The Coast Guard and other services need to act now in concert with Congress and private industry to mitigate the effects climate change will have not only on the health of installations but how it will encourage rivals to take advantage of shifting conditions and assert greater power in vulnerable regions, experts told lawmakers Wednesday.
“In some cases, the U.S. will need to compete for influence where China is taking advantage of climate change to improve its military posture in the South China Sea or become the relief provider of first resort to vulnerable Pacific Island Nations,” Sherri Goodman, senior fellow at the Wilson Center, said at a hearing of the House Appropriations Defense Subcommittee to examine climate change, national security, and the Arctic.
“In the Arctic, China and Russia are exerting greater influence in an opening Arctic due to climate change, which is emboldening their actions. China has declared itself to be a near Arctic state with ambitions to build a Polar Silk Road across the region. Russia envisions a toll road for shipping and transit across its Northern Sea Route and seeks to enforce this maritime route as an internal waterway,” Goodman said. “As risks increase from commercial activity, the U.S. must increase its preparedness and its search and rescue capability.”
“Congress has strengthened and should continue to strengthen authorities, programs, and funding available to the department to address these threats,” she added. “Climate-proofing our security is essential to protect America’s 21st century near and long-term national security interest.”
Retired Vice Admiral Dennis V. McGinn, who served as Assistant Secretary of the Navy for Energy, Installations and Environment from September 2013 until January 2017 and now serves as an advisory board member at the Center for Climate and Security, cited Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin: “There is little about what the department does to defend the American people that is not affected by climate change.”
McGinn said it’s critical that the services “promote regular military-to-military, and civil-military, international engagement in order to enhance the operational resilience of U.S. allies and partners and to enhance United States influence vis-a-vis its primary competitors.”
“Importantly, combatant commanders around the globe should engage allied and partner nations’ militaries in adapting to climate change and working to mitigate the adverse effects to military operations, energy resilience, infrastructure, and readiness through a variety of pathways,” he said. “Everything from formal intergovernmental negotiations under NATO or regionally focused military and civil security planning forums.”
Goodman stressed that “almost all of our bases really need to be climate-proofed and made resilient,” noting billions being spent to rebuild facilities hit by recent hurricanes and other extreme weather. “We need to flood-proof, hurricane-proof, we need to address permafrost at bases in the Arctic where it’s collapsing,” she said. “If we do it smartly, we will invest for the future. We will also be working with our communities in a way that makes them more resilient too. And in programs that Congress has authorized and appropriated to there is increasing collaboration among communities. And I would say that is very important to continue because bases are part of their communities, whether it’s in Norfolk or Annapolis or all around the country. And there are opportunities to do this in a way that helps lift up and make our communities and our bases and their military families stronger.”
McGinn emphasized that “climate-driven severe weather is coming to an installation near you.”
“It can be any form. It can be wildfires out West. It can be flooding. It can be severe weather, hurricanes, etc. So, the idea is to look at those installations that are most vulnerable to the various types of threats and to try to invest in resilience. In many cases, it’s not a lot of money. It’s mostly being thoughtful about how you design a base, where you put things,” he said.
“For example, if I have a building on an installation, it’s in a 100-year floodplain, probably be a good idea not to put the computers in the basement of that building,” McGinn continued. “Just locate critical functions in areas that are going to be less vulnerable to the flooding or other effects of wind or heat or whatever. I think also, thinking about how we actually use construction materials, cross-laminated timber is really, really seeing a resurgence.”
Goodman predicted that “the private sector will be doing most of this work because that’s how DoD will seek technologies, whether it’s climate predictive capabilities or new resilience infrastructure.”
“And there are going to be great opportunities for Americans, at all levels across the country, through the private sector from firms big and small, to do the work of making more resilient our military infrastructure,” she said.
Goodman said it’s critical to “up our game in the Arctic,” including the Coast Guard’s plan to build six new icebreakers. “We need to move forward expeditiously with that. Our Department of Defense also needs to increase its Arctic capabilities,” she said. “And, in the last year all the services the Air Force, the Navy, and just yesterday the Army, have issued new Arctic strategies. These are important to tie together now at the overall Department of Defense level, to have an integrated approach to the set of Arctic capabilities that we need. And so, I’m hopeful that we will take a whole of government approach because deterrence really is the best defense.”
“By increasing our ability to meet our potential adversaries in the Arctic, that way we can hopefully continue to keep the peace,” Goodman continued. “But at the same time reduce risk of miscalculation of an accident that could require a search and rescue or misunderstanding. What sometimes keeps me up at night is increased ship traffic through the region… Communication among vessels and increasing exercises have already led to tensions when U.S. fishermen were found in areas where the Russians were exercising in the Bering Strait last summer. And, the U.S. and Russia are only 30 miles apart at their narrowest point. So, it’s important for us to increase our presence in the region in order to keep the peace and keep stability.”
Recognizing that “we’re in the climate era,” combatant commanders can use “environmental security engagements” in addressing climate security threats, Goodman told lawmakers.
“For example, Pacific Island nations, many of them who depend very much on American security, seeing increased approaches from China to be the provider of first resort when they have an extreme weather event or facing food and water insecurity,” she said. “The U.S. should be right there working with them and in other regions of the world and can do so, can integrate climate security into its theater engagement plans and there are new and improved earth system observation capabilities that can be utilized to enable better planning and to be shared in some cases with our allies and partners as well.”
McGinn said he believes the “culture” of the Defense Department is changing when it comes to integrating climate threats into strategy and strengthening mitigation efforts.
“I would point to the Marine Corps Air Station Miramar out in San Diego as an example of an installation that has worked very, very hard to try to get to net zero,” he said. “The Marine Corp Logistics Base Albany, Georgia, has done a tremendous amount of work in terms of sustainability and energy independence from the grid, if it is needed.”
“…I think this culture of really highlighting how important and essential sustainability and fighting climate change and turning the challenges into opportunities will bring out, if you will, the bragging rights of many of the services and many of the installations that are doing some really, really good stuff.”