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Written by: Christopher Plein, Ph.D. West Virginia University

In our hyper-partisan age of knowledge claims and counter claims, discussions of climate change can be politically charged and challenging.  Some say that our climate is changing and others push back.  It is difficult at times to find a place for reasoned dialogue and conversations. However recent government and highly reputable science reports strongly indicate that climate change is real and is happening now.

For those working with military families to ensure their well-being and readiness, the Report on Effects of a Changing Climate to the Department of Defense, released by the Office of the Under Secretary of Defense for Acquisition and Sustainment, is worth reading.

Prepared under a legislative mandate in the National Defense Authorization Act for fiscal year 2018, the report reviews major climate change challenges and threats faced by the military.  While some in Congress and elsewhere have expressed concerns that the report is not comprehensive enough, the study does shed light on this pressing issue.

The report provides broad context of how DoD’s mission readiness and priorities may be influenced by global climate change.  Force preparedness requires recognizing new threats and demands.  In certain parts of the world, competition over scarce resources, such as water, may lead to regional instability and conflict.  The shrinking polar ice cap means that the Arctic Ocean is more navigable and may be contested by various northern hemisphere powers.  The growing scale of droughts and other disasters may place further demands on the military’s humanitarian aid missions.

The most immediate and focused takeaway of the report is how climate change threatens U.S. military installations and surrounding communities. These threats span a range of conditions including flooding, drought, wildfires, and in the case of Ft. Greely in Alaska, thawing permafrost.  By far the greatest threat is found with flooding dangers.  Of 79 installations studied, 53 face recurring flooding threats and another seven are at risk.  These challenges are especially pronounced on the Atlantic coast where rising sea levels result in tidal flooding.

As noted in the report:

“Joint Base Langley-Eustis (JBLE-Langley AFB), Virginia, has experienced 14 inches in sea level rise since 1930 due to localized land subsidence and sea level rise.  Flooding at JBLE-Langley, with a mean sea level elevation of three feet, has become more frequent and severe” (DoD 2010, p. 5).

The findings of the DoD report reinforce previous research on climate threats to military installations. The Union of Concerned Scientists published a 2016 report, The U.S. Military on the Front Lines of Rising Seas, which found that “the military is at risk of losing land where vital infrastructure, training and testing grounds, and housing for thousands of its personnel currently exist”.

Many of us are familiar with the threats and damage that recent major weather events have posed to military installations. As reported by Stars and Stripes, Hurricane Florence, which dumped unprecedented amounts of rain on the Carolinas, forced evacuation and contingency planning for major installations in the region. And as reported in the Washington Post and elsewhere, Hurricane Michael visited devastating damage on Tyndall Air Force Base in the Florida Panhandle.  While these disasters highlight vulnerability in the face of severe disaster, the DoD and UCS reports remind us of the long-term climate change threats that are before us.

The DoD report forecasts conditions 20 years from now while the UCS report forecasts out to the end of the century.  Both remind us that sea-level changes will bring more flooding from storm surges and tidal changes.  The DoD report has broader purpose as well, highlighting the threats presented by long-term drought and rising temperatures.  Both can have an impact on force readiness by taxing personnel, equipment, and facilities.

We recognize that family resiliency in caregiving and well-being is closely tied to community capacity and the need to address disparities among community members.  The recent DoD and UCS reports remind us that the fortunes of military installations and their surrounding communities are deeply interrelated. Citing positive relations between Norfolk, Virginia and the U.S. Navy as an example, the UCS report encourages “close collaboration between the military and surrounding towns and cities” (page 7) to develop resiliency in the face of climate change.  The report stresses that these efforts should account for the needs of those who are most vulnerable, be it for economic, health, or other reasons.

Disruptions caused by climate change may force us to reconsider how we work together to ensure that military families and their communities can weather the storms and changing tides of the future.