You are using an outdated browser.
Please upgrade your browser
and improve your visit to our site.
Skip Navigation

Liberals Shouldn't Fear Chuck Hagel's Environmental Record

Former Senator Chuck Hagel served in the Senate as a Republican, but you could be forgiven for thinking otherwise this week: Most of the attacks on his potential nomination as Secretary of Defense have come from conservatives troubled by his realist foreign policy views and past statements on Israel. This has led some liberals to rush to his defense. “He wanted the United States to exert influence internationally, but by working with other countries,” John Judis wrote. But Hagel’s belief in international cooperation had its limits. As a senator, he actively worked against one of the most important diplomatic efforts during his time in office: the Kyoto Protocol to limit climate change.

Hagel’s environmental record may, in fact, become his main sticking point with liberals. In 1997, Hagel coauthored the Byrd-Hagel resolution, which opposed the Kyoto Protocol. As late as 2005, he was raising questions about how much of climate change is attributable to human activity and opposed to the McCain-Lieberman cap and trade bill. His lifetime rating on the League of Conservation Voters National Environmental Scorecard is a paltry 5 percent.

"Hagel's work on the environment that may prove to be a more nagging question [than his views on Israel]," wrote National Journal's Matthew Cooper. A Daily Kos blogger suggested Hagel's environmental record may be "disqualifying."

But a closer look at Hagel’s environmental record suggests it’s not as bad as it seems--especially where it intersects with national security, which would be his purview at Defense. During the Bush administration, Hagel co-sponsored a bill to develop an International Clean Technology Deployment Fund to promote international deployment of U.S. clean energy technology in developing countries. He also introduced bills to create corporate loans and tax credits for the development of domestic clean energy. And, most significantly, Hagel joined Senator Dick Durbin (D-IL) in requesting that the National Intelligence Estimate study the effects of climate change.

"We included that in the committee draft of the intelligence authorization bill, over the objections of James Inhofe, and even though it was cold out," jokes Andrew Holland, who was Hagel’s legislative aide on environment and energy at the time. 

Hagel’s recognition of climate change as a national-security issue is important: After all, it’s becoming more and more important to Defense. The 2010 Quadrennial Defense Review noted, "climate change... may act as an accelerant of instability or conflict, placing a burden to respond on civilian institutions and militaries around the world."

As the Center for Climate and Security explains, there are three main problems for the military posed by climate change: Extreme weather can threaten the American homeland and military installations. Naval bases are located on the coastline, and rising sea levels and severe flooding could destroy them, or the power stations they rely upon. Drought, dust storms and forest fires could affect military bases in the U.S. interior.  And, as the 2010 QDR notes, "Extreme weather events may lead to increased demands for defense support to civil authorities for humanitarian assistance or disaster response both within the United States and overseas." 

Droughts and unpredictable rainfall patterns can endanger American troops abroad. Transporting water and fuel to troops in the field can be one of the most dangerous activities the military engages in. A 2009 study of the war in Afghanistan by the Army Environmental Policy Institute found one casualty for every 24 fuel resupply convoys and a casualty for every 29 water resupply convoys. 

Changing weather patterns can create instability in regions of strategic importance to the U.S. An Arctic Ocean free of summer ice--and therefore accessible for oil drilling-- would create competition between neighboring nations. Similarly, the Center for a New American Security warned in a report earlier this year, “Climate change will compound the ongoing resource struggles in the South China Sea region. Security experts caution that climate change could act as an ‘accelerant of instability’ by exacerbating environmental trends in ways that may overwhelm civil-society institutions.” For example, warming waters will cause fish to migrate northward, leading to increased fishing in contested waters and possible confrontations between China and neighbors such as Vietnam. 

The Pentagon has to take climate change seriously if it is to adjust to these emerging challenges. There are two main ways in which it has begun to do so: threat assessment and its own carbon footprint. On the former, Hagel's work on the NIE suggests he is likely to handle the issue responsibly. He has spoken repeatedly of the importance of understanding a changing environment and its implications for national security. "America and the world face unprecedented, complex, and interconnected 21st Century challenges,” Hagel recently said, regarding an American Security Project report. “Environmental issues will continue to have unpredictable and destabilizing effects on developing and developed countries.”

It is less clear how committed Hagel would be to reducing emissions. This is no small matter: The U.S. Department of Defense is the world’s single largest consumer of energy. In recent years, efforts have begun to make its vehicles guzzle less gas and its installations more efficient. It has also begun to develop renewable energy sources for its own infrastructure.

Is there a risk Hagel will undermine these endeavors? Some analysts argue that he will continue to pursue energy efficiency, whether or not he cares about climate change, because it is good policy for other reasons. “DoD's been very clear that its efforts are about efficiency and effectiveness first, climate second,” says Heather Hurlburt, executive director of the National Security Network. “Hagel's a pragmatist and a veteran. He's not going to stop research that will save money and lives, by doing things like ending the need for dangerous and expensive fuel convoys into Afghanistan.” 

If environmentalists got to choose the Defense Secretary, they would not choose Hagel. But they have a strong ally in Sen. John Kerry, Obama’s nominee for Secretary of State. While it’s fair for liberals to wonder why Democrats cannot appoint fellow Democrats to run the Pentagon--Obama's first Defense Secretary was Robert Gates, a holdover from the Bush administration, and Bill Clinton's last Defense Secretary was William Cohen, a former Republican senator from Maine--Hagel is unlikely to stand in the way of sensible climate policy.