The first job of a leader is to protect the people. With President Trump’s continued denial of the risks of climate change — and proposed appointment of a White House panel clearly meant to undermine the military’s assessment of this danger — he is failing at that fundamental obligation. As a former naval officer, it is deeply disturbing to me to see our commander in chief strike the colors in the face of danger.
Climate change is a national security threat. Stronger storms will lead to increasing damage to coastal military facilities, as when Hurricane Michael caused substantial damage at Tyndall Air Force Base in Florida. Stresses on resources and agricultural changes will increase the global flow of refugees and cause cross-border instability. That, in turn, will mean greater involvement of U.S. forces around the world.
For years, the Pentagon included the impacts of climate change in our defense planning. In 2003, the Department of Defense under President George W. Bush concluded climate change “should be elevated beyond a scientific debate to a U.S. national security concern.” The last several Quadrennial Defense Reviews, which assess the array of threats facing the United States, have considered the impact of global warming. The QDR stated that “the impacts of climate change may increase the frequency, scale, and complexity of future missions.”
More than a decade ago, a distinguished panel of retired senior flag officers concluded that “climate change poses a serious threat to America’s national security,” citing its role in promoting instability. Most recently, a 2019 military report on the changing climate said that “recurrent flooding, drought, and wildfires are the primary concerns at the 79 installations.” Those concerns come on top of a major government report by scientists at the Department of Defense, NASA, and 11 other agencies, that climate change will have a devastating effect on our economy and society.
Rather than act on this overwhelming evidence and protect our military capabilities and our citizens, the president has decided to ignore the problem, attempt to discount the truth and muddy the waters on clear scientific proof. According to reports, Mr. Trump is planning to set up a panel of cherry-picked government officials who will write a manifesto of alternative facts to justify the administration’s inaction. This is right out of big tobacco’s book when they for years, in the teeth of overwhelming evidence, used bogus reports denying that cigarettes were harmful
When I was secretary of the Navy, our first mission was to build a force designed to meet the real-world dangers we would face. To do my job, to fulfill my duty to our women and men in uniform and to this country, I valued and prioritized information that helped the greatest Navy in the world do its job better, and that protected our assets and readiness. As retired Rear Adm. David Titley recently said, “I never thought I would live to see the day in the United States where our own White House is attacking the very science agencies that can help the president understand and manage the climate risks to security of today and tomorrow.”
From all reports, the new Trump panel is the antithesis of proper military planning. It seems that instead of gathering facts that will improve our ability to manage a dangerous world, this is an exercise meant to justify a political position based on nothing. It is also reported that the panel will conduct its business in secret, side stepping a federal disclosure law, in order to avoid the kind of scrutiny that fact-based inquiries don’t fear.
These kinds of games sometimes happen in Washington. But they would never be tolerated by the active military service in the field or on the high seas. The folly of this endeavor is most clear to me when I think of my time, not as a leader of the Navy, but as a young lieutenant junior grade on a Navy cruiser. Our skipper, when assessing the enemy or the seas, would never have asked us to ignore the facts and find a politically convenient answer. Putting his sailors in danger like that would have been unthinkable. But that is exactly what our commander in chief is trying to do. Now is the time for Mr. Trump to listen to generals and admirals — they’re telling him of a grave threat to our national security that we cannot ignore.
Ray Mabus was secretary of the Navy from 2009 to 2017, governor of Mississippi from 1988 to 1992, and currently serves on the board of Environmental Defense Fund. His opinions are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Military Times or its staffers.