The Coast Guard chief describes how the US remains unprepared to deal with the effects of climate change

People are rescued from a neighborhood flooded by Hurricane Harvey in Houston, Texas, August 28, 2017.

caption
People are rescued from a neighborhood flooded by Hurricane Harvey in Houston, Texas, August 28, 2017.
source
Scott Olson/Getty Images

  • Climate change threatens to exacerbate extreme weather events like flooding and heat waves.
  • Such weather events pose a significant threat to the military, which has bases all over the world, and the Pentagon has deemed climate change a severe risk.
  • According to the US Coast Guard commandant, the US military and public still has work to do to adapt to a changing climate.

Extreme weather events like heat waves and droughts – the most common ways many people experience climate change – have wracked the US in recent years.

The US military has identified climate change and related events as a major national-security risk – an assessment also made by former President Barack Obama.

President Donald Trump’s recently released National Security Strategy emphasizes energy dominance over concerns about climate change. The issuance of that strategy came just a few days after Trump signed the 2018 National Defense Authorization Act, which called climate change a “direct threat” to national security.

The US military, which has hundreds of facilities at risk from climate-change-related effects, is already preparing.

Defense Secretary Jim Mattis told a Senate committee in January that climate change “is impacting stability in areas of the world where our troops are operating.” Mattis has long said the military should reduce its dependence on fossil fuels, and senior officials in the Air Force and Marine Corps said earlier this year that they expected the military’s work toward renewable energy to continue under Trump.

For Coast Guard Commandant Adm. Paul Zukunft, the need to adapt to the effects of climate change, sea-level rise in particular, goes beyond the military – but the US is already behind.

“I’ve made it an imperative on my watch to see first-hand what is happening in the high latitudes,” Zukunft, who took over the service in May 2014, told Defense & Aerospace Report last week.

The Jakobshavn glacier, a major outlet for Greenland’s ice fields, has retreated 25 miles in the past five years after being static for more than a thousand years, Zukunft said. Between 2000 and 2011, the ice loss through Jakobshavn alone caused a millimeter increase in the global sea level.

“The ice fields of Greenland can contribute up to 20 feet of sea level rise. The ice in Antarctica can add nearly another 100 feet on top of that. We do not have good modeling for Antarctica,” he said. “We are seeing an accelerated rate of, one, ice retreat and then ice melt as well.” (Receding ice in Greenland may expose a top-secret US nuclear project.)

Other countries vulnerable to sea-level rise are preparing, Zukunft said. He cited the Netherlands, which has started building infrastructure and leveling taxes to fund resiliency.

Zukunft also pointed to behavior after Hurricanes Irma, Maria, and Harvey – which he said caused just under a billion dollars in damage and affected Coast Guard readiness and infrastructure – to underscore the US’s lack of preparation. Those three hurricanes also wreaked damage throughout the Caribbean, exacerbating insecurity in one of the most dangerous regions of the world.

Texas Guardsmen, first responders from Texas Task Force One, and the Cypress Creek Fire Department move residents from severely flooded neighborhoods days after Hurricane Harvey in Cypress Creek, Texas, August 28, 2017.

caption
Texas Guardsmen, first responders from Texas Task Force One, and the Cypress Creek Fire Department move residents from severely flooded neighborhoods days after Hurricane Harvey in Cypress Creek, Texas, August 28, 2017.
source
US Army/Capt. Martha Nigrelle

“People are looking to flip homes right now in the same flood-prone areas and sell them right back again,” he said. “You are building infrastructure in known flood plains, and we are setting ourselves up for failure and hope that we won’t see a rising sea level.”

“Out in Hampton Roads, Virginia, across from Old Dominion University [is a] very upscale neighborhood called Larchmont,” Zukunft added.”Well, the property values are sinking because the land is sinking, [and the] ocean is rising. They’ve got standing sea water in those streets during high tides, and just up the street from there is the largest naval base in the world,” he said, referring to Naval Station Norfolk.

“So we have got to take this into account as we look at not just commercial infrastructure – our military infrastructure is exposed as well, as we look at sea-level rise,” he said. “We’ve got to plan for this. We can’t hope it doesn’t happen. We’ve got to have a plan.”

Naval Station Norfolk is one of 128 US military facilities that would be threatened by a 3-foot rise in sea levels.

Ships taking part in Operation Sail in Norfolk, Virginia.

caption
Ships taking part in Operation Sail in Norfolk, Virginia.
source
US Navy/Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Bryan Weyers

The base at Norfolk and 17 other military facilities on waterfront property – including the Marine Corps base at Parris Island in South Carolina – are at risk of hundreds of floods a year and could be under water by 2100, according to a mid-2016 study by the Union of Concerned Scientists.

Some of those bases have already responded to the risks – a 2014 Pentagon report cited Hampton Roads specifically as an area of concern.

This spring, Trump rescinded Obama’s climate-related orders for federal agencies, but the Defense Department has continued working on an Obama-era plan to address climate change, largely by focusing on threats from specific events, like extreme seas or flooding, rather than larger debates about climate change, according to Military Times.

“Even if there were no climate change, you would want to be ready for hurricanes, you would want to be ready for floods,” Mark Cancian, a retired Marine colonel and senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, told Military Times in September. “I think the department is framing it in that context – just preparing for adverse events.”