Pen­tagon pre­pares for cli­mate change

Avoids po­lit­i­cal phrases while pro­tect­ing bases

The Washington Times Weekly - - Politics - BY BEN WOLF­GANG

In San Diego, the Navy has launched an ef­fort to mon­i­tor and pre­pare for a sea level rise along the Cal­i­for­nia coast.

At the Ma­rine Corps’ iconic Par­ris Is­land train­ing fa­cil­ity in South Carolina, mil­i­tary lead­ers say they will con­sider build­ing a sea wall to ward off ris­ing tides.

Air Force of­fi­cials say they are look­ing at “cli­mate vul­ner­a­bil­ity” as they plan and con­struct bases.

Those and other ex­am­ples high­light how the U.S. mil­i­tary is forg­ing ahead with com­pre­hen­sive, de­tailed plans to deal with cli­mate change — and how their ef­forts have con­tin­ued un­der the radar even as the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion has with­drawn from the Paris global cli­mate ac­cord and de-em­pha­sized the is­sue across the gov­ern­ment, in­clud­ing at the En­vi­ron­men­tal Pro­tec­tion Agency and the En­ergy Depart­ment.

On the sur­face, the Pen­tagon has fol­lowed suit, of­ten shy­ing away from us­ing po­lit­i­cally charged phrases such as “cli­mate change.”

But an­a­lysts, in­sid­ers and for­mer mil­i­tary lead­ers say a deeper dive re­veals that De­fense Depart­ment cli­mate ini­tia­tives have con­tin­ued largely unim­peded by po­lit­i­cal de­bate.

“There are mis­sion rea­sons to do these kinds of things. … If sea level rise is go­ing to im­pact in­fra­struc­ture, if a run­way gets flooded, that’s a mis­sion im­pact and that’s the kind of thing you’ve got to pay at­ten­tion to,” said John Con­ger, the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion’s prin­ci­pal deputy un­der­sec­re­tary of de­fense (comptroller) who now runs the Cen­ter for Cli­mate and Se­cu­rity.

“It’s not like they’re do­ing some al­tru­is­tic thing,” he said. “They’re not try­ing to be good about cli­mate change. They just rec­og­nize the re­al­ity that’s in front of you.”

Rhetoric vs. ac­tion

Re­ports that sur­faced this year said the Pen­tagon had re­moved nearly all uses of the phrase “cli­mate change” from the fi­nal ver­sion of a key re­port on weather-re­lated risks to mil­i­tary in­stal­la­tions. That change in rhetoric is sim­i­lar across the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion, in­clud­ing at the EPA, which has struck ref­er­ences to cli­mate change from its web­site and rolled back a host of re­lated pro­grams.

Al­though their words have changed, Pen­tagon of­fi­cials said, their ac­tions haven’t.

“The ef­fects of a chang­ing cli­mate con­tinue to be a na­tional se­cu­rity is­sue with po­ten­tial im­pacts to mis­sions, op­er­a­tional plans and in­stal­la­tions,” De­fense Depart­ment spokes­woman Heather Babb told The Wash­ing­ton Times. “DOD has not changed its ap­proach on en­sur­ing in­stal­la­tions and in­fra­struc­ture are re­silient to a wide range of chal­lenges, in­clud­ing cli­mate and other en­vi­ron­men­tal con­sid­er­a­tions.”

Over­see­ing an es­ti­mated 800 bases and mil­i­tary in­stal­la­tions in 70 coun­tries and ter­ri­to­ries lo­cated in vir­tu­ally ev­ery eco­log­i­cal niche, De­fense Sec­re­tary James Mat­tis also has ex­plic­itly called cli­mate change a threat to Amer­i­can na­tional se­cu­rity in­ter­ests.

In­deed, of­fi­cials across the mil­i­tary have kept up their ef­forts and have seem­ingly walled them­selves off from po­lit­i­cal po­si­tions of the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion.

Adm. Paul Zukunft, out­go­ing Coast Guard com­man­dant, said last month that he and other lead­ers have a duty to pre­pare for ef­fects of cli­mate change. In his case, melt­ing Arctic ice lead­ing to ris­ing sea lev­els — and af­fect­ing U.S. op­er­a­tions in the re­gion — is at the top of the list.

“What starts in the Arctic doesn’t stay in the Arctic,” he said dur­ing a speech in Wash­ing­ton. “I have to deal with the con­se­quences.”

Warm­ing tem­per­a­tures in the Arctic also have opened sea lanes and re­sources long locked in the ice, with the U.S., Rus­sia and other coun­tries of the re­gion rush­ing to es­tab­lish and pro­tect their stakes there.

Adm. Zukunft con­firmed this year that the Coast Guard’s new fleet of heavy ice­breaker ships will be de­signed to carry heavy weapons.

Rus­sia, with the world’s largest Arctic coast­line and ports across the re­gion, re­port­edly has at least 40 ice­break­ers, in­clud­ing four op­er­a­tional nuclear-pow­ered ice­break­ers and 16 medium-sized craft.

In ad­di­tion to melt­ing Arctic ice, the mil­i­tary is ex­am­in­ing a host of other prob­lems that could stem from cli­mate change.

On the West Coast, the Navy has part­nered with the city of San Diego for a pro­gram to mon­i­tor sea lev­els.

“The po­ten­tial im­pacts of sea level rise do not rec­og­nize ju­ris­dic­tional bound­aries and de­mand col­lab­o­ra­tion among all stake­hold­ers,” said Rear Adm. Yancy Lind­sey, com­man­der of Navy Re­gion South­west.

Par­ris Is­land, the sto­ried boot camp that has been train­ing Marines since World War I, is likely to need ex­tra pro­tec­tion from ris­ing wa­ter lev­els in the At­lantic Ocean.

“We don’t have to build a sea wall to­day, but we have to con­sider one and we’re mon­i­tor­ing it ev­ery day,” Gen. Glenn M. Wal­ters, as­sis­tant com­man­dant of the Ma­rine Corps, told a Se­nate com­mit­tee this year.

De­fense Depart­ment doc­u­ments also show mil­i­tary lead­ers are gird­ing for chal­lenges re­lated to flood­ing, ex­treme tem­per­a­tures, in­creased winds, drought, wild­fire and con­flict that could break out in un­ex­pected cor­ners of the world as a re­sult of food short­ages, elec­tric­ity out­ages or floods. Some cli­mate schol­ars ar­gue that a root cause of Syria’s bru­tal, desta­bi­liz­ing civil war was a se­vere four-year drought be­gin­ning in 2006 that fu­eled po­lit­i­cal dis­con­tent and sent large num­bers of ru­ral Syr­i­ans flood­ing into cities.

One of the big­gest risks in the U.S., of­fi­cials say, is Naval Sta­tion Nor­folk, a cen­tury-old land­mark mil­i­tary in­stal­la­tion that houses the At­lantic Fleet and now is at per­pet­ual risk of flood­ing.

“Su­per­storm Sandy was a wake-up call for a lot of peo­ple,” said Tom Hicks, who spent seven years at the Pen­tagon, in­clud­ing two stints as act­ing un­der­sec­re­tary of the Navy. Had the 2012 storm “hit Nor­folk, the world’s largest naval com­plex, I don’t know what that would’ve done for our forces. It would have been ab­so­lutely tragic.”

Mr. Hicks now serves as a found­ing prin­ci­pal at The Mabus Group, an ad­vi­sory firm founded by for­mer Navy Sec­re­tary Ray Mabus, who was one of the most out­spo­ken Pen­tagon of­fi­cials on cli­mate is­sues dur­ing his ten­ure.

Avoid­ing pol­i­tics

Dur­ing Mr. Hicks’ time in the Pen­tagon, the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion el­e­vated cli­mate change — over the ve­he­ment op­po­si­tion of Repub­li­cans and even many red-state Democrats — to a top do­mes­tic is­sue.

The De­fense Depart­ment also de­clared a chang­ing cli­mate to be a di­rect na­tional se­cu­rity threat. Mr. Hicks said that move raised eye­brows in the Pen­tagon.

“Ini­tially, there was — not un­ex­pected — skep­ti­cism,” he said. “Is this ad­min­is­tra­tion do­ing this for po­lit­i­cal rea­sons? But what you started to see were ad­mi­rals and gen­er­als and key lead­ers say­ing, ‘We’re see­ing this.’”

What­ever po­lit­i­cal sym­me­try ex­isted be­tween the Pen­tagon and the White House on global warm­ing ended im­me­di­ately when Pres­i­dent Trump took of­fice. While Pen­tagon cli­mate pro­grams con­tin­ued, po­lit­i­cal lead­ers across the Po­tomac River in Wash­ing­ton be­gan scrub­bing the is­sue, in­clud­ing from na­tional se­cu­rity poli­cies.

Late last year, the White House out­raged Democrats, en­vi­ron­men­tal groups and other ad­min­is­tra­tion crit­ics by re­mov­ing cli­mate change from a list of threats in the pres­i­dent’s key na­tional se­cu­rity strat­egy blue­print.

For the mil­i­tary, how­ever, that po­lit­i­cal de­ci­sion barely reg­is­tered and had no im­pact on cli­mate prepa­ra­tion strate­gies.

An­a­lysts say what has changed is the will­ing­ness of top mil­i­tary lead­ers to ex­plic­itly talk about cli­mate change as a broad is­sue.

“We don’t see them talk about cli­mate change, but we see them talk about ‘re­silience’ and the need for en­hanced re­silience at mil­i­tary bases,” said Jonathan Gensler, an Army vet­eran who runs Re­vive En­ergy, a Ten­nessee­based en­ergy ef­fi­ciency com­pany. Mr. Gensler also is a mem­ber of the Tru­man Na­tional Se­cu­rity Project’s En­ergy Group.

“The top lead­er­ship of the Pen­tagon needs to be po­lit­i­cally savvy,” he said. “And if they shy away from cer­tain lan­guage be­cause they don’t want to dis­rupt the pro­grams they have in place, or if they need to re­frame how they talk about it to keep the strat­egy mov­ing for­ward, I think that’s OK in the short term.”

Mr. Hicks said his for­mer col­leagues in­side the Pen­tagon likely have adopted a strat­egy to avoid any po­lit­i­cal is­sues re­lated to the en­vi­ron­ment.

“They’re kind of keep­ing their head down,” he said. “They’re not try­ing to make pub­lic state­ments. They’re try­ing to ad­dress the is­sues as they see them.”

Without the kind of con­tro­ver­sial gov­ern­men­twide ap­proach to cli­mate change from the Obama era, the Pen­tagon has turned its at­ten­tion to spe­cific is­sues at spe­cific sites, such as the sea level mon­i­tor­ing ef­fort in San Diego.

“Mil­i­tary in­stal­la­tions have ex­treme weather plans, and com­man­ders are en­cour­aged to work with lo­cal com­mu­ni­ties to ad­dress shared is­sues re­gard­ing en­vi­ron­men­tal im­pacts,” said Ms. Babb, the De­fense Depart­ment spokes­woman.


While the Navy pow­ers up its ef­forts to mon­i­tor sea lev­els on the West Coast, one of its big­gest risks is at Naval Sta­tion Nor­folk, a cen­tury-old land­mark in­stal­la­tion in Vir­ginia that houses the At­lantic Fleet and now is at per­pet­ual risk of flood­ing....

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