October 01, 2019

Senators Warren and Schatz Request an Update from the Department of Veterans Affairs on Efforts to Build Resilience to Climate Change

Senators note absence of current VA plan to adapt facilities and operations to extreme weather; “Strengthening the VA’s resilience to climate change is consistent with the agency’s mission to deliver timely, high-quality care and benefits to America’s veterans.”

Washington, DC - United States Senators Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), member of the Senate Armed Services Committee (SASC), and Brian Schatz (D-Hawai’i), Ranking Member of the Subcommittee on Military Construction, Veterans Affairs, and Related Agencies, sent a letter to Secretary of Veterans Affairs Robert Wilkie requesting an update on the efforts of the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), the second largest agency in the federal government that provides care to approximately 20 million veterans, to adapt its mission, facilities, and operations to address the climate crisis. The senators also asked that the VA regularly incorporate the prudent management of climate change risks into its efforts to deliver timely and high-quality services to veterans.
The VA and the veterans it serves are not immune to threats posed by climate change. In 2014, the VA acknowledged these threats in its Climate Change Adaptation Plan, noting that “[c]limate change could have widespread effects on Veterans’ health, including long-lasting chronic effects, as well as effects on the need for emergency medicine,” and “VA’s primary vulnerabilities are the susceptibility of its infrastructure to damage and the burdens placed on its healthcare delivery systems.” In the plan, the VA also described various actions it had taken or was in the process of taking to “build resilience” against the climate crisis.   
“While this plan was a positive step, the threats posed by climate change to VA infrastructure have not diminished since 2014, and a plan that reflects the current state of climate risks is both appropriate and necessary,” the senators wrote. “Strengthening the VA’s resilience to climate change is consistent with the agency’s mission to deliver timely, high-quality care and benefits to America’s veterans.”
In their letter, the senators cite several examples of natural disasters and other extreme weather events that have adversely affected VA infrastructure and operations at facilities across the country in recent years. These storms and other natural disasters can also strain agency resources, have devastating impacts on the VA’s mission to deliver high-quality health care to veterans, and damage medical centers and other critical infrastructure that veterans rely on for timely care.
“The VA, like all federal agencies, has finite resources and must balance competing budget priorities. However, those priorities must include adapting VA infrastructure and operations to climate risks,” wrote the senators wrote.
The senators also cited the Department of Defense’s (DoD) recognition of the threats posed by climate change to its bases and other infrastructure. “If our soldiers, sailors, Airmen, and Marines can benefit from a more climate resilient Defense Department, then our veterans can benefit from a more climate resilient VA,” the senators wrote.
Climate risks have affected, and will continue to affect, the VA’s mission, infrastructure, and operations. Given the absence of a current climate change adaptation plan, the senators asked that Secretary Wilkie provide responses to their questions about the VA’s climate change readiness by no later than November 1, 2019.
Senator Warren is a leading voice with regard to calling for action to combat the climate crisis, support clean energy and sustainability, and strengthen the military's climate change resiliency:
  • Recently, Senator Warren sent a letter to Secretary of the U.S. Navy Richard Spencer expressing concern about reports of the suspicious termination of a Navy task force that helps prepare the Navy to combat the threats posed by the climate crisis and raising questions about the Navy's justification for this action.
  • In May 2019, Senator Warren and Representative Veronica Escobar (D-Texas), a member of the House Armed Services Committee, introduced the Department of Defense Climate Resiliency and Readiness Act to require DoD to adapt its infrastructure and operations to address the climate crisis and improve its energy efficiency in order to strengthen military readiness.
  • Senator Warren and Senator Jack Reed (D-R.I.), Ranking Member of SASC, wrote to the Government Accountability Office (GAO) in May calling for a review of potential threats to national security resulting from the impacts of climate change on defense contractors and the defense supply chain, and a review of the extent to which the DoD addresses climate change and other environmental risks during the contracting process. The GAO has since accepted the senators' request.
  • In April 2019, Senator Warren sent a letter to the then-Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Joseph F. Dunford, Jr., summarizing almost two years of questions she has asked eight military leaders during multiple SASC hearings that revealed unanimous concern about the rising threat of the climate crisis to the United States military's missions, operational plans, installations, and overall readiness. In his reply to Senator Warren, General Dunford noted, "I agree with the intelligence community's assessment of current and future national security risks posed by climate change."
  • In September 2018, Senator Warren introduced the Climate Risk Disclosure Act to require public companies, including defense contractors, to disclose critical information about their exposure to climate change-related risks and accelerate the transition to cleaner and more efficient energy sources. Senator Warren and Representatives Sean Casten (D-Ill.) and Matt Cartwright (D-Pa.) reintroduced the bill in July 2019.