The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The Energy 202: Pentagon climate work in the GOP crosshairs

with Paulina Firozi


Brick by brick, the Obama administration’s climate legacy is being disassembled across the federal government.

At the Energy Department, Rick Perry has commissioned a study of the electric grid that some environmentalists see as a pretense for attacking wind and solar energy. At the Interior Department, Ryan Zinke is attempting to roll back  rules meant to reduce the emissions of methane, a potent greenhouse gas. And at the Environmental Protection Agency, Scott Pruitt is trying to, among many other things, undo the linchpin of Obama’s emissions-reduction effort, the  Clean Power Plan.

But there’s at least one place in Washington that is not (yet) a deconstruction site when it comes to climate change — the Pentagon.

The Department of Defense has for a long time now been quietly studying how to adapt to the effects of climate change, even prior to President Obama’s election.

“The nature and pace of climate changes being observed today and the consequences projected by the consensus scientific opinion,” read a 2007 Military Advisory Board report from retired generals and admirals, “are grave and pose equally grave implications for our national security.”

Among the issues researched have been how sea-level rise threatens to swamp some coastal military bases and how extreme weather may exacerbate social tension in war-prone places. The concern has been summed up in one two-word phrase in military circles — climate change is a “threat multiplier.”

Now Congress will weigh in on how far that line of thinking will continue under Trump.

In late June, the GOP-led House Armed Services Committee passed an amendment, introduced by Rep. Jim Langevin (D-R.I.) to the annual defense authorization bill that directs the Defense Department to assess the vulnerabilities of the ten bases in each service most threatened by the effects of climate change. A three-foot rise in the ocean’s water could submerge 128 U.S. military installations along, one 2015 study found.

The amendment also has Congress in general acknowledging that “climate change is a direct threat to the national security of the United States.”

"The fact is that the planet is warming and there are national security implications as a result of that," Langevin said. "We can't just stick our head in the sand, and hope they're going to go away." 

The amendment passed committee by voice vote and was sent to the full House. Only one Republican, Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.), raised concerns during the Armed Services panel hearing.

“North Korea is not developing nuclear tipped ICBMs because the climate’s changing,” Cheney said at the hearing. “ISIS and al-Qaeda are not attacking the West because of the weather.”

Other GOP members have produced counter-amendments swinging even harder at the Defense Department's work on climate change. 

Rep. Scott Perry (R-Pa.) introduced an amendment to the NDAA that would simply strip out Langevin's language in order to save the department money and keep the Pentagon focused on its “essential mission.”

“My goal with this amendment is to prioritize our limited defense resources on efforts that pose an immediate and direct threat to our national security,” Perry told the York Daily Record in his district. 

But an amendment from Rep. Warren Davidson (R-Ohio) goes even further, striking down an executive order issued by Obama in 2015 that required the military, a huge consumer of energy, to meet greenhouse-emissions targets.

That proposal received the backing of a powerful coalition of 14 conservative organizations, including the Competitive Enterprise Institute, whose director Myron Ebell led the Trump transition team at the EPA.

"These climate programs and policies have nothing to do with the mission of the United States' Armed Services," Ebell and the other organizations' leaders wrote in a letter to lawmakers. "In fact, many of these programs and policies are likely to undermine military readiness by diverting scarce resources to such things as helping state and local governments to 'go green.'"

What does Defense Secretary Jim Mattis think? The retired Marine Corps general is one of the few members of Trump’s Cabinet that seems to take the threat of climate change seriously.

“Climate change is impacting stability in areas of the world where our troops are operating today,” Mattis told the Senate in written testimony after his confirmation hearing. “It is appropriate for the Combatant Commands to incorporate drivers of instability that impact the security environment in their areas into their planning.”

Based on Mattis’s past statements, John Conger, who as a former principal deputy under secretary in the Defense Department’s comptroller’s office and in other positions at the department oversaw the energy and environmental policy at bases, said that he does not expect the Pentagon to oppose Langevin’s amendment.

“It sends a message to the DoD that Congress supports Secretary Mattis' position on climate change — echoing his previous statements in a sense of Congress,” Conger told me. “The vulnerability assessment would be valuable both for DoD as it manages its enterprise and for Congress as it conducts oversight.”

What happens next: So far, the Trump administration has not publicly objected to the climate provision in the NDAA. The White House did not include a response to the request for a climate study in a lengthy policy statement it issued on the NDAA this week.

On Wednesday, the House began consideration of the NDAA. The Senate, too, must pass its own version of the bill, and the two chambers will have to work out differences in the language.


-- Not a photo op you see everyday: On Wednesday, four senators that stretch far across the ideological spectrum — Sens. Heidi Heitkamp (D-N.D.), Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.), Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) and John Barrasso (R-Wyo.) — introduced a bill designed to strengthen the carbon-capture tax credit.

It is not often you find Whitehouse and Barrasso — who are among the biggest proponents and detractors in the Senate, respectively, of the idea that humans are warming the planet — agreeing on energy policy. Whitehouse, at least, was compelled to acknowledge his strange bedfellows when introducing the legislation on Wednesday

"Welcome to the very infrequent Capito-to-Whitehouse-to-Barrasso legislative handoff," he said to laughs.

-- Elsewhere in Congress: The Senate Environment and Public Works Committee chugged along with approving three of President Trump’s nominees to serve in top energy roles.

  • Annie Caputo and David Wright were approved to serve on the Nuclear Regulatory Commission by a 15-6 and 12-9 vote, respectively.
  • And Susan Bodine was approved on a 12-9 vote to be assistant administrator of the EPA’s Office of Enforcement and Compliance Assurance.

The nominees will move on to a full Senate vote. 

-- The House Appropriations Committee advanced its energy and water spending bill on Wednesday. Two big things to note:

  • Like Trump's budget proposal, the House bill zeroes out money for the Energy Department's Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E), which funds high-risk-but-high-reward energy technology. Democratic efforts to restore ARPA-E funding failed on Wednesday.
    • What that means: It will be up to the Senate to step in and save ARPA-E. But it's not all doom and gloom (yet). "This is a process," said Rep. Mike Simpson (R-Idaho). "The department should not take actions to shut down ARPA-E until Congress directs it to by law."
    • This is how David M. Hart, professor of science and technology policy at George Mason University, and Matt Hourihan, budget expert at the American Association for the Advancement of Science, interpreted Simpson's comment:
  • What that means: It will be up to the Senate to step in and save ARPA-E. But it's not all doom and gloom (yet). "This is a process," said Rep. Mike Simpson (R-Idaho). "The department should not take actions to shut down ARPA-E until Congress directs it to by law."
  • This is how David M. Hart, professor of science and technology policy at George Mason University, and Matt Hourihan, budget expert at the American Association for the Advancement of Science, interpreted Simpson's comment:



  • Democrats on the committee were unsuccessful at removing a policy rider restricting the EPA's authority under the Clean Water Act. 
    • What that means: Trump has already taken steps to undo the targeted policy, called the Waters of the United States (or WOTUS) rule, which greatly expands the number of waterways the EPA has authority over. But passing a bill doing the same thing would codify the rescission, making it much harder for a future Democratic president to pick up where Obama left off.
  • What that means: Trump has already taken steps to undo the targeted policy, called the Waters of the United States (or WOTUS) rule, which greatly expands the number of waterways the EPA has authority over. But passing a bill doing the same thing would codify the rescission, making it much harder for a future Democratic president to pick up where Obama left off.

-- An American in Paris: Trump does not represent the people of Paris — he said so himself, as a point of derision when announcing that the United States would pull out of the climate accord the previous U.S. president brokered in the city. (Paris, of course, merely hosted the conference that led to the agreement.)

But, in a last-minute decision, he will be lighting up the City of Light to celebrate Bastille Day with French President Emmanuel Macron. Why the change of mind? Macron told Trump there would be a good military parade, according to The Post's Jenna Johnson and James McAuley.


-- Zuckerberg not-running-for-president tour hits oil and gas country: Facebook chief executive Mark Zuckerberg toured a drilling rig in North Dakota in an effort to learn more about the energy industry. In an early Wednesday morning Facebook post, Zuckerberg described meeting those who work in fracking in the town of Williston, and learning how the Dakota Access pipeline affected the community.

“[T]he energy industry is at the center of politics here. When the Dakota Access Pipeline was approved, that removed $6-7 per barrel of cost from producing oil in the region, which brought more investment and jobs here,” he wrote. “A number of people told me they had felt their livelihood was blocked by the government, but when Trump approved the pipeline they felt a sense of hope again. That word "hope" came up many times around this. One person told me the night the pipeline was approved, people lit fireworks and rode trucks with American flags down Main Street to celebrate.”

“Many people I talked to here acknowledged [climate change,]” he continued, “but also feel a sense of pride that their work contributes to serving real needs we all have every day -- keeping our homes warm, getting to work, feeding us, and more. They believe competition from new sources of energy is good, but from their perspective, until renewables can provide most of our energy at scale, they are providing an important service we all rely on, and they wish they'd stop being demonized for it.”


-- The Journal News, a newspaper in New York's Hudson Valley, has a long-read on how nuclear plant closures in small towns across the country, like Vernon, Vt., reflect a nationwide energy crisis. The closures are affecting town budgets and forcing tax increases to revive the economy.

Thomas C. Zambito reports: “Vernon's dilemma, in many ways, mirrors the unique challenges being faced by towns across the USA — from California's Pacific coast to the Florida's Gulf Coast — where nuclear power plants have shut down.

In recent years, more than a dozen nuclear power plants either have announced plans to close or entered the decades-long process of decommissioning their nuclear reactors, according to the federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

The cheap price of natural gas, coupled with costly repairs to aging plants, have hastened the nuclear industry's decline, forcing more and more power companies to cut their losses.”


-- Did you hear the one about Delaware? The New York Times and Quartz have great breakdowns of how news publications around the world measured the size of the iceberg that broke off yesterday from the Larsen C ice shelf.

What determines the measuring stick? It's like the real-estate business: Location, location, location. 

Some highlights:

  • Australia: iceberg = "larger than the island of Bali in Indonesia"
  • United Kingdom: iceberg = "around 15 times the size of the Isle of Wight, twice the size of Luxembourg and a quarter the size of Wales" 
  • Canada: iceberg = "P.E.I." — or, that is, Prince Edward Island.
  • France: iceberg = 60 times larger than Paris
  • Russia: iceberg = quarter the size of the Moscow region

And of course, in the United States it was all DelawareDelawareDelaware.

-- That's a tall glass of water: The Post’s Philip Bump has an even better comparison: How long would it take to drink it?

Let’s start with the math. So the iceberg weighs about 1.12 trillion U.S. tons, according to the British Antarctic Survey. That’s of ice, of course. When we convert that to the weight of the water, it totals … 1.12 trillion tons. Why? Because it’s still the same amount of water, just in a different form. The ice has more volume, but not more weight.

I’m going to assume we’re talking about 8-ounce glasses of water here, just for the sake of our experiment. An ounce of water weighs 29.57 grams, so an 8-ounce glass of water weighs 236.6 grams(excluding the weight of the glass). That means that our 1.12 trillion tons of ice could mete out about 4.3 quadrillion glasses of water.

 -- There’s another story on the future dangers of climate change circling the web in the last day — this time warning people that the best way to combat climate change is to “have fewer children.”

The Guardian wrote about a new study published in Environmental Research Letters that shows having fewer children is identified as having the most effect on cutting carbon emissions per individual. Researchers found having one fewer child reduces a parent’s carbon emission by 58 tonnes. 

The New York Times’ Brad Plumer said that he was bothered by the argument at a “gut level”:

From a Cambridge University political economist: 

From HuffPost’s Nick Baumann: 

--Scientists are beginning to explain how mercury is leaking into the Arctic tundra, according to a new study published in the journal Nature.

Chelsea Harvey reported on the study for The Post, which found most of the mercury contamination in the Arctic is from a gaseous form that has traveled from other areas in the world from coal and other industrial emissions.

Harvey writes: “Once it reaches the Arctic, the scientists believe the mercury is sucked up by plants — mainly in the summer, when snow cover is at its lowest and the tundra is at its greenest — in much the same way that vegetation pulls carbon dioxide out of the air. As the plants shed their leaves or die, the mercury moves into the soil and eventually may leach into rivers and waterways, which carry it into the Arctic Ocean.

As climate change continues to heat up the Arctic, the scientists are concerned about the ways that the resulting landscape changes — which may include less sea ice, less snow and more vegetation — could affect the cycling of mercury through the ecosystem.”

Why it matters: The new research may help scientists understand how global warming may affect mercury’s cycling in the ecosystem.

Alexandra Steffen, an atmospheric mercury specialist with Environment Canada told The Washington Post that no one has really studied “the Arctic tundra and the impact that it has on the mercury cycle.”

Why the Arctic? Harvey writes that scientists are still trying to understand why the gaseous form of mercury is traveling to that particular area. 


--A new study found that residents in Washington D.C. spend less on household energy bills and motor fuel compared with any state in the country.

Residents in the district spend a total of $219 on energy per month, including electricity, natural gas, motor fuel and home-heating oil, according to the WalletHub study. That’s compared with $380 per month in Connecticut, whose residents spend the most on energy, the study found. 



  • Energy Secretary Rick Perry travels to Mexico to meet with President of Mexico Enrique Peña Nieto and Mexico’s Secretary of Energy Pedro Joaquin Coldwell
  • The Energy Department holds a Better Buildings exchange on resilience and energy efficiency in low-income communities.
  • The House Natural Resources Subcommittee on Indian, Insular and Alaska Native Affairs will hold an oversight hearing on the Indian Reorganization Act.

Coming Up

  • The House Natural Resources Subcommittee on Federal Lands will hold a legislative hearing on four bills on Friday.

President Trump leaves for his trip to Paris to attend France's Bastille Day celebrations:

President Trump departed from Joint Base Andrews in Maryland for Paris on July 12. (Video: Reuters)

FBI nominee Christopher Wray's confirmation hearing, in 3 minutes: 

Christopher Wray, President Trump's nominee for FBI director, testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee on July 12. Here's a run-down of the hearing. (Video: Jenny Starrs/The Washington Post, Photo: Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post)

Who Spun It Best: Donald Trump Jr. edition:

We give you three reactions to the news about Donald Trump Jr.’s emails, and you pick the most effective spin. (Video: The Washington Post)

Where does ‘opposition research’ cross a line?

The Post's David A. Fahrenthold explains what opposition research is, and whether Donald Trump Jr. crossed a line. (Video: Victoria Walker, Whitney Shefte, Randolph Smith/The Washington Post)

A Sumatran tiger born at the National Zoo:

8-year-old Damai gave birth to a cub on July 11 at the Smithsonian’s National Zoo. (Video: Smithsonian’s National Zoo.)

Fisherman reels in hammerhead shark off Panama City Beach:

Drone footage captured a fisherman reeling in a hammerhead shark off Panama City Beach, Fla., on Saturday, July 1. (Video: Curtis Williams)

Baby hippo Fiona is reunited with family:

Baby hippo Fiona and her family swam together for the first time at the Cincinnati Zoo & Botanical Gardens July 11. (Video: Taylor Turner/The Washington Post)

And on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert, Last Week Tonight host John Oliver says the Donald Trump Jr. email scandal is definitely something: