Citing Threats to National Security, Representative Abigail Spanberger, Va.-7, Takes Climate Change Head On

May 3, 2019 by Dan McCue
The super PAC aligned with Speaker Paul D. Ryan is doubling down on its messaging strategy to paint vulnerable Rep. Dave Brat's Democratic challenger Abigail Spanberger in Virginia's 7th District as sympathetic to terrorist elements. (Spanberger for Congress)

Three newly elected Democratic members of Congress, all of them women and all with backgrounds in either law enforcement or the armed forces, are concerned that climate change impacts are harming military readiness at the same time they are increasing global instability.

The tie that binds Representative Abigail Spanberger, Va.-7, a former CIA operations officer, Representative Elaine Luria, Va.-2, a U.S. Navy veteran, and Representative Rebecca “Mikie” Sherrill, N.J.-11, a former Navy helicopter pilot, is a belief that attempts by the White House to discredit military experts on the impact of climate change are undermining our security.

The three congresswomen are echoing the longstanding sentiments of the Defense Department, which in 2003, under Republican President George W. Bush, concluded climate change “should be elevated beyond a scientific debate to a U.S. national security concern.”

Their thinking is also in line with the 2017 annual defense policy bill that stated that climate change “is a direct threat to the national security of the United States and is impacting stability in areas of the world both where the United States Armed Forces are operating today, and where strategic implications for future conflict exist.”

Representatives Advocate Taking Middle Path to Sustainable Future

In February, the White House created a 12-member panel, the Presidential Committee on Climate Security, that’s only purpose appears to be to refute the scientific consensus that carbon dioxide pollution is causing dangerous changes to the planet.

Many saw the move as just the latest attempt by the Trump administration to undermine limits on climate pollution from power plants, cars, and other sources.

Critics pointed out that to head the committee, the administration turned to William Happer, an emeritus physics professor at Princeton University, who has rejected mainstream climate science and maintains that carbon dioxide is not a pollutant.

But what was most troublesome to Spanberger, Luria and Sherrill was language in a White House memo supporting the panel’s formation that cast doubt on multiple defense-related reports that concluded climate change poses a significant security threat to the nation.

During a recent House Foreign Affairs Committee hearing, Spanberger called on the Trump administration to reverse its isolationist policies and act seriously on climate change now.

“Our country cannot afford to abdicate our central leadership role in combating the devastating effects of climate change,” she said.

“Ultimately, it’s in our national interest to reinforce our stature as a global leader on international environmental and energy issues,” Spanberger continued. “As Congress looks to strengthen our engagement on issues of international diplomacy, security, and development, climate change must be viewed as a pressing national security concern that requires proactive, preemptive policies.”

Representative Sherrill agrees with that assessment.

In an email to the Well News, she said, “as a resident of New Jersey and a member of both the Armed Services Committee and the Science, Space, and Technology Committee, it is clear to me that climate change poses a serious national security threat.

“During Superstorm Sandy, New Jersey residents saw how quickly devastating storms can ravage our homes and our economy,” Sherrill continued. “Across the world, our critical military bases face the threat of rising sea levels, the impacts of climate change and the accompanying food and water scarcity create unrest, and the impacts on the global economy can trigger conflicts.”

Spanberger, Luria and Sherrill advocate charting a middle course for moving the United States toward a future where all of its energy is drawn from renewable clean sources, and for embracing common sense and affordable approaches to reducing carbon emissions in the atmosphere.

And all of them have signed on as cosponsors of H.R. 9, also known as the Climate Action Now Act, which directs the Trump administration to fulfill the United States’ ongoing international obligations related to climate pollution.

“There is no doubt climate change is a national security threat,” Representative Luria said. “In Coastal Virginia, for example, a heavy rain and a high tide prevents tens of thousands of sailors from accessing Naval Station Norfolk.

“To ignore climate change’s real-life consequences is to stick one’s head in the sand,” she continued. “In Congress, I’m honored to help lead the New Democrat Coalition Climate Change Task Force because sea level rise, recurrent flooding, and preventing offshore drilling are real issues that affect daily life in Coastal Virginia. I am committed to focusing on these issues and more, as the House works on commonsense policy fixes to the biggest environmental problems facing America today.”

The representatives are not alone in their belief that sound climate policy is in fact sound national security policy.

Recently, Elizabeth Gore, senior vice president for political affairs for the EDF Action, which contributed to this article, called climate change, “a clear and present danger to all of us.”

“We must do everything in our power to address the threat,” she said, adding that H.R. 9 “allows us to reaffirm America’s global leadership on the issue and our economic leadership as we move into the clean energy future.”

Defense Department Has Long Recognized Climate/Risk Connection

And then there’s the Pentagon, which, in contrast to the rest of the Trump administration, has continued to warn that climate change is a threat to global stability.

Taking the long view, the Defense Department has long maintained that even if at any given moment the United States and its allies are not directly experiencing a climate-related catastrophe, they are likely going to be dealing with people who are.

The main reason for this is evident. As thousands and potentially millions of people move from regions where resources have been diminished by climate change to others that are still lush and thriving, that movement, by its nature, will be destabilizing.

Many believe the civil war in Syria, for example, was triggered in part by an epic drought that drove a million farmers off their land and into already destabilized cities bearing the brunt of the brutal Assad regime.

And the pressures of dealing with and aiding the refugees who streamed out of Syria were enough to help cause instability in the politics of Western Europe.

In a recent commentary piece in Military Times, Raymond Mabus Jr., Secretary of the Navy from 2009 to 2017, and prior to that was governor of Mississippi, said there’s no doubt in his mind that climate change is a national security threat, and he assailed the Trump administration for ignoring common sense and affordable solutions that will safeguard American interests.

“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,” Mabus wrote. “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,” he said.

Mabus noted that for years the Pentagon included the impacts of climate change in its defense planning, and that concern about the issue was non-partisan.

For instance, in 2014 a Pentagon report concluded climate change posed an immediate threat to national security because it exacerbated global poverty and food and water shortages, helped spread infectious diseases and dramatically increased the risks from terrorism.

The report went on to say that as result of climate change, the United States needs to be prepared to meet a growing demand for military responses to natural disasters that result in full-blown humanitarian crises.

If that wasn’t bracing enough, that same year, the Defense Department’s Quadrennial Defense Review concluded there’s a direct link between the effects of climate change and terrorism.

More recently, Mabus said, a 2019 military report, the latest edition of the Worldwide Threat Assessment, said climate change and related environmental issues are “likely to fuel competition for resources, economic distress and social discontent through 2019 and beyond.”

“Climate hazards such as extreme weather, higher temperatures, droughts, floods, wildfires, storms, sea level rise, soil degradation and acidifying oceans are intensifying, threatening infrastructure, health, and water and food security,” the report continued.

It then went on to talk about specific risks posed by climate change, ranging from “recurrent flooding, drought, and wildfires” threatening the safety of dozens of military installations to mass displacement of populations leading to widespread and intractable conflicts.

Mabus also pointed to the latest National Climate Assessment, released during Thanksgiving weekend last year, and the Defense Department’s “Report on Effects of a Changing Climate to the Department of Defense,” which documented evidence that the burning of fossil fuels is heating the atmosphere, leading to record wildfires in California, crop failures in the Midwest and crumbling infrastructure in the South.

The reports also noted that as climate change brings an increase in sea level rise, low-lying military installations will be at risk.

“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,” Mabus wrote.

He then went on to reflect not on his years as secretary of the Navy, but on an earlier time when he was a young lieutenant junior grade on a Navy cruiser.

“Our skipper, when assessing the enemy on the seas, would never have asked us to ignore the facts and find a politically convenient answer. … But that is exactly what our commander in chief is trying to do.”

Representative Sherrill said both the Armed Services Committee and the Science, Space, and Technology Committee have held hearings on climate change precisely because their members understand that climate change cannot be unlinked from national security.

“As Oversight Subcommittee Chairwoman for the Science Committee, I am looking closely at infrastructure resiliency and the threat climate change poses to our transportation and energy grids. I look forward to voting later this week in favor of the Climate Action Now Act to affirm our commitment to addressing climate change alongside the international community,” she said.

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