Agency that understands threats adapts to climate change

By Umair Irfan | 04/24/2015 08:11 AM EDT

Though it’s rarely front and center, climate change is an important element in the Department of Defense’s decisionmaking, experts said.

Rising sea levels, soaring temperatures and more frequent extreme weather events stand to affect all of the armed forces, their bases and resources, and many in the defense sector are already working on ways to help them adapt.

"DOD has an infrastructure larger than any other entity in the world, so when you think about climate change, it’s going to impact DOD in every way imaginable," said Jeff Marqusee, who led environment programs at the Defense Department for 20 years. He is now chief scientist for enterprise engineering and environment at Noblis, a nonprofit research firm.


Speaking yesterday at the Defense, National Security & Climate Change symposium in Washington, D.C., he observed that DOD focuses on the near future when it comes to protecting national security, which can be difficult to reconcile with a long-term problem like climate change.

"We are fortunate in the fact that most of these factors are not at our door today," said Paul Friday, director of government and external relations for Marine Corps Installations East. "Being an amphibious fighting force, we might be the last ones standing."

Risks become part of the mission

However, DOD is subject to Executive Order 13653, which directs federal agencies to plan for climate change and improve their resilience. Last year, DOD released its Climate Change Adaptation Roadmap, which outlines its plans for dealing with both rising temperatures and rising sea levels.

"DOD has a very specific approach to climate change," said Zvika Krieger, a former climate strategist at DOD who is now a senior adviser at the State Department. He explained that the department’s climate activities stem from pragmatic concerns for bases, hardware and training facilities.

Efficiency programs and renewable energy projects in the military stem from energy independence objectives and operational improvements, not a desire to curb greenhouse gases, Krieger added.

Nonetheless, many in the Pentagon understand that a warming world would impact how they do their jobs. "The vast, vast, vast majority of people that I worked with understood the threat," Krieger said.

The military already has experience with the risks from extreme weather. Wildfires in California last summer threatened Camp Pendleton, so forces stationed there joined firefighting efforts.

Navy fights rising waters

In 2003, Hurricane Isabel inundated the U.S. Naval Academy, leaving 2 feet of standing water in buildings and soaking computer hardware in basements.

"They are not in the basement anymore," joked Donald Schregardus, deputy assistant secretary of the Navy. "That’s adaptation."

Meanwhile, rising sea levels and soil subsidence are threatening coastal facilities like Naval Station Norfolk, leaving the Navy in the odd position of considering pulling some of its operations back from the water.

Schregardus noted that climate change has broader strategic implications, like thawing in the Arctic and a projected five- to tenfold increase in shipping through the region.

He said that the military doesn’t need new internal policies but needs to incorporate climate concerns into existing rules. However, guidance from legislators would be helpful. "We need directives and laws because we are great at following those," Schregardus said.