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U.S. Military Report Warns Climate Change Threatens Key Bases

Tyndall Airbase after hurricane Micheal, October 2018.

The report, requested by the US Congress in 2017, drew sharp criticism for being too thin on details and failing to show which bases are most at risk across the military.

A new Pentagon report identifies significant risks from climate change at scores of military bases and says the Defense Department is taking protective measures against the looming threat. But Democrats in Congress, who requested the report in 2017 along with some Republican colleagues, said the report lacks the detail they were looking for and shows that the Trump administration is failing to take climate change seriously as a national security threat. The report, submitted to Congress on Thursday, lists vulnerabilities at 79 key military facilities that were reviewed and says nearly all are facing problems from increasingly severe weather, such as flooding and drought. "The effects of a changing climate are a national security issue with potential impacts to Department of Defense missions, operational plans, and installations," the report says, adding that the department needs to adapt its operations to this new reality.

Congress requested the report in an amendment to a defense authorization bill, which passed with bipartisan support at the same time the Trump administration was stripping climate change as a concern from its national security outlook. The report lays out a variety of risks the military facilities are facing and outlines some of the department's work in response. It also reiterates the ways climate change can threaten national security, from stressing infrastructure and training operations with extreme weather to contributing to instability in fragile regions of the world and increasing the need for humanitarian assistance missions. Yet the report does not provide what Congress actually requested: a list of the 10 most vulnerable facilities in each branch of the armed services. "There were not a lot of ambiguities in what we required, and what the report produced didn't come close at all," said Rep. Jim Langevin, a Rhode Island Democrat who proposed the amendment requesting the report.

The top 10 list was supposed to help the military and Congress identify where to focus limited funds to help prevent costly damage in the future, like the multi-billion dollar disasters that Hurricanes Florence and Michael brought to Tyndall Air Force Base in Florida and the Marine Corps' Camp Lejeune in North Carolina last year, he said, neither of which were mentioned in the report. "The military is going to be coming back to Congress, and they're going to be asking us to fix these things," he said. "That's the importance of doing it now. It's going to be more costly to taxpayers and to our budget as a whole if we don't act with preventive measures as opposed to just responding all the time." John Conger, former assistant secretary of defense for energy, installations and environment under President Barack Obama and now director of the Center for Climate and Security, shared Langevin's concerns. "We've been thinking about how they were going to analyze this, and it feels like they didn't make the jump from anecdote to analysis," he said. Sen. Jack Reed (D-R.I.), ranking member on the Senate Armed Services Committee, said the Pentagon "is treating climate change as a back burner issue." He noted that the report does not include any Marine Corps facilities, and said he would ask for a more comprehensive report.

Climate Impact: Sea Level Rise to Wildfires

The report assesses the impacts of "climate-related events"—flooding, drought, desertification, wildfires and thawing permafrost—at 79 facilities described as "mission assurance priority installations." The most common problem is flooding—both coastal and inland—which is affecting 53 of the facilities already, with seven more expected to become vulnerable within 20 years. Joint Base Langley-Eustis, in the vulnerable Hampton Roads area of Virginia, has experienced 14 inches of sea level rise since 1930, causing more severe and frequent flooding, the report says. Navy Base Coronado, in California, experiences flash floods during tropical storms, and officials there reported that rising seas and storm surge flooding are limiting access. The report says drought conditions—listed as a risk for 43 of the installations now, with an additional five expected to face the problem within 20 years—can impair operations by worsening heat-related illnesses and increasing the risk of wildfires, which it calls "a constant concern on many military installations." A wildfire broke out during training in Colorado in March 2018, destroying three homes. Another, in November 2017, forced the evacuation of personnel on Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. In Fort Greely, Alaska, Army training ranges are built on top of permafrost that's at risk of thawing, which can destabilize the ground, the report notes.

How the Military Is Responding

The Pentagon says it is addressing these risks. The report notes that department-wide initiatives such as revised building codes, conservation programs and modeling of sea-level rise are helping make facilities more resilient. And it lists work at many of the installations to respond to the threats. Joint Base Langley-Eustis created a tool that visualizes how floods will move through the facility in order to decide where to install door jambs to prevent flooding. All new structures on the base are also elevated at least 10.5 feet above sea level.

The report also describes a technology developed to use buried foam insulation to protect a runway in Greenland from being undermined by thawing permafrost. Beyond discussing specific bases, the report says that Central Command, which includes the Middle East and Afghanistan, factors climate conditions into its campaign planning, and that the Northern and Indo-Pacific Commands regularly train for extreme weather and natural disasters. It also discusses the regional commands with responsibilities for South America, which is collecting localized data on vulnerabilities, and for Africa, where it says "planners must consider the impacts of drought and desertification as high potential instability areas and how these two hazards impact bases and missions."

What's Next?

Democrats in Congress said the work laid out in the report falls far short of what's needed, and they indicated they may ask the Pentagon to issue a new report. "The Department of Defense presented no specifics on what is required to ensure operational viability and mission resiliency, and failed to estimate the future costs associated with ensuring these installations remain viable," said Rep. Adam Smith (D-Wash.), the new chairman of the House Armed Services Committee. "That information was required by law. The Department of Defense must develop concrete, executable plans to address the national security threats presented by climate change. As drafted, this report fails to do that."


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