Ep. 41: Climate Change vs. the US Military

In this episode, we investigate matters of resilience and base design as part of a broader look at how climate change will likely affect the U.S. military in the years ahead.

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How has climate change cost the Defense Department already? And what sort of costs can the U.S. military expect to pay in the future? In this episode, we’re going to investigate matters of “resilience” and base design as part of a broader look at how climate change will likely affect the U.S. military in the years ahead.

  • Chapter 1: The damage (at the 2:03 mark)
  • Chapter 2: A turning point. (22:23)
  • Chapter 3: Adaptations (32:40)

We’ll hear from a man who was the Navy’s chief oceanographer just a few years ago, Dr. David Titley. We’ll hear from a climatologist at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, Dr. Benjamin Santer. And we’ll talk to a man who helped draft one of the most recent reports on climate change from the Pentagon, John Conger, who directs the Center for Climate and Security. // Music by Terry Devine-King via AudioNetwork.com. 

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(A transcript of this week’s episode is below)

When it comes to climate change, few entities across the world are as far-flung and as at-risk as the U.S. military.

The United States military has over 550,000 facilities around the world. From outposts in Syria to islands in the Pacific to coastal bases on the Eastern seaboard — that global infrastructure is valued at well over a trillion dollars.

This episode we’re going to look at what’s most likely to happen to all those places with U.S. bases, how long the U.S. had to get its act together, and just how it can get its act together now nearly 30 years since the U.S. military flagged climate change as a problem way back in 1990.

But here’s the problem as we understand it today.

Santer: “We are going to have over this century a climate that is changing very rapidly and those changes will form the backdrop against which all other important geopolitical events play out in the 21st century.”

That’s Dr. Benjamin Santer of the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. We’ll hear more from him a bit later.

Today, the list of just recent climate-related events that have embroiled stateside bases is already quite long. One doesn’t even have to go back far at all to find costly examples — as California Democratic Rep. John Garamendi said in a hearing just a few weeks ago on Capitol Hill.

Rep. Garamendi: “California wildfires led to the evacuation of family housing at Camp Pendleton, Naval Air Station Point Mugu, and the Marine Corps Mountain Warfare Training Center. In addition, our coastal installations and their surrounding communities are already experiencing significant flooding due to sea-level rise. The Army’s Ronald Reagan Ballistic Missile Defense Test Site at the Kwajalein Atoll in the South Pacific is threatened by sea level rise and may not last 20 years. The Navy’s principal Atlantic Base Norfolk/Hampton Rhodes and the Naval Academy are already experiencing flooding.”

Some storms over just about any place on the earth are to be expected, right? But consider this:

  • Worldwide flooding has quadrupled since 1980.
  • There’s been a 50-fold increase in dangerous heatwaves since 1980.
  • America’s “Tornado Alley” has moved 500 miles in 30 years.

And just this week we learned the storm damages to Tyndall and Offutt stand at $1.2 billion to get everything back up and running by June. And if the Air Force doesn’t find the money to repair those bases by June, the service will have to quote “cut critical facility and readiness requirements, driving Air Force wide operational risks.” And that’s more than a billion across two bases for just the most recent storms. Not the ones Garamendi listed in that March hearing.

Garamendi was reviewing all that stuff because he was trying to figure out what the U.S. military is doing to prepare for tomorrow’s natural disasters — the tornadoes and hurricanes, the extreme rains and flooding like we saw most recently around Offutt Air Force Base in Nebraska, the scene of record flooding in March.

So what is the U.S. military doing to brace for more and stronger storms?

Rep. Garamendi had hoped to read through a list of just this sort of stuff during that hearing in March. And he could have, had the Pentagon done all of what Congress asked of it in last year’s defense authorization act.

Pentagon officials sent that report — which looked at 79 different installations stateside — they sent that report to Congress in January.

Rep. Garamendi: “…two thirds of the 79 installations reviewed are vulnerable to flooding, more than half are vulnerable to drought, and about half are vulnerable to wildfires…”

But there was just one big problem. That Pentagon analysis was missing maybe its most important part.

Rep. Garamendi: “…Unfortunately, the report did not meet the congressional reporting requirement to describe future focused mitigations necessary to ensure mission resiliency.”

In other words, the Pentagon won’t say how it is preparing for the future.

So we’re going to do a little of that today. And we’re also going to get into some ways the U.S. military could do some of its climate change prep a little better still.

And to begin getting those answers, I took a drive up to Happy Valley, Pennsylvania. There I met a man who tracked this and many issues relating to it as the U.S. Navy’s chief oceanographer just a few short blocks from the White House. Today he teaches four hours north of there on the campus of Penn State.  

His name: retired Rear Adm. Dr. David Titley.

Titley: “I tell people because I’m just a simple sailor and I can only do things and think three’s that climate change is really about three things. It’s about people. It’s about water. It’s about change. So what that means is this does not mean that if we get our climate risk under control that we magically have you know every day will now just be partly cloudy with a high between 65 and 75 degrees and there will be unicorns and that is not that’s not what has to be on sea level rise and they and their animal and it will it will be Lake Wobegon where all the bases are above average right. That’s not going to happen.”

One point Titley made was these bases aren’t exactly insured. Well, not by anyone but the taxpayer.

Titley: “I mean the Department of Defense by and large it’s self-insurance. We don’t go out to USAA and you know buy insurance on the Norfolk naval installation we self-insured. So we see it’s what we would call grey infrastructure levees and barriers and flood walls. It’s a green infrastructure. From what I understand from some very senior Air Force officials at Tyndall [Air Force Base] that just got basically wiped off the map with Hurricane Michael actually had invested in green infrastructure in trying to have, let’s say wider sand dunes, sand mangroves, where you could have them, and basically some things to try to minimize the force. And that may work for weaker storms; but when you take a strong Category 4 and you take a direct hit, — when you look at the storm surge in the Gulf of Mexico, and I can talk from personal experience on this because I lost my house in Hurricane Katrina, we had about a 25- to 30-foot storm surge come up our street. Nothing is left. It looks like Hiroshima… 

It’s just like 9/11 we never really thought this would happen. Yes we had heard about it, right? There had been scenarios; even an attempt over Christmas right of 2000 where multiple airliners were going to be hijacked. But nobody really paid attention. Well now, of course, nearly 20 years later, we have spent trillions of dollars on trying to buy down that threat. So I think with climate again it’s not — I call it a risk and not a threat. Not to sound like somebody who’s spent too much time in a war college, but threats are basically, it’s a capability times an intention. So capability: nukes. Nukes are really big capabilities. Do we see the Brits or the Russians as a threat? Of course, we see Russia as a bigger threat even though both Britain and and Russia have have nuclear weapons. A risk is more of a probability of something happening times its consequence or its impact. So climate does not have an intention. It’s not like a hurricane says I’m going to find Tyndall Air Force Base and screw the Air Force over because I just don’t like the Air Force. That’s not it. It just happens. It’s just the environment; it doesn’t care. But the chances as we change the climate of bad things happening — be it from storm surge from freshwater, from wild fire, from excessive heat leading to excessive black flag days — all of these things are becoming more likely as our climate changes. And this is why I say this is an accelerating risk. It’s a risk to our readiness. It’s a risk to our security.”

Looking over a few of the more at-risk bases, we have:

  • “Hawaii certainly Honolulu Waikiki…”
  • “They’re they’re going to be issues at Pearl Harbor… Two three four meters of sea level rise basically everything all the infrastructure of Pearl Harbor unless you could protect it becomes unusable…”

I brought with me a 2018 Pentagon report on vulnerable infrastructure — a study Titley said had some utility and merit despite at times questionable methodology and uneven responses from base officials across the country. There are a series of maps inside that report, maps of at-risk bases broken by flooding, extreme temperatures, wind, drought and wildfire. It was about the best source from the Defense Department that I could locate. The east coast takes a huge hit. Bases along the Gulf Coast will fare poorly due to storm surge. And naval facilities across southern California are at enormous risk. We’ll leave a link to that report in our episode show notes.

Conger: “So you’re looking at a report that was submitted in January 2018. We started it back in I want to say 2013, 2014 was when we started doing the work.”

That’s John Conger. He directs the Center for Climate and Security here in Washington.

Conger: “The idea was to train get our arms around the entirety of the threat from climate change — where and what were the impacts. And so we did basically a screening level vulnerability assessment which was a set of simple questions that we sent out to all the installations for them to give us a sense of what problems they’re encountering at each base so that we could get a lay of the land. What we found though was that as we constructed the survey, there was not a good control over who was answering the questions at each base. And so the responses we got back were of variable detail and quality. So it wasn’t something that we could turn into a hard quantitative normalized analysis. But what we got was a bunch of data that wasn’t easily assimilated, but at a very top level gave us a good picture of what was going on. One of the things that surprised me out of the out of the data that we were getting back when I was still looking at the raw data was the degree to which wind damage showed up repeatedly in the responses we got back. Now wind data wind damage you know we’re basically talking about big storms that knocked down power lines and things along those lines. You know the flooding is what we expect it. You know you think climate changing you think sea level rise. There’s other impacts of course; but that was just one of the things that jumped out. But the thing to keep in mind about this particular report is that it’s very top level. It was it was the kind of thing that we put out there in order to get a sense of where to look deeper. But don’t don’t think of it as a detailed analysis.”

Watson: “So where do you think it does invite deeper analysis. Off the top of it right off the bat.”

Conger: “Well you know the thing that struck me as far as you know what this didn’t didn’t do is that in the future we’re going to need to have a more systematic process when we look at each of these bases so that you’re not going to get variable quality and in detail we need to figure out what we actually do need to track because people aren’t necessarily tracking the information that you’d expect in the answers to the questions that we’re asking. You know if they don’t if they don’t keep track of how many floods they’ve had recently because that’s just not something they put in a database then they have a hard time answering the questions. So we have to figure out a different way of tracking the information. I think what what has struck me both from this report and the more recent one that the Department sent over is that I think we’ve gotten through the extent of what’s what we can glean at an enterprise level — that we’re going to have to go in location by location to try and do deeper dives to try and understand because the elevation map is going to look different at every base flooding behavior is going to happen differently at every base some bases are going to have vulnerability to wildfire some bases you’re going to have vulnerability to permafrost thaw. I mean we saw up at [Alaska’s] Eielson Air Force Base the Air Force recently had to request the replacement of a building because the foundation cracked and it wasn’t safe for people to go into the building anymore. So the impacts are gonna be different in every location. And so therefore you can’t just sort of expect a broad brush analysis to capture all of that you’re going to need to go in at individual locations and come up with Here’s the threats at this place in here. And here’s what we need to do about it.”

Conger: “You know you hear the expression that all politics are local. I think all climate impacts are local to to some extent even if it is a global problem. And so people are going to be paying more attention to what happens to them. So if you’re dealing with flooding in your basement you know on a on a monthly basis where you didn’t used to any before, I think that that’s something that becomes more apparent to you or if you can’t drive down the street because the streets flooded, that’s a that’s a problem that makes it really real for you. And what happens at somewhere else in the country isn’t necessarily what’s going to be at the top of your brain. But I would say it is far is what the Pentagon should do. You know in my mind a lot of people jump to solutions right away. What do I do. What do I do. And it’s not as simple as that. The Pentagon is a large organization with a large bureaucracy and things are not necessarily simple there. And I sort of see it in four steps and there might be more. That might be less but I think of it in four steps. And they’ve done some of them. So the first thing is to acknowledge that there is a problem I think from from across the the the various leaders comments in even in this administration. You know people acknowledge the threat of climate change on a variety of levels especially as you look at the uniformed military commentary in their leadership. The second step in my mind is once they’ve acknowledged a problem how do you where do you put this sort of thing into guidance. There’s a 2 million person organization and it is not a simple thing. You can’t assume that somebody at the GSA level level or a captain some somewhere at a base knows what the leadership really wants them to do about this problem that these he’s hard of but doesn’t doesn’t have direction. So you have to put things into guidance. That is a time consuming process but is a necessary process. As you know folks who get impatient with the bureaucracy get impatient with this part of it. But you have to do it. And so I think the department has done a lot of that more than people know but it’s probably not. It probably could be. It has a few other things to do. The third part of the problem though is planning. All right. Now that I have my guidance now then I know there’s a problem. How do y plan out. My strategy or my actions and that’s gonna be location specific going to be looking at a base and saying do I need a flood wall here? Do I need energy resilience there? What are the things I need to do? Do I need to make sure that I have hangars to stuff my F-22s into it in case there’s a hurricane that won’t be damaged by the storm that’s coming so that I don’t lose my priceless aircraft? Do I need to be thinking this stuff out? What is my plan? And then the fourth part is projects. So so once you have your planning in place you’ve decided not to build anymore in flood plains. You know look it off at Air Force Base where they had those that flooding STRATCOM headquarters which they just finished building is up on a hill. It is not in the flight point and they didn’t lose the billion dollars of investment. So I think that’s that’s important to recognize that you know with new construction you start to not not damage yourself right. You plan out the base in such a way that you’re not putting your investments that you are going to make in the wrong places. That is a relatively low cost solution to some of these problems in a low cost resilience measure. There’s new laws that so you have to if you’re in the flood plain you have to build an extra two feet above flood level above the 100 year flood level. That’s a relatively low cost step to take. But you can’t do it after you’ve built the building right. You have to do it when you’re building the building. So there are things that one can do but really there’s a sort of a stepwise process that can be frustrating for those with a sense of urgency but is also necessary to do it all right.”

Watson: “I couldn’t imagine folks would build in lower-lying areas now given what we understand. And of course one of the earliest things to understand about climate change was rising sea level.”

Conger: “But they have been. I put out a memo in 2014 when I was I was running the installations in an environment shop and it said avoid building in flood plains if you can with new construction; identify whether you’re in a floodplain with new projects and identify your mitigations if you have to build in flood plains. Most navy bases are in flood plains. Right. That by by definition they have to be in particular coastal most of them are in coastal areas. They’re going to be they’re going to have flood plains impacting the bases. So if you have to build a building in a particular place for a mission reason. Explain what you’re doing to mitigate the inevitable damage. Expect that it will flood and then what are you going to do about that? Do you make the fixtures on the first floor and below easily replaceable or low cost? Do you make sure that your servers are not in the basement? Do you make sure that your backup power is not in the basement? These are you laugh but these are things that one has to tell people to do in order for them to get done. You cannot assume that that people know.”

Watson: “The servers in the basement thing was in Annapolis is that correct.”

Conger: “I couldn’t tell you specifically where this has happened in the past, but there are things that one needs to do in order to prepare for it. So those are just a few examples. You know there was there were steps that were added in legislation recently that sort of amplified those things. A memo can only do so much but legislation has much more impact. But there are pieces of the puzzle that as people figure out how not to to waste money. Really it’s a very basic level it starts out as how how do we not waste money how do we not build a building or a structure or a critical mission facility in a place where it is simply going to get ruined.”

I asked David if he thought market incentives or some profit motive might stimulate activity across stateside bases — maybe some contractor is on the cutting-edge of flood-proofing, or engineering long-lasting, sturdy barriers.

The short answer is no. And families — like those at the Navy’s largest base in northern Virginia — are worried, he says.

Titley: “I have talked to a lot of people in Norfolk and there are already neighborhoods in Norfolk Virginia where people feel they probably can’t sell their house or they’re going to sell it at a great discount. Why? Because the roads going into or out of that neighborhood now flood kind of with every time the tide’s a little bit above normal and it’s getting worse and not better. So yes there’s going to be a market force and the market starts discounting those properties.”


Chapter two. A turning point.

So how long has the Defense Department itself known about the risks of climate change? More than a decade before the Naval Academy flooded during Hurricane Isabel in 2003, the U.S. Navy War College — just a few hours up the east coast in Rhode Island — published a report warning of nasty weather conditions in the years ahead. That was 1990. But the wider phenomenon of climate change was by that time of course not some discovery of the U.S. Navy.

Climate change as we know it today was first flagged way back in 1979. Something called the Charney Report was the first shot across the bow as it were, in alerting the public to the dangers of climate change.

Here’s Dr. Benjamin Santer of the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory on what we learned from that 1979 document.

Santer: “It was a National Academy of Sciences report that appeared in 1979 called the Charney report because the head of this ad hoc committee charged with writing it was Joel Charney a very famous atmospheric scientist at M.I.T. It said based on the information that was available back in the late 1970s from a limited number of computer models of the climate system, one clear statement was humans are changing the climate by burning fossil fuels. They also understood a number of really important issues related to climate change 40 years ago. So one was the role of the ocean. They understood that as we increase greenhouse gases and the Earth’s surface and ocean surface warm some of that warming is going to be transported into the intermediate and deeper ocean and it’s going to slow down the warming that we actually observe at the surface and in the lower atmosphere. But they also said that that slowdown is a double edged sword. By the time we actually can confidently say we’ve seen it a lot of heat is in the ocean. If you see what I mean.”

But that’s not all. As the Islamic Revolution had begun sweeping across Iran, scientists knew a warmer world would have significant implications for stable societies and regional security all across the globe.

Santer: “They made a clear statement that there are likely to be significant socio-economic impacts at the regional scale and those chickens are coming home to roost. You know we’re seeing those significant socio economic impacts of climate change at the regional scale in many regions of the world.”

Titley: “I mean let’s face it if we’re honest there is going to be some friction and pain.”

Professor Titley again.

Titley: “People don’t just change behavior because they like to; none of us do. Is it going to be like the flood insurance of maybe five or six years ago, bigger waters. It was passed by the Congress but as soon as those changes started taking effect there was an outcry from everybody in the coastal states to the point where the Congress went and repealed their own legislation. And as I understand it one of the co-sponsors voted against their own legislation. This is a politically because politically it was too hard. So where is the pain threshold between what I mentioned earlier that now. Half to over half Americans see that they are personally affected by climate and it is them or their families vs. ‘now I gotta change.’ And I think that chapter is still to be written.”

Santer: “Look no you know my bottom line is simple.”

Here’s Dr. Santer again.

Santer: “We need a respectful responsible discussion in Washington, D.C. on the reality and seriousness of human caused climate change. We don’t have that. We have an administration in which the president has publicly referred to human caused climate change as a hoax a conspiracy. Some prominent administration officials have referred to this as quote a contrived phony mess. It is not. It is real. It is serious. Millions of Americans are already in harm’s way. Many more millions will be in harm’s way as this warming signal begins to grow over time. It is irresponsible in my opinion to pretend that this on the ground reality does not exist. Look pretty simple. We understand that by increasing heat trapping greenhouse gases and warming the world’s oceans and warming hurricane breeding grounds in the Atlantic and Pacific we are very likely increasing the intensity of hurricanes. We don’t know how we’re changing the frequency of hurricanes but we’re pretty confident that we’re increasing the intensity of hurricanes. And as in the case of Hurricane Harvey in a moister atmosphere these more intense hurricanes often have more rainfall to drop on affected populations in a very short period of time. If you look at just the last couple of years. Maria Harvey Michael Florence. And at the devastation and suffering those events have coal have have caused it’s irresponsible to say again as the administration has done that it’s disrespectful to have a conversation about hurricanes and climate change. The disrespectful thing is to ignore this clear and present danger to lives livelihoods and human health.”

On the bright side, David told me, the political atmosphere around the country is easing a bit — if only a little.

Titley: “Something that’s really changed in the last just two years maybe even 18 months is the number of Americans that now see climate change as happening now and affecting either them or their families. Those numbers have come up about 15 to 20 points and within the last two years. And I think this is driving a tremendous change in Congress. If you watch and listen to. The hearings that have been in the House of Representatives. So right now it’s late March of 2019. So for about the last six or seven weeks the the House has had a number of hearings in the Science Committee Energy Committee and Armed Services Committee. Since as anyone who knows me knows that I really don’t have a life, I have actually spent my time listening and watching those hearings. And I don’t watch the Democrats. I know what they’re going to say basically. Nor do I really listen too much to the majority witnesses. I know what they’re going to say. The part that’s fascinating to me is what the Republicans are saying and the Republican witnesses the minority witnesses especially in science how science and House. Energy. If you listen to the ranking the statements by the ranking members so basically the senior Republican on these committees, they’re now saying climate change is real it’s being caused by people, it’s happening now and we need to find a solution. Those Republicans sound like Democrats circa 2016 and that is a big change. But by and large what you do not hear anymore from the Republicans in the house is this is a hoax. This is not happening. If it happens it’s not going to be for centuries. It’s only going to affect fuzzy polar bears why would we possibly care all of the things that we have heard for frankly a decade and longer from the Republicans in both the House and the Senate we’re no longer hearing. In the Senate not as much motion but some interesting actions. So you have Senator Whitehouse, Sheldon Whitehouse, who’s arguably the most outspoken senator for years now on climate — every time he has his time on the Senate floor, he talks about climate. He has teamed up with Senator Barrasso from Wyoming who I’ve testified before when Barrasso was part of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. And I can tell you about four years ago Barrasso wanted nothing nothing at all to do with climate.”

Titley: “My crystal ball is just as cloudy as everybody else’s. But it’s interesting to me that these kinds of things are being looked at and being coaxed sponsored not only by a Republican but by a Democrat who is arguably one of the most outspoken senators for serious climate action in the Senate. So all of this to say that I see. Especially on the Republican side I see the dynamics in the Congress shifting and shifting fast. This is in fact not a science issue. It is a politics issue would say what are we going to do issue. And that’s what politicians actually are paid to figure out. What are we going to do? What are the solutions that we decide as a society we are going to afford, we are going to accept, understanding that there will be changes. But how do you manage those changes and how do you buy down the risk that something that’s in the non pejorative sense that’s in fact what politicians are supposed to do.”


Chapter three. Adaptations.

Consider the risks and stresses to life on bases across the U.S. military’s global network — the ones we already mentioned, like flood- and storm-proofing for more intense and wet downpours.

As a former NCO in the Army, I’d expect heat injuries to rise, impacting training and readiness — what Titley called those “black flag” days.

Here’s John Conger again.

Conger: “My sense of how the military thinks about climate change is that they don’t think about climate change per say but they think about mission you know if they’re focused on getting their job done they have to take into account all of those risks that are going that could impact them being able to do their job and accomplish the mission. And so when the last administration came in with it with an eye toward reducing emissions. I mean I characterize that the military attitude was one of well OK we’ll do that but we’re going to do it as a co-benefit when we folk will focus on energy efficiency because it saves us money that we can spend on other other mission requirements. We’ll do renewable energy where it saves us money or we’ll do renewable energy in forward operating bases where it will lower our logistics burden and so that it wasn’t because of the emissions that they were doing things it was because of the mission. Well this administration comes in and the message from the White House is one of well you don’t have to worry about that climate change stuff anymore aren’t you happy? And and the attitude from the military folks was was one of well, OK, thanks. I never like reporting things anyway, but I’m still gonna pay attention to this stuff because it still impacts my mission and my goal is to get my mission done. And so in that context it’s still the same sensitivity to it but you know there’s you know obviously when the leadership has a certain opinion it can either have an amplifying or a dampening effect but they still want to go into now they call it resilience or whatever and you focus on it a different way. But they’re still dealing with the same problem. How do I get my mission done in? And I get the clear sense that people don’t want to be told not to pay attention to something and create a blind spot for them. So that that just creates more risk. You know you want to take it into account. It might not be the first thing they take into account but it’s one of the things they want to take into account.”

And that’s not even beginning to unpack what sort of insurgencies could be unleashed throughout the world’s equatorial zone, which includes Kenya, Somalia, Maldives, Colombia, Brazil, Indonesia and more than a dozen others.

That equatorial zone will experience the worst impacts first, according to researchers like Santer and Titley. Some see what’s been unfolding in Somalia — with the rise of the al-Shabaab insurgency — as already indicative of the complicated and compounding threats climate change brings to relatively poor and troubled regions like the Horn of Africa.

In one example — which we’ll hear more about in an upcoming episode — the human rights group Amnesty International alleges the U.S. military killed three Somali farmers in an airstrike one night in 2018. According to locals, the farmers were sleeping in their fields after a late night re-routing water by hand from field to field during a particularly dry season. Shabaab itself has held cities ransom by cutting off the supply of water — a method of warfare that’s expected to become more common in the years ahead.

Another stressed equatorial zone: Latin America — U.S. Southern Command’s area of responsibility, with bases in Honduras, Brazil, Colombia and the detention facilities in Cuba. Honduras has already seen refugees fleeing the country for the past several years. Climate change-related stressors are expected to increase the number of displaced around the globe many times over in the years ahead.

Perhaps the most alarming crisis ahead for the U.S. military will play out far away from the world’s equatorial zone. If current climate trends continue, we could see a conflict breakout between superpowers in the thawing waters of the Arctic Ocean — a place the navies of Russia, China and the U.S. could tussle over whether it’s sovereignty disputes over a newly-opened northwest passage. Or it could trigger a race for resources as we get closer and closer to 2050, which is when many scientists think the Northwest Passage will become far more navigable than it is today.

Here’s retired Admiral Titley on what he sees ahead for that region.

Titley: “You know I’ve talked increasingly about the Arctic in terms of great power competition because that is our national defense strategy. We explicitly identify our great power rivals as Russia and China both Russia and China are very active in increasing their activity in the Arctic. And since my last decade of work in Washington on why we should be interested in the Arctic for our own interest has fallen on deaf ears, maybe people will listen when I say you know your great power rivals are up there; we have sovereign territory not to mention national interest; maybe you should pay attention and there’s a little bit of traction in there. I think the Pentagon honestly does not know what they want to do in the Arctic. I hear the Joint Chiefs of Staff talk. They’re really very proactive on this. I hear the office of secretary defense policy the civilian part of OSD and they’re kind of like yeah you know take a number. We’ve got a lot of issues. It’s one of them. Secretary of the Navy: very up front. It’s like we’re going to go and do freedom of navigation ops in the summer with our Navy surface ships off the in the Northern Sea Route. And it’s like let me know how that works out. And you have the chief of naval operations that as I understand is like no no no no no. We have submarines and the submarines are enough. And I’ve got other issues and I’m not looking for this. And since we don’t really have a secretary of defense we’ve got one who’s auditioning for the job, I think it’s mostly dependent on how much money he can find for another priority of the president — my assessment — we don’t really have a decider-in-chief on what is in fact the Pentagon’s strategy for the Arctic. And I think that’s actually quite dangerous.”

So what now? What are some solutions or adaptations to this layered and complex climate change problem?

Here are a few I found researching the topic:

  • flood barriers
  • sea walls
  • raised roads
  • controlled migration
  • vertical farming
  • lab-grown protein
  • aerosols in the atmosphere
  • scrubbing plantations”
  • carbon tax

Conger: “Let me let me give you two thoughts to sort of part with.”

John Conger again.

Conger: “One is we’ve talked a lot about infrastructure and readiness. In addition to sort of how does it affect my job today, which is flooded runways you can’t fly out of et cetera et cetera. That that’s part one. But part two is what kind of jobs am I going to have tomorrow because of this? As the Arctic ice melts, is the Navy going to have more missions in the high north? As Russia moves forces to control the northern sea route because they see that as an increasingly influential trade route? How do we react and how do we ensure freedom of the seas in that area? How do we react to the requirements for disaster assistance or humanitarian assistance and disaster response around the world when every time we respond to a disaster, it’s not like we’re saying no, but it eats up readiness. So if those requirements increase how do we structure the force or doctrine to be able to deal with that. So there’s a sort of a future problem here too that hasn’t yet fully emerged. And then the third one is this dynamic of threat multipliers where around the world if you add climate stresses to already fragile situations, it can sometimes push them over the edge into conflict. It can create scenarios where there’s economic displacement and that makes people more susceptible to recruitment by violent extremist organizations.”

Watson: “Lake Chad Basin, for example.”

Conger: “For example and Boko Haram. And so all those dynamics are still in play one that that worries me the most is the drought in India and Pakistan and you already have stresses and tensions within Pakistan between rural and urban areas. And and so those strength the stability of the state is important. But what happens when in a conflict between India and Pakistan India which has the sort of the source of the water shuts off the rivers? And Pakistan is already in a drought situation what hat. How does Pakistan react to that kind of an action. And how seriously is the response. How serious is the response?”

Watson: “Weaponizing water with nuclear powers.”

Conger: “Yes. So that kind of a situation is concerning. And so that’s one of the dynamics as well. So you so mixed all that stuff together now. Now that I’ve got you fully depressed let me give you one last ray one ray of hope. I would say that as we talk about climate and security on Capitol Hill I have found that it is one of the you know in a general topic that can be polarized and politicized climate and security tends to be an area and where we find consensus, where the resilience and readiness of our military forces is something that everybody pays attention to. And you don’t find a lot of people on the Hill who want to oppose that. You know Senator Inhofe is a good example who has been a climate skeptic for a long time. And there was a quote in a news story last fall where he essentially said that he didn’t think climate was something he wanted to spend any time on it wasn’t important enough, and I got that’s his perspective. But he also said that he’s not going to oppose something just because it says climate if it helps the military personnel — which is an interesting attitude and an interesting nuance. Because it’s not that the issue of climate change is something that’s so egregious, it’s just not necessarily everybody’s priority. But the priority that everybody has is to help the military do their mission. And I think that is a that kind of resilience and readiness and responsiveness sort of attitude and priority is really important and is something that you do find consensus on. And I think that that is has maybe something to build on.”

And of those adaptations we listed a few minutes ago, what do our experts think shows the most promise? That’s not the point just yet, Dr. Santer says. Especially since dynamics can be so different location to location.  

The point now, he says, is to get a conversation started — and to keep it going.

Santer: “So you gave a big long list of things to do. And at the top of the list I would put respectful discourse on the reality and seriousness of human caused climate change. We do not have that at the moment. And many of the things you mentioned will be happening. Cities are adapting cities are trying to deal as in the case of Miami, Boston [and] New York with rising sea level. They understand the inevitability of that and they understand that they need to be prepared to respond. But the administration needs to be involved in that discourse as well. They can’t ignore the problem. The military will be profoundly affected in terms of military installations that are already at risk from rising sea level naval bases. In terms of operations in the Arctic as Arctic ice continues to retreat. September minimum ice coverage in the Arctic has decreased by about 40 percent over the last 40 years. Since the beginning of satellite measurements the Arctic is going to be a new bone of contention a new place where superpowers may well come into conflict it’s imperative to understand how the world is changing in order to respond in an intelligent and measured way. And pretending that the world is not changing helps no one.”

And since the point is to get a conversation started, we want to know what you think. So leave us a message or send us a voicemail to production@defenseone.com

That’s it for us this week. Thanks for listening. And if you like what you’ve heard, consider sharing it with a friend. We’re on Spotify now, and pretty much everywhere else you’d find a podcast these days.

Special thanks to Ben Santer, David Titley, John Conger and Paulina Glass. Cheers, and until next time.

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