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Carl Nettleton headshot

Climate Change Policies and Federal Funding Cuts Could Impact Military, Developing Nations

By Carl Nettleton

When White House Budget Director Mick Mulvaney announced the proposed budget for the 2018 fiscal year on March 16, he said "spending on climate change is a waste of your money, and we're not going to do it anymore."

The implications of that pronouncement and the related Presidential Executive Order Promoting Energy Independence and Economic Growth released on March 28 are far reaching. And, according to some experts, climate change funding is far from a waste of money.

In a press briefing organized by Oxfam on March 30, speakers related how reductions in climate change spending could impact everything from support for community resiliency in the U.S. to loss of foreign aid to developing countries. Oxfam is an international confederation of NGOs working in more than 90 countries to end the injustices that cause poverty.

Mayor Belinda Constant of Gretna, Louisiana, is the co-chair of the Mississippi River Cities and Towns Initiative (MRCTI), an association of 75 Mississippi River mayors representing all 10 states bordering the Mississippi River. Mayor Constant says the impacts of climate change are happening now and have financial implications.

"Since 2000, natural disasters have become more severe and more common in the U.S., increasing from an average of 46 events to 61 events per year, with a high of 97 in 2011," she told reporters last week. “Since 2005, the Mississippi River Valley has had successive 100-, 200- and 500-year flood events, a 50-year drought, and Hurricanes Katrina and Isaac.”

She says natural disasters along the Mississippi River have become persistent and systemic and cost more than $50 billion since 2011, cutting into the economy of  Mississippi River states by 8.7 percent.

Mayor Constant argued that eliminating federal support for community resiliency will make it harder for cities and states to protect the lives, health and well-being of their residents.

MRCTI presented a $100 million plan to the White House and Congress on March 2 to protect the infrastructure of the Mississippi River corridor by fully funding the Pre-Disaster Mitigation Grant Program, which helps 39 states plan for disasters. The proposed budget cuts the program's funding in half.

Mayor Constant told Memphis Magazine that the budget cuts “leave the region’s residents and economy at risk at a time when climate change is causing damaging extreme weather to occur with greater frequency and severity.”

“If you don’t want to call it climate change, you can call it whatever you want,” she said at the press briefing last week. “But the point is we are dealing with this grim reality. And we have to address it head on. We can’t pretend it is not happening.”

Jessica Grannis, adaptation program manager for the Georgetown Climate Center, agreed with Mayor Constant that climate impacts are happening now, offering these examples:

  • Places like Miami and Norfolk, Virginia, are seeing city streets filled with flood water during sunny-day conditions at high tide.

  • In New York and New Jersey storm surges from Hurricane Sandy added to sea levels that have already risen by one foot, causing $63 billion in damage across the region.

  • Cities across the country are dealing with record temperatures – the 10 hottest years on record since 1998.

  • In February, Oklahoma experienced temperatures approaching 100 degrees.

  • In North Carolina, Highway 12 has been repeatedly damaged and rebuilt three times in less than a decade.

The U.S. Conference of Mayors also weighed in on domestic impacts of the recent executive order, saying their organization acknowledges “the detrimental impact that climate change already has, and will continue to have on our communities and our planet."

"And while Mayors will continue to lead the way, we cannot do it alone. We need both the public and private sector to work together to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions if we are to remain economically competitive and energy independent.”

The international perspective is similar to that in the U.S., said Saleemul Huq, senior fellow at the International Institute for Climate and Development in Bangladesh.

He sees commonality between the Louisiana experience and that of his country. Bangladesh, a low-lying nation with 160 million people living in 160,000 square kilometers, is one of the most vulnerable in the world. He said the delta region faces cyclones and regular floods that are becoming more frequent, much as they are in Louisiana.

Sherri Goodman, former undersecretary of defense for environmental security and a Wilson Center senior fellow, said it is already clear to military leaders that climate change is undermining stability in areas of the world where U.S. troops are operating today.

“Climate change is a threat multiplier to instability,” Goodman told reporters. She pointed out that the “sunny-day flooding” in Norfolk already affects Hampton Roads military operations: Periodically it is already difficult for defense employees to get to work.

In a July 2016 paper, the Union of Concerned Scientists concluded: “Naval Station Norfolk in Virginia and 17 other U.S. military installations sitting on waterfront property are looking at hundreds of floods a year and in some cases could be mostly submerged by 2100,” the Navy Times reported.

A recent documentary, “The Age of Consequences,” addressed the implications of climate change on national security. In the film Sharon Burke, a former assistant secretary of defense for operational energy, said: “When you talk about climate change as national security challenge, you have to ask  ... How does it affect what they have to be ready for in the future?”

The documentary reports that in 2003 the Department of Defense first identified the national security implications of abrupt climate change. By 2014, a DoD Climate Roadmap report identified that climate change posed immediate risks to national security, that the risks are continuing to accelerate, and that they are now a catalyst for conflict.

The results of the findings regarding the national security implications of climate change have made the U.S. military a leader in new clean-energy initiatives. By January 2016, the Navy alone had procured 1.1 gigawatts of renewable energy, about half of its power requirements. This helps to increase resiliency by enabling the installations to continue operations in the event of a commercial grid disruption.

The Department of the Navy has also investigated the use of biofuels. The most obvious example of this work is the Great Green Fleet, a year-long initiative that deployed the John C. Stennis Strike Group using alternative fuels, "including nuclear power for the carrier and a blend of advanced biofuel made from beef fat and traditional petroleum for its escort ships.” The purpose of the program was to allow ships to go farther, stay longer and deliver more firepower. And it “helped usher in the next era of Navy energy innovation.”

Last month, current Defense Secretary James Mattis told Congress that "climate change is a serious national security threat" and a driver of global instability that “requires a broader, whole-of-government response,” Politico reported. But the Wilson Center’s Sherri Goodman said, despite Mattis’ assertion, it is unclear how DoD climate change and clean energy programs would be funded in the proposed budget. However, she said the biofuels investment likely will not be included.

Saleemul Huq of Bangladesh cited three impacts to the implementation of the new executive order and cutbacks in U.S. climate funding:

  • Difficulty reaching the long-term goal of limiting increases in temperature to 1.5  degrees Celsius as called for in the Paris accord, if the U.S. doesn’t do it’s share.

  • Failure to make good on a commitment from developed countries to provide $100 billion annually to tackle climate change that would be provided to developing countries beginning in 2020. The U.S. commitment is $3 billion annually.

  • Lack of support for U.S. citizens and communities that will be impacted by climate change.

Heather Coleman, Oxfam America’s climate change manager, is focused on the international ramifications. She said the proposed budget essentially eliminates all climate-related foreign aid. She said Oxfam will join with other organizations to protect foreign aid funding in the current and future budgets.

“We are on the brink of four famines in Africa and given the situation in the U.S., it doesn’t look like they [the administration] are going to be sending any funds to help,” she said last week. On its website, Oxfam said “famine has been declared in South Sudan, and is already likely happening in parts of in northern Nigeria, while Yemen and Somalia are on the brink."

Goodman included water mismanagement and political strife as part of the instability equation in Africa and added other areas of potential concern to the military. She called part of the Pacific Ocean “disaster alley” in an area including the Philippines, Southeast Asia, Vietnam and Bangladesh, as well as low-lying Pacific Islands. She also added the Arctic to the list. “The big unknown is when the dramatic changes occurring in the Arctic will lead to an incident, an oil spill or accident, for which the U.S. or other forces are unprepared or unable to respond.”

Will famines, sea-level rise or the warming Arctic contribute to global political instability requiring more military intervention on the part of the U.S.? It's too soon to say, and only time will tell how U.S. policies and final decisions on federal funding initiatives will work to prevent unrest through what Oxfam’s Heather Coleman calls “the soft power of foreign aid.”

Image credits: 1) MRCTI; 2) U.S. Navy

Carl Nettleton headshot

Carl Nettleton is an acclaimed award-winning writer, speaker and analyst. He heads Nettleton Strategies, a public policy firm specializing in oceans, water, energy, climate, and U.S. Mexico border issues. Carl also founded OpenOceans Global, an NGO solving ocean crises by unifying and empowering global communities. Carl serves on the national and California advisory councils for Environmental Entrepreneurs (E2), a national, nonpartisan group of business owners, investors and others who advocate for policies that are good for the economy and good for the environment. He is co-chair of the San Diego Water Conservation Action Committee (CAC) and a member of the San Diego Regional Chamber of Commerce, Lambda Alpha, South County Economic Development Council, Otay Mesa Chamber of Commerce and U.S.-Mexico Border Philanthropy Partnership.

Read more stories by Carl Nettleton