At a congressional hearing Wednesday, senators peppered military leaders with questions about the resilience of Defense Department infrastructure to the climate crisis. Members of both parties asked the officials for updates on individual bases’ resiliency plans, questioned how they were balancing climate adaptation with other priorities, and discussed a list of the most climate-vulnerable military installations — a congressional mandate that President Joe Biden doubled down on last month.
It was the type of detailed climate conversation that’s necessary in an era of a deepening emergency — but a discussion that Congress has relegated disproportionately to military matters. This week’s session was the ninth congressional hearing focused on protecting national security and military installations from climate risk since early 2019, according to a list of around 300 climate-related hearings held since the start of that year. A review of the list, compiled by the Climate Action Campaign, suggests that Congress has prioritized military climate readiness over climate resilience for other types of publicly funded infrastructure.
The most glaring thing about the list of hearings was what didn’t appear on it: During the period, there were zero hearings specifically to strategize on how to protect schools or prisons against the ravages of the climate crisis. A single hearing was dedicated to discussing climate risk to housing and only one focused on risk to toxic sites. Some congressional hearings have focused generally on infrastructure resilience, but no sector has gotten the same attention from lawmakers as the U.S. military — which emits more climate-warming carbon than most countries, according to a 2019 report by Brown University’s Costs of War project.
The congressional emphasis on national security adaptation contributes to concerns scientists and policy analysts have raised about whether legislators are meaningfully preparing the U.S. for extreme storms, floods, droughts, and wildfires that are already occurring and will inevitably get worse due to fossil fuel emissions already in the atmosphere. The hearing schedule raises questions about what our future might look like if military facilities are better prepared for the climate crisis than any other public infrastructure.
“Looking at climate change through a militarized frame promotes a search for military solutions.”
“The problem is looking at climate change through a militarized frame promotes a search for military solutions,” said Lorah Steichen, who focuses on the intersection between climate policy and militarization as outreach coordinator for the Institute for Policy Studies’ National Priorities Project. She pointed particularly to the border. “Both the Department of Homeland Security and the Pentagon have cited the climate crisis to justify increased border militarization.”
To Steichen, the problem comes down to the budget. “U.S. militarism and the ballooning Pentagon budget misdirects resources away from the programs that we need to mitigate and adapt to a warming climate,” Steichen said. “Redirecting federal resources away from war and weapons could free up hundreds of billions of dollars a year to help resource the rapid transition off fossil fuels we desperately need.”
The number of national security hearings is in part a result of Republicans’ climate denial. John Conger, director of the Center for Climate and Security, described a direct relationship between climate denial and the militarization of climate policy. “I look around at our security apparatus versus others around the world,” Conger said. “In some places where climate is more of a universal — everyone accepts the fact that climate change is happening — security has been less of a focus, because it hasn’t had to be.”
He pointed to a 2018 Washington Post article, headlined “How to get Trump to sign climate legislation? Put it in a defense bill,” which noted that the recently signed defense budget bill was “the only legislation readying the country for climate change to become law” at the time. Conger said, “That framing means the folks that want to make progress on climate, but recognize that they might be blocked by more conservative voices, say let’s make progress here.”
To Conger, the military has served as an important validator for the reality of the climate crisis, moving the right wing toward acknowledging that human-driven climate change is real. “Now that we’ve gotten largely past that argument,” Conger said, “we can argue about what to do.”
Even in a new political era, with the White House and Congress controlled by Democrats, the expensive and politically fraught process of widespread climate adaptation remains a hard sell. Democrats instead have focused attention on more politically palatable ideas like a new energy economy. Both lawmakers and Biden have put a heavy emphasis on framing the transition to renewables and energy efficiency as an opportunity for jobs and technological innovation. Such a transition will be vital to addressing the climate crisis, but is not enough without significant adaptation measures.
Security-focused resilience measures remain a constant focus. The new presidential administration has only deepened the executive branch’s commitment to militarized climate policy. In Biden’s first days in office, for example, the president signed an executive order officially making the climate crisis a national security priority.
The president hasn’t been silent on adaptation. He also signed another order reinstating Obama-era standards for federal buildings in flood zones, which Donald Trump had eliminated — but at the end of April, the White House rescinded the order with little explanation. Some analysts took it as a signal that the Biden administration was not sufficiently prioritizing resilience and adaptation.
There’s no dispute that public assets other than military bases are in need of climate preparedness measures. In the wake of Hurricane Harvey, displaced community members in Houston sued the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development for leaving them stuck in poorly adapted government-subsidized housing in a floodplain. Nationwide, around 450,000 subsidized housing units are located in floodplains, according to a 2017 study by New York University’s Furman Center.
“Instead of pouring more resources into DoD agencies to retool military bases, we should start planning to close many of these bases.”
Meanwhile, this winter’s cold snap in the South left detainees in federal prisons and U.S Immigration and Customs Enforcement detention facilities in multiple states suffering dire conditions. Some scientists say the sudden extreme cold was consistent with the impacts of the climate crisis. Incarcerated people have also suffered extreme heat, hurricane-induced flooding and wildfire-driven evacuations in recent years.
A 2019 Government Accountability Office report found that 60 percent of Superfund sites, areas identified by the federal government as containing hazardous material, are at a high risk of being impacted climate disasters like floods or wildfires.
Steichen has her own proposal for paying for climate adaptation: Redirect the U.S.’s massive military spending. “Maintaining this global empire of bases is incredibly costly,” she said. “Instead of pouring more resources into DoD agencies to retool military bases, we should start planning to close many of these bases. Closing half or more of our overseas military bases would free up $90 billion a year, funds that could be reallocated to climate solutions.”