At the Coast Guard Academy graduation in May, President Obama stated climate change is “an immediate risk to our national security." Former Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Secretary Janet Napolitano also has stated climate change is one of the “greatest challenges of our time.”
In response to DHS focus on climate change as a top priority, the House Committee on Homeland Security’s Subcommittee on Oversight and Management Efficiency held a hearing Tuesday to examine DHS’ rhetoric, role and budget regarding climate change.
During the hearing, subcommittee chairman Scott Perry (R-Pa.) said he is “shocked” by the attention climate change is being given considering the myriad of other significant threats facing the nation today.
“DHS faces enormous challenges protecting our citizens from an array of global threats,” Perry stated. “Ignoring the true security risks facing our nation in order to satisfy political constituencies is irresponsible and puts us at grave risk.”
Similarly, Homeland Security Today recently reported that after the President’s speech at the US Coast Guard Academy, Rep. Michael McCaul (R-Texas) voiced his concern that an undue emphasis on climate change could shortchange the efforts devoted to other more significant threats.
“President Obama sounds alarm bells about climate change, and in the meantime short-changes those responsible for tackling real threats to our national security, like the threat from Islamist jihadists," McCaul said.
In the agency’s Fiscal Year 2016 budget request, DHS asked for $16 million for programs related to climate change. Furthermore, last year’s Quadrennial Homeland Security Review (QHSR)—a key strategic document outlining DHS’s priorities—asserted climate change poses a strategically significant risk to the nation and may drastically alter the homeland security threat landscape.
According to QHSR, climate change and associated trends may also indirectly act as “threat multipliers.” For example, the report states that climate change can “aggravate stressors abroad that can enable terrorist activity and violence, such as poverty, environmental degradation and social tensions.”
Furthermore, the QHSR stated, “More severe droughts and tropical storms, especially in Mexico, Central America, and the Caribbean, could also increase population movements, both legal and illegal, across the US border. Melting sea ice in the Arctic may lead to new opportunities for shipping, tourism, and legal resource exploration, as well as new routes for smuggling and trafficking, increased risk of environmental disasters, and illicit resource exploitation.”
However, in his opening statements, Perry contended the rhetoric contained in the QHSR, as well as other documents issued by DHS over the past year, claiming that climate change poses a direct security risk raises a number of questions regarding DHS’ approach to an array of global security threats.
In particular, Perry noted that the subcommittee voiced concerns last year that the QHSR failed to address a number of serious threats including those from non-state actors, such as China, Russia and Iran. However, climate change made the list.
“With so many threats facing us, it’s utterly incomprehensible to include climate change, yet stay silent on foreign threats,” Perry said. “Are the American people to believe that the increased operations by ISIS are due to hot weather or a shortage of water?” Perry added. “Such assertions are ridiculous, and frankly, insulting.”
DHS defends focus on climate change
Some of the panel members took issue with the premise of the hearing, arguing that DHS’s focus on climate change has not been misplaced.
“I will show that the premise of this hearing is backwards. DHS is not doing enough to prepare the country for security threats from climate change,” said Marc A. Levy, deputy director, Center for International Earth Science Information Network at Columbia University.
Levy noted that given the ability of climate change to disrupt the economy, destabilize regions of national interest and endanger the safety of Americans, DHS is obligated to incorporate climate change into its risk framework.
In addition, Rep. Bonnie Watson Coleman (D-NJ) said, “It concerns me that we’re having this particular hearing and that we’re spending our taxpayer money on trying to create some political theater around this issue of your role in keeping our homeland safe, on any level, with regard to any issue.”
During the hearing, DHS defended the agency’s focus on climate change, stating that climate change is a factor—but certainly not the only factor—considered in assessing current and future threats to the resilience of the United States.
Smith asserted the QHSR is based on input from industry, academia, and government. Experts involved with the Homeland Security Strategic Environment Assessment have identified natural disasters, pandemics and climate change as key drivers of change to the homeland strategic environment.
“To disregard natural disasters, pandemics, and climate change would be ignoring how these factors may indirectly act as ‘threat multipliers;’ and neglect our shared responsibility to strategically manage risk and build a more prepared, resilient nation,” said Acting Assistant DHS Secretary Thomas Smith. “It is through the thorough and candid assessment of these risks that that we will strengthen the security and resilience of the United States.”
Roy Wright, deputy associate administrator for insurance and mitigation at the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), noted climate change is just one of many future risks. However, given the potential impact of climate change, FEMA is supporting state, local, and tribal governments with efforts to prepare for the impacts of climate change.
“Addressing future risks, such as those posed by extreme weather events regardless of their cause, is key to our mission,” Wright said. “Wherever possible, we bring data to bear and work with deference to state, local and tribal needs and priorities. By addressing future risks, state, local tribal and territorial governments are best prepared for future extreme weather events and are able to bounce back faster at the individual and community level.”
With the nation’s dependence on critical infrastructure, ensuring the resilience of the nation’s infrastructure against a number of threats—including climate change—is crucial to national security, according to DHS Deputy Assistant Secretary Robert Kolasky, Office of Infrastructure Protection, National Protection and Programs Directorate.
Kolasky indicated the US Global Change Research Program’s Third National Climate Assessment released last year states that the US will experience “an increase in frequency and intensity of hurricanes, massive flooding, excessively high temperatures, wildfires, severe downpours, severe droughts, storm surge and sea-level rise throughout the 21st Century.”
However, Kolasky also reiterated his fellow DHS panel members’ statements regarding how the threats associated with climate change are just one of the many risks facing our national infrastructure.
“While we are here today to discuss the effects of climate change, we continue our efforts to secure all areas of our critical infrastructure from the many threats that face them,” said Kolasky. “From preventing terrorism to safeguarding and securing cyberspace, reducing the risks to critical infrastructure must be a balance.”