Yesterday, on the heels of a House Foreign Affairs Committee hearing on climate change and national security, the Chief of Staff of the U.S. Air Force, General David L. Goldfein, and the outgoing Secretary of the Air Force, the Honorable Heather A. Wilson, spoke about the security implications of climate change during a posture hearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee. In response to a question about the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff’s previous comments on the subject, General Goldfein highlighted the connection between climate change, extreme drought and the start of the Syrian civil war (an issue we first wrote about in 2012), and stated: “what Chairman Dunford was talking about was that we have to respond militarily very often to the effects, globally, of climate change.” Secretary Wilson also spoke about the importance of climate resilience at Air Force bases, as articulated in the Air Force’s recent infrastructure investment strategy, noting “We don’t leave our bases to fight. We fight from our bases. And so their resilience is very important.”
We have transcribed the full exchange below, which begins at 1:30:54 of the posture hearing video.
Senator Warren: I also want to ask another readiness issue facing the Air Force: climate change. The Defense Department’s most recent report on climate change discussed the impact of this human-caused problem on our military operations and bases. This report included a statement by the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Dunford, who said, quote: “When I look at climate change, it’s in the category of sources of conflict around the world and things we have to respond to.” General Goldfein, just a simple yes or no on this is fine, and then I have some follow-ups: Do you agree with General Dunford?
General Goldfein: I do, Ma’am. I do think that if there’s time at the end, I’d like to sort of qualify where I think we was going with that.
Senator Warren: Sure. But let me ask: Does adapting military and other infrastructure to climate change contribute to Air Force readiness?
General Goldfein: It does, Ma’am. I think what General Dunford was referring to, though, is that…if you go back…if you take a look at Syria, as an example. Most don’t remember what caused the Syria conflict to start. It started because of a ten-year drought.”
Senator Warren: Yes, water.
General Goldfein: And folks having to move from their family farms into cities where they then were not getting any support, and therefore a civil war began. I think what…what Chairman Dunford was talking about was that we have to respond militarily very often to the effects of, globally, of climate change.
Senator Warren: Good. So let me ask: Do you think it is prudent for the Air Force to incorporate climate change when making strategic decisions like strategic basing decisions, for example?
Secretary Wilson: Senator, let me take that one. We just published an infrastructure investment strategy, and we also just finished a major piece of work on weather. And maybe the Air Force looks at these things more because weather is such a big impact on us for all of our flying operations, every day, and we’re the ones responsible for weather forecasting around the globe. The infrastructure strategy looks at resilience, and how do we get more out of every dollar that we spend – so there’s a number of pieces of that strategy. But the resilience of our bases is very important because we fight from our bases. We don’t leave our bases to fight. We fight from our bases. And so their resilience is very important.”
Senator Warren: And how would you rank Air Force installations as a whole in terms of their climate resilience?
Secretary Wilson: Senator, it probably varies a lot. I couldn’t give you a red, yellow or green chart on that at this point, but I know that overall we’ve got significant infrastructure challenges overall, but from a number of factors.
Senator Warren: Well, I see that the Air Force is requesting nearly $5 billion in emergency funds to rebuild Air Force bases in Florida and Nebraska alone that were damaged by natural disasters. So, I think it’s very important that the Air Force and the other military services continue to incorporate climate change in their planning, so that when disaster strikes the impact on operations is minimal. This clearly is a readiness issue, so thank you for your work on this.