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Tina Casey headshot

Tiny Signs of Consensus on Climate Change Emerge in U.S. Congress

By Tina Casey

It's been a long time coming, but small signs of bipartisan agreement on climate change have emerged in the U.S. Congress. Whether they are just blips on the screen or the beginning of the end of Republican resistance to climate action remains to be seen, but at least it's a step in the right direction.

1. The Secretary of Defense is a forceful climate change realist

One early sign emerged at the beginning of President Trump's term, when the Republican-lead Senate confirmed the nomination of James Mattis to head the Department of Defense.

Back in January the leading journal Scientific American reported that in his unpublished testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee, Mattis positioned climate change as here-and-now fact that demands immediate action, not merely an issue of concern for future action:

"Climate change is impacting stability in areas of the world where our troops are operating today," Mattis said in written answers to questions posed after the public hearing by Democratic members of the committee. "It is appropriate for the Combatant Commands to incorporate drivers of instability that impact the security environment in their areas into their planning."

Mattis did not reach this position out of the blue. As tracked by TriplePundit and numerous other media, national defense and national security stakeholders have long recognized the reality of climate change and the threat it poses to U.S. interests, an understanding that dates back at least as far as the 1990s.

Those concerns coalesced during the administration of Republican president George W. Bush and ratcheted up under Democratic president Barak Obama's administration, when the Department of Defense began to include climate change in an important planning tool, the Quadrennial Defense Review.

The Executive Summary of the 2014 QDR provides an overview of DoD's concerns and its courses of action:

The impacts of climate change may increase the frequency, scale, and complexity of future missions, including defense support to civil authorities, while at the same time undermining the capacity of our domestic installations to support training activities. Our actions to increase energy and water security, including investments in energy efficiency, new technologies, and renewable energy sources, will increase the resiliency of our installations and help mitigate these effects.

2. The nominee for Secretary of the Navy is a climate advocate, too

The U.S. Navy's action on climate change faced an uncertain earlier this year, when the Trump Administration proposed Philip Bilden for Secretary of the Navy.

Though Bilden appears to have no record of climate change denial, the billionaire investor's position on climate change was an open question.

The Union of Concerned Scientists did spot one hint: Both of Bilden's sons served under former Navy Secretary Ray Mabus, who was a fierce and eloquent advocate for climate action.

Bilden's ability to have an impact on climate policy became a moot point, though, when he withdrew his nomination due to difficulties in separating from his business interests.

That left the field open for a new nominee for Navy Secretary, businessman Richard V. Spencer.

As reported in The Hill, Spencer made his position on climate change clear during his nomination hearing last week:

“The Navy is totally aware of rising water issues, storm issues, etc.” nominee Richard V. Spencer told the Senate Armed Services Committee on Tuesday.

“We must protect our infrastructure, and I will work hard to make sure we are keeping an eye on that because without the infrastructure, we lose readiness.”

Spencer's military experience is long in the past (he was a Marine aviator from 1976 to 1981), but he has remained active in numerous military organizations.

In particular, Spencer became a member of the Defense Business Board during the Obama administration and he currently sits on the Chief of Naval Operations Executive Panel, where he is in a good position to keep abreast of climate impacts affecting national defense.

In addition, Spencer is an advisor to the Center for a New American Security, a bipartisan think tank and leadership training organization established in 2007 with this mission:

CNAS engages policymakers, experts, and the public with innovative, fact-based research, ideas, and analysis to shape and elevate the national security debate. A key part of our mission is to inform and prepare the national security leaders of today and tomorrow.

On October 2016 CNAS published an article outlining its energy policy advice for the incoming president in advance of Election Day. CNAS included this observation about climate change:
Climate change cannot be ignored, and national leaders must directly address this topic through a focus on research, development, and deployment of new energy technologies.

With all this in mind, the mere fact that Spencer's name made it through the Trump administration nominee filter is remarkable.

So far it looks like Spencer is on track for confirmation. Last week he cleared the committee hearing, which U.S. Naval Institute News described as "largely congenial," with bipartisan support.

The next step is a vote by the full Senate, which has yet to be scheduled.

3. 46 House Republicans vote to affirm climate change

So much for the Senate. The House recently took an important baby step on climate change as well. Last week, 46 Republican members of the House of Representatives joined with Democrats to keep a climate change study in the new defense funding bill, the National Defense Authorization Act.

The NDAA required a study of the impacts of climate change on military facilities over the next 20 years, but Pennsylvania Representative Scott Perry had other ideas. He introduced an amendment that would strip out the study:

Perry said his amendment was not meant to debate the existence of climate change, but rather, “my point is that this should not be the priority" for the military.

As reported by The Hill, House members defeated the amendment by a vote of 234 to 185.

Some Republicans who voted against the amendment contradicted Perry's claim that climate change "should not be  a priority for the military."

The Hill cited Rep. Elise Stefanik (R-NY):

The effects of climate change “are drivers of geopolitical instability and degrade the security of the United States,” Stefanik said.

“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 services mission.”

4. Here comes the National Security Council...and Emmanuel Macron

The Republican party has spent many years positioning itself as the only legitimate voice on national defense, but that comfort zone has been disintegrating as the Department of Defense responds to the impacts of climate change.

DoD has an expansive role in climate action that includes funding foundational research on clean technology as well as investing in renewable energy and energy efficiency, working to promote energy awareness within its ranks, and providing veterans with job opportunities in clean energy fields.

In all of these endeavors DoD has a willing partner in the Department of Energy.

Despite the pro-coal rhetoric of the Trump Administration, Energy Secretary and former Texas Governor Rick Perry has enabled his agency to continue building on Obama-era policies promoting wind, solar and other renewables.

The Energy Department's relationship with the defense community gained strength earlier this year, when national security advisor H.R. McMaster reshuffled the National Security Council to provide Perry with a seat at the same table shared by James Mattis.

Aside from reflecting the Energy Department's leading role in managing the nation's nuclear resources, the move provides for the mutual reinforcement of energy policies that respond to climate change.

Unwittingly or not, President Trump himself also appears to be suggesting that national security is a safe space in which Republicans can support action on climate change and its corollary, renewable energy.

Last week, Trump apparently gave French President Emmanuel Macron the idea that he was receptive to addressing climate change in the context of the global fight against terrorism.

Stay tuned.

Image (screenshot): US Department of Energy.


Tina Casey headshot

Tina writes frequently for TriplePundit and other websites, with a focus on military, government and corporate sustainability, clean tech research and emerging energy technologies. She is a former Deputy Director of Public Affairs of the New York City Department of Environmental Protection, and author of books and articles on recycling and other conservation themes.

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