Military leaders are sounding another alarm about the dangers of climate change, saying in a new report that half of U.S. military sites have already been affected by floods, wildfires, droughts and other weather extremes that are exacerbated by rising global temperatures.
Following a request from Congress, the Defense Department studied climate risks to all 3,500 U.S. military sites around the world. It found nearly 800 had been affected by droughts, 350 by extreme temperatures, 225 by storm surge-related flooding and more than 200 by wildfires, among other weather events.
Climate scientists say those types of extreme weather events have already become more common as global temperatures increase. Sea levels are rising, storms are getting more intense, dry regions are getting drier and fire seasons are getting longer, research shows.
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The Defense Department’s report released last week says the military “looks at climate through the lens of its mission,” and that “changes in climate affect national security in several ways.”
“Our warfighters require bases from which to deploy, on which to train, or to live when they are not deployed. If extreme weather makes our critical facilities unusable or necessitate costly or manpower-intensive work-arounds, that is an unacceptable impact,” says the report, which was prepared by the Office of the Under Secretary of Defense for Acquisition, Technology and Logistics.
That message is at odds with the Trump administration’s rejection of climate change as a serious problem. Federal agencies are rolling back regulations that limit the emission of planet-warming gases like carbon dioxide, and President Trump announced plans last year to withdraw the U.S. from an international agreement to fight climate change. The administration didn’t discuss climate impacts in its National Security Strategy, released in December, or in its National Defense Strategy, released this month — the first time in a decade that document ignored climate change.
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But military leaders — including Trump’s defense secretary, James Mattis — continue to describe climate change as a security threat, with the ability not only to hamper military operations, but to stir up instability in already-unstable parts of the world. Mattis told Congress during his confirmation hearing that global warming is “impacting stability in areas of the world where our troops are operating today.” Researchers, for instance, have found that a severe drought helped kindle the Syrian civil war.
“The effects of a changing climate — such as increased maritime access to the Arctic, rising sea levels, desertification, among others — impact our security situation,” Mattis said in a written response to questions from senators.
Defense Secretary Jim Mattis testifies before a Senate panel on June 13, 2017.
TASOS KATOPODIS, EPA
The Defense Department’s new report lists several examples of extreme weather damaging military sites, including flooding from Hurricane Sandy at West Point Military Reservation in New York and Naval Weapons Station Earle in New Jersey. The report also describes erosion of a rock seawall that protects an airstrip at Cape Lisburne Long Range Radar Station in northwest Alaska, requiring a $47-million replacement project.
The report has some shortcomings, said David Titley, a retired Navy rear admiral and former top official at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, who now leads the Center for Solutions to Weather and Climate Risk at Penn State University. For one thing, Titley said, the report doesn’t examine trends over time. Military officials were asked survey questions about weather impacts to their bases over the last 30 years, meaning it’s unclear how much of an effect climate change has had so far.
“I am not surprised that weather impacts have a big impact on (military) operations. I’ve known that ever since I’ve been in the Navy,” Titley said. “It would have been really nice had they been able to parse this data by decades, or by five years.”
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The Defense Department’s survey also asked about damage at military installations from extreme wind, for which there’s no clear connection to climate change.
Still, Titley said the report is a strong baseline for future studies and adaptation efforts.
“This really gets to the crux of the matter, which is readiness,” Titley said. “The (Department of Defense) needs to be ready to train, ready to fight. And if our bases are under increasing threat from extreme weather, then that will impair readiness.”
Two ships are moored in Middletown, N.J. at the pier of Naval Weapons Station Earle in this Nov. 29, 2000 file photo. Eight workers were injured in an explosion inside a boat house at the facility on Aug. 20, 2013.
Asbury Park (N.J.) Press
Military leaders have long viewed climate change as a national security threat. In 2003, during the Bush administration, a Pentagon report warned that climate change could spark “a desperate need for natural resources such as energy, food and water,” triggering conflicts. A decade later, under President Obama, the Defense Department found that climate change will “aggravate existing problems — such as poverty, social tensions, environmental degradation, ineffectual leadership, and weak political institutions — that threaten domestic stability in a number of countries.”
Congress has tended to agree. In November, the House and Senate overwhelmingly approved the National Defense Authorization Act, which orders the defense secretary to report to Congress within a year on the 10 military installations most vulnerable to climate change, and what the military might have to do “to ensure the continued operational viability” of those bases. The bill says three feet of sea-level rise — near the low end of what the United States can expect by the end of this century, according to a recent federal government report — will threaten the operations of 128 military sites.
Sammy Roth writes about climate change for USA TODAY. He can be reached at email@example.com, (760) 778-4622 and on Twitter @Sammy_Roth.
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