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NEWS / The US military: On the frontlines of climate change
Category: Defence & Security

Image: USS Harry S. Truman (CVN 75) pulls away from pier 14 Naval Station Norfolk, to begin her transit to the Norfolk Navy Shipyard (NNSY) for a Planned Incremental Availability (PIA). U. S. Navy photo by Photographer's Mate 2nd Class John L. Beeman.

By Elisa Jiménez Alonso

Ever since the change in US federal government at the end of January 2017, there have been several news stories pointing at the fact that the administration seems to have little to no interest in mitigating or adapting to climate change. This, however, is not stopping the US military from pressing ahead with their plans to build resilience against climate risks.

The US Department of Defense (DoD) is globally speaking one of the best prepared military institutions. Climate change has been on the DoD’s priority list for many years: its threat to national security and the threat it poses to the safety of DoD installations.

According to a 2012 study, the DoD’s global real estate is worth US$828 billion. Much of this real estate is built in low lying coastal areas and climate-vulnerable regions. Given these figures, the fact that the Defense Department is interested in protecting its assets from  climate risks doesn’t come as a surprise. Additionally, climate risks can be a significant threat to mission readiness, which is of the utmost importance to any military institution.

The Naval Station Norfolk has become somewhat of a poster child for the climate impacts the US Military faces and will face. The station is headquarters of the Atlantic fleet and its facilities flood up to ten times a year. Since the naval station was built during World War I, the sea level there has risen 14.5 inches. By the end of this century it might become completely unusable.

Installations in the Arctic are threatened by thawing permafrost, and for those in the Western USA, the drought has increased the occurrence of wildfires, which last year threatened several DoD installations.

However, sea level rise remains the biggest risk for the Defense Department as it affects oversea installations in the Pacific Ocean as well as stations on US shores. 128 stations, valued at US$100 billion face significant risks from rising oceans.

The bases at Norfolk and Virginia are especially vulnerable because sea level rise there is happening at twice the average global rate and, in addition, the ground is subsiding. The DoD is now working with scientists, state and local officials in Norfolk and Virginia Beach to adapt the region. While some actions have already been implemented, like replacing piers and protecting power lines from flooding, others have not. All the adaptation plans require funding, and that is hard to come by when climate change gets as politicised as right now.

Long-term climate risks are always a hard thing to communicate. However, the Defense environment is ever changing, always adapting to new and very short-term risks, and additionally there is a quick rate of staff turnover. All this and the political landscape complicate long-term planning, especially for climate risks. However, the DoD is very aware of the risk climate change poses for its operations and it continues to figure out ways that will increase the US military's climate resilience.

One of those efforts is a wide-ranging programme of climate adaptation measures is being implemented to ensure that US defence operations remain climate resilient. Researchers at the University of Arizona with help from Acclimatise have been undertaking work to ensure that DoD managers are integrating climate risk into their operational planning, framing climate change as an issue of national defence and homeland security. Soon, the final reports of this multiyear project will become available and will offer useful guidance.