Will Trump Embrace the Existential Threat That is Climate Security?

The Center for Climate and Security recently published a “Briefing Book for a New Administration,” a set of policy proposals to the incoming U.S. presidential administration regarding climate change and its security implications. This report was published in mid-September 2016, before Donald Trump, who once tweeted that climate change was a hoax perpetrated by China, was elected president of the United States. There were ten broad recommendations specifically geared to different secretaries and departments.

The report recommended that the president create a cabinet-level advisor dedicated to domestic climate and security issues. Considering President-elect Trump’s aforementioned tweet and overall lack of nuanced understanding of climate change, it’s hard to believe that this will happen. In fact, his chief of staff, Reince Priebus, remarked that Trump’s position on climate change is that “most of it is a bunch of bunk.” Annie Karnie, at Politico, suggested his daughter, Ivanka, could be dubbed the administration’s “climate czar,” but given her vast conflicts of interest and scant background in climate change, she would likely be a poor choice.

Second, the report proposed that the incoming president create a senior climate and security director at the National Security Council (NSC). This official would report to, and work directly with, incoming NSC advisor Lt. General Michael T Flynn. Given Flynn will prioritize issues such as the spread of Islamic terrorism and evolving relations with Iran, climate change issues would likely be shoved under the rug or ignored completely.

Indeed, if history provides any indication, Flynn will not place climate change high on his national security to-do list. As former director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, he gave a 2013 speech at the Brookings Institution on “A New Model for Defense Intelligence” that didn’t mention climate change once. Similarly, he makes no mention of climate in his recently released book, The Field of Fight.

A New York Times report on the upcoming administration’s views on climate change paints Flynn as unserious and unconcerned about the issue. A cursory look through his public statements makes clear climate science is not on his radar.

Third, the Climate Security and Advisory Group (CSAG), chaired by the Center for Climate and Security and The George Washington University’s Elliot School of International Affairs, recommended that the Office of the Secretary of Defense appoint a senior climate change and security chief. Trump’s nominee for secretary of defense is Retired Gen. James Mattis, who “might be the greenest member of Trump’s cabinet,” writes Politico’s Eric Wolff.

As commander of the U.S. Joint Forces Command, Mattis approved a memo that highlighted climate change as a security threat in a report titled “Joint Operating Environment.” If presented with a memo that prioritized climate change, Mattis would “keep it in there,” according to multiple colleagues familiar with the decorated general.

The next recommendation encourages the Joint Chiefs of Staff to address climate security in all appropriate directives. The Pentagon released a “Climate Change Adaptation and Resilience” directive in January 2016. The memo highlights that every action the Pentagon takes from now on will sufficiently factor in climate change. The 2016 memo is the implementation of the 2014 DoD Climate Change Adaptation Roadmap. Institutionally speaking, climate change is considered in every part of the department, from “plans and operations” and “training and testing” to “acquisition and supply chain.”

The argument here is that even if future President Trump would be inclined to prioritize many other issues over climate, he will be working against the Pentagon’s status quo, which has actively taken this quite seriously for some time. The Pentagon has a Senior Sustainability Council, and since 2012 has had a working group addressing climate change. Climate concerns have been incorporated for nearly a decade already.

While it is somewhat true that Trump’s action plan could put all of this climate progress on hold, it’s hard to imagine that this would be the case since the Pentagon is holistically invested in, and quite serious about, the implications of climate change.

The fifth proposition urges the secretary of state to create a Climate and Security Office led by a career ambassador-level individual, which would focus on implementation, integration, and coordination of climate security risks regarding the myriad departmental agencies dealing with the many elements of climate, such as the Regional Environmental Offices or the Bureau of Conflict and Stabilization Operations, for example.

Steve Coll, in his magisterial work Private Empire: ExxonMobil and American Power, describes Rex Tillerson, the former CEO of ExxonMobil and Trump’s nominee for secretary of state, as a hard-nosed realist who helped switch Exxon’s public stance of climate change to “[make] it clear ExxonMobil would adapt to the Obama era, not fight it from the trenches.”

As Coll highlights in a New Yorker piece, Tillerson has never worked for another company other than Exxon in his life. While at Exxon, Tillerson showed disrespect for the State Department, and considered it full of liberal academics who didn’t understand energy and fossil fuels.

The inherent conflicts of interest due to his life’s work and his distrust of the department he is being asked to head, among other things, portends ill on what Tillerson will do regarding climate change.

Next, the Climate Security and Advisory Group encouraged the administrator of the Agency for International Development (USAID) to “ensure that climate change and security analysis are incorporated across USAID programming.” Notably, the soon-to-be president has not nominated anyone for this position yet. USAID has a “Global Climate Change Initiative,” and there is a lot of institutional momentum that Trump would have to steamroll to slow this down. Michael Igoe, senior correspondent at Devex, a website for international development professionals, highlights the possibility that Trump could “fold this position into the State Department,” thus eliminating the administrator role all together.

The seventh recommendation refers to the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations position, which will soon be occupied by South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley. The report calls for the position to push for a Joint Task Force on Climate Change and Security at the UN; second, support a climate and security resolution at the General Assembly; finally, promote the creation of a system that would identify area of the world that could see increased conflict due to climate, for example.

The Conservation Voters of South Carolina—a public-interest group acting as a watchdog of government officials—gave the governor a “D” for the years 2011–2013. Moreover, she has opposed the Environmental Protection Agency’s clean air proposals for the state of South Carolina. The Post and Courier, a leading South Carolina paper, quotes her as saying, “This is exactly what we don’t need,” referring to the clean air proposals.

With no foreign policy experience, it’s hard to imagine Haley being a consequential UN ambassador, especially one likely to address climate change at the United Nations Security Council (UNSC), as the report recommends.

Next up: The report urges the Secretary of Homeland Security to “develop a National Adaptation and Resilience Strategy” that specifically addresses extreme weather and climate possibilities. Trump’s pick, John Kelly, formerly the commander of the U.S. Southern Command, has a master’s in science from Georgetown University. Considering that the Marines take climate change quite seriously, this proposal may actually come to fruition if the former general has any sway in a Trump administration.

Moreover, as Commander of SOUTHCOM, Kelly certainly is aware that South America had its warmest year on record in 2015 since 1910, per a white paper released by the intelligence community in early 2016. Once again, the U.S. military is at the cutting-edge of climate science, and whether it’s the 2014 Quadrennial Defense Review or the 2015 National Security Strategy, climate change is considered a “present security threat.” While there is no indication that Kelly as secretary of Homeland Security will focus on climate change, he was a general in a military service that is growing more and more concerned with climate security by the day.

The report’s penultimate suggestion is reserved for the director of national intelligence, and Trump’s choice is former Indiana Senator Dan Coats, who tweeted a few years ago that he “just voted to express that climate change is not a hoax.” His record on energy, however—at least according to On The Issues, a non-partisan group dedicated to spreading voting records of government officials to the public—is mostly on the side of oil interests. He voted “no” on taxing carbon, for example.

Finally, he signed the “Contract for America,” which has a clause “rejecting” cap-and-trade. Coats, as director of national intelligence, who was on a list compiled by Wired.com of “Senators Who Don’t Believe in Climate Change,” most likely won’t elevate the extant power of the director of Environment and Natural Resources at the National Intelligence Council to priority as suggested by “A Briefing Book For a New Administration.”

Lastly, the report recommends that the Department of Energy “seek and allocate resources for the DOE National Laboratories to conduct and disseminate research and assessments of the potential impacts of climate change on U.S. national security.” Considering that Trump’s nominee, former Texas Governor Rick Perry wanted to get tide of the EPA, it will be a challenge for the Texan to even acknowledge the consensus on climate change, let alone understand or act on its importance.

Trump’s transition team even requested the DOE compile a list of individuals who worked on climate change; the DOE denied the request but many considered this an attempt at scaring them. One representative called it, aptly, a “witch hunt.”

The incoming Trump administration has multiple cabinet-level nominees who certainly understand the severity of climate change, especially his pick for secretary of defense, General Mattis. The president himself, however, has proven to be uninformed of the situation, wants to end subsidies for alternative energy, and expand the use of coal and oil.

This does not portend well with experts and former US-based intelligence, military, and security officials, and academics who authored this report, including Retired Rear Admiral David Titley and Dr. Janne E. Nolan, at The George Washington University. Many of Trumps picks, such as Governor Perry, have denied the facts for a very long time.

As this report makes clear: “A growing consensus exists in the bipartisan U.S. national security community that climate change presents a strategically significant risk to national and international security, and that more comprehensive action must be taken to ensure the United States’ response is commensurate to the risk.” Moderate and realist voices have to start grappling with this.

What we know so far about the Trump administration begs many questions, the first being will Trump listen to anyone? The rest flow from the answer to that very fundamental question. The future depends on the answer to the first question. Trump must act because climate change is here now; is a threat multiplier; and is and will continue to be a producer of instability. Trump, voted to be an agent of change, has ample opportunity and no excuses. We shall see what happens.


Patrick Foran is a PhD student at the University of Missouri – St. Louis (UMSL), and the host of Foran Policy: Book Reviews & Miscellany podcast. Foran has interned and worked for, concurrently, a state representative’s U.S. congressional campaign, and earned his B.A. in political science from UMSL. His area of concentration is U.S. foreign policy, climate security, conflict resolution, and international political economy (IPE).

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