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Trump’s Defense Secretary Cites Climate Change as National Security Challenge

Our story on March 13 concerning Secretary of Defense James Mattis’ views on the relationship between climate change and national security was based on excerpts from unpublished written exchanges between Mattis and several Democrats on the Senate Armed Services Committee following his Jan. 12 confirmation hearing. ProPublica has now obtained more comprehensive sets of these “Questions for the Record” and his answers.

While the exchanges mainly focus on climate change, fossil fuel and renewable energy and related security issues, which was the initial reporting focus, they include discussions of Mattis’ views on issues ranging from Iran’s nuclear weapons program to ISIS, Guantanamo and LGBT issues in the military. The merged documents are posted on DocumentCloud. Explore and let us know what excites, irks or confuses you, and share this package with others. Post comments or get in touch via suggestions@propublica.org.

Secretary of Defense James Mattis has asserted that climate change is real, and a threat to American interests abroad and the Pentagon’s assets everywhere, a position that appears at odds with the views of the president who appointed him and many in the administration in which he serves.

In unpublished written testimony provided to the Senate Armed Services Committee after his confirmation hearing in January, Mattis said it was incumbent on the U.S. military to consider how changes like open-water routes in the thawing Arctic and drought in global trouble spots can pose challenges for troops and defense planners. He also stressed this is a real-time issue, not some distant what-if.

“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 has long espoused the position that the armed forces, for a host of reasons, need to cut dependence on fossil fuels and explore renewable energy where it makes sense. He had also, as commander of the U.S. Joint Forces Command in 2010, signed off on the Joint Operating Environment, which lists climate change as one of the security threats the military expected to confront over the next 25 years.

But Mattis’ written statements to the Senate committee are the first direct signal of his determination to recognize climate change as a member of the Trump administration charged with leading the country’s armed forces.

These remarks and others in the replies to senators could be a fresh indication of divisions or uncertainty within President Donald Trump’s administration over how to balance the president’s desire to keep campaign pledges to kill Obama-era climate policies with the need to engage constructively with allies for whom climate has become a vital security issue.

Mattis’ statements on climate change, for instance, recognize the same body of science that Scott Pruitt, the new Environmental Protection Agency administrator, seems dead-set on rejecting. In a CNBC interview last Thursday, Pruitt rejected established science pointing to carbon dioxide as the main driver of recent global warming.

Mattis’ position also would appear to clash with some Trump administration budget plans, which, according to documents leaked recently to The Washington Post, include big cuts for the Commerce Department’s oceanic and atmospheric research — much of it focused on tracking and understanding climate change.

Even setting aside warming driven by accumulating carbon dioxide, it’s clear to a host of experts, including Dr. Will Happer, a Princeton physicist interviewed by Trump in January as a potential science adviser, that better monitoring and analysis of extreme conditions like drought is vital.

Mattis’ statements could hearten world leaders who have urged the Trump administration to remain engaged on addressing global warming. German Chancellor Angela Merkel is scheduled to meet Trump on Friday.

Security questions related to rising seas and changing weather patterns in global trouble spots like the Middle East and sub-Saharan Africa are one reason that global warming has become a focus in international diplomatic forums. On March 10, the United Nations Security Council was warned of imminent risk of famine in Yemen, Somalia and South Sudan.

As well, at a Munich meeting on international security issues last month, attended by Mattis and Vice President Mike Pence, European officials pushed back on demands that they spend more on defense, saying their investments in boosting resilience to climate hazards in poor regions of the world are as valuable to maintaining security as strong military forces.

“[Y]ou need the European Union, because when you invest in development, when you invest in the fight against climate change, you also invest in our own security,” Federica Mogherini, the European Union’s high representative for foreign affairs and security policy, said in a panel discussion.

Concerns about the implications of global warming for national security have built within the Pentagon and national security circles for decades, including under both Bush administrations.

In September, acting on the basis of a National Intelligence Council report he commissioned, President Obama ordered more than a dozen federal agencies and offices, including the Defense Department, “to ensure that climate change-related impacts are fully considered in the development of national security doctrine, policies, and plans.”

A related “action plan” was issued on Dec. 23, requiring those agencies to create a Climate and National Security Working Group within 60 days, and for relevant agencies to create “implementation plans” in that same period.

There’s no sign that any of this has been done.

Whether the inaction is a function of the widespread gaps in political appointments at relevant agencies, institutional inertia or a policy directive from the Trump White House remains unclear.

Queries to press offices at the White House and half a dozen of the involved agencies — including the Environmental Protection Agency, Department of Defense, Department of Energy and Commerce Department — have not been answered. A State Department spokeswoman directed questions to the National Security Council and the White House, writing:

“We refer you to the NSC for any additional information on the climate working group.”

Mattis’ statements were submitted through a common practice at confirmation hearings in which senators pose “questions for the record” seeking more detail on a nominee’s stance on some issue.

The questions and answers spanned an array of issues, but five Democratic senators on the committee asked about climate change, according to a government official briefed in detail on the resulting 58-page document with the answers. The senators were Jack Reed of Rhode Island, the ranking member, Tim Kaine of Virginia, Mazie Hirono of Hawaii, Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire and Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts.

Excerpts from Mattis’ written comments to the committee were in material provided to ProPublica by someone involved with coordinating efforts on climate change preparedness across more than a dozen government agencies, including the Defense Department. Senate staff confirmed their authenticity.

Dustin Walker, communications director for the Senate Armed Services Committee, said responses to individual senators’ follow-up questions are theirs to publish or not.

Here are two of the climate questions from Sen. Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire, with Mattis’ replies:

Shaheen: “I understand that while you were commander of U.S. Joint Forces Command you signed off on a document called the Joint Operating Environment, which listed climate change as one of the security threats the military will face in the next quarter-century. Do you believe climate change is a security threat?”

Mattis: “Climate change can be a driver of instability and the Department of Defense must pay attention to potential adverse impacts generated by this phenomenon.”

Shaheen: “General Mattis, how should the military prepare to address this threat?”

Mattis: “As I noted above, climate change is a challenge that requires a broader, whole-of government response. If confirmed, I will ensure that the Department of Defense plays its appropriate role within such a response by addressing national security aspects.”

In a reply to another question, Mattis said:

“I agree that the effects of a changing climate — such as increased maritime access to the Arctic, rising sea levels, desertification, among others — impact our security situation. I will ensure that the department continues to be prepared to conduct operations today and in the future, and that we are prepared to address the effects of a changing climate on our threat assessments, resources, and readiness.”

Here’s some recommended reading for those seeking more depth:

Here’s How US Allies Are Trying to Convince Trump To Take Climate Change Seriously

UN Dispatch, Feb. 22, 2017, by John Light

Mattis on Military Energy Strategy

New America, Jan. 13, 2017, by Sharon Burke

Climate and Security Advisory Group: Briefing Book for a New Administration

The Center for Climate and Security, Nov. 14, 2017

(The Center for Climate and Security also has a helpful chronology of U.S. defense and intelligence output on these intertwined issues.)

A New Climate for Peace: Taking Action on Climate and Fragility Risks

A 2015 report commissioned by the foreign ministers of the Group of Seven

The National Security Case for Funding the EPA

The Hill (opinion), March 11, 2017, by Sherri Goodman (a deputy undersecretary of defense from 1993 to 2001)

Also, I ran a discussion on the subject at the Washington offices of the Hoover Institution last month with retired Navy Admiral Gary Roughead, who was chief of naval operations from 2007 to 2011; Alice Hill, who directed work on the intersection of climate and national security policy at the National Security Council during the Obama administration; and David Slayton, a retired Navy officer who is now at Hoover tracking Arctic security and energy policy. Watch the video.

Trump’s Hot Air On Global Warming Is Far From The Greatest Threat

Reprinted with permission from ProPublica.

President-elect Donald J. Trump has long pledged to undertake a profound policy shift on climate change from the low-carbon course President Obama made a cornerstone of his eight years in the White House.

“This very expensive GLOBAL WARMING bullshit has got to stop,” Trump tweeted a year ago.

In recent weeks, Trump doubled down, nominating champions of fossil fuels to several cabinet positions and peppering his transition team with longtime opponents of environmental regulations.

Both the rhetoric and the actions have provoked despair among many who fear a Trump presidency will tip the planet toward an overheated future, upending recent national and international efforts to stem emissions of heat-trapping carbon dioxide from burning coal, oil and natural gas.

But will a President Trump noticeably affect the globe’s climate in ways that, say, a President Hillary Clinton would not have?

In recent weeks, a variety of consultants tracking climate and energy policy have used models to help address that question. ProPublica asked Andrew P. Jones at Climate Interactive, a nonprofit hub for such analysis, to run one such comparison.

The chosen scenario assumes Trump’s actions could result in the United States only achieving half of its pledged reduction through 2030 under the Paris Agreement on climate change, the worldwide but voluntary pact aiming to avoid dangerous global warming that entered into force on Nov. 4.

In this scenario the difference — call it the Trump effect — comes to 11 billion tons of additional carbon dioxide emitted between 2016 and 2030. That number is huge — it’s the equivalent of more than five years’ worth of emissions from all American power plants, for instance.

But it’s almost vanishingly small in global context. Here’s why. Even if all signatories to the Paris pact met their commitments, the global total of CO2 emissions through 2030 would be 580 billion tons, with the United States accounting for 65 billion of those tons. The Trump difference could take American emissions to 76 billion tons, with that 11-billion-ton difference increasing cumulative global emissions by less than 2 percent.

This calculation assumes Trump’s effect is not as damaging as his rhetoric might suggest. Is that realistic? In interviews, more than half a dozen environmental economists and climate policy experts said yes.

They said this less because they see Trump moderating his stances and more because many of the targets set by Obama, and built on in Clinton campaign pledges, were based on shifts in energy use that are largely being driven by market forces or longstanding environmental laws that are relatively immune to the influence of any particular occupant of the White House.

These include polluting industries moving overseas, increasing industrial energy efficiency, a sustained shift away from coal to abundant, cleaner natural gas and wind, and a host of climate-friendly policies pursued by individual cities or states.

For instance, while Wyoming is among the 27 states fighting President Obama’s Clean Power Plan in court, the coal-rich state looks set to meet the emissions benchmarks in those power-plant rules, largely because of a giant wind farm poised to be built in, yes, Carbon County, and newly approved transmission lines to send electricity to states in the power-hungry Southwest.

It’s notable that while Trump’s choice for secretary of energy, former Texas Gov. Rick Perry, is a climate change contrarian, he’s credited by clean-energy champions with overseeing an enormous expansion of wind energy in his state. “Texas is a huge wind state, the biggest by far, and Rick Perry put in these transmission lines and made it wind friendly and that’s why they have such cheap electricity and no problems with reliability — none,” said Hal Harvey, a longtime climate and energy analyst who has advised past Clinton and Bush administrations and run a clean-energy foundation.

For many, this all hardly justifies a sigh of relief.

Indeed, many environmentalists reject the idea that any encouraging trends toward better energy choices are happening on their own. Many coal-fired power plants, they note, were stopped from being built only by lawsuits and political pressure brought by activist opponents, said Kierán Suckling, the founder of the Center for Biological Diversity, which uses the courts to limit harm to public lands and ecosystems.

“Industry and Republicans certainly don’t believe in a secular trend. Instead they have poured enormous resources into trying to amend or repeal old laws, pass new industry-friendly laws, strike down and influence Obama’s policies, and prevent activists from enforcing laws and policies,” Suckling said.

With Republicans controlling the White House and Congress, environmental groups are, in effect, “lawyering up,” vowing to counter any “drill baby drill” efforts with a “sue baby sue” response.

In the end, as global carbon-dioxide tallies reflect, such courtroom sparring, while important, is unlikely to have a game-changing impact on climate trajectories.

Much the same thing can be said of the lasting impact of American presidents. For nearly three decades, White House occupants have pledged to move the needle on climate change one way or the other, without terribly dramatic results.

In the scorching summer of 1988, when global warming first hit headlines in a significant way, presidential candidate George H.W. Bush used a Michigan speech to pledge meaningful action curbing heat-trapping greenhouse gases, saying, “Those who think we are powerless to do anything about the greenhouse effect forget about the White House effect.”

Despite a host of actions since that summer, including President George H.W. Bush signing the foundational climate treaty in Rio in 1992, you’d be hard-pressed to find evidence of such an effect in emission rates.

Globally, the “great acceleration” in emissions (that’s a scientific description) has largely tracked the growth in human numbers and resource appetites — particularly a seemingly insatiable appetite for energy, more than 80 percent of which still comes from fossil fuels despite sustained efforts to spread efficiency and renewable choices.

William Nordhaus, a Yale economist long focused on climate change policy, calls the global situation a high-stakes “climate casino.” He just published a working paper concluding that all policies so far have amounted to “minimal” steps that have had equally minimal effects.

Nearly three decades after that “White House effect” pledge, after eight years of sustained efforts by President Obama, including building a critical 2014 partnership with China, Nordhaus finds “there has been no major improvement in emissions trends as of the latest data.”

In the end, the main value of the climate calculations spurred by Trump’s election could be in refocusing attention on the true scope of the challenge, which some researchers have described as “super wicked” given how hard it has been, using conventional political, legal or diplomatic tools, to balance human energy needs and the climate system’s limits.

The Paris Agreement itself was far more a diplomatic achievement than a climatic one. Its 2030 pledges leave unresolved how to cut emissions of carbon dioxide essentially to zero in the second half of the century in a world heading toward 9 billion or more people seeking decent lives.

That plunge in emissions is necessary because unlike most other pollutants, carbon dioxide from fuel burning stays in circulation for centuries, building in the atmosphere like unpaid credit-card debt.

The real risk for climate change in a Trump presidency, according to close to a dozen experts interviewed for this story, lies less in impacts on specific policies like Obama’s Clean Power Plan and more in the realm of shifts in America’s position in international affairs.

Even if he doesn’t formally pull out of the climate treaty process, Trump could, for example, cancel payments pledged by the United States to a Green Climate Fund set up in 2010 to help the poorest developing countries build resilience to climate hazards and develop clean-energy systems.

President Obama has already paid in $500 million of the $3 billion commitment, with another $200 million potentially paid before he leaves office next month. Environmentalists last week pressed in an open letter for the full amount to be paid before Trump takes office.

“If the U.S. walks from its commitment, I would think it would be difficult for the other OECD countries to sustain donations, and if those donations are not sustained, developing countries will focus on growth as opposed to low carbon growth,” said Henry Lee, a Harvard scholar working in and studying climate policy for decades.

But in international affairs, Trump and his proposed secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, the Exxon chairman, will confront a world of intertwined interests in which climate change has moved from being an inconvenient environmental side issue in the early 1990s to a keystone focal point now, said Andrew Light, a George Mason University professor focused on climate policy.

Light, who served on Obama administration negotiating teams in the run-up to the Paris accord, said such intertwined interests will be thrust upon the Trump administration starting this spring and summer in venues like the annual Group of 7 and Group of 20 meetings of the globe’s most powerful countries.

“Those groups have committed to action using very strong climate and energy language,” he said. “The way we got so many leaders to come to Paris and make this happen and ended up getting an even more ambitious agreement than we expected was by breaking climate diplomacy out of its silo — and making it sort of a peer issue to questions like trade and security. In this world you can’t just walk away from all this stuff.”

Given how Trump appears to be relishing his position as a wild card and a self-described master of the deal, it’s still impossible to say what will unfold starting January 20.

In a blistering speech to thousands of earth scientists in San Francisco earlier this month, California Gov. Jerry Brown vowed to fight Trump in the near term using that state’s influence on everything from automobile standards to the national laboratories, which are managed by the University of California system.

But he also accurately described the climate challenge for what it is: “This is not a battle of one day or one election. This is a long-term slog into the future.”

IMAGE: Participants are seen in silhouette as they look at a screen showing a world map with climate anomalies during the World Climate Change Conference 2015 (COP21) at Le Bourget, near Paris, France, December 8, 2015.  REUTERS/Stephane Mahe