This administration may not take climate change seriously, but over at the Pentagon, Secretary of Defense James “Mad Dog” Mattis and most other top officials believe that scientists know what they’re talking about.
The U.S. Navy has seen climate change’s impact on its facilities at places such as Naval Station Norfolk, where pier inundation now happens at least monthly, impeding training and maintenance schedules and thus fleet readiness. Sea levels there are rising one inch every six years—more than double the average global rate.
According to the Department of Defense’s Climate Change Adaptation Roadmap, climate change will affect the military’s built and natural infrastructure and its acquisition and supply chain in dramatic ways, as Forest L. Reinhardt & Michael W. Toffel explained in Harvard Business Review. We can expect flash flooding and mudslides in Hawaii, home to the Pacific Fleet, and intensified droughts in California, where the Navy has more than $40 billion in assets. In Alaska, the Navy is being forced to rebuild and relocate roads, buildings, and airfields as the permafrost melts, and it might eventually have to relocate some of its bases. International bases are also likely to be severely affected by storm surges and higher sea levels.
With nearly 562,000 facilities and structures on 4,800 sites scattered across the globe, America’s armed forces rely heavily on safe, secure infrastructure, free from outside threats, wrote Tom McLaughlin of Gatehouse News. “The Pentagon has come to recognize sea level rise as a direct threat to the 1,774 of their sites that occupy 95,471 miles of the world’s coastline, a threat that could change the course of armed service history.”
This year, for the first time, the Secretary of Defense is conducting a military-wide climate change/sea level rise threat assessment. Each of the four branches of service will be required to provide a list of its 10 most threatened installations and suggestions for mitigating against whatever dangers exist, according to John Conger, former Secretary of Defense for Energy, Installations and Environment. He is now director of the Center for Climate and Security.
The Department of Defense “continues to focus on ensuring its installations and infrastructure are resilient to a wide range of threats,” DOD spokeswoman Heather Babb said in a statement cited by The Washington Post. “The department’s understanding of rising sea levels will enable the military services and agencies in affected areas to make informed decisions on how to continue to execute their missions.”
Despite President Trump’s doubts about climate change, the Pentagon retains a “pragmatic and apolitical approach to climate change,” Conger said, “and Congress respects that.” Three main areas of focus for the DOD, Conger noted, are the effects of sea level rise and climate change today, the impacts to the DOD mission of tomorrow and the geopolitical concept of a how a changing world will threaten global stability over time.
We are seeing the impact on global stability already. Drought is one of several climate-related “threat multipliers” that, by stressing societies and states, increase the potential for violent conflict. The bitter violence in Syria has been linked to drought-induced food insecurity and migration from rural to urban areas. In response, the U.S. Navy has sent warships into the Mediterranean. In this context of heightened instability, the Navy expects to be called upon more frequently and in more places. Other branches of the military have been even more involved in the Syrian conflict.
“The pressures caused by climate change will influence resource competition while placing additional burdens on economies, societies, and governance institutions around the world,” according to the 2014 Quadrennial Defense Review. “These effects are threat multipliers that will aggravate stressors abroad such as poverty, environmental degradation, political instability, and social tensions—conditions that can enable terrorist activity and other forms of violence.”
“A lot of people have asked me in the past about how much the [Defense Department] is going to invest in dealing with climate change, and I think it's the wrong question to ask,” said Conger. “I think climate change is an important factor to study to save money.” (emphasis added)
As the Pentagon moves full speed ahead to deal with the challenges posed by climate change, what can the rest of the government do to limit the threats? By an overwhelming margin, economists who have studied the subject recommend a carbon fee. They have concluded that it is the most efficient, least expensive, and most potent solution. Members of Congress who are sincere in their support of a strong military should back a carbon fee to help our men and women in uniform contend with this threat. It’s the patriotic thing to do.