President Trump’s decision to withdraw the United States from the Paris climate change accord flies in the face of his rallying cry to “Make America Great Again.” It will make America sicker, poorer and much less secure.
Trump has already begun dismantling many of the climate policies created under President Obama, including rules to phase out coal-fired power plants, increase restrictions on vehicle emissions and limit methane leaks from natural gas production. His recently released budget eliminates funding for research on climate change by the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration and the development of clean energy innovations at the Environmental Protection Agency. He’s engaged in a full assault on any effort to address the existential threat of climate change.
By denying the reality of the catastrophe ahead, Trump isn’t just ignoring the scientific community and the vast trove of evidence that clearly shows the impact carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gasses are having on our planet. He’s also ignoring his Defense Department.
On July 23, 2015, the Department of Defense released a report requested by the Senate Appropriations Committee titled, “National Security Implications of Climate Related Risks and a Changing Climate.” The document was crystal clear: “DOD recognizes the reality of climate change and the significant risk it poses to US interests globally.” It stated that “climate change is an urgent and growing threat to our national security, contributing to increased natural disasters, refugee flows, and conflicts over basic resources such as food and water.”
Those serving in the military know better than anyone the effect that poverty, social tensions, environmental degradation, poor leadership and weak political institutions can have on nations. On their own these problems are major causes of instability. Compounded by climate change, they will only be exacerbated, creating conflict and humanitarian disasters.
Rich nations such as the United States are not immune from the ravages of climate change. Flooding, drought, changing disease patterns (Zika, West Nile Virus, etc.) higher temperatures, more frequent and more severe extreme weather events, rising sea levels and warming oceans will hurt us just as they hurt poor nations.
Trump’s cabinet members understand the threat outlined by the Department of Defense. Defense Secretary General James N. Mattis stated in his January confirmation hearings that “climate change can be a driver of instability and the Department of Defense must pay attention to potential adverse impacts generated by this phenomena.”
On May 11, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, former CEO of Exxon Mobil, signed the Fairbanks Declaration in Alaska with foreign ministers from the other seven nations in the Arctic Council. The declaration recognized the Paris accord and stated “that activities taking place outside the Arctic region… are the main contributors to climate change effects and pollution in the Arctic, underlining the need for action at all levels”.
America’s Defense Department, cabinet members, thousands of scientists and our G7 allies all support the Paris accord. They are all saying: Climate change is real; it's an enormous threat to our health, economics and security; and we must act now.
At his Rose Garden news conference announcing he was withdrawing the U.S. from the Paris accord, Trump said he was “elected to represent the citizens of Pittsburgh, not Paris.” Perhaps he doesn’t realize it, or perhaps he simply doesn’t care, but the citizens of Pittsburgh will suffer for this mistake along with everyone else on the planet.
Keith Martin is executive director of the Consortium of Universities for Global Health based in Washington, D.C.