Rising sea levels on both coasts threaten key U.S. military installations. Famines, droughts and wildfires abroad disrupt volatile societies and could spark wars that draw in U.S. forces and put American lives in danger.
In the Arctic, melting sea ice could open a theater for conflict between the U.S. and Russia, and military planners say the targeting of an enemy’s energy or water supply will be an increasingly effective battle tactic.
Across the armed forces, climate change and its ripple effects are taking center stage in the Biden administration’s Pentagon. The military’s climate change mitigation efforts certainly did not stop during the Trump administration, but the issue was pushed to the political back burner. Top leadership in the Defense Department rarely spoke out on environmental matters despite mounting concerns behind the scenes that it remain a top priority.
Now, analysts and military insiders say, the Pentagon under Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin has an opening to reshape the climate change debate fundamentally and permanently, perhaps putting an end to any remaining internal skepticism over whether the issue is deserving of time and resources.
Mr. Austin’s immediate embrace of climate change during his first weeks on the job signals a new reality and sends a clear message to military leadership at all levels that climate change will be central to all national security decisions.
“Every year, we see the consequences of increasing incidents of flooding, drought, wildfires and extreme weather events on our installations at home,” the longtime army general said last week, publicly backing an aggressive climate change plan put forward by President Biden. “Every year, our commanders and their allies and partners conduct operations that result from instability in societies strained by desertification, the threat of adversary access to homelands through the Arctic and the demands for humanitarian assistance worldwide.
“We know firsthand the risk that climate change poses to national security because it affects the work we do every day,” he said. “There is little about what the department does to defend the American people that is not affected by climate change. It is a national security issue, and we must treat it as such.”
Insiders say Mr. Austin’s approach will likely extend far beyond rhetoric. The new secretary already has said that the Pentagon will incorporate climate change analysis into virtually all of its planning documents, including war game scenarios. He ordered a comprehensive climate risk assessment to be completed within 120 days.
The military also is conducting a thorough examination of its own carbon footprint, laying the groundwork for an eventual transition away from fossil fuels and toward renewable energy.
Some critics charge that the military could sacrifice effectiveness in the name of reducing greenhouse gas emissions. But former defense officials say it’s clear that Mr. Austin and his top deputies are prepared to move far beyond policies of the Obama administration, which marked the first time the Defense Department explicitly called climate change a national security threat.
“In the first term of Obama, and even at the end, climate was important, but it was really the first go at it, in some ways,” a former senior defense official told The Washington Times.
“Now what we see coming from the Biden administration, they’re not looking to redo what the Obama administration did. They’re looking to go well past that from Day One,” said the official, who is intimately familiar with climate policy inside the Pentagon.
Indeed, some climate advocates are pushing for even more lasting changes inside the Pentagon and in the broader national security realm of the federal government. They see the Biden administration, and Mr. Austin specifically, as fully on board with their cause and believe that the next four years represent a golden opportunity to establish climate-related infrastructure that will survive even if the political winds shift.
“The Biden campaign plan called for historic investments in climate research, primarily aimed at clean energy. … These investments should extend to research into the climate-security nexus,” Erin Sikorsky, deputy director of the Center for Climate and Security, wrote in a recent analysis of the Biden administration’s moves on climate change. “The administration should establish a formal security-to-science mechanism for the security community to provide regular input to the federal science agencies regarding climate change research topics that will support security requirements.”
For the Pentagon, such broad moves will be important, but much of the work will focus on individual projects that have direct links to military readiness. Officials have warned that the Marine Corps Recruit Depot Parris Island in South Carolina may soon need sea walls to protect it from rising tides.
The base “is now getting flooded routinely just in normal rainfall and sea-level rise,” retired Marine Corps Brig. Gen. Stephen Cheney, former Parris Island commander, told Military.com in November.
“They are going to have to put a sea wall around parts of Parris Island; otherwise, it’s going to go underwater,” he said.
Officials have similar concerns about Naval Station Norfolk, a century-old, landmark installation in Virginia that houses the Atlantic Fleet and faces a chronic risk of flooding.
On the West Coast, Navy officials are working with local governments to monitor sea level rise, hoping to head off any impact to military facilities there.
It’s not just a coastal concern. About one-third of Offutt Air Force Base in Nebraska was underwater in 2019 after severe flooding hit the Midwest. A few months earlier, Tyndall Air Force Base in Florida was devastated by Hurricane Michael, causing billions of dollars in damage to equipment and infrastructure.
Late last year, the Army sounded the alarm about the need for a militarywide strategy to protect its facilities and people.
“In addition to deliberate and directed attacks from adversaries, Army installations exist within a natural environment increasingly characterized by the effects of climate change, extreme weather events, pandemics and environmental degradation,” the Army “Installations Strategy” reads in part. “Such conditions will require adaptation of existing infrastructure.”
Developing militarywide strategies to prepare for such events, and to limit the damage when they do occur, will be at the heart of the Pentagon’s climate strategy.
Still, some are warning military leaders not to go too far. Although it makes sense to prepare for extreme weather, they say, the Defense Department must be cautious when evaluating its energy policies.
“Forcing the military to spend its scarce funds on higher-priced biofuels like was the case under the Obama administration makes our national security weaker, not stronger,” said James Taylor, president of the free-market Heartland Institute.
“Eliminating American energy production and no longer using American oil, coal and natural gas while instead becoming reliant on Chinese wind and solar equipment and the Chinese rare earth minerals necessary for their construction also makes our national security weaker, not stronger. No longer producing and exporting to other nations American oil, coal and natural gas, and instead forcing those nations to rely on China and Russia for their vital energy needs, makes our national security weaker, not stronger.”
⦁ Valerie Richardson contributed to this report.