When future generations look back at the volatile natural disasters and environmental tragedies that struck the United States in 2017, they may mark the year as the first time we were forced to deal with the chaotic consequences of climate change from coast to coast. From the relentless wildfires in California and the Northwest, to a trio of record-breaking hurricanes to hit the Southeast, and to the forceful waves of flooding, tornadoes, hail-storms, and droughts across the Midwest, Americans barely had time to catch their breath before another catastrophe struck.
These natural disasters took a major toll on our country, together causing $306 billion in damage and hundreds, if not thousands, of deaths. Each of these instances of extreme weather can be traced back to the effects of warmer temperatures and a more unstable climate globally. In 2014, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change predicted that these very disasters would become more intense and more frequent in the future due to the effects of human-induced climate change.
With this level of destruction and calamity sweeping the nation, how did President of the United States Donald Trump choose to close out 2017? By removing climate change from the strategic list of national security threats facing the country.
With the release of his National Security Strategy on 18 December, President Trump turned his back on the precedent set by defense leaders to recognize the dangerous effects of climate change as threats to the security of the United States. The 2015 National Security Strategy identified climate change as an “urgent and growing threat to our national security,” and the 2008 National Defense Strategy released by President Bush addressed the new security challenges generated by the pressures of climate change. Even Trump’s own Secretary of Defense has called the issue a real-time challenge for our troops, operations, resources, and readiness.
This comes in a long-line of wrong moves that Trump has made on climate change, continually ignoring experts who say that these actions will leave us more insecure. Trump’s June 2017 announcement of his intention to leave the Paris Climate Agreement was met by stunning rebuke from diplomats and security leaders, who see the decision as damaging to American credibility and leadership with other nations around the world. His efforts in his first year as president to repeal important regulations against harmful climate pollution, scrub all mentions of climate change from agency websites, and elevate climate deniers within his cabinet dealt a serious blow to solving the climate challenge.
Trump’s ignorance and abdication of leadership will make our country insecure against the threats of climate change, just as they become more intense. 2017 was just the beginning: The U.S. Global Change Research Program predicts intensifying floods, heat waves, hurricanes, droughts, and storms across the country to increase as the world continues to warm. What could leave Americans more insecure than unpredictable extreme weather disasters that threaten the safety of our homes, communities, and livelihoods?
Fortunately, while Trump was playing politics with America’s security strategy, the U.S. Congress voted across party lines to recognize the security risks posed by climate change. The 2018 National Defense Authorization Act names climate change as a “direct threat” to U.S. national security, and calls for a Pentagon study on the security of our military bases in the face of increasing climate events.
However, in light of the rapidly accelerating changes faced by Americans, these words do not go far enough. With the first weeks of 2018 already consumed by dangerous storms and fatal mudslides, our leaders must do more than admit the risks posed to our security by climate change by beginning to invest in solutions to confront them. If we do not, all Americans threatened by even more intense natural disasters in decades to come will know who to blame.
Kate Guy is Policy Program Manager at Truman National Security Project and Truman Center. Views expressed are her own.