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Military bases unprepared for gathering climate change storm 

Responses to hurricanes, flooding already raising alarm bells in Congress and beyond

Months after Hurricane Michael struck Tyndall Air Force Base in October, the main hangar’s roof is badly damaged. (Elvina Nawaguna/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Months after Hurricane Michael struck Tyndall Air Force Base in October, the main hangar’s roof is badly damaged. (Elvina Nawaguna/CQ Roll Call file photo)

TYNDALL AIR FORCE BASE, Fla. — A mangled red, white and blue patrol plane still lies across what was once a park here where families played and picnicked, nine months after Hurricane Michael stormed out of the Gulf of Mexico with its 155-mile-per-hour winds.

And beyond that wreckage and other detritus, about 300 of this Air Force base’s nearly 500 damaged buildings are slated to be razed. The Air Force wants at least $4.25 billion to rebuild Tyndall at its current location on the Florida panhandle, a process the 325th Fighter Wing commander, Col. Brian Laidlaw, said could take several years.

“The Air Force doesn’t have financial resources in the bank to do all the repairs we need to do,” he said. Without mentioning climate change, and saying he’s not a meteorologist, Laidlaw added, “I don’t know that any of us ever plans to get hit by Category 5 hurricanes.”

With a presence in all 50 states, seven American territories, at least 40 foreign nations and more than 300,000 buildings globally, the U.S. military will not be able to escape climate change or its byproducts of hurricanes, droughts, wildfires and rising oceans.

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Still, the Pentagon and Congress seem to be planning for and girding against climate change on an ad-hoc basis, rather than drafting broader and concerted strategies, and responding to the storms that just hit rather than those yet to come.

That lack of preparedness is an issue likely to emerge when the House Armed Services Committee begins its markup of the fiscal 2020 defense policy bill. “If we rebuild something like Tyndall, we should be rebuilding it certainly with a mindset that this will happen again,” said Rep. Chrissy Houlahan, a Pennsylvania Democrat and Air Force veteran who sits on the committee.

The responsibility of everyone in Congress, Houlahan said, is “to take a look at a huge budget and make sure that we’re responsibly allocating money, regardless if it’s about climate change or rebuilding bases.”

Rep. Don Bacon, a Nebraska Republican, said the government also moved sluggishly in efforts to protect Offutt Air Force Base in his home state, and is still moving slowly in response to the March floods that swamped the facility.

“We take too long to make decisions on smart infrastructure,” said Bacon, another Armed Services member. The floods damaged about 60 of Offutt’s 130 structures beyond repair. The Pentagon says it needs $420 million to recover the base.

The Pentagon should more rigorously test bases’ climate vulnerabilities, Bacon said. “How do you help preserve bases such as Norfolk?” he asked, referring to Naval Station Norfolk in Virginia, which is frequently described as a disaster waiting to happen.

It is susceptible to more frequent flooding, from sea-level rise and from high tides. Flooding often cuts off the access road to and from the base. “If we don’t do something about sea-level rise, the largest naval base in the world, Norfolk, is going to disappear within the lives of people alive today,” said Ray Mabus, President Barack Obama’s Navy secretary. “It’s going to cost literally billions and billions of dollars, because you’re either going to have to raise it or somehow protect it.”

To address those sorts of questions, the Pentagon in January produced a report on the effects of climate change across the U.S. military — a response to a 2017 congressional request for such a study. The document identifies 79 military bases at risk, and says two-thirds are vulnerable to “climate-related” events, including recurrent flooding, drought, wildfires, desertification and thawing permafrost.

Sixty bases risk flooding, while 43 are susceptible to wildfires and 48 to drought. But the study has glaring errors, say some lawmakers who requested the report.

It omits Marine Corps facilities. It leaves out bases in other countries. And it doesn’t address questions about the cost of climate mitigation. After three House Democrats — Adam Smith of Washington, Jim Langevin of Rhode Island and John Garamendi of California — directed the Pentagon to redo its work, the Defense secretary’s office submitted a new list.

That addendum included more detail on each of the 79 bases. Still, there was no nuance: Using a system of ones and zeros, the report made binary judgments, declaring a given base vulnerable or not. “The question before us: Is the U.S. military ready for climate change?” Garamendi said at a recent House Armed Services subcommittee hearing. “Recent events indicate considerable doubt.”

He was alluding to hurricanes that decimated Tyndall and Camp Lejeune, the Marines’ training ground in North Carolina. Rebuilding Lejeune after Hurricane Florence tore through it last year is expected to cost $3.6 billion.

Preparedness vs. science

Since the 1990s at least, the U.S. military has studied climate change and viewed it as a threat, but political officials in the Trump administration have de-emphasized the issue.

Peter Gleick, a scientist and former president of the Pacific Institute, tracks mentions of climate change and its effects in the national security, military and intelligence fields.

In his experience, the military is more focused on solutions than on debating climate science. “They’re very clear-headed because that’s their job,” Gleick said.

The Trump administration is considering creating a panel within the National Security Council to dispute climate change and its scientific foundation. William Happer, a Princeton University physicist who rejects the scientific consensus on climate change, is expected to lead the panel.

Senate Democrats say they will deny funding for such a panel if it’s created.

Regardless of the Trump White House interference, the science is moving in one direction: The Earth is warming due to human activity, which places critical installations at risk.

Diego Garcia, a sliver of a British island in the Indian Ocean that the United Kingdom leases to the U.S., is home to more than 1,000 American troops.

It’s a vital base — the military has used it to launch invasions of Iraq and operations in southern Asia and to refuel jets. “It is arguably the most strategic island that Americans have never heard of,” said David Titley, a rear admiral retired from the Navy. “That entire atoll is about 1 or 2 meters above sea level.”

Another soon-to-be drenched facility is Kwajalein, an island in the South Pacific that houses ballistic missile defense equipment. Personnel watch for U.S.-bound projectiles from North Korea. But the atoll could be “uninhabitable” by 2035, when it’s projected the fresh water supply may run out, a recent Defense Department study found.

And to the North, two long-range radar stations in Alaska — one in Wevok, the other in Oliktok — are under threat from coastal erosion, according to the American Security Project, a nonpartisan research group.

Sea levels globally are rising faster than they did in the previous century and could increase by up to 1.5 meters by 2100. And because the world’s oceans are expanding, extreme weather events, like hurricanes and typhoons, are gathering more water and releasing it than ever before.

The waters off Tyndall have risen about 5 inches since Houlahan trained here in 1987.

With military bases in every state, moving one is sure to trigger a political fight and worries over how its departure would ripple through the local job market.

Andrew Holland, chief operating officer of the American Security Project, said the U.S. has not moved a base location due to climate change. “People whisper it,” he said. “But the answer almost certainly is no.”

Florida Republican Rep. Neal Dunn said he’s surveyed the damage at Tyndall dozens of times. The base is in his district and he lives nearby.

Moving the facility is not an option, he said, since the location allows pilots to train at high speeds over the Gulf of Mexico and away from civilians. “Moving it? Where?” Dunn asked. “What, are you gonna move the whole Gulf of Mexico?”

To read more about how climate change threatens national security, see the special report in CQ Magazine at (subscription required).

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