Sea Level Rise Damaging More U.S. Bases, Former Top Military Brass Warn

The retired admirals and generals say climate change is putting key military facilities at risk of costly damage that could knock out critical operations for weeks.

The Portsmouth Naval Shipyard in Maine is one of several military sites at risk from sea level rise, at new report warns. Credit: U.S. Navy

The Portsmouth Naval Shipyard in Maine is one of several military sites at risk from sea level rise, at new report from a panel of retired military officers warns. Credit: U.S. Navy

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A growing number of U.S. military sites are being damaged by sea level rise fueled by climate change, and that will threaten the military's ability to protect vital national security interests if the Pentagon and Congress don't take faster action, a panel of retired admirals and generals warns in a new report.

More than 200 domestic installations reported in a recent Defense Department assessment that they had been flooded by storm surges, compared to about 30 in 2008, the new report released Monday by the Center for Climate and Security says.

The report spotlights flooding and erosion risks to installations as diverse as the Marine Corps' boot camp at Parris Island in South Carolina, the nuclear submarine repair site in Portsmouth Naval Shipyard in Maine and a missile defense system against possible attacks from Asia based in the Marshall Islands. It's based on a synthesis of Congressional testimony by Pentagon officials and several federal studies in the last 18 months about the impact of climate change on national security.

"A number of coastal military bases and training sites are already experiencing the effects of sea level rise, tidal flooding and storm surge, and recent research shows that these effects are accelerating and will continue to do so more quickly than previously thought," said Heather Messera, who chaired the committee that wrote the report.

"Now is both the operationally practical and fiscally responsible time to act," she said.

Despite widespread denial of climate change in the Trump administration, led by the president himself, Defense Secretary James Mattis has said that climate change poses risks to global stability and national security. So far, the Pentagon has been left alone as it works on improving the military's resilience to climate change. But the efforts are patchy and often dependent on the priorities of installation commanders, which can vary from base to base, national security experts said.

A 2017 report by the federal Government Accountability Office concluded that the military is failing to properly plan for climate change and that bases seldom include foreseeable impacts into planning. To date, the Pentagon has not concluded a full assessment "of sea level rise and broader climate impacts on U.S. military and national security," the new analysis says. This, despite the fact that 1,774 military installations in the U.S. and abroad are in coastal areas.

"Many actions to adapt to climate change are happening sporadically, and those gaps should be addressed," said Francesco Femia, co-president of the Center for Climate and Security, a Washington, D.C., think tank whose fellows include many former high-ranking military officers. "It's up to our nation's policy makers to support the DoD."

Growing Security Fears about Climate Change

The new report arrives during an uptick of scrutiny into climate change's potential impact on national security.

In November, President Trump signed the 2018 National Defense Authorization Act, which included a mandate from Congress for the Pentagon to identify the 10 top sites threatened by climate change. The language was a departure for the Republican-controlled Congress, which has worked for years to halt rules and bills to address climate change. The Pentagon's list is due by November 2018.

In January, the Pentagon issued a report based on surveys of nearly 1,700 domestic military sites in which respondents from about 50 percent of the installations said they face risks from climate change.

In mid-February, the country's intelligence agencies said in their annual report on global threats that "the impacts of the long-term trends toward a warming climate, more air pollution, biodiversity loss and water scarcity are likely to fuel economic and social discontent—and possibly upheaval—through 2018."

The new report describes the great breadth of vulnerabilities to sea level rise, including loss of life; loss of infrastructure; loss of the electricity to run sites, including critical cybersecurity and communications installations; damage to equipment used in missions; loss of training lands; and loss of transportation means and corridors.

Risks in the South China Sea

The report described what could happen because of climate change in one region of increasing strategic importance: the South China Sea.

U.S. installations in the area face seasonal tropical cyclones, which research suggests could grow more intense over time. If hit by a cyclone, a base risks enduring what the civilian population would also face: loss of life, electricity, buildings, roads and equipment. The base would either have to rebound quickly or reduce the chances of such damage in the first place, the report says. Otherwise, it risks leaving American interests vulnerable in a volatile region, possibly for weeks or months.

Further, the U.S. benefits from deploying "soft power" around the world when the military brings in humanitarian aid and rescue equipment to other nations after a disaster. An installation coping with its own damage from a Pacific cyclone would be hampered in its ability to help regional allies, the report says.

Ways the Military Can Respond

The panel issued a series of recommendations for the military as the risks increase, including:

  • Continuously identifying infrastructure and strategic and operational vulnerabilities and concretely addressing them.
  • Integrating climate scenarios into planning.
  • Using not just the most-likely scenarios in planning but also the possibility of catastrophic failures.
  • Working with local communities and international partners.

The Center for Climate and Security said in an earlier analysis that the Pentagon had estimated the overall value of its infrastructure in the Pacific is about $180 billion, more than "the combined 2014 budgets of the Departments of Commerce, Energy, Homeland Security, State and Transportation." 

According to John Conger, senior policy advisor at the Center for Climate and Security and a former assistant secretary in the Department of Defense, the overall value of the Defense Department's installations around the world, including the U.S., exceeds $1 trillion.

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