Hushed Global Warming-Related Military Disasters: Billions Lost From Damage

As devastating and expensive as wildfires are, extreme weather such as hurricanes create significant trauma for others on an annual basis. In the fall of 2018, Hurricane Michael punished Tyndall Air Force Base with widespread catastrophic damage. The Air Force Base on the Florida panhandle was home to 55 F-22 Raptor advanced fighter jets and assorted other weaponry. Before Hurricane Michael made landfall all but 22 of the jets were moved to a safe location. I attempted to talk with a spokesperson from Tyndall Air Force Base to hear about their rebuilding efforts. After hitting dead ends a reporter for a local newspaper told me that I would need to go through the Department of Defense or Air Force Command in Washington D.C. Although they are reluctant to talk about specifics, it is known that 22 of their 330 million dollar F-22 Raptor Stealth fighter jets were damaged or destroyed in the storm.

In a recent article, Air Force Chief of Staff General David L. Goldfein said, “These are very sophisticated aircraft, that have a lot of interfaces. We have a sense of how they look physically, but, until we get into them and really power them up, we’ll have a good sense of what kind of damage is done. The initial assessment at Tyndall was that many buildings on base suffered a complete loss, and the rest had sustained severe damage. The drone runway sustained catastrophic damage, along with the marina, including its structures and docks. Hurricane Hugo had left similar damage in 1989 to Shaw Air Force Base in South Carolina, according to Goldfein.

But unfortunately, the damage to seven billion dollars worth of airplanes at Tyndall, and more at nearby Camp Lejeune is only one part of the national security concern of extreme weather. According to NOAA, the average number of billion-dollar extreme weather events has doubled from six to twelve annually during the past five years.

A non-partisan institute with an advisory team of security and military experts named the Center for Climate Security are working to address what they call significant and unprecedented risks. They point to a recent Pentagon Department of Defense (DOD) survey that shows 50% of U.S. military assets already are exposed to climate change-related risks during their missions. These include temperature extremes, flooding due to storm surges and non-storm surge events, wind, drought, and wildfires. The DOD reveals that our military aim is to approach climate change with “necessary practicality” to reduce vulnerabilities and adapt to what they call “threat multipliers”.

When researching for this book military officials were not enthusiastic about talking with me about their plans to deal with the threats of extreme weather to national security. I wanted to hear about some of the general steps senior military officials were planning to improve resilience on our installations, and for missions capability. I called Tyndall Air Force base three times over four weeks and each time the Public Affairs people took my information and couldn’t allow me to speak to anyone to get a statement and they didn’t return my calls.

After persistent digging, I found evidence that there is widespread agreement in the military command with former Secretary of Defense James Mattis that we need to take immediate action to plan and adapt our military to droughts, storms, floods, rising seas, melting ice and other threats to military functions and readiness.

The following senior officials have recently raised concerns and made recommendations for improving resiliency, including Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Paul J. Selva; Secretary of the Navy, Richard Spencer; Chief of the National Guard Bureau, General Joseph Lengyel; Assistant Secretary of Defense for Energy, Installations and Environment (IE&E), Lucian L. Niemeyer; Assistant Secretary of the Army for Civil Works, R.D. James; Assistant Secretary of the Navy for Installations, Energy, and the Environment, Phyllis L. Bayer; Assistant Secretary of the Air Force for Installations, Environment, and Energy, John Henderson; Assistant Commandant of the Marine Corps, General Glenn Walters; Vice Chief of Naval Operations, Admiral Bill Moran; Air Force Vice Chief of Staff, General Stephen Wilson; Army Vice Chief of Staff, General James McConville; AFRICOM Commander General Thomas D. Walhauser; Air Force Director of Civil Engineers, Major General Timothy Green; NORTHCOM/ NORAD Commander, General Terrence O’Shaughnessy; Chief of Naval Operations, Admiral John Richardson; Assistant Secretary of the Army for Installations, Energy, and Environment, Alex Beehler; and Assistant Secretary of Defense for Sustainment, General Robert McMahon.

Their concerns include damage and interference from flooding, droughts, wildfires and destruction happening and apparent increasing risks. There was clear acknowledgement of vulnerability of installations and threats to training and mission capabilities from more frequent extreme weather. But specific concrete plans were elusive as of early 2019 according to The Center for Climate & Security. One of the more definitive statements from Mr. Niemeyer: “We are looking at adjustments to what our engineering forecasts are and to what degree we can start planning now. And just making prudent engineering decisions across the board. To be able to make our facilities resilient to whatever may happen. It could be a lot of things that ultimately could affect environmental conditions and affect our facilities. The goal is resiliency across the board.”

Other suggestions pointed to the need for energy resilience in military installations, raising first floors higher off the ground and even building sea walls. General Paul Selva suggested, “If you extend that argument to the kinds of things that might happen if we see tidal rises, if we see increasing weather patterns of drought and flood and forest fires and other natural events that happen inside of our environment, then we’re gonna have to be prepared for what that means in terms of the potential for instability in regions of the country where those impacts happen. Particularly today where there’s massive food instability. The Sahel in Africa is a classic example, where a small drought over a limited period of time can decimate the crops and cause instability and make that an area fertile for recruitment of extremists because they see no other way. It will also cause us to have to focus on places where climate instability might cause actual political instability in regions of the world we hadn’t previously had to pay attention to.”

The DOD has taken on a comprehensive internal assessment of climate impacts on its installations. DOD retains one of the largest real estate portfolios in the U.S. government, encompassing 562,000 buildings and structures distributed across 4,800 sites worldwide. This includes 293 active installations across the Army, Navy, and Air Force, in addition to numerous Coast Guard installations under the Department of Homeland Security, according to an issue brief. There is a general concern that extreme weather will hinder acquisition and supply chain operations, influence the types of equipment DOD acquires and the ways goods are transported, distributed, and stored, not to mention damage to facilities, training, and readiness.

In January 2019 “The Report on Changing Effects of Climate to the Department of Defense” was released to Congress. It acknowledges the impacts of climate change on missions, operational plans, and installations. It also highlights some examples of climate impacts. It reveals that about two-thirds of our 79 military installations are already facing climate change-related risks. These risks include recurrent flooding at 15 bases, drought exposure at 43 bases, and wildfire risk to 36 bases. The report is short on specific plans or costs, how they will ensure operational viability and mission resilience. And it made no mention of the then-recent multibillion dollar destruction events at Fort Lejeune and Tyndall Air Force Base.

Another group, the Environmental and Energy Study Institute (EESI) formed by a bipartisan group of congressmen who wanted to find fact-based information on energy and environmental issues in 1975. By 1988, based on clear research and models, the EESI had declared that it was a moral imperative to stop climate change. They called for environmental policies that would go hand in hand with a strong economy, and they said energy prices should reflect their true cost and that would force people to change their habits. Energy conservation and renewables would put people back to work. The white papers include titles that address strengthening resilience, the impact of environmental migrants and national security implications, to name a few.

One of the white papers reported that the Navy, Marines and Air Force have attempted to reduce their dependence on fossil fuels. The Army has pursued cleaner energy sources with a Net Zero Initiative pilot in 2011. The goal was for the Army to produce as much energy as it used in the pilot by 2020. And the program has expanded to a number of installations and expanded into Net Zero Waste and Net Zero Water initiatives.

As of 2017, there are 17 facilities across the country hosting Army Office of Energy Initiatives (OEI) -backed projects in various stages of development, including a 60 megawatts of biomass generation plant at Ft. Drum, NY; 50 megawatts of wind turbine production at Ft. Hood, TX; 30 megawatts of solar production at Ft. Benning, GA; and 14 megawatts of solar production at Camp Shelby, Mississippi. Several of the projects are classified as “islandable,” meaning they are not dependent on the larger energy grid and feature electricity generation, energy storage, and controls all onsite. The Army Corps of Engineers first issued a Climate Change Adaptation Plan in 2011 and has updated the document four times in accordance with executive orders calling for the development of a comprehensive strategy for federal agencies. Unfortunately, with the White House threatening agencies that speak the truth about climate change and our vulnerability, there is a damper on truly budgeting for and accomplishing resilience, let alone transparency with the public.

Author of Vermont’s Ebenezer Allen: Patriot, Commando and Emancipator by Arcadia/The History Press, University of Vermont EdD.

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