-Colorado); Robert Whitman (R-Virginia); Donald Norcross (D-New Jersey); Ruben Gallego (D-Arizona); Austin Scott (R-Georgia); Seth Moulton (D-Massachusetts); Elise Stefanik (R-New York); Salud Carabajal (D-California); Trent Kelly (R-Mississppi); Anthony Brown (D-Maryland); Mike Gallagher (R-Wisconsin); Ro Khanna (D-California); Matt Gaetz (R-Florida); Gil Cisneros (D-California), Jim Banks (R-Indiana); Chrissy Houlahan (D-Pennsylvania), Jason Crow (D-Colorado); Jack Bergman (R-Michigan); Elissa Slotkin (D-Michigan), Michael Waltz (R-Florida); Veronica Escobar (D- Texas); Elaine Luria (D-Virginia); Anthony Brindisi (D-New York); Jackie Speier (D-California).

Written Testimony

Dr. Mark Esper, Secretary of Defense

Full, written statement here. Climate change is not mentioned anywhere in the statement.

GEN Mark Miley, Chairman, Joint Chiefs of Staff

Full, written statement here. Climate change is not mentioned in the statement.

Dr. Marc Kodack is Senior Fellow at the Center for Climate and Security and former Sustainability and Water Program Manager in the Office of the Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Army for Energy and Sustainability.

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