In the Pentagon’s Climate Risk Analysis released earlier this month, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin wrote, “To keep the nation secure, we must tackle the existential threat of climate change.”
The landmark report identified climate-security threats, including rising temperatures as well as more frequent, intense, and unpredictable extreme weather events that exacerbate existing risks while creating new security challenges for the United States.
I served over 30 years in the Navy, retiring as Deputy Chief of Naval Operations. I coordinated global naval operations and strategic planning, and managed service relationships with defense agencies across the federal government. Between that role and my time as Commander of U.S. Naval Forces Southern Command, I have seen firsthand the impacts of climate change, felt by our neighbors, allies, and enemies around the world.
Recently, the U.S. Southern Command commander described to me flying over farms in Central America in 2019 during an extreme drought and again in 2020 during a year of tremendous rain. Two years without agricultural yield caused by increasingly extreme weather had an influence on northward migration.
The impacts are obvious at home as well. While attending the U.S. Naval Academy over 50 years ago, we midshipmen never observed high water breaching the banks of Chesapeake Bay into downtown Annapolis. Today, portions of City Dock are underwater 50 to 60 days annually due to sea-level rise. The same change has imperiled Norfolk, Virginia, where I served in the 1970s without experiencing flooding. Today, neighborhoods and highway adjacent to the Naval base are inundated several times each month.
East Central Florida is already feeling the effects of rising seas, flooding, and extreme heat. In 2017 Hurricane Irma flooded 500 homes in Orlo Vista, forcing residents to evacuate. Florida’s coastal military bases are also expected to flood 10 times more often than in 2016, and by 2050 the state expects four times as many dangerously hot days, from 25 today up to 100.
These threats are costly. Between 2008 and 2018, the military spent $1 billion on extreme heat-related injuries. The Air Force ranks Patrick Space Force Base as the fourth most vulnerable to climate change. Meanwhile, the space domain is rapidly growing, yet Kennedy Space Center and Cape Canaveral Air Force Station are coastal and so are threatened by rising seas.
In the military, we plan and prepare for potential threats and mitigate risk where needed. A changing climate is no different. East Central Florida has much to gain by early investment in mitigation and adaptation strategies that save the community in the long run. The World Bank estimates that every $1 invested in resilience results in $4 saved, and sometimes the return on investment is as high as $200 for every dollar spent.
As climate science evolves, planning for the future must be flexible and include dynamic mitigation and resilience measures. Further, mitigation and adaptation measures should have long-term solutions to be most cost effective.
Two pathways to success are to incorporate flexibility into adaptation measures early, or build flexibility into the adaptation strategy to carry out measures over time.
There are several programs available to help with funding for climate plans. One program, the Military Installation Sustainability program, funds infrastructure enhancements on military installations. A second is the Defense Community Infrastructure Program which supports vital community infrastructure.
To ensure these programs are successful, the DoD should develop relevant performance metrics.
The United States has ignored climate change and its impacts on outdated, inadequate infrastructure for far too long. The costs of ignoring these issues already tally more than $16 billion in climate disasters annually.
Public-private partnerships like the East Central Florida Regional Resilience Collaborative exist to increase resilience funding and reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The past 20 years have shown us we cannot afford to wait.
Retired Vice Adm. Kevin Green served more than 30 years as a naval officer. “The Invading Sea” is the opinion arm of the Florida Climate Reporting Network, a collaborative of news organizations across the state focusing on the threats posed by the warming climate.
Editor’s note: This article was first published in The Tampa Bay Times. This is an Op-Ed and as such, the opinions expressed are those of the author. If you would like to respond, or have an editorial of your own you would like to submit, please contact Military Times managing editor Howard Altman, firstname.lastname@example.org.