The U.S. Navy opened its first national training institution in Annapolis, Md., in 1845, with 50 midshipmen and seven professors. In the 176 years since, the U.S. Naval Academy has trained thousands of officers. By the end of this century, though, the academy might have to abandon ship. Climate models suggest rising sea levels and subsiding land could flood the site, forcing the Navy to find a drier spot for educating its future leaders.
Climate change could introduce more serious security challenges to the American military in the coming decades, experts say. The U.S. military already faces repairs and upgrades to facilities across the country, along with reductions in training operations. And climate change could function as a “threat multiplier” in already touchy regions of the globe, perhaps triggering armed conflicts over water, arable land, or other resources.
“Personally, I put climate change below a lot of other threats—a lot of other things are more immediate and more pressing—but it deserves a place on the list,” said Col. Mark Read, head of the Department of Geography and Environmental Engineering at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, N.Y. “Twenty years ago, it wasn’t even on the list.”
“The problem is certainly cascading,” said Sherri Goodman, secretary general of the International Military Council on Climate and Security (IMCCS; a think tank composed of military and security leaders) and a former U.S. deputy undersecretary of defense. “It’s converging in many ways at the top of the global agenda.”
Hurricanes, Wildfires Are Major Infrastructure Threats
For the American military, perhaps the most immediate threats are infrastructure damage and training restrictions. Hurricanes, inland storm systems, and wildfires have caused extensive damage in the past few years.
In 2018, for example, Hurricane Florence caused $3.6 billion worth of damage to Camp Lejeune, a Marine Corps base in North Carolina that supports a population of more than 130,000 marines, sailors, retirees, their families, and civilian employees. The following year, Offutt Air Force Base in Nebraska suffered $1 billion in damages when major flooding hit the Midwest. Wildfires in 2016 burned 10,000 acres (4,047 hectares) at Vandenberg Air Force Base (now Vandenberg Space Force Base) in California, threatening two of its rocket launch pads.
A 2019 Department of Defense (DOD) study of 79 bases around the country concluded that two thirds of them are vulnerable to flooding and about half are vulnerable to drought and wildfires. Bases in California, New Mexico, and Nevada could be threatened by desertification, whereas facilities in Alaska could be damaged by thawing permafrost.
Flooding is increasing at some coastal bases even without hurricanes. Several facilities in the Hampton Roads region of Virginia and around Chesapeake Bay, for example, face frequent tidal flooding of roads and low-lying areas caused by higher sea level and some ground subsidence.
“If you add rain, the flooding can be pretty significant,” said Read, who emphasized that he was expressing his own views, not those of the Army or West Point. “That’s damaged some infrastructure and limited base access….That has readiness implications. It’s nothing glamorous. It seems mundane, but it’s profound.”
Higher temperatures also present problems. Bases in the Southwest have faced more “black flag” days, when it’s too hot or the air quality is too low to safely conduct training operations—a problem that is likely to grow worse as the climate continues to warm. And live-fire exercises have a greater potential to spark wildfires that could damage not only military facilities but civilian ones as well. In 2018, for example, two wildfires in Colorado were triggered by training exercises for an upcoming deployment, burning 3,300 acres (1,335 hectares) and forcing the evacuation of 250 households.
“DOD should ensure that extreme weather and climate change are considered during facility design and investment decisions,” the Defense Department’s inspector general’s office wrote in a 2020 report. “As the frequency of extreme weather events has increased, the DOD must consider the related risks and make wise investment decisions to mitigate the impacts of extreme weather on the DOD’s mission.”
Not a Big International Concern—Yet
That mission often includes responding to climate disasters around the world, which are forecast to become more common and more severe as the climate continues to change. In parts of the world, it’s possible that such disasters could help trigger armed conflicts.
A 2019 study found that climate-assisted conflicts are rare today but could become more common later in the century. “Does a flood lead to a civil war?” asked lead author Katharine Mach, an assistant professor of marine and atmospheric science at the University of Miami. “If you’re in Norway, the answer is totally no. But if you’re in a place that’s on the brink of civil war anyway, that’s where you start to see greater effects of climate shocks.”
“Climate acts as a threat multiplier,” said Erin Sikorsky, deputy director of the Center for Climate and Security and director of IMCCS. “In places that are already experiencing strains due to poor governance or a lack of social cohesion, when you add climate change on top of that, it makes it a more combustible mix.”
Sub-Saharan Africa, the Middle East, southern Asia, and parts of the Indo-Pacific lead the list of regions that could be most vulnerable to climate-triggered violence, Sikorsky said, but they aren’t alone. “I always say that you could spin a globe and just pick a spot, and you could find some kind of climate security risk there.”
Some experts say they are concerned that reduced snowfall in the Himalayas could produce water shortages that could lead to armed conflict between countries in Asia, for example, particularly in regions where one country can limit other nations’ access to water. Others suggest that the Arctic could become a climate security hot spot, as reduced ice coverage in summer makes it easier to extract mineral resources from the ocean floor. “We’ve seen the great powers posturing and competing for resources, and whenever you have that, there are security implications,” said Read.
The United States and other nations therefore must take climate change into consideration as they plan their foreign policy, said Sikorsky. “When you talk about security risks, you need to add climate change to the mix. It’s not a matter of, is climate change more important or risky than China, for example. Instead, it’s a question of how does climate change shape the risk from China? How does it shape competition? How does it shape our China foreign policy? Climate change will help set the parameters of the world stage.”
—Damond Benningfield ([email protected]), Science Writer