WASHINGTON — Rep. Scott Perry, R-Penn., accused the Department of Homeland Security of neglecting the Islamic State threat in favor of climate change at a recent House hearing.
“Are the American people to believe that the increased operations by ISIS or al-Qaida or Khorasan or Boko Haram are due to hot weather or a shortage of water?” he questioned.
Holding up two publications side by side – one, allegedly, a bulky report on climate change, and, the other, allegedly, a thinner publication on the ISIS threat – Perry accused DHS of having mixed-up priorities.
He said that, considering the wide range of threats being faced by the U.S., from polities and players such as ISIS, Iran and Russia, he is “shocked that the Department of Homeland Security continues to make climate change a top, top priority.”
Though he said he wasn’t anti-FEMA in terms of emergency response, he questioned the propriety of DHS’ involvement in climate concerns when more weather-centric federal agencies like NASA and NOAA already address them.
“The question really is: ‘Is it a core mission of the Department when there are so many other agencies that do this as their mission?’” he said.
Perry, chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee’s Subcommittee on Oversight and Management Efficiency, also called the amount of DHS’ 2016 budget request earmarked for combating climate change excessive.
“In Fiscal Year 2016, DHS requested over $16 million on critical infrastructure analysis and FEMA workshops related to climate change – more than the Secret Service requested to improve its training facilities following the high-profile breach of the White House last September,” he said.
DEMS FIGHT BACK
The subcommittee’s top Democrat, Rep. Bonnie Watson Coleman of New Jersey, and the senior Democrat on the House Homeland Security Committee, Rep. Bennie G. Thompson of Mississippi, were quick to criticize this anti-climate attitude.
“We cannot afford to be penny wise and pound foolish when it comes to disaster migration,” Watson Coleman wrote in her prepared statement. “Events from New Jersey to the Gulf Coast have required the deployment of DHS capabilities ranging from search-and-rescue, to humanitarian relief, to law-enforcement assistance.”
She urged her Republican colleagues to set global-warming-related semantics aside in order to combat what she saw as the actual national-security risks posed by climate change.
In his prepared statement, Thompson said his experience with the aftermath of natural disaster — namely “the effects of Hurricane Katrina on the Gulf Coast” and “recent flooding in Texas and Oklahoma” — made the hearing’s inherent doubt as to the worthiness of investing in climate-disaster preparation and recover puzzling.
Though their respective home states have been pummeled by climate-related catastrophes – Hurricane Sandy and Hurricane Katrina, respectively – the critique levied against Perry’s hearing premise was rooted in more than just personal experience with natural disasters.
By addressing climate change, they argued, the DHS would be responsibly responding to national security intelligence.
According to Watson Coleman’s statement, “social-scientists— including some within the U.S. intelligence community— have indicated that weather changes across the glove play a role in dislocating populations, intensifying violent conflict and crime, promoting disease transmission, and aggravating economic and social stresses that destabilize governments.”
She wrote that these conditions “leave populations more vulnerable to incitement by extremist elements,” thus placing them smack-dab in the center of DHS’ wheelhouse.
Thompson agreed, calling “an even-handed treatment of DHS responses to climate change” an acknowledgement of “assessments produced by and for the U.S. Intelligence Community over the past decade.”
“These studies have provided ample evidence that trends in global climate act as what the 2014 Quadrennial Homeland Security Review describes as ‘threat multipliers… aggravat[ing] stressors abroad that can enable terrorist activity and violence, such as poverty, environmental degradation, and social tensions,’” he wrote.
EXPERTS WEIGH IN
Witnesses responded to Perry’s allegations of negligence by reminding the subcommittee that its multifaceted approach to protecting the U.S. means that addressing climate is only part of the homeland-security formula.
In his written testimony, Thomas Smith, an acting assistant secretary in the DHS’ Office of Policy, reiterated that terrorism prevention and security enhancement were ranked first among DHS’ “five enduring missions.”
Noticeably absent from this list? Climate change.
Still, he wrote, “natural disasters, pandemics, and climate change and associated trends continue to present a major area of homeland security risk, and may indirectly act as ‘threat multipliers’” by intensifying “stressors abroad that can enable terrorist activity and violence, such as poverty, food insecurity, environmental degradation and social tensions.”
Examples of potential ramifications cited by Smith include weather-induced forced migrations, altered disease patterns induced by rising temperatures, and telecommunications troubles caused by intensifying storms and warmer weather.
FEMA Deputy Associate Administrator for Insurance and Mitigation Roy Wright agreed.
“It is important to note that climate change is just one of many future risks we plan for, but one that could significantly alter the types and magnitudes of hazards impacting communities and the emergency management professionals serving them,” his prepared testimony reads.
He said FEMA works with “state, local, and tribal governments” in a supportive capacity, helping them to combat climate change’s impact through adaptive planning as part of its “focus on enabling disaster risk reduction nationally.”
And Robert Kolasky, deputy assistant secretary of the DHS Office of Infrastructure Protection’s National Protection and Programs Directorate, called climate-related concerns “just a small component” of the NPPD’s “overall mission,” but added that “shifts in climate patterns increase the range and intensity of potential risks to our critical infrastructure.”
He wrote that understanding climate change’s potential impact on infrastructure is key to building things that “will withstand the hazards of the future,” especially since the majority of contemporary infrastructure “is expected to last for 50 years or longer.”
According to Kolasky, this process demands a combination of risk- and uncertainty-minded “forward planning,” consideration of modeling based on past occurrences and “building awareness of how depletion or alteration of natural resources may impact infrastructure operations.”
And he said that climate-related hazards show no sign of stopping.
“Unfortunately, we do not anticipate this trend abating,” he wrote. “The analysis of infrastructure exposure to extreme weather events we have conducted shows that rising sea levels, more severe storms, extreme and prolonged drought conditions, and severe flooding combine to threaten the infrastructure that provides essential services to the American public.”
The sole scientist testifying before the subcommittee backed them up.
Marc A. Levy, deputy director of the Columbia University Earth Institute’s Center for International Earth Science Information Network, called the hearing’s entire premise “backwards.”
“The Department of Homeland Security is not doing enough to prepare the country for security threats from climate change,” his prepared testimony reads.
He called climate change a danger to Americans and an economic disruptor that “threatens to destabilize regions of high national interest.”
“This logic justifies all the high-level statements about climate as a national security threat,” Levy wrote. “The same logic renders inexcusable the slow pace of meaningful action.”