As America mourns at least 60 people killed by Hurricane Harvey and begins to count the toll from Irma, political discourse in the United States is rightly focused on what can be done to recover from the vast, costly devastation wrought by these superstorms. The clear increase in frequency and intensity of these storms also means it’s time to revisit the national security threat posed by a changing climate.
While climate change is not the sole cause of Harvey and Irma, it certainly worsened their destructive effects—a fact we must acknowledge and accommodate if we are to reduce our risk and mitigate future disasters. The science on this point is clear, and you don’t have to be a meteorologist to see cause and effect.
In essence, human-generated greenhouse gases have trapped heat in the atmosphere, causing global temperatures to rise. These warmer temperatures, particularly over the oceans, increase the amount of moisture in the atmosphere, which can lead to more massive rainfalls like we saw with Harvey. Meanwhile, the storm surge that flooded Houston’s homes and communities was made even higher by rising sea levels. There is even some evidence that climate change has reduced the kind of winds that can steer hurricanes away from land.
As with any threat, we must prioritize risk assessment and prevention if we are to avoid suffering the same consequences again and with greater frequency. Yet last month, President Trump rolled back an existing policy ordering that infrastructure projects must be designed to survive rising sea levels. This all but guarantees that what happened to Houston will happen elsewhere.
Cities aren’t the only things at risk. A 2016 study found that 18 U.S. military installations along the East Coast and Gulf of Mexico may permanently lose land to the ocean in the decades ahead, with some becoming entirely submerged by the end of the century. It also reported that a three-foot rise in sea level would threaten 128 coastal military bases, valued at about $100 billion. Our military is already directly and indirectly confronting the consequences of climate change around the world; to accomplish their ever-expanding mission set, they require functional bases safe from the rising sea. However, just before Hurricane Irma plowed through the Caribbean, the military ordered more than 5,000 active duty troops, civilians, contractors, and families to evacuate Naval Air Station Key West. Military readiness and operations are hampered when leaders must focus on evacuating their people and resources from flooded bases instead of on projecting power and accomplishing the mission.
Rising seas aren’t the only threat. In the past year alone, frequent floods at Fort Hood in Texas killed 10 people in vehicles that were swept away or overturned. Again, climate change is not the sole cause, but it certainly increases the rainfall and flooding. Then there are the fires raging across the West Coast, droughts driving conflicts overseas, and melting Arctic ice creating a new arena for great-power conflict in the far north.
The Trump Administration’s budget proposal does nothing to secure military bases, our cities, or our fellow citizens from all of these consequences. The president proposes to cut one-third of the Environmental Protection Agency’s budget, removing jobs and programs that work on enhancing renewable energy, limiting greenhouse gas emissions, and ensuring clean drinking water. The Department of Energy also faces cuts particularly to its biological and environmental programs, including climate modeling research. This work is critical to the welfare of our communities and the security of our nation, and must be prioritized and supported as such.
Clearly, climate change and our national security are inextricably intertwined, yet President Trump and others in his administration continue to ignore the threat. States, cities, businesses, and individuals have been picking up the slack as the federal government dawdles, but Harvey and now Irma are demonstrating that the federal government must do its part, too. It’s time for America to get back to leading the world in the fight against climate change, and that begins with effective and serious threat assessment and risk management here at home.