The Pentagon released a short report this week detailing how a changing climate is a national security threat and makes the military’s job around the world harder. The problem, though, is that the pithy document will likely fall on deaf ears anyway.
President Donald Trump and Senate Armed Services Committee Chair Jim Inhofe (R-OK), who received the report, are climate change skeptics. Trump, for example, brusquely dismissed his own administration’s climate change report last year, stating “I don’t believe it.” And Inhofe is famous for denying climate change and even throwing a snowball on the Senate floor in February 2015 as proof that it could get cold outside, therefore supposedly showing that the globe wasn’t really warming.
Perhaps knowing the report’s recipients, the Pentagon chose to compile a 17-page document, which Congress’s major 2018 defense bill compelled the Pentagon to write, that features very few specifics. In fact, it only mentions the phrase “climate change” five times — when it references the titles of past documents, Pentagon directives, and a quote from Joint Chiefs Chair Gen. Joseph Dunford.
But the document’s title — “Report on Effects of a Changing Climate to the Department of Defense” — and its contents are clearly meant to showcase the difficulties that climate change imposes on American troops.
Heather Babb, a Pentagon spokesperson, also said as much when I asked her about the report.
“The effects of a changing climate are a national security issue with potential impacts to DOD missions, operational plans and installations,” she said in an emailed statement. “DOD must be able to adapt current and future operations to address the impacts of a wide variety of threats and conditions, to include those from weather, climate, and natural events.”
What the report says
The paper focuses mainly on how climate impacts US military installations. The table below shows that of the 79 military complexes that were included in the study, most are or will within 20 years be vulnerable to recurrent flooding, drought, desertification, wildfires, and thawing permafrost. However, it doesn’t rank the top 10 most vulnerable bases — as it was required to do — and it also doesn’t mention any Marine Corps installations for some reason.
For example, take the report’s wildfire section. It states that two wildfire events happened in Colorado in March 2018 as infantry and helicopters trained for deployments. “[G]usty winds and dry conditions allowed the fire to spread, reaching about 3,300 acres in size, destroying three homes, and causing the evacuation of 250 homes,” the report states.
Or this part on flooding: Joint Base Langley-Eustis in Virginia has seen the sea level rise 14 inches since 1930. Flooding at the base “has become more frequent and severe,” according to the document.
But that’s not all: The report also mentions how the military has found it harder to operate around the world because of climate change. In Africa and the Indo-Pacific region, for example, rainy seasons, desertification, and flooding have negatively impacted US troop missions.
And changing weather conditions over the Mediterranean Sea have delayed “recovery/casualty evacuation and logistics flights from Europe to the African continent; potentially increasing no-go flight days.” It’s therefore possible — if not entirely likely — that climate change has led to delays that threaten lives.
There’s more, but it’s mostly anecdotal and not all of it deals with climate change directly. “The report is surprisingly clear though that there is no current or desired separate program to track or manage climate impacts,” retired Rear Adm. David Titley, one of the country’s top experts on climate security, wrote on Friday. “The report is disappointing.”
Some Democrats agree, saying the report skimped on some crucial details and must be more robust.
“While this climate report acknowledges that nearly all the military installations it studied are vulnerable to major climate change impacts,” House Armed Services Committee Chair Adam Smith (D-WA) said in a Friday statement, “it fails to even minimally discuss a mitigation plan to address the vulnerabilities.”
Jack Reed (D-RI), the top Democrat on the Senate Armed Services Committee, took aim at Trump and the Pentagon in a different statement: “President Trump’s climate change denial must not adversely impact the security environment where our troops live, work, and serve,” he said. “But under current leadership, the Department is treating climate change as a back burner issue.”
That seems to be true: The Trump administration has yet to place serious emphasis on safeguarding complexes even as top defense officials said last year that Tyndall Air Force Base in Florida — which suffered massive damage from Hurricane Michael — was “uninhabitable” in the storm’s aftermath.
Still, none of this is likely to make Trump or Inhofe, whose spokesperson didn’t respond to a request for comment, care. They’ll continue to ignore the problem — all while the military is left to deal with the consequences as the climate continues to worsen.
Umair Irfan contributed to this report.