In San Diego, the Navy has launched an effort to monitor and prepare for a sea level rise along the California coast.
At the Marine Corps’ iconic Parris Island training facility in South Carolina, military leaders say they will consider building a sea wall to ward off rising tides.
Air Force officials say they are looking at “climate vulnerability” as they plan and construct bases.
Those and other examples highlight how the U.S. military is forging ahead with comprehensive, detailed plans to deal with climate change — and how their efforts have continued under the radar even as the Trump administration has withdrawn from the Paris global climate accord and de-emphasized the issue across the government, including at the Environmental Protection Agency and the Energy Department.
On the surface, the Pentagon has followed suit, often shying away from using politically charged phrases such as “climate change.”
But analysts, insiders and former military leaders say a deeper dive reveals that Defense Department climate initiatives have continued largely unimpeded by political debate.
“There are mission reasons to do these kinds of things. … If sea level rise is going to impact infrastructure, if a runway gets flooded, that’s a mission impact and that’s the kind of thing you’ve got to pay attention to,” said John Conger, the Obama administration’s principal deputy undersecretary of defense (comptroller) who now runs the Center for Climate and Security.
“It’s not like they’re doing some altruistic thing,” he said. “They’re not trying to be good about climate change. They just recognize the reality that’s in front of you.”
Rhetoric vs. action
Reports that surfaced this year said the Pentagon had removed nearly all uses of the phrase “climate change” from the final version of a key report on weather-related risks to military installations. That change in rhetoric is similar across the Trump administration, including at the EPA, which has struck references to climate change from its website and rolled back a host of related programs.
Although their words have changed, Pentagon officials said, their actions haven’t.
“The effects of a changing climate continue to be a national security issue with potential impacts to missions, operational plans and installations,” Defense Department spokeswoman Heather Babb told The Washington Times. “DOD has not changed its approach on ensuring installations and infrastructure are resilient to a wide range of challenges, including climate and other environmental considerations.”
Overseeing an estimated 800 bases and military installations in 70 countries and territories located in virtually every ecological niche, Defense Secretary James Mattis also has explicitly called climate change a threat to American national security interests.
Indeed, officials across the military have kept up their efforts and have seemingly walled themselves off from political positions of the Trump administration.
Adm. Paul Zukunft, outgoing Coast Guard commandant, said last month that he and other leaders have a duty to prepare for effects of climate change. In his case, melting Arctic ice leading to rising sea levels — and affecting U.S. operations in the region — is at the top of the list.
“What starts in the Arctic doesn’t stay in the Arctic,” he said during a speech in Washington. “I have to deal with the consequences.”
Warming temperatures in the Arctic also have opened sea lanes and resources long locked in the ice, with the U.S., Russia and other countries of the region rushing to establish and protect their stakes there.
Adm. Zukunft confirmed this year that the Coast Guard’s new fleet of heavy icebreaker ships will be designed to carry heavy weapons.
Russia, with the world’s largest Arctic coastline and ports across the region, reportedly has at least 40 icebreakers, including four operational nuclear-powered icebreakers and 16 medium-sized craft.
In addition to melting Arctic ice, the military is examining a host of other problems that could stem from climate change.
On the West Coast, the Navy has partnered with the city of San Diego for a program to monitor sea levels.
“The potential impacts of sea level rise do not recognize jurisdictional boundaries and demand collaboration among all stakeholders,” said Rear Adm. Yancy Lindsey, commander of Navy Region Southwest.
Parris Island, the storied boot camp that has been training Marines since World War I, is likely to need extra protection from rising water levels in the Atlantic Ocean.
“We don’t have to build a sea wall today, but we have to consider one and we’re monitoring it every day,” Gen. Glenn M. Walters, assistant commandant of the Marine Corps, told a Senate committee this year.
Defense Department documents also show military leaders are girding for challenges related to flooding, extreme temperatures, increased winds, drought, wildfire and conflict that could break out in unexpected corners of the world as a result of food shortages, electricity outages or floods. Some climate scholars argue that a root cause of Syria’s brutal, destabilizing civil war was a severe four-year drought beginning in 2006 that fueled political discontent and sent large numbers of rural Syrians flooding into cities.
One of the biggest risks in the U.S., officials say, is Naval Station Norfolk, a century-old landmark military installation that houses the Atlantic Fleet and now is at perpetual risk of flooding.
“Superstorm Sandy was a wake-up call for a lot of people,” said Tom Hicks, who spent seven years at the Pentagon, including two stints as acting undersecretary of the Navy. Had the 2012 storm “hit Norfolk, the world’s largest naval complex, I don’t know what that would’ve done for our forces. It would have been absolutely tragic.”
Mr. Hicks now serves as a founding principal at The Mabus Group, an advisory firm founded by former Navy Secretary Ray Mabus, who was one of the most outspoken Pentagon officials on climate issues during his tenure.
During Mr. Hicks’ time in the Pentagon, the Obama administration elevated climate change — over the vehement opposition of Republicans and even many red-state Democrats — to a top domestic issue.
The Defense Department also declared a changing climate to be a direct national security threat. Mr. Hicks said that move raised eyebrows in the Pentagon.
“Initially, there was — not unexpected — skepticism,” he said. “Is this administration doing this for political reasons? But what you started to see were admirals and generals and key leaders saying, ‘We’re seeing this.’”
Whatever political symmetry existed between the Pentagon and the White House on global warming ended immediately when President Trump took office. While Pentagon climate programs continued, political leaders across the Potomac River in Washington began scrubbing the issue, including from national security policies.
Late last year, the White House outraged Democrats, environmental groups and other administration critics by removing climate change from a list of threats in the president’s key national security strategy blueprint.
For the military, however, that political decision barely registered and had no impact on climate preparation strategies.
Analysts say what has changed is the willingness of top military leaders to explicitly talk about climate change as a broad issue.
“We don’t see them talk about climate change, but we see them talk about ‘resilience’ and the need for enhanced resilience at military bases,” said Jonathan Gensler, an Army veteran who runs Revive Energy, a Tennessee-based energy efficiency company. Mr. Gensler also is a member of the Truman National Security Project’s Energy Group.
“The top leadership of the Pentagon needs to be politically savvy,” he said. “And if they shy away from certain language because they don’t want to disrupt the programs they have in place, or if they need to reframe how they talk about it to keep the strategy moving forward, I think that’s OK in the short term.”
Mr. Hicks said his former colleagues inside the Pentagon likely have adopted a strategy to avoid any political issues related to the environment.
“They’re kind of keeping their head down,” he said. “They’re not trying to make public statements. They’re trying to address the issues as they see them.”
Without the kind of controversial governmentwide approach to climate change from the Obama era, the Pentagon has turned its attention to specific issues at specific sites, such as the sea level monitoring effort in San Diego.
“Military installations have extreme weather plans, and commanders are encouraged to work with local communities to address shared issues regarding environmental impacts,” said Ms. Babb, the Defense Department spokeswoman.