On Monday, March 16, the House Budget Committee released a draft of its FY2016 Budget Resolution. As has become usual when budget legislation is announced, the sponsor, Budget Committee Chairman Tom Price also released a narrative document outlining the contents of the legislative language. Former Budget Chairman Paul Ryan had become somewhat notorious for writing book-length treatises with quotes from the founding fathers, philosophers, and think tanks. Price has continued this tradition.
In the published narrative, Chairman Price list under the “Eliminating Waste” section that “The Department of Defense and the Central Intelligence Agency, two of the most important agencies in our national security apparatus, currently spend part of their budget studying climate change.” This implies that Congress will seek to eliminate that spending.
This section was dutifully repeated by litany of outraged (outraged!) reports from media (mostly on the liberal-leaning side), like the New Republic, Mashable, Huffington Post, and even The Washington Post (who cited ASP’s work, thanks Philip Bump!). As far as I can tell, the section got no coverage in right-leaning media, but that’s another story all together.
All of the attention to the budget from the media is out-sized from what the actual budget resolution is. This is a non-binding document that has no force of law. It sets out non-binding limits for the Appropriations Committees then build into bills that would fund the various agencies of the government. So – it is a roadmap, but one that is seldom actually followed.
Before we all get outraged (outraged!) though, let me first repeat that a budget resolution does not have the force of law. Even more importantly, and I think a telling of how serious the committee is about this: there is no mention of DoD spending on climate change within the legislative language of the budget itself! That means that even the non-binding roadmap says nothing about this: it is only the summary document.
Now, frankly, I think that neither the military nor the CIA are doing enough to study the impacts of climate change on America’s future security. For all the high-profile statements from people like the Secretary of Defense and in documents like the DoD Adaptation roadmap or the National Intelligence Assessment on Climate Change, I am worried that there’s not enough work being done within the government to take the big picture of “Climate change is a threat” down the granular studies of “how” and “what do we do about it?” More work needs to be done.
The truth is, in the 21st Century, threats no longer are as easy as looking to an opposing nation-state to determine when the tanks will roll. It is about looking a broad suite of destabilizing threats, like urbanization, food production, water availability, infectious diseases, ethnic differences, migration, and more to determine how instability to foment new threats. For example, the rise of ISIS in Iraq and Syria is not a straight line story about terrorist enemies: to understand it, you have to look at the whole range of ethnic, religious, environmental, and governmental failures in the region. Climate change is what we call an “accelerant of instability” because it impacts all those existing threats and makes them worse.
In a future of rising seas and increasingly violent storms across the pacific, will the US Navy have enough resources to both address the challenges of a rising China and provide humanitarian support after storms like Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines or the recent Cyclone Pam in Vanuatu? Or how climate aid could actually build support among allies in the region. To me, it seems that is something the Pacific Command should study, not ignore.
In addition, there are looming intelligence challenges about how other nations are dealing with climate change, and no one should prohibit the CIA from analyzing those threats. For example, if we are successful at the Paris Conference this year, countries all around the world will make commitments to measurably reduce their emissions. As a Republican, I remember President Reagan’s caution about treaties: “Trust, but verify.” It will be important to have a unit at the CIA or somewhere else within the intelligence community that could verify if countries like China, Brazil, or Russia are actually meeting their commitments.
Unfortunately, this fight is about rhetoric, not substance. Perhaps this story says more about the nature of the interrelationship between politicians and the modern media than it does about any actual lawmaking. My fear is not that Congress will prohibit any spending on studying the impacts of climate change, but that statements like these, and the breathless media coverage that ensues, will cause elements within government agencies to shy away from anything relating to climate change, in order to not create any waves.
This has happened before: in 2012, the CIA, then under General Petraeus, closed its climate center (started under his predecessor, Leon Panetta). This didn’t happen because Congress passed a law, but was closed because “there wasn’t a lot of love for this at the CIA.” The moral is that leadership matters, on this as in any other issue.
The other moral is that decision makers within the agencies read the news, though they may not have a full understanding of the arcane procedures of the Congressional Budget Resolution. They know that they need Congressional support for a full range of their priorities and they may be tempted to chop something like climate change that is seen as “controversial.” Lets stop the hyperventilating, pay attention to what’s actually law, and get to work.
For more information on climate security, please read ASP’s Climate Security Report. To learn more about a specific issue, please explore ASP’s previous publications listed below.