Democrats Should Team Up With the Military on Climate Change

One needs the other for practical & political reasons

by Charles Ellison | Publisher’s Riff | @ellisonreport

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s (D-CA) recent roll out of a new Select Committee on Climate Crisis was a breath of clean air for a number of obvious reasons. The pivot on terminology was also quite noticeable and encouraging: from “climate change” to “climate crisis.” It’s an acknowledgment that we’re now well past the phase of simple change in the climate, as the following warming visual from the New York Times shows …

Planetary warming has risen dramatically, the five warmest years ever recorded on record have happened during this past decade. To have policymakers now reference that as a “crisis” hints at a needed change in mindset on the topic by fairly establishment rank-and-file leaders in the Congress. Pelosi’s announcement is also her attempt at three political goals:

  1. Looking for a way to somehow contain or temper the meteoric public and digital-driven rise of Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) who’s been leading a charge on “Green New Deal” legislation. Also widely noticed was that Ocasio-Cortez’s name wasn’t on the Select Committee list.

  2. Showing leadership and credibility on a topic that is urgent among progressives, particularly Millennial progressives.

  3. Putting Democrats further ahead politically and policy-wise just a few days after the president, in his State of the Union, completely ignored the existence of climate change.

That change in mindset and messaging might be a positive development, and a very short-lived political win for Pelosi. However, it’s a moment that’s brief and with little impact. In essence, only a slice of the federal government, a quarter of Congress, shares this view while the rest of the federal government - and the Supreme Court - is controlled by Republican policymakers who don’t officially share this view and, indeed, roundly reject it. Hence, there’s no promise that it will go anywhere beyond the spectacle of pronouncements during Select Committee hearings, eloquent commentary, and imperiled attempts at legislation that won’t go any further than the House floor. Even if the Senate passes anything, which will not happen under the current Senate Majority Leader, the president won’t sign it.

House Democrats Need An Ally

What House Democrats will need is an institutional ally with enough strong, bipartisan and public credibility that they could see some policy recommendations come to fruition. That institution is not political, and it’s not exactly a governing body. But, it is the United States military.

Ideologically, it might seem like an unnatural alliance. Yet, both potential partners do see eye-to-eye on the issue of climate crisis, even if they don’t publicly see it that way or don’t interface in any real capacity on that topic. There is an opportunity, however, for House Democratic leadership to somehow build a relationship with the Armed Forces that can quietly circumvent the administration’s non-position on climate crisis.

Even the recently ousted now former Defense Secretary James Mattis acknowledged such in 2017 during his Senate Armed Services Committee confirmation process …

“Climate change is impacting stability in areas of the world where our troops are operating today. It is appropriate for the Combatant Commands to incorporate drivers of instability that impact the security environment in their areas into their planning.”

Former Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus was even much more dire in a warning assessment during his farewell tribute ceremony

“If we fail to act upon climate change, instability around the globe will inevitably intensify, and even our bases will risk being lost. A modern energy revolution, a strategic resolve to respond to climate change can transform how we fight. And it, too, gives us a combat edge. This is the new normal for the Navy and Marines.”

Indeed, for some time now, the U.S. military has officially recognized climate change as a national security threat and priority. Its 2014 Climate Change Adaptation Roadmap outlined the sense of urgency on the topic among Defense Department officials who had already found themselves, for years, regularly deploying assets to respond to a number of climate change-instigated catastrophes across the globe. In addition, Defense Department officials have long worried how that impacts their posturing and ability to mobilize troops in various locations around the world. For example, U.S. military officials are increasingly worried about melting Artic ice offering more room for maneuverability and strategic access to the Russian military. Said then Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel in the Roadmap

Among the future trends that will impact our national security is climate change. Rising global temperatures, changing precipitation patterns, climbing sea levels, and more extreme weather events will intensify the challenges of global instability, hunger, poverty, and conflict. They will likely lead to food and water shortages, pandemic disease, disputes over refugees and resources, and destruction by natural disasters in regions across the globe. In our defense strategy, we refer to climate change as a “threat multiplier” because it has the potential to exacerbate many of the challenges we are dealing with today – from infectious disease to terrorism. We are already beginning to see some of these impacts.

It’s Not Like The Military is Feeling Its Commander-in-Chief, Anyway

While they can’t be public about it, the nation’s combined military and intelligence apparatus are clearly not happy with the current leadership in the White House. If the president isn’t openly contradicting thorough intelligence assessments, he’s making strategic decisions on threat zones like Syria, Afghanistan and North Korea that seem to give global adversaries a tremendous advantage that potentially puts American military interests at extreme risk. One area where both Trump and the military don’t agree is climate change. The president’s refusal to accept it makes brass nervous.

When Republicans were in full control of Congress, they recognized that threat along with Defense Department officials - but, not in the public eye. Fearful of political retribution from the White House and it’s ability to rally the base, Congressional Republicans would quietly agree with military climate threat assessments, but publicly engage in climate skepticism to keep winning primaries, conservative districts and red states.

That dynamic should shift much more dramatically with a new Democratic-controlled Congress. Not only can the military serve as a prominent resource for efforts like the Select Committee, but House Democrats can play a role in climate crisis impact mitigation activities by approving funds for Climate Adaptation projects, initiatives and technology. This could also help Democrats in their relationship with the defense industry, thereby gaining advocacy support and, possibly, a larger share of contributions as the industry looks to gain a foothold on the climate crisis mitigation market.

In addition, a somewhat open friendly alliance between House Democrats and the military is useful for political image and messaging. Recent Pew Research polling shows a greater degree of confidence from Americans in the military than any other institution. Indeed, roughly 80 percent of Americans have confidence in the military’s ability to act in their interests, according to a Pew survey

A 2018 Baker Center for Leadership and Governance poll found similar sentiments when surveying over 5,400 respondents nationwide. The military ranked the highest among institutions when scored for confidence. Of course, that differs on party lines between Democrats and Republicans - the former gives it a third place rank as the latter, predictably, gives it a first place rank.

How Could It Even Work?

Partisan difference presents both risks and potential opportunities. Democrats being open about a partnership with military leaders on climate change might help create momentum on getting greater numbers of voters to push for policy action, but if not done carefully, it could be viewed as political opponents attempting to turn the military against its Commander-in-Chief. No one wants that scenario. Bad enough recent polling shows members of the military themselves are becoming increasingly unhappy with the current president. Overall disapproval has grown from 37 percent in 2016 to now 43.1 percent in 2018.

In addition, Democrats would have to answer to progressives in the “hard left” their party - such as Justice Democrats and the still persistent Bernie wing - who would resent the sudden coziness with the military industrial complex. It would be called out, with some characterizing it as a betrayal of the party’s ideological ideals.

But, the opportunity is that if Democrats can’t get any legislation beyond the House, then maybe they could through appropriations for U.S. military climate adaptation and emergency preparedness activities. When major climate disasters happen, most people, regardless of partisan leaning, expect some kind of expert military response. The military will need resources to meet those demands. Hesitation from the president can sometimes impede that, as well as an unwillingness from House and Senate Republican leaders to openly admit there’s a climate crisis. At least they could use support from House Democratic leaders who run that chamber.

In addition, having a better relationship with the military could help burnish the Democrats image on defense and foreign policy. Long viewed as less hawkish and, by default, less concerned with national security, this move would show that they really are. With controversies on Syria, Russia, North Korea and elsewhere beginning to erode the Republican image as most hawkish, Democrats can retake some that landscape while helping the military adapt to climate crisis challenges in such a way that aligns with strategic goals. The interesting thing here is that while the larger public trusts the military, it has no idea that the military has prioritized climate change as national security threat.

An open relationship with Democrats could serve as an education tool as the military can help the public further understand how severe this threat is. The military, while a magnet for controversy and outrage, has nevertheless always played a leadership role on pressing domestic social issues, including its role as a pathway to middle-class social mobility for African Americans and other populations “of color.” It was the military, after all, that was the first major institution to desegregate, a move some historians argue was actually the most significant first win in the the Civil Rights Movement that created a domino effect. And, perhaps, that open coordination on climate advocacy could expand awareness and support for policy action on other major environmental threats such as pollution; the military has also prioritized an aggressive transition to total renewable energy use because of concerns over environmental impact. There could be an opening to win over just a few more independents, as well as Republican voters who would’ve otherwise kept voting for climate change skeptics in upcoming elections.