In the News
March 26, 2017
By Sam Mintz and Hannah Hess
Comments by Secretary of Defense James Mattis on climate change have helped give Republicans political cover to act on the issue.
Even though climate change can be politically toxic for many Republicans, linking the issue to national security and citing military leaders' acceptance of global warming is prompting more GOP lawmakers to act.
Earlier this month, 17 Republicans introduced a measure, H. Res. 195, that calls for Congress to recognize the threat climate change poses and commit to acting on it.
The resolution, sponsored by Rep. Elise Stefanik (R-N.Y.), cites the Department of Defense's 2014 Quadrennial Defense Review, which describes the effects of climate change as "threat multipliers" that could contribute to poverty, environmental degradation, political instability and social tensions (Greenwire, March 15).
A spokesman for Stefanik said she "will be engaging in discussions with members to build support for this resolution and believes that national security is an area of particular concern to some members."
Rep. Brian Mast (R-Fla.), in supporting the resolution, refers to the connection between carbon dioxide emissions and a warming planet as "settled science." Mast is a multi-tour combat veteran of the war in Afghanistan.
"This was an easy one for me to sign up for," Mast said during a press briefing.
He said the measure is particularly attractive for "those of us who spend time in the arena of foreign affairs and in the military especially, because we're constantly looking for those places that can present upheaval or can present disruption throughout the world."
At around the same time as Stefanik, Mast and their colleagues introduced the resolution, previously unpublished statements from Secretary of Defense James Mattis revealed the former Marine general had told senators he sees climate change as a threat to national security that requires a "whole of government" response (E&E News PM, March 14).
Mast agreed with Mattis. "That's the truth about it, whether you're talking about it from agriculture, energy or military," he said. "It is something that requires a whole of government response."
Rep. Carlos Curbelo, the South Florida Republican who has emerged as one of his party's most vocal congressional allies of climate action, sees Mattis as one of his best hopes for a constructive relationship with the Trump White House on global warming.
Curbelo, during the briefing, pointed to Mattis and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson as two Cabinet members "who are on the record talking about this issue, and who have called for solutions and for meaningful government engagement on this issue."
Mattis' statements also stuck out for Rep. Lee Zeldin (R-N.Y.), who is part of the 26-member, bipartisan Climate Solutions Caucus but did not sponsor the resolution.
"Something that I took notice of, over the course of the last couple weeks, is Secretary Mattis in his hearings making his position clearer that he has a vision consistent with what the QDR said, which, I didn't know that he was going to go in that direction, but I certainly took notice of it," Zeldin said.
'Bridge to action'
Republican environmental advocacy group republicEn is carefully watching the resolution and how it ties to national defense.
"The pragmatism of seeing a risk, running toward it, and dealing with it is one of those traits that we admire in our military personnel," said Alex Bozmoski, director of strategy and operations at republicEn. "Showing how that applies to climate change would be an important step for our country,"
Bozmoski said the security angle helps foster a sense of urgency on climate. "I think that can be a bridge to action, because the urgency of security risks really renders awkward the position that 'climate change is a real, but I don't have a solution for it,'" he said.
It's important for Republicans to move faster to embrace climate action, he said, so they can develop and promote conservative policy solutions.
"I hope [the resolution] shortens the period that we're in right now, where Republicans are coming to the table on climate science but are reticent to rally around true conservative policy on climate," Bozmoski said.
Democrats and environmentalists have also been increasingly aware of how the national security argument can help sway Republican colleagues.
Rep. Scott Peters (D-Calif.) said his time on the Armed Services Committee has taught him that the military can have a particular effect on the GOP when it comes to things like alternative energy and global warming.
"Where the generals and the admirals are advocates of energy innovation in a way that can't be dismissed, that won't be dismissed like those ideas might be if they were coming from academics or Al Gore," he said.
"There's a business case for alternative energy; there's a business case for dealing with climate effects on the military," said Peters.
House Republicans have tried to rein in the Pentagon's focus on warming. The chamber last year passed a defense spending bill with a rider to prevent the administration from using any funding on climate resilience programs.
Republicans who supported the provision argued that defense dollars were too scarce to be wasted on the Obama administration's climate agenda (E&E News PM, June 16, 2016).
But 24 GOP lawmakers opposed the legislation, including those who have been vocal about climate action. Democrats also shunned it.
"There's no need to be political about it, or lord it over them that they're agreeing that there's climate change, but I think clearly Republicans who are concerned about defense have become attuned to the need to deal with the effects of climate change," Peters said.