U.S. Military Not Doing Enough to Prepare Bases for Climate Change, GAO Warns

The Pentagon has been praised for starting to address global warming, but a report for Congress finds the risks aren't tracked well enough at facilities overseas.

Most of Naval Station Norfolk is only a few feet above water, and flooding during high tides is becoming a challenge for the base and surrounding community. Credit: Peretz Partensky/CC-BY-SA-2.0
Diego Garcia, a low-lying atoll in the Indian Ocean, is a critical hub for the U.S. Air Force. With an average elevation of about 4 feet, it is at risk from sea level rise and storm surge flooding. Credit: Shane Cuomo/U.S. Air Force/Getty Images

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The auditing arm of Congress has warned that the military is failing to adequately plan for the risks that climate change poses to hundreds of overseas facilities, and that engineers at these sites rarely include foreseeable impacts in project designs.

The Government Accountability Office, Congress’s nonpartisan oversight agency, wrote that while the Defense Department has identified that climate change and its effects will threaten many of its facilities, these installations are not consistently tracking costs they’re already incurring because of extreme weather.

“As a result,” the report says, “the military services lack the information they need to adapt infrastructure at overseas installations to weather effects associated with climate change and develop accurate budget estimates for infrastructure sustainment.”

The report, requested by a group of Senate Democrats and released on Wednesday, found that the Pentagon had exempted dozens of bases or other key sites from completing a department-wide climate vulnerability assessment.

The authors also found that only a third of the 45 military installations they visited had incorporated climate change adaptation into their planning.

The GAO concluded with a series of recommendations, including that the Pentagon should:

  • require all military facilities to track costs associated with climate change and extreme weather;
  • incorporate adaptation into the development of installation-level plans; and
  • administer a climate vulnerability survey at all relevant sites.

A Defense Department response was included in the report with a letter signed by Lucian Niemeyer, who President Donald Trump nominated to be assistant secretary of defense for energy, installations and environment. It pushed back against some of the findings, stating that blaming infrastructure damage specifically on climate change is “speculative at best” and that “associating a single event to climate change is difficult and does not warrant the time and money expended in doing so.”

The response also accused the GAO of using outdated Defense Department policies, saying the Pentagon is in the process of updating the National Defense Strategy “to focus resources on threats considered to be critical to our nation’s security.”

Military Recognizes Climate Risk Is Already Here

Many climate advocates and planners have praised the military for beginning to address climate change, including trying to assess and warn of the impacts it will have on national security. 

Global warming is expected to bring more severe weather and higher seas that will flood some bases, strain their water supplies, inhibit training exercises with extreme heat and, according to the Pentagon, worsen instability in parts of the globe. In some cases, these effects have already arrived.

Wednesday’s report, however, suggests that the Pentagon has much more work to do.

Naval Station Norfolk, the Navy’s largest base, already experiences regular tidal flooding that can block roads and parking lots and shut some of its piers. A 2014 report by the Army Corps of Engineers identified about 1.5 feet of sea level rise as a “tipping point” for the base, beyond which the risk of damage to infrastructure will increase dramatically, yet the base has no plan to address that threat.

Climate Risk Examples: Flooding, Heat, Storms

The report authors said officials at most of the 45 installations they visited described risks to the facilities from the changing climate.

At a missile testing range in the Pacific, extreme tides in 2008 flooded two antenna facilities, while more recent storms have damaged piers and buildings. A facility in the Middle East has begun experiencing more days that are hot enough to suspend all non-essential physical training and exercise.

But the report said the department exempted some facilities from its system-wide survey of climate vulnerability without adequate explanation. In some cases, the department simply stated that a facility did not face any climate related weather risks but gave no assessment of how it arrived at that determination.

Another shortcoming identified by the report is that hardly any of the sites the authors visited actually incorporated climate adaptation into project designs. Climate change was not included in the design of a $49 million infrastructure project involving a canal in Europe, for example, even though officials said the canal is vulnerable to increased flooding from sea level rise. A project replacing doors at a facility in the Pacific doesn’t consider the potential for increasingly strong winds from typhoons.