Scientists understand that climate change looms ever more urgently as a cataclysmic threat to both the Earth’s biodiversity and human society. Rejecting the issue, however, the Trump administration isn’t content to merely halt or weaken Obama-era carbon regulatory programs and to withdraw from the global Paris climate agreement. In June we learned that the Department of Energy is weighing a proposal to help prop up failing coal and nuclear power plants that market forces would shut down, a policy DOE suggests is needed to avoid a power-generation shortage that might threaten national security.
But the closure of uneconomical plants “is not a national security issue,” says retired Vice Admiral Dennis McGinn, an advisory board member of the Center for Climate & Security, a nonpartisan institute guided by military and security experts. While perhaps once vital to U.S. national security, coal-fired power is no longer essential, and skewing markets to help the fossil-energy sector is generally a bad idea for the U.S. power portfolio and overall economy, McGinn says.
The Defense Department has long recognized climate change as a genuine threat to national security, McGinn adds. In the West, multi-year droughts and resulting possible wildfires hamper the ability of Army and Marine Corps bases to conduct realistic live-fire training. West Coast beach erosion and shifting harbor contours also constitute a threat. At the Hampton Roads military complex in Virginia, sea-level rise as well as the growing frequency and intensity of mid-Atlantic hurricanes are top concerns. Globally, climate change is a threat multiplier for instability, as recognized by the CNA Military Advisory Board in 2007 and again in 2014, when 11 retired generals and admirals concluded climate-related national security risks are “as serious as any challenges we have faced.”
When it comes to national security, DOD civilian and military leaders need the best possible data and objective analyses to understand security environments in which the military will have to operate five to 20 years into the future, McGinn says. For example, when various stresses destabilize societies, para-military groups, drug cartels, terrorist organizations, and others exploit the resulting power vacuum, and a U.S. military engagement could result or resources vital to national security could be threatened.
Regarding the proposal to bail out failing coal and nuclear plants, McGinn notes that an overlooked consequence of DOE’s reliance on the 1950 Defense Production Act’s authority as a basis for supporting the continued operation of uneconomical electricity plants is that billions of dollars would likely be diverted from defense budgets under such a policy, siphoning off more traditional national security funds.
While the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission’s June 12 hearing made clear that no grid reliability emergency exists, and diverse groups including conservative think tanks, Big Oil, and other energy organizations oppose DOE’s proposal, activists remain concerned that it nevertheless could have traction.
It is troubling that the administration has wrapped its proposal “in the national security flag,” says Gillian Giannetti, staff attorney with the Sustainable FERC Project, a clean-energy coalition, because “certain deferential standards can come with that.” But, even if DOE’s security assertions could make immediately defeating the proposal more difficult, the proposal lacks factual and legal support that ultimately will make it untenable, she adds.
According to Giannetti, dozens of reports have shown that grid outages are the result of distribution system weaknesses and grid elements outside of FERC’s direct authority that could be addressed at state and regional levels. Fuel security is not the reason the lights go out, she says, noting that less than 1 percent of outages were caused by fuel shortages. Real security issues, such as climate change impacts and cyber invasions, could take out distribution systems. But grid resilience and security could be enhanced by encouraging a broader, robust energy system that fully integrates distributed resources, such as wind and solar, with large-scale power generation, Giannetti says. DOE’s proposal would divert finite government resources from the real issues, she concludes, and ultimately consumers and taxpayers would pay for any bailout.
As DOD seeks objective information to understand the climate threat, a recent report by the progressive Center for American Progress, “Burning the Data,” finds that Trump requests would have cut federal climate and energy data and research funding 16.8 percent. Thankfully, appropriators rejected those cuts, though Trump is still trying.
Meanwhile, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, in 2017 the U.S. spent $306.2 billion on weather and climate-related disasters.
Almost no security or energy analysts support the president’s generation policy.