Hagel Makes Strong Case for Action to Cope With Climate Change

By Sandra I. Erwin

Military satellite launch pads at Cape Canaveral in Florida are being relocated inland as the area faces growing climate-related threats. Similarly, many military installations in the United States and around the world are making contingency plans in anticipation of rising sea levels, storm surges, coastal erosion and flooding.

The military also expects to be increasingly on alert as climate events cause instability around the world.

“A changing climate will have real impacts on our military and the way it executes its missions,” Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said as he unveiled the 2014 Climate Change Adaptation Roadmap.

The document is a long-term look at how the Defense Department would cope with climate change. The Obama administration requires every federal agency to produce such plans. While most Americans associate climate disasters with FEMA, the Pentagon’s roadmap is of considerable importance because the military operates many installations that are vulnerable to weather anomalies and the armed forces consider disaster relief one of their core missions.

Hagel rolled out the climate roadmap October 13 in Arequipa, Peru, during a conference of defense ministers of the Americas, where one of the top agenda items is the link between climate and security. The conference offered Hagel a like-minded audience for a climate policy announcement, unlike Washington D.C., where these issues often become snared in partisan politics.

The roadmap echoes concerns that military officials have expressed for years. The Pentagon started drafting a strategic policy for climate change in 2010 with the publication of the Quadrennial Defense Review. The document recognized climate change as a reality for which the military must prepare.

“Rising global temperatures, changing precipitation patterns, climbing sea levels, and more extreme weather events will intensify the challenges of global instability, hunger, poverty, and conflict,” Hagel said. “They will likely lead to food and water shortages, pandemic disease, disputes over refugees and resources, and destruction by natural disasters in regions across the globe.”

The Pentagon is assessing, for instance, how climate change may affect the military’s pivot to Asia.

U.S. Pacific Command’s Adm. Samuel Locklear has repeatedly cited climate change as a top security threat in the Asia-Pacific region. He  said 80 percent of the world’s climate disasters happen in the PACOM area of operations.

At home, the Pentagon is studying the implications of increased demand for the National Guard in the aftermath of extreme weather events. Climate was also a major theme in the Arctic strategy the Defense Department released last year, which addresses the security implications of increased human activity in the Arctic and the consequences of rapidly melting sea ice.

At the conference in Peru, Hagel called on every federal agency and international organizations to cooperate on this issue. “Politics or ideology must not get in the way of sound planning,” he said.

A government watchdog has suggested that the Pentagon’s efforts to adapt to climate change have a long way to go. The Government Accountability Office in a June report, titled “DoD Can Improve Infrastructure Planning and Processes to Better Account for Potential Impacts,” gave the Pentagon low marks for its progress thus far.

The American Security Project, a think thank that views climate change as a top national security issue, agrees with GAO’s findings. “Already, along the Alaskan coast, thawing permafrost, melting sea ice, and elevated sea levels have increased coastal erosion at Air Force radar early warning and communication installations, damaging roads, seawalls, and runways,” ASP’s Colin Taylor wrote.

“In response, the Defense Department began collecting sea-level rise data on potential vulnerabilities at 704 coastal locations with a complete assessment of 7,591 sites worldwide expected by December 2014.”

The GAO report gives the impression that climate change adaptation is not a priority for the Department of Defense, Taylor said. “While it is a strategic goal to consider climate change in facility investment decisions, climate change adaptation is not part of the criteria used to rank potential projects. This means that climate change adaptation projects are unlikely to successfully compete with other military construction projects for funding, leaving military facilities dangerously vulnerable.”

Some of the military’s most important bases are at risk of going under water, ASP said. “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.”

Topics: Defense Department, DOD Leadership, Energy, Climate Change

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