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Three Climate Issues to Watch in Defense Bills this Fall

by John Conger

For many years, a bipartisan consensus has been built in Washington around the risks that climate change poses to U.S. national security priorities. Congress has passed pragmatic legislation to assess the vulnerability of military infrastructure and forces; to expand U.S. military authorities and capabilities for resilience; and to increase emphasis on the melting Arctic and new tensions between the United States and both Russia and China.  

This year, however, climate issues have been drawn into tense and partisan political debates, which at the time of this publication, look like they will lead to a government shutdown. As the overarching government funding issues take center stage, here are three climate issues to keep an eye on as Congress moves defense legislation this Fall.

Counting Emissions

Despite skeptical commentary on climate security from some leaders on the House Armed Services Committee, the initial draft of the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) this year was relatively neutral. It didn’t extend ambition to defend against climate risks, but it didn’t push back much either.  One significant exception involved a pending federal rule that would require contractors to track and report their greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.  

The House version of the NDAA explicitly prohibits the use of funds to require Federal contractors to report their GHG emissions, specifically citing the pending acquisition rule that would require exactly this for Department of Defense (DoD), National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) and General Services Administration (GSA) contractors.  The Senate actually included a different prohibition – imposing a complete blockage of this requirement on non-traditional defense contractors (those who do not have active DoD contracts and are not currently subject to DoD accounting rules) and putting a two-year prohibition in place for traditional defense firms.

These provisions reflect three dynamics: 1) while Department of Defense climate resilience issues have generally been met with broad support within the Armed Services Committees, emissions policies have not achieved similar consensus; 2) the Administration wants to understand the US government’s carbon footprint and recognizes that the emissions of the USG supply chain are also emissions for which it bears some responsibility; and 3) the Administration’s rule is ambitious, and many business groups have responded in opposition, asserting that, as written, the rule would impose excessive costs on government contractors.

The Administration’s formal Statement of Administration Policy on the House version of the National Defense Authorization Act expresses opposition to the provision, stating that it “prevents DoD from exercising due diligence in assessing risks to potential contract awardees.”

Cutting Climate Investments

The Biden Administration has, for the last three years, highlighted a section of its DoD budget request and characterized several items as climate investments.  The number has steadily risen, and in the Fiscal Year 2024 Budget Request, it characterizes $5.1 billion of its request as supporting climate efforts, with much of that focused on resilience. The House Appropriations Committee was “dismayed” and accused the Administration of mischaracterizing long-standing efforts as mitigating climate risk, calling the practice disingenuous. The Senate Appropriations Committee had a related criticism of the practice, noting that many routine activities were included, and directed that in the future, this label be used “only for those activities for which the primary purpose is the mitigation of climate risk.”  

The House, however, reacted by cutting $715 million from the climate list, focusing on base operations support efforts that promote resilience at military installations, Army R&D programs that focus on hybrid and electric vehicles for use on the battlefield, and broader R&D programs designed to help the DoD increase efficiency of operational systems and prepare for climate risks in the future.  The Administration’s Statement of Administration Policy on this bill “strongly opposes” these cuts. It threatens a veto on the overall bill based on the totality of provisions, including this one, that it opposes.

One dynamic of this debate is that some consider any investment with a “climate” label to be inherently politicized, making these projects fair game for huge cuts. However, there are significant climate risks that DoD must, in fact, prepare for. Cutting them due to a label while ignoring the benefits to military capability and capacity could be characterized as disingenuous as well.

No matter how this debate sorts out, it is clear that climate benefits are not a one-dimensional metric. Some programs will improve energy resilience, not only to climate threats but cyber threats as well. New construction uses updated building codes, and one could argue (though the Administration omits this in its list) that every military construction dollar is one spent on climate resilience as a result. Benefits manifest to varying degrees in resilience, preparation for future threats, and yes, efficiency and emissions reductions too.

Ultimately, this points to the need for a better lexicon, but that’s a poor justification for cutting nearly a billion dollars in funding.

Blocking Executive Orders

During consideration in the full House of Representatives of both the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) and the Military Construction and Veterans Affairs Appropriations Act (Milcon-VA), several amendments targeting climate-related initiatives were proposed.  Interestingly, many of them were rejected.  One exception was an amendment offered by Representative Chip Roy (R-TX) that blocks funding for executing Administration Executive Orders on climate change. This amendment passed during NDAA consideration by a vote of 217-216, and during consideration of the Milcon-VA Appropriations Act by a vote of 220-214. 

It is not clear whether such a prohibition would have a practical impact as written, as the DoD and other Federal agencies have been pursuing many climate initiatives – even during the Trump Administration – because they further their respective agency missions. In fact, the requirement for DoD to purchase only electric vehicles for its non-tactical (on-base) fleet by 2035 is not just in an Executive Order – Congress enacted the requirement last year. In addition, many of the tasks outlined in the various Executive Orders have already been accomplished (such as the National Intelligence Estimate on climate risks).  

Conclusion

The ascendance of climate policy opponents in Congress has led to some notable clashes with the Administration at the nexus of defense policy and climate change. Without predicting how any of these will shake out, these are the fights to watch in the months ahead.

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