The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The disconnect between the Trump administration and reality on climate change keeps growing

One of the many areas near the southeast side of Offutt Air Force Base in Nebraska affected by floodwaters on Saturday. (Rachelle Blake/U.S. Air Force/Reuters)

A historic storm hit the Great Plains last week, leading to the worst flooding in Nebraska in half a century. Several inches of rain fell after a month of record snow, some of which still sat on frozen ground. The result, as the Omaha World-Herald reported, was rain plus snowmelt with nowhere to go. So it went everywhere.

That included Offutt Air Force Base, just south of Omaha near the Missouri River. It flooded, putting nearly a third of the base underwater.

By itself, this is obviously bad news. But it’s the underlying trend that’s more worrisome — as is the reaction from President Trump’s administration.

While the World-Herald was careful not to say explicitly that the current flooding is a function of climate change, it was pointed in noting that this sort of flooding is what climate models predict. The reason is straightforward: Warmer temperatures mean more evaporation from soil and more droughts. That moisture, though, goes into the air, which can hold more water as it warms. That leads to bigger, more powerful storms with more precipitation — including in snowstorms. Since 1958, the percentage of days each year in which precipitation has met or exceeded the 99th percentile increased by 29 percent in the Dakotas, Montana, Wyoming and Nebraska.

In other words, climate change means more storms like the one that has crippled Offutt Air Force Base and damaged 50 buildings.

Interestingly, flooding wasn’t even one of the predicted risks posed by climate change to Offutt. A report released in January by the Defense Department instead identified increased drought as the risk posed to the base, a risk that certainly still exists. The report found that more than two-thirds of U.S. military installations considered to be “operationally critical” faced risks from the warming climate. Those risks included thawing permafrost in Arctic bases, meaning softened ground that could cause building foundations to buckle. They also included increased flooding in coastal bases thanks to sea-level rise. In fact, 53 bases already see recurrent flooding, according to the report.

That doesn’t include Tyndall Air Force Base on the Florida Panhandle. Tyndall was all but obliterated during Hurricane Michael last year. Michael grew rapidly into a Category 4 hurricane as it passed over the Gulf of Mexico thanks to water temperatures in the gulf that were three to five degrees higher than normal. Warmer water means bigger storms — and more damage to installations like Tyndall.

Trump’s response to the report? He plans to establish a panel to look at the risk posed to national defense by climate change. That 12-person panel reportedly will be led in part by William Happer, a former Princeton professor who is at odds with the established science on climate change.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was asked about the importance of climate change as a threat to the United States in an interview with Fox News’s Brian Kilmeade last week.

“Everyone’s talking about global warming and the threat to this country,” Kilmeade said. “When you look at the top five threats to this nation, where do you rank global warming or climate change?”

“I wouldn’t put it in the top five,” Pompeo responded.

“Why?” Kilmeade asked.

“Because I can count to five,” Pompeo said. “That gets you to things that present more risk to people I used to represent in Kansas and citizens all across America. Whether it’s the threat that we’ve talked about today from China, the nuclear proliferation risk that extends from Pakistan through all those folks who have these weapon systems, places like North Korea where they can sell these weapons. I think I’m at five already, but I could give you a whole list of threats that I think we can effect change on in a way that will really make a difference for the security of the American people.”

Pompeo listed only three things, as The Post’s John Hudson noted.

His answer, though, also offers a very narrow sense of risk. Certainly, a nuclear-armed North Korea poses a risk to the United States (while a nuclear-armed Pakistan has been around for two decades). China poses a risk, as well, in various ways. But those risks are possible, not likely. Climate change is a demonstrated risk that targets not just American military installations but international security. Arguments have been made that climate-change-linked drought led to the civil wars in both Sudan and Syria, though any link is far from certain. In the future, those links will be tighter, as flooding, unbearable heat and drought force mass evacuations and create millions of climate refugees.

That, scientists say, is certainly going to happen. Military conflict with China or Pakistan is not as certain.

Those Kansans whom Pompeo used to represent when he was in the House are probably too far to the west to be affected by the flooding that moved south from Nebraska. Over the long term, though, they’ll need to worry about significant loss of agricultural production, thanks to increased temperatures and more extreme weather.

The administration’s dismissal of climate change in favor of North Korean nuclear missiles may, in time, be seen in a less positive light than Pompeo would have Fox News viewers believe.