Climate change is a risk to national security, the Pentagon says

Oct 26, 2021
Originally published on October 26, 2021 6:24 pm

Updated October 26, 2021 at 6:09 PM ET

The Department of Defense says climate change is already challenging U.S. national security in concrete ways.

In a report last week, the Pentagon found that "increasing temperatures; changing precipitation patterns; and more frequent, intense, and unpredictable extreme weather conditions caused by climate change are exacerbating existing risks" for the U.S.

For example, recent extreme weather has cost billions in damages to U.S. military installations, including Tyndall Air Force Base and Marine Corps Base Camp Lejeune. Also, the military has bases on Guam and the Marshall Islands that are vulnerable to rising seas. And China may be able to take advantage of U.S. susceptibility, the Pentagon says.

Deputy Secretary of Defense Kathleen Hicks tells NPR that Congress should be paying attention as the Biden administration tries to put together a clean energy plan that Sen. Joe Manchin will support. The Democrat from West Virginia stymied an earlier effort.

"We need to have the rest of the government with us. We can't do it just here at DOD," she tells Morning Edition.

Interview highlights have been edited for clarity.

Interview Highlights

On examples of how climate change is affecting the U.S. military

Climate change is really increasing the number and frequency of missions that we're executing here at DOD. Let's look at firefighting. Severe drought has led to increasing fire seasons, lengthening of fire seasons. It's to the point where our National Guard bureau chief has started to talk about fire season becoming fire year. And in fact, we have in the last five years gone from about 14,000 personnel days for U.S. National Guard members to, in 2021, about 176,000 person days spent just on firefighting.

You can also think about the increasing openness of the Arctic region. China and Russia and lots of countries are up there now in the Arctic and creating a new geopolitical space that didn't used to exist — space for competition in an area that we have to make sure we're monitoring. Both for search and rescue — just for simple commercial fleets that are going through there where we're protecting freedom of the seas. That increases mission space for us.

On the challenges of climate migration

Climate migration is absolutely affecting the United States directly. ... At our southern border through the Northern Triangle countries [of Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras] where farmers can't grow crops, their traditional approaches to sustaining livelihood are very challenged. We've also seen that happen, of course, from Africa going up into Europe, other regions of the world.

If you switch your lens to somewhere like the Pacific region where the challenge is not so much drought, it's about sea level rise. There are Pacific island nations that are in an existential crisis, and they may go underwater. Think of Bangladesh, think of portions of India, Indonesia, very populated countries where that scale of climate migration potential is significant.

How military installations and service members are affected

We are absolutely looking at the implications of climate change on our installations. I will stress that drought is also a significant factor in and around our military installations out West; sea level rise mostly affecting us on the East Coast and overseas.

So yes, the effect is: Can we even operate where we've invested to operate? What kind of mitigations do we have to put in place to deal with these factors? Frequent fire, loss of power through frequent storms like we saw in the deep freeze in Texas. That's very costly and it takes us away. Those forces that are located in those locations, they aren't focusing on mission. They're not flying on their training days, perhaps, or they're not out to sea or getting prepared to go out to sea. Rather, they're moving in and out for storm purposes. All of those are ways that we both are reduced in our ability to do our main mission, and it costs us money to repair.

On what the military is doing to prepare

If there's one thing we do exceptionally well here at DOD, it's we do plan and we do it very thoroughly, and climate needs to be a part of how we think about the future and different contingencies we could get called into. ... We're going to be thinking about how we train and equip our force in a climate [change] environment. We're going to make sure we have our installation infrastructure built in a resilient way. We're going to make sure we have resilient supply chains, that we're being innovative, that we're tapping into areas like green technology here in the United States, and that we're collaborating with the private sector, with partners overseas and other government agencies in our research and development and ways ahead.

Milton Guevara and Kelley Dickens produced and edited the audio interview. James Doubek produced for the web.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

NOEL KING, HOST:

The Department of Defense says climate change is hurting U.S. national security in very concrete ways. The DOD offers that warning even as key parts of President Biden's climate agenda may not be included in the final build back better plan. Yesterday, I talked to Deputy Secretary of Defense Kathleen Hicks, who said the entire government needs to move on this.

KATHLEEN HICKS: We need to have the rest of the government with us. We can't do it just here at DOD. And so we're really dependent on Congress understanding these national security implications and helping us take a major step change forward.

KING: The DOD's climate action plan was released last week. And it essentially says, this will get worse if we don't do more.

HICKS: Climate change is really increasing the number and frequency of missions that we're executing here at DOD. Let's look at firefighting. Severe drought has led to increasing fire seasons, lengthening of fire seasons. It's to the point where our National Guard bureau chief has started to talk about fire season becoming fire year. And, in fact...

KING: Wow.

HICKS: ...We have, in the last five years, gone from about 14,000 personnel days for U.S. National Guard members to, in 2021, about 176,000 person days spent just on firefighting. You can also think about the increasing openness of the Arctic region, which China and Russia and lots of countries are up there now in the Arctic and creating a new geopolitical space that didn't used to exist, space for competition in an area that we have to make sure we're monitoring both for search and rescue just for simple commercial fleets that are going through there, where we're protecting freedom of the seas. That increases mission space for us.

KING: What caught my attention was that four of the 11 countries that this report lists as most vulnerable to climate change are in Latin America. They are close to the United States. We know that we have many, many people coming to the U.S. already, escaping the effects of climate change and also other things - poverty, violence. But I wonder, as you look at those four out of 11 countries, how much of a problem do you see for the United States in terms of what is now often called climate migration?

HICKS: Climate migration is absolutely affecting the United States directly as you're pointing out, at our southern border through the Northern Triangle countries, where farmers can't grow crops. Their traditional approaches to sustaining livelihood are very challenged. We have also seen that happen, of course, from Africa going up into Europe, other regions of the world. If you switch your lens to somewhere like the Pacific region - where the challenge is not so much drought, it's about sea level rise - there are Pacific island nations that are in an existential crisis. And they may go underwater. Think of Bangladesh. Think of portions of India, Indonesia, very populated countries where that scale of climate migration potential is significant.

KING: This, then, sounds like rather a small point compared to the civilian toll that you're talking about. But I wonder, is the U.S. military thinking that in the near future, it will have to close bases in some places because of rising seas or because of droughts that make living in a particular area untenable?

HICKS: We are absolutely looking at the implications of climate change on our installations. I will stress that drought is also a significant factor in and around our military installations out West, sea level rise mostly affecting us on the East Coast and overseas. So yes, the effect is, can we even operate where we have made ourself, where we've invested to operate? What kind of mitigations do we have to put in place to deal with these factors, you know, frequent fire, loss of power through frequent storms like we saw in the deep freeze in Texas? That's very costly. And it takes us away - again, for those forces that are located in those locations, they aren't focusing on mission. They're not flying on their training days, perhaps. Or they're not out to sea or getting prepared to go out to sea. Rather, they're moving in and out for storm purposes. All of those are ways that we both are reduced in our ability to do our main mission. And it costs us money to repair.

KING: The Department of Defense can't change the weather, so what is your plan?

HICKS: If there's one thing we do exceptionally well here at DOD it's we do plan. And we do it very thoroughly. And climate needs to be a part of how we think about the future and different contingencies we could get called into. We also are going to be working very closely with our interagency partners on making sure we're part of building back better here in the United States and on our installations abroad. We're going to be thinking about. How we train and equip our force in a climate environment. We're going to make sure we have our installation infrastructure built in a resilient way. We're going to make sure we have resilient supply chains, that we're being innovative, that we're tapping into areas like green technology here in the United States - and that we're collaborating with the private sector, with partners overseas and other government agencies in our research and development in ways ahead.

KING: Deputy Secretary of Defense Kathleen Hicks. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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