Climate-change risks include 128 military sites threatened by rising sea levels, GAO says

A U.S. Air National Guard C-130J Hercules aircraft equipped with the Modular Airborne Fire Fighting System drops a line of fire retardant on the Thomas Fire in the hills above the city of Santa Barbara, Calif., Dec. 13, 2017. A recent report by the GAO identifies climate change as a threat to military installations.


By SCOTT WYLAND | STARS AND STRIPES Published: December 22, 2017

Drought-induced wildfires scorching California bases. More frequent hurricanes battering island installations. Rising seas that will put many military bases under water in the next 20 years.

These are some possible climate-change threats that the military must better prepare for in the coming years to protect bases and personnel, the Government Accountability Office said in a report that runs counter to the White House’s climate-change skepticism.

“A three-foot rise in sea levels will threaten the operations of more than 128 United States military sites, and it is possible that many of these at-risk bases could be submerged in the coming years,” the GAO said in the report, released earlier this month.

For example, in the Marshall Islands an Air Force radar station built on an atoll for $1 million is expected to be underwater within two decades, the report says.

To prepare for such threats, the GAO said, the Defense Department should require all bases to budget for future costs of repairs and safeguards, while training more staffers on how to plan for climate-driven hazards such as rising seas.

The Trump administration’s recently released national security strategy stands in contrast to the GAO’s sense of urgency over climate change.

The strategy emphasizes that the real security threat is regulations that hinder America’s energy dominance and economic growth. It makes an indirect reference to climate change – greenhouse gases, which most scientists say are the chief cause of global warming – but never describes it as a threat.

“The United States will remain a global leader in reducing traditional pollution, as well as greenhouse gases, while expanding our economy,” the strategy says.

This dismissal of climactic threats is at odds not only with the GAO’s position but also with the views of congressional leaders, who believe the military should treat climate change as a growing threat.

The defense bill that President Donald Trump signed last week included a section about how climate change could imperil military bases and create “breeding grounds” for terrorism in regions plagued by famine and droughts.

“Climate change is a direct threat to the national security of the United States and is impacting stability in areas of the world ... where the United States Armed Forces are operating today,” a bipartisan amendment said.

The defense secretary must submit a report to Congress in a year that identifies 10 installations most vulnerable to climate change, including from floods, wildfires and melting ice caps. The report also must outline how to mitigate climate-related problems such as storms eroding a training site.

The military concluded years ago that climate change could damage U.S. bases and disrupt operations, and it will continue to explore how to lessen the impacts, regardless of the president’s political rhetoric, said David Livingston, climate and energy expert with the Atlantic Council, a nonpartisan think tank in Washington.

“I really don’t think DOD is going to swing to the opposite end of the pendulum” under Trump, Livingston said. “They’re not going to walk away from it (climate change) now that they have findings. That train has left the station.”

Rep. Scott Perry, R-Pa., proposed stripping climate language from the bill, but the House of Representatives voted 234-185 against removing it, including 46 Republicans, Livingston said

In the new law, Congress cites the GAO’s report on how the military has failed to adequately plan for climate change.

Defense officials mostly agreed with the GAO’s recommendations to improve climate change planning, though they rejected the suggestion to link every severe weather event to climate change.

“Tracking impacts and costs associated with extreme weather events is important,” the Pentagon said in comment contained in the GAO report. “However, attributing a single event to climate change is difficult and doesn’t warrant the time and money expended to do so.”

The GAO argued that while a single weather event such as a typhoon can’t be linked to climate change, it often shows how vulnerable a base will be when severe weather grows more frequent.

One incident the GAO cites occurred in the Yukon Training Area in Alaska, where units doing artillery training sparked a wildfire despite taking necessary precautions.

Other areas show signs of climate wreaking long-term havoc. In the western states, droughts have amplified wildfire threats, and floods have damaged roads, runways, and buildings on military bases.

And in the Arctic, the combination of melting sea ice, thawing permafrost and sea-level rise has eroded shorelines, damaging runways, seawalls and training areas.

Defense Secretary Jim Mattis has acknowledged climate change as a growing threat to military operations.

“I agree that the effects of a changing climate — such as increased maritime access to the Arctic, rising sea levels, desertification, among others — impact our security situation,” Mattis said in the defense bill’s amendment.

Twitter: @wylandstripes


Virginia National Guard soldiers from the 429th Brigade Support Battalion, 116th Infantry Brigade Combat Team, conduct reconnaissance patrols in support of Hurricane Sandy operations Oct. 29, 2012, in Norfolk, Va. A recent report by the GAO identifies climate change as a threat to military installations.