President Donald Trump snubbed his own military leadership when he unveiled a National Security Strategy that says nothing about how the United States will address security threats posed by climate change.
Administration officials billed the 68-page document made public Monday as a comprehensive vision for making America safer. Trump in a speech advanced his "America first" policy, saying the United States will "stand up for ourselves, and we will stand up for our country like we have never stood up before."
National security leaders — including Defense Secretary James Mattis — see climate change as a major security threat. Rising sea levels could threaten naval bases, and rising temperatures and more intense droughts and storms could fuel instability in volatile regions like the Middle East and North Africa.
The National Security Strategy mentions climate change once. The mention comes in a section focused on efforts to make the United States a global energy powerhouse by producing and exporting more fossil fuels, the source of most planet-warming emissions. Trump's security strategy suggests that global efforts to fight climate change may be an obstacle to U.S. interests.
"Climate policies will continue to shape the global energy system. U.S. leadership is indispensable to countering an anti-growth energy agenda that is detrimental to U.S. economic and energy security interests," the strategy document says.
In military circles, it's become conventional wisdom that America must look at climate change as a potential security threat. In 2003, during the George W. Bush administration, a Pentagon report warned that climate change could spark "a desperate need for natural resources such as energy, food and water," triggering conflicts.
In 2015, under President Barack Obama, the Defense Department examined the security implications of climate change, finding that it will "aggravate existing problems — such as poverty, social tensions, environmental degradation, ineffectual leadership, and weak political institutions — that threaten domestic stability in a number of countries."
Mattis has said the military must prepare for climate change, telling Congress during his confirmation hearing that global warming is "impacting stability in areas of the world where our troops are operating today."
"The effects of a changing climate — such as increased maritime access to the Arctic, rising sea levels, desertification, among others — impact our security situation," Mattis said in a written response to questions from senators.
Four other Trump appointees have described climate change as a national security threat, according to Francesco Femia, co-founder of the Center for Climate and Security, a nonpartisan think tank. Navy Secretary Richard Spencer told senators during his confirmation hearing that the Navy must harden its bases against rising seas and climate-influenced storms.
Several national security experts told USA TODAY that while they're disappointed by the omission of climate change from Trump's National Security Strategy, they're not too worried. The military still takes global warming seriously, they said, as evidenced by the Defense Department's implementation of strategies developed under President Obama to consider climate change in military decision-making.
Excluding climate change from the strategy document may be a savvy move by Mattis, said David Titley, a retired Navy rear admiral and former chief operating officer at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, who now leads the Center for Solutions to Weather and Climate Risk at Penn State University.
"You try not to take the flaming hot poker iron and stick it in your boss’s eye," Titley said.
Congress has also required the Pentagon to pay attention to climate risks. Last month, the House and Senate overwhelmingly approved the National Defense Authorization Act, which orders the defense secretary to report to Congress within a year on the 10 military installations most vulnerable to climate change, and what the military might have to do "to ensure the continued operational viability" of those bases.
Naval Station Norfolk in Virginia, America's largest naval complex, is flooding regularly as high tides get higher. But it's far from alone in its vulnerability to climate change. The recent defense bill says three feet of sea-level rise — near the low end of what the United States can expect by the end of this century, according to a recent federal government report — will threaten the operations of 128 military sites.
Marcus King, an international affairs professor at George Washington University and former Defense Department official, said it's "very unfortunate" that the National Security Strategy unveiled Monday doesn't explicitly address climate change. But he said the new strategy paper is "primarily a political document, and not much of a strategy."
"It's not surprising, but it's not really discouraging either," King said.
Still, the omission of climate change could have consequences, said Femia, from the Center for Climate and Security. The Government Accountability Office released a report this month criticizing the Pentagon for not taking enough action in response to its own warnings about climate change. Trump's National Security Strategy, Femia said, could have a "chilling effect," sending the wrong signal not only to other countries about U.S. intentions, but to military leaders for whom climate change is one of many challenges.
When it talks about the risks posed by climate change, the Defense Department is "trying to fulfill its mission and do its job," Femia said. "If it's discouraged of looking at certain threats that it knows are there, that makes it difficult to do its job."
Sammy Roth writes about climate change for USA TODAY. He can be reached at email@example.com, (760) 778-4622 and on Twitter @Sammy_Roth.