The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The Energy 202: How to get Trump to sign climate legislation? Put it in a defense bill.

with Paulina Firozi


Before he was president, Donald Trump repeatedly called climate change a "total hoax." His administration has subsequently gone about undoing policies put in place by his predecessor meant to mitigate its effects.

Except, that is, when it comes to military bases.

On Monday, Trump signed into law a defense authorization bill that will spur the U.S. military to guard its infrastructure against rising sea levels and other changes expected from global warming. While much of the rest of the federal bureaucracy, notably the Environmental Protection Agency, tries to roll back climate regulations, the Pentagon remains one of the few departments under Trump to continue work begun under President Obama to ready the military for a warmer world. 

“Every day, the Army is fighting for us, and now we’re fighting for you," Trump said during a signing ceremony. During the speech, Trump veered from topic to topic, talking about the newly announced “Space Force” and the "fake news media," but did not address climate change.

Still, with Republicans in control of the White House and Congress, the only legislation readying the country for climate change to become law concerns military preparedness. 

Already this year, researchers published to two Pentagon-commissioned reports detailing how in the future island populations will contend with bigger waves crashing onto the shore and contaminating drinking water and how currently coastal facilities, such as the U.S. Naval Academy in Maryland, are already dealing with flooding from storm surges.

With the newly signed defense bill, Congress is urging Pentagon planners to be particularly cautious in its new construction. For example, all new military installations in the 100-year floodplain must be designed assuming an additional two feet of flooding above the base flood elevation. In general, Congress is asking the military to incorporate climate-change research from the National Academies of Sciences into the design of new buildings and the modification of old ones.

The Pentagon will also turn greater attention to the melting Arctic. The bill asks for the strategists to investigate China’s activities in the Arctic and authorizes the U.S. Coast Guard to obtain over the next decade six new ships with hauls built for cracking through sea ice.

Right now, the U.S. military has only two working polar icebreakers. Russia has more than 25.

The prioritization of climate in the defense bills is a continuation from last year. Last year's bill required the Defense Department to assess the vulnerability of the 10 bases in each service most threatened by climate. That legislation stated flatly that "climate change is a direct threat to the national security of the United States."

When it comes to climate change, Congress has "a tendency to give deference to the military," said John Conger, director of the Center for Climate and Security and former acting assistant secretary of defense for energy, installations and the environment. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and other military leaders have repeatedly said the armed services must prepare for climate change.

The military's climate plans also do not run afoul of oil, coal and other industrial interests, which oppose the imposition of emissions controls that burden their businesses. What happens on military bases does not affect them.

That isn't to say some Republicans have not tried to derail the military's efforts. Last year, Reps. Scott Perry (R-Pa.) and Ken Buck (R-Colo.) tried deleting the requirement for the climate vulnerability study from the defense bill. But their amendment was defeated 234-185, in part due to balking of Republicans on the House Climate Solutions Caucus.


— "This has nothing to do with climate change:" Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke said the recent spate of massive wildfires is not about global warming. “I’ve heard the climate change argument back and forth," Zinke said in an interview with Sacramento’s KCRA. "This has nothing to do with climate change. This has to do with active forest management." Zinke would like forest managers to have greater power to trim trees from forests susceptible to conflagration without environmental rules getting in the way. In an op-ed last week in USA Today, the Trump Cabinet member acknowledged "fires are burning hotter and more intense, due in part to hot and dry weather."

Democrats, including Vermont independent Sen. Bernie Sanders who caucuses with the party, countered this. Sanders tweeted: "No, Secretary Zinke. The record-breaking wildfires in California have everything to do with climate change. We must confront the reality that climate change is already destroying tens of thousands of lives, and take concrete steps to avoid its worst consequences.

What the science says: "Human activity, primarily the burning of fossil fuels, has added greenhouse gases to the atmosphere, trapping heat and making extreme weather events even more extreme," The Post's Joel Achenbach and Angela Fritz wrote last month. "Large wildfires will become even more frequent."

Meanwhile: A firefighter from Utah was killed Monday while battling the Mendocino Complex fire, the state’s largest in recorded history, the Los Angeles Times reports.

— Trump revs up criticism of Harley-Davidson: In a tweet on Sunday, Trump applauded bikers who he wrote planned to boycott the motorcycle maker over its plans to move motorcycle production outside of the United States.  The tweet “represented the first time since he became president that he has called on Twitter for a ‘boycott’ of an American company, media organizations aside," The Post’s Isaac Stanley-Becker reports.

— Al Gore said Trump "has had less of an impact" on the environment "than I feared that he would": The reason, the former vice president told the Associated Press, has to do with the "inherent resilience" of the U.S. political system. "I think they’ve made some mistakes in some of the moves they’ve made. The courts have blocked some of what they wanted to do as a result."

— A slimy election in Florida: Incumbent Sen. Bill Nelson (D) and his Republican challenger, Gov. Rick Scott, have been trading blame for the toxic blue-green algal bloom spreading in parts of the state, killing marine life and sparking public health concerns. “And even as they accuse each other of inaction, both the two-term governor and the three-term senator have scrambled to prove how dedicated they are to addressing the problem,” The Post’s Brady Dennis and Lori Rozsa write, noting the environmental concern may end up as the critical issue in the race. Florida is not new to the issue of algal blooms but it has become a focus in the Senate race as businesses raise complains and families are forced to temporarily leave their homes.

— “No safe exposure amount": Internal Environmental Protection Agency emails show that agency scientists and lawyers objected to an EPA measure to review applications for using asbestos in consumer products, the New York Times reports. The new asbestos proposal would allow a new process for regulating businesses’ use of asbestos in their products, which some argue could make it easier for the substance, which is a known carcinogen, to return. 

— Pipeline plans halted: The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission ordered Dominion Energy to stop all work on the Atlantic Coast Pipeline after a panel of judges suspended two key permits for the project, The Post’s Gregory S. Schneider reports. The 600-mile pipeline is meant to bring natural gas from West Virginia through central Virginia.

— “No justification": A federal appeals court last Thursday ruled the EPA must ban the controversial pesticide chlorpyrifos, something ex-administrator Scott Pruitt had refused to do. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit ruled that per federal law, there is “no justification” for Pruitt or the agency to allow the use of the pesticide “in the face of scientific evidence that its residue on food causes neurodevelopmental damage to children," Dennis reports.

What happens when the government stops doing its job? (Steven Mufson)


— Man, it’s a hot one: This year is on pace to be the fourth-hottest year on record across the globe, trailing the three previous years, which have the top spots. Seventeen of the 18 warmest years have happened since 2001, the New York Times reports, and the trend is still inching upward.

— Post-storm struggles: The city of Port Arthur in Texas is still recovering a year after Hurricane Harvey struck communities along the Texas Gulf Coast. Harvey was just the latest struggle for a town that at the time was still recovering “from direct hits from two other hurricanes, Rita in 2005 and Ike in 2008,” the Wall Street Journal reports. Harvey led to $1.3 billion in damage in Port Arthur, and it’s been slow to receive federal disaster aid.


— The road ahead for Tesla: The electric automaker chief executive on Monday defended his announcement on Twitter that he may take the company private, writing in a blog post that his tweet followed conversations with Saudi Arabia’s sovereign wealth about potentially backing the plan. The offer was made at the end of last month, The Post’s Hamza Shaban reports. “I left the July 31st meeting with no question that a deal with the Saudi sovereign fund could be closed, and that it was just a matter of getting the process moving.” Musk said.

— Oil watch: The Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries predicted in its monthly report published Monday that the demand for 2019 crude oil would be lower as Saudi Arabia cuts production and rivals supply more oil. “The drop in demand for OPEC crude means there will be less strain on other producers in making up for supply losses in Venezuela and Libya, and potentially in Iran as renewed U.S. sanctions kick in," Reuters reports.


Coming Up

  • The Senate Energy and Natural Resources Subcommittee on National Parks holds a legislative hearing on Wednesday.
  • The Senate Natural Resources Committee holds a hearing on Energy Department nominations on Thursday.
  • The Senate Environment and Public Works Committee holds a legislative hearing on Thursday.
  • The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration holds a briefing on Alaska’s climate outlook on Friday.
The Parker Solar Probe was launched on Aug. 12 in a mission to venture closer to the Sun than ever before. (Video: Whitney Shefte/The Washington Post)

— To the sun: NASA’s Parker Solar Probe launched on Sunday morning on a mission “that should take it closer to the sun than any human-made object has gone before,” The Post’s Sarah Kaplan and Ben Guarino report.