In the wake of Hurricane Dorian in September 2019, waves crash onto the pier located next to the Hampton Roads Naval Museum in Norfolk, Virginia.

In the wake of Hurricane Dorian in September 2019, waves crash onto the pier located next to the Hampton Roads Naval Museum in Norfolk, Virginia. U.S. Navy / Max Lonzanida

A Success in Norfolk Should Also Be a Warning

One flood-control project took a decade to complete. Lawmakers and feds can’t wait any longer to get the vast bulk of climate-mitigation work going.

When it comes to hardening military infrastructure against climate change, the good news is that a Norfolk, Virginia, flood-control effort and some other projects are coming to fruition. The bad news is that far too little work is underway elsewhere—and while major construction projects can take a decade to complete, floods and extreme weather are already here and will get worse. As lawmakers debate the 2023 budget request, they must remember that the kind of resilience and energy-efficiency efforts proposed by the Departments of Defense, State, and Homeland Security are not just urgent but overdue and in need of acceleration.

Consider Norfolk Naval Station, the world’s largest naval base, where critical roads now flood even on sunny days and where rising seas threaten the drydocks that maintain billion-dollar submarines. Fortunately, a $43 million flood-reduction project will be completed next summer—no doubt with a ribbon-cutting and speeches by DOD and Navy leaders and local and state politicians about an important and well-executed accomplishment.

But the Norfolk case is also a warning. The project dates to 2013, when the Navy responded to Congressional direction and developed a Shipyard Infrastructure Optimization Plan. A follow-up report in 2018 underscored the danger, and the Trump administration requested money for the project in 2019. Congress funded it, and the contract was awarded in 2020, with ground broken in November of that year. The work is slated for completion in summer 2023—a full decade after the initial direction to deliver plans on improving shipyard infrastructure.

Sadly, Pentagon leaders don’t appear to have digested the need to speed things up. The department has not completed the installation resilience plans ordered up by Congress in 2019—plans that are only the first crucial step in enabling the funding and execution of projects that can take years.

Fortunately, there are excellent models that show what the future climate will look like, and they can help government officials work out what steps are needed today to prepare. One endeavor along these lines was the Navy’s recent Climate Tabletop Exercise, in which Assistant Navy Secretary Meredith Berger gathered Navy and Marine Corps officials, think tank experts, industry representatives, and more to see what might happen if a typhoon hit a Marine Corps exercise with a Pacific ally in 2030. This exercise should be the first of many, with a deliberate eye on the actions that should be taken to prepare for threats. But to make effective changes for that 2030 environment, we’d have to start now. 

On June 14, the Center for Climate and Security, or CCS, hosted a panel that discussed the billions of dollars in climate security-related funding requests for 2023 by the Departments of Defense, State, and Homeland Security. This emphasis aligns with the recommendations in “Challenge Accepted”, a CCS report endorsed by dozens of senior security experts that welcomed the prioritization of climate security by the Biden administration but called for more tangible progress, including providing the resources to meet its ambition.

But if the panel highlighted efforts that might soon get underway, it also underscored the need to get going. During the discussion, DOD’s Chief Sustainability Officer Joe Bryan rightly acknowledged that the significant resilience investments in this year’s request won’t yield tangible results by the end of 2023. 

Despite the political and media environment systemically biased toward instant payoff and rapid response, the real response to the climate crisis is one that starts now—and takes a long time to manifest. This is a mindset that is very familiar to DOD, where major weapons systems can take decades to deploy. Tomorrow’s resilience successes will come from the planning and project development and resources committed today.  It’ll be the pipeline they build in the next few years that tells the story of how ready we’ll be in the future.

John Conger is Director Emeritus of the Center for Climate and Security and former Principal Deputy Under Secretary of Defense.