This story from Australia describes how the US military is acting to protect its mission by responding to the climate crisis. Australia’s recent change in government may put its planners in much the same situation.
The Pentagon is defying Donald Trump to protect its bases from climate change
The Midwest stretches across sprawling plains and rolling hills and is home to states such as Kansas, Michigan, Indiana and the Dakotas.
While the region has given birth to many of the world’s reference points for American popular culture, it is also a reference point in the development and history of nuclear weapons.
Across its sprawling prairie lands, various points in the Midwest house the infrastructure and real estate that has enabled America to define the nuclear age.
- Over a half of US bases worldwide will suffer from climate change-related weather extremes
- Sites across the Indian and Pacific oceans might not be saved if the threats are too high
- Pentagon officials are adapting to climate change despite President Trump’s denials
One such place is Omaha, Nebraska — a town of just over 400,000 people — home to the Offutt Air Force Base, the place which manufactured the first aircraft in history to drop an atomic bomb, the Enola Gay.
In the decades since, the base has been central to America’s nuclear umbrella, and it currently houses the United States Strategic Command, part of the elaborate continental network that gives the Pentagon nuclear first-strike capability.
But earlier this year, a bomb-cyclone — a storm where cold and warm air meet, triggering a rapid drop in pressure at its centre — brought blizzards and thunderstorms across the Midwest in spring.
This caused the region’s waterways to swell across various states, including the Missouri River, the longest in the country.
Offutt sits adjacent to the river and was flooded, with water disabling parts of its airstrip and inundating several buildings — prompting 3,000 staff to be relocated.
Last year, a Pentagon report found over half of the military’s bases worldwide would suffer from climate change-related weather extremes, such as drought, flooding and high winds.
Another Pentagon report released to Congress in January found two-thirds of installations on the US continent are vulnerable to flooding, over a half are vulnerable to drought, and half are vulnerable to wildfires.
Stephen Cheney, CEO of the American Security Project, does not believe the US political establishment is prepared for the extreme weather events of a warming climate.
“Since the George W Bush administration, they haven’t really allocated the funds to improve their infrastructure to withstand the effects of climate change,” Mr Cheney says.
“We’ve known about this for decades.”
Climate change might trigger more ‘sacrifice zones’
American author Jeff Goodell detailed some of the threats posed by sea level rise in his book The Water Will Come: Rising Seas, Sinking Cities and the Remaking of the Civilised World.
He wrote that “virtually all” of the Pentagon’s real estate portfolio of 555,000 facilities stretched across 11.1 million hectares of land “will be impacted by climate change in some way”.
“In some places, these impacts are little more than expensive nuisances. But in others, the future of entire bases is in question. And many of these bases are virtually irreplaceable because of their geography and strategic location,” Mr Goodell wrote.
This portfolio includes bases that guarantee the security of US allies — including Australia.
One such site is the US naval base on Diego Garcia — a territory leased from Britain that sits in the Indian ocean near the Maldives.
It houses the equipment used to control the Global Positioning System (GPS), plus the critical logistics infrastructure that supplies defence material to fronts in the Middle East.
“The atoll is so low-lying that, like the nearby Maldives, it is sure to vanish unless the navy wants to spend billions of dollars turning it into a fortress in the middle of the Indian Ocean,” wrote Mr Goodell.
To Australia’s North-East are bases in Guam and the Marshall Islands — territories that both face the threat of sea level rise in the near future.
In February, the Marshall Islands Chief Secretary Ben Graham told the ABC they might have to raise the islands to fight the country’s “extinction” by sea level rise.
During the Obama administration, the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) acknowledged that increasing sea and air temperatures, rising sea levels and the increased acidity of seawater would exacerbate Guam’s extreme weather events.
Guam is a US territory home to over 167,000 people that has been central to the US’s projection of military power in the Asia Pacific since the end of the Second World War. About a third of the island’s landmass is under the control of the US military.
But if Guam or the Marshall Islands face the threat of being wiped out by sea level rise, it’s unclear if the US would save them, according to Daniel Immerwahr from Northwestern University.
“There’s a history of the US treating some of its overseas parts as sacrifice zones,” Dr Immerwahr says.
He notes that Guam was one of these zones during the Second World War, and says US history suggests that Washington “wouldn’t always fully bat” for the countries and overseas US territories that host military bases.
“The base system’s history is not static — there has been a lot of expansion and contraction — and that suggests the United States is not required to protect individual sites at all costs,” Dr Immerwahr says.
This assessment is shared by Pacific studies scholar Dr Sylvia Frain, who notes that Washington has prioritised the defence of the continental United States first.
“It really seems like the [overseas US] local populations, even the local governments are always an afterthought.”
A spokesperson for the US Special Operations Command Pacific (SOCPAC) said that the command itself did not have “any details or knowledge of climate change or threats to military infrastructure” and referred the ABC to the US Department of Defence.
However a spokesperson from the Department of the Defence told the ABC that they were unable to discuss their climate change contingency plans “for operations security reasons”.
Adaptation in the age of Trump requires doublespeak
Within the Pentagon, planning for climate change has technically been in the works for decades.
Its January climate change risk report laid bare the threat to defence.
“The effects of a changing climate are a national security issue with potential impacts to Department of Defence missions, operational plans, and installations,” the report read.
But the Pentagon’s assessment runs contrary to the agenda of the Trump administration, which has sought to downplay climate change’s threat to global security.
Despite this conflict between the White House and the Pentagon, defence planners have usually found a workaround to the roadblocks presented — and that’s because of doublespeak.
“You will not find the words climate change in any [Defence] document or budget submission, instead they talk about adapting to catastrophic weather or sea level rise but they can’t say why it was caused,” Mr Cheney says.
“It’s an absolute joke. It just boggles your mind.”
For Mr Goodell, the Pentagon’s logic is considered, and he notes the Pentagon’s history of practicality.
“Military leaders embraced desegregation long before the rest of the nation, in part because they wanted the best people they could find, no matter what colour,” Mr Goodell wrote.
He explains that the Pentagon has learned how to get climate change adaptation past politicians, by talking about “climate in much the way eighth graders talk about sex — with code words and winks and suggestive language”.
“They know better than to talk about [climate change] directly and forcefully, lest they anger the elected officials who fund their projects and who believe that climate change is not a problem.”
So while it appears as though the Trump administration is steadfastly sticking to a world where a warming climate presents hardly any threats, those who have been charged with projecting American power and security for over a century are working to a different view.
“Many military commanders don’t need to read a scientific report to figure this out — they are seeing the impacts of climate change with their own eyes,” Mr Goodell wrote.
Topics: environment, climate-change, climate-change—disasters, defence-and-aerospace-industries, defence-and-national-security,defence-forces, defence-industry, treaties-and-alliances, unrest-conflict-and-war, weather, environmental-impact, donald-trump,united-states, australia, american-samoa, british-indian-ocean-territory, guam