Superstorm Sandy Topples Traditional Notions of National Security

By Sandra I. Erwin
The Pentagon for years has worried about rising sea levels, severe droughts and other potentially devastating natural disasters that could strain the U.S. military's ability to deliver humanitarian assistance and disaster relief in faraway lands. Military strategists also have predicted that a warming planet will lead to new conflicts over refugees and resources, all of which could fuel instability and put U.S. service members in harm's way.
The disaster that was Superstorm Sandy, however, might cause a rethinking of how climate change threatens national security. The unprecedented destruction that the storm left behind is a reminder that the nation's infrastructure backbone — which is essential to both the civilian economy and military activities — is fragile and in need of massive reinforcements that will require hundreds of billions of dollars, analysts warn.
A string of droughts and violent storms so far in 2012 illustrate the impact that natural disasters have on the military and on homeland defense, says a new report on the security implications of climate change.
"The effects of climate change on infrastructure will not only be costly to our nation’s economy, they will also make us less secure as a nation," concludes the 2012 “Climate Security Report," scheduled to be released Nov. 1 by theAmerican Security Project, a nonpartisan think tank in Washington, D.C.
"The military and government rely on physical infrastructure to protect our nation from outside threats and virtual infrastructure to maintain a strong homeland, both of which are threatened by extreme weather caused by climate change," says the study. "The effects of climate change may destroy or temporarily debilitate critical energy infrastructure, physical infrastructure such as roads, airports, bridges and virtual infrastructure through the loss of electricity."
American Security Project board member Christine Todd Whitman, former governor of New Jersey and administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency under the George W. Bush administration, says the nation cannot afford to wait for scientific proof that Sandy, or other recent mega-storms, was a direct result of climate change.
“Sandy is the second 100-year storm we've had in 14 months in this part of the country. … It tells you that something is changing,” Whitman tells reporters Oct. 31 during a conference call.
Even before Sandy, 2012 already brought unprecedented extreme weather to millions of Americans, the ASP report notes. In March alone, 15,000 warm weather records were broken. The first quarter of 2012 was the hottest on record and of more than 1,400 months since the climate records began, only one month (January 2006) has seen a greater departure from its average temperature than March 2012.
Weather events that over time drain the U.S. economy also could weaken the nation’s financial health. The rising costs of coping and recovering from climate-related disasters will sap the United States as a global power, the study contends. "A robust economy is necessary for strong national security because it allows us to invest in the structures that keep people safe.”
The United States must soon begin to shore up an aging infrastructure that was not built to withstand the violence of recent weather events, says Andrew Holland, one of the authors of the ASP study. Some of the military’s most important bases are at risk of going under water, he notes.
“The nation’s structures are vulnerable to the effects of climate change because they were designed for a climate that is different from the one they will face in the 21st Century,” says the report.
America’s highway network makes up 4 million miles of roads and more than 600,000 bridges — 25 percent of the bridges need repair and a third of the roadways are in substandard condition, says the study. “The majority of the current U.S. infrastructure was built in the post World War II period, with an expected lifespan of 50-100 years.”
When the U.S. infrastructure was developed in the last century, climate change was not understood or factored into building plans, the study says. Highways and other major structures were built for local climates, and took temperature and rainfall into account. “They were built to absorb extreme weather events, but not the unprecedented changes that are expected” in the coming decades, ASP analysts warn.
The nation’s energy generating infrastructure also is at risk, says the study. Excessive heat and droughts have caused power plants to shut down just as their capacity is needed most.
The sectors of the economy that will be most affected by climate change are energy, agriculture and transportation. Railroads will need $200 billion of investment over the next 20 years to support freight increases, and the United States must invest $225 billion per year over the next 50 years to maintain and adequately enhance surface transportation systems, the study says. Currently, the nation is spending less than 40 percent of that, and the trend is heading down.
“As our infrastructure ages, gets pushed to its limits by extensive over-use and crumbles from the effects of climate change, security will increasingly be a problem,” says the study. “In order to enhance security, the U.S. should invest in strengthening infrastructure for increased energy demand due to climate change, especially for peak demand during heat waves. … [The United States] should also invest further in physical infrastructure like highways, bridges and railways, which are susceptible to the effects of climate change and are vital to protecting our national security.”
For the military, the dangers of flooding, drought and extreme weather events create significant problems, warns the report. The Pentagon already has acknowledged that 30 U.S. military installations are facing high risk from rising sea levels.
“In order to prepare our military installations for the effects of climate change, we must not make a one-dimensional risk assessment but instead, prepare for multiple types of environmental threats such as flooding from extreme weather, droughts and civil unrest related to food and water insecurity,” says the study. “Climate change threatens to weaken military bases affected by natural disasters."
The Defense Department manages property in all 50 states, seven U.S. territories and 40 foreign countries. “As the effects of climate change increase in many parts of the world, our investments and structures may be at risk of severe damage,” the report says. “Environmental threats to domestic U.S. military bases pose as much of a physical threat as they do an economic threat,” ASP warns. In 1992, Hurricane Andrew nearly wiped out Homestead Air Force Base in Florida and Hurricane Katrina destroyed 95 percent of Keesler Air Force Base in Mississippi. Both of these bases were rebuilt, at considerable cost.
Environmental threats to international U.S. military installations have more strategic implications, says the study. The island of Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean is a critical logistics hub for U.S. and British forces in the Middle East. It also houses Air Force equipment that is used to control Global Positioning System satellites. “The island is extremely vulnerable to the effects of climate change because it is just one meter above sea-level,” says the study.
The military installation on the island of Guam — one of the most strategically important in the Western Pacific Ocean — is susceptible to extreme storms, sea-level rise and erosion.
Eglin Air Force Base, Fla., on the Gulf of Mexico, is the largest Air Force base in the world and a focal point for all Air Force armaments. It faces storm surges, sea-level rise and saltwater infiltration, says the report. “With the increase of extreme weather, Eglin Air Force Base may face costly damages in the future.”
Norfolk Naval Air Station, Va., one of the largest navy complexes in the world, is at risk of sea-level rise and storm surge, says the study. “As the effects of climate change become more pronounced, Norfolk Naval Air Station may be effected more acutely, putting strategic naval resources at risk.”
Photo Credit: NOAA

Topics: Energy, Climate Change, Energy Security

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