Pentagon’s Climate Change Report Lacks Analysis the Law Requires

We may look back on 2018 as the year we could no longer avert our eyes from climate change’s destabilizing national security effects. Yet the Pentagon’s congressionally required climate report, released last week, fails to match the reality, lacking key analytical details and leaving the reader with more questions than answers.

The toll of 2018 was striking. Massive California wildfires killed 85 people, Hurricanes Michael and Florence damaged military installations on the Florida and North Carolina coasts, and climate-induced water and food instability contributed to a deteriorating security situation in Yemen.

At the same time, climate science advanced our understanding of climate change’s myriad impacts, forecasting an increasingly warm and dangerous world. The United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (UNIPCC) issued a new report, finding that world temperatures are rising at a much faster rate than previously estimated. And the United States released its fourth National Climate Assessment (NCA) a month later, effectively bolstering the U.N. panel’s findings. These reports highlighted what our unhealthy planet already knows: the earth is warming at a faster rate than previously estimated, climate change impacts global security in complex and multifaceted ways, and the window to solve the coming climate security crisis is rapidly closing.

In contrast, the administration of President Donald Trump eliminated any mention of “climate change” from the National Security Strategy and the National Defense Strategy (unlike the Bush and Obama administrations). And it generally has been hostile to meaningful action on climate change as evidenced by its sudden withdrawal from the Paris Climate Agreement.

But Congress has shown a renewed interest in addressing climate change’s national security impacts at home and abroad. The Republican-controlled Congress passed the 2018 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) with a mandate that the Department of Defense issue a report on the “vulnerabilities to the military resulting from climate change over the next 20 years.” Specifically,  in Section 335 of the NDAA (the “Langevin amendment,” named after the Rhode Island congressman), Congress required that the military address four items in its report:

  • A list of the 10 most vulnerable installations within each military service;
  • An overview of costs and mitigations that may be necessary to ensure the continued operational viability and resiliency of these installations;
  • A discussion of the effects on the military related to climate change, including the increase in humanitarian assistance and disaster relief missions;
  • An overview of mitigating steps that may be necessary to ensure mission resiliency, and the cost of such actions.

The Pentagon issued the 22-page “Report on Effects of a Changing Climate to the Department of Defense” late last week. The contents are disappointing. While the report acknowledges “the effects of a changing climate are a national security issue” that impact the military’s missions, operational plans, and installations, the analysis is sorely lacking.

Key Questions Outstanding

The initial instinct may be to applaud any Trump administration report acknowledging climate change. But a closer read shows the many ways in which the report falls short in meeting the congressionally mandated legal requirements. I highlight five below, with some of the key questions that remain outstanding. 

First, the report does not prioritize or rank what specific military installations are most vulnerable to climate change. It merely provides an alphabetical listing of 79 so-called “mission assurance priority installations” that presumably are most vulnerable to climate-related events. It remains unclear what installations are most at danger and where we should be focusing our attention, time, and resources.

For example, is Norfolk Naval Station — where I worked for several years and where facilities are already facing the effects of sea-level rise and recurrent flooding — at greater risk than Vandenberg Air Force Base, which recently lost 380 acres to wildfires? No overseas military installations nor any Marine Corps installation are included on the list at all. Was that purposeful?

The Langevin amendment specifically references a $1 billion Air Force radar installation built on an atoll in the Marshall Islands that is projected to be underwater within two decades, based on current climate models. But this radar facility and other overseas installations were not mentioned in the DoD report — again, why? Surely we cannot assume that overseas military installations and all Marine Corps installations are immune from climate-related events.

Second, the report’s methodology and analysis are unclear and lacking. The law mandated that the Pentagon use six factors in its climate-vulnerability analysis (rising sea levels, flooding, desertification, drought, wildfires, and thawing permafrost) as well as “any other categories the Secretary determines necessary.” But the report employs just five “climate-related events” as factors, appearing to address sea-level changes under the umbrella of recurrent flooding. Further, the factors are not weighted and lack analytical detail. The report simply notes whether the installation is vulnerable to one of these five climate-related events — nothing more.

Absent, too, from the report is any discussion of extreme weather and its impact on military installations. Advances in climate-attribution science now make clear that the threats posed by climate change increase the likelihood of natural disasters and exacerbate existing weather conditions. Just last month, the American Geophysical Union reported that human-caused climate change increased both the likelihood and severity of 15 of 16 extreme weather events in 2017.

The Pentagon climate report was issued long after Hurricanes Florence and Michael severely damaged Marine Corps Base Camp Lejeune in North Carolina and Tyndall Air Force Base in Florida, respectively. That destruction was an immediate hit to military readiness and an enormous cost to taxpayers. But neither Camp Lejeune nor Tyndall Air Force Base is listed among the 79 most vulnerable installations.

Nor is there a broader discussion of what bases are most vulnerable to extreme weather. Why? Homestead Air Force Base in Florida was effectively destroyed by Hurricane Andrew some 25 years ago, so this is not a theoretical exercise. What military bases are most at risk to extreme weather?

Third, the report does not mention or address highly relevant recent climate reports. The 2018 NCA, an exhaustive report issued by the Trump administration (albeit the day after Thanksgiving), represents the best analysis on climate science from the U.S. government. It did not shy away from mentioning climate change’s national security impacts.  The U.N. panel also highlighted climate change’s security impacts. But neither set of findings is referenced in the Pentagon’s report. Why not cite, address, and draw from these documents? Relatedly, the Pentagon report seems to take pains to avoid the term “climate change,” preferring “changing climate” wherever possible. Was this purposeful?

Avoiding Climate Change’s Costs Now and in the Future

Fourth, the DoD report does not discuss the costs required to ensure installation and mission resiliency. This is a clear legal requirement, but it, too, is omitted. Congress, which possesses the constitutional power of the purse, needs to know the future cost of investment in climate-resilient infrastructure at military installations and where to focus its resources.

The DoD’s best military judgment and analysis should inform congressional leaders of future costs as we look to plan for these costs. We already know that repairs to Tyndall and Camp Lejeune after the 2018 hurricanes will cost billions. What are the estimated future costs at other installations to ensure their continued operational viability?

Finally, and perhaps most troublingly, the report is not forward-looking. The report largely discusses several ad hoc efforts that are already underway to increase installation and mission resiliency. It reads like a laundry list of myriad, ongoing efforts that are underway at the DoD. While many of these efforts should be applauded, it is unclear how they are being coordinated and whether they are sufficient for the future.

Congress required that the military advise on whether existing efforts are sufficient to meet the threats over the next 20 years. Where should we focus our efforts? What steps should be taken as a matter of law and policy to protect these installations? Internationally, as humanitarian assistance missions increase in their frequency, what combatant commands will be most affected and require additional resources? 

In sum, the report lacks the level of specificity and analysis required by law. Under the Obama administration, DoD climate policy was forward-leaning and innovative: it released the 2014 Climate Adaptation Roadmap and undertook several initiatives on alternative energy. This report is a step backward.

Clearly, congressional leaders were expecting more, particularly as the report came out 13 months after the law was signed, and at a taxpayer cost of $329,000. Initial reactions from Democratic congressional leaders were not positive. Sen. Jack Reed, a Rhode Island Democrat, remarked that the report “carries as much value as a phone book,” and pledged to take appropriate steps to ensure DoD is planning for climate change. What those steps will entail (fresh congressional hearings, mandating a new report with consequences for failing to fulfill its requirements?) remains to be seen.

As I have argued before, we are entering the climate century and climate change cannot simply be wished away. Preparing our military for the climate century will require rigorous analysis, hard work, and difficult decisions today to ensure we are in the best position to face an increasingly uncertain, climate change-driven future.

IMAGE: A military police officer walks near a destroyed gate in Tyndall Air Force Base, in Florida in the aftermath of Hurricane Michael on Oct. 12, 2018 . (Photo BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty Images)

  

About the Author(s)

Mark Nevitt

Sharswood Fellow at the University of Pennsylvania Law School and former commander in the Navy, serving as a tactical jet aviator and attorney in the Judge Advocate General’s Corps for 20 years. Follow him on Twitter (@marknevitt).