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Climate Security: A Tale of Two Defense Hearings

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is Offutt-Air-Force-Base_battling_flood_waters_190317-F-IT794-1053-1024x684.jpg
An aerial view of Offutt Air Force Base affected by major flood waters March 17, 2019. (U.S. Air Force photo by TSgt. Rachelle Blake)

By John Conger

Sometimes you want to hear from the very top, and sometimes you want to get into the details.  In the last couple of weeks, the U.S. Congress has done both, and each one teaches us something important about the way the Department of Defense (DoD) is planning to deal with climate change early in this Administration.

The first hearing described below included the Secretary of Defense and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, covering a broad range of issues and setting the stage for the President’s budget release, which included      climate change as a priority.  The second addresses military infrastructure, which has been one of the key facets of the broader climate security portfolio within DoD.  It is the part of the climate challenge that has imposed the largest direct cost on DoD so far, and countering it also involves significant investment.  The second hearing gets into the details of this part of the portfolio.

First, from the top.  On May 27, 2021 the Secretary of Defense, Lloyd Austin, and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Mark Milley, appeared at      a hearing before the House Appropriations Committee (Defense Subcommittee) to preview the Fiscal Year 2022 (FY22) defense budget request.  They spoke about many critical issues, to include climate change, but not in particular detail.  Their formal statements (below) each address      climate change more fully. 

General Milley’s statement echoes his past observations on climate     :

“Climate change presents a growing threat to U.S. national security interests and defense objectives. The adverse impacts of climate change are already being felt across the Joint Force in terms of increased operational demands, adverse impacts on our installations and new requirements for equipment and formations able to operate in a world defined by climate change and as a contributing factor to regional instability.”

Secretary Austin’s statement is a little longer, and gives important clues as to how the Department will be integrating climate change concerns into its operations:

“We face a grave and growing climate crisis that is threatening our missions, plans, and capabilities. From increasing competition in the Arctic to mass migration in Africa and Central America, climate change is contributing to instability and driving us to new missions.

At the same time, increasingly frequent extreme weather events degrade force readiness and drain resources. Recent DoD budgets have been forced to absorb recovery costs at battered bases such as Naval Air Station Pensacola, among others. Our military installations, and the mission-critical capabilities they support, must be made resilient to climate-induced extreme weather.

Our mission objectives are aligned with our climate goals. The Department is investing in projects and capabilities that mitigate the impacts of climate change while improving the resilience of our facilities and operations to a range of threats. Our budget request also invests in initiatives to reduce operational energy demand to enhance capability, improve freedom of action in contested logistical environments, and reduce costs. Those investments are good for the climate, and they are critical for the mission.

Additionally, this budget invests in power and energy research and development to improve installation and platform energy performance and optimize military capability. The Department can help lead by leveraging its buying power to deploy technologies such as energy storage and microgrids that support the mission while protecting the climate.

The Climate Working Group is coordinating the Department’s work implementing the President’s Executive Order on this crisis and building up climate expertise within DoD. It will also track the implementation of climate- and energy-related actions and progress toward future goals.”

The overarching points that were made in these written statements are notable both because they elaborate on what the DoD’s top leadership thinks of when they contemplate climate security, but also for their very inclusion in SecDef and CJCS posture testimony    

A week earlier, on May 19, 2021, key experts testified before the Senate Appropriations Committee (Military Construction and Veterans Affairs Subcommittee) specifically on Military Infrastructure and Climate Resilience.  Witnesses included Richard Kidd (Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Environment and Energy Resilience), Jack Surash (Acting Assistant Secretary of the Army for Installations, Energy and Environment), Jim Balocki (Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Navy for Installations, Energy and Facilities) and Mark Correll (Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Air Force for Environment, Safety and Infrastructure).  In this discussion, the witnesses went into significantly more detail on the climate resilience efforts of the Department, well beyond Secretary Austin’s charge to make installations “resilient to climate-induced extreme weather.”

The hearing is short and worth a listen, but here are some highlights:

  • The written testimonies of the witnesses highlight some interesting aspects of the approach the Department is taking, addressing climate training for the DoD workforce, assessing the climate impacts on installations using the Defense Climate Assessment Tool (DCAT), recent updates to DoD building codes to incorporate resiliency, and the strong energy and water resilience foundation they’ve already achieved.
  • In questioning from Senate Armed Service Committee Chairman Jack Reed, who also happens to sit on the Appropriations Committee, the witnesses acknowledged they had made little progress on their Military Installation Resilience Plans.  They have, however, been working on Installation Energy and Water Plans for several years, and intend for these to be used as inputs for the more comprehensive resilience plans.  In general, the witnesses indicated that it was likely that they wouldn’t have the resilience plans complete until the end of 2022. 
  • The DoD Climate Adaptation and Resilience Plan is complete – and when it is approved and publicly released it will give important clues as to how the DoD intends to prioritize its climate security activities.
  • Other member questions covered the Energy Resilience and Conservation Investment Program (ERCIP), training on climate change for DoD personnel at multiple levels, utilities privatization, the climate vulnerability of access roads, the resilience benefits of natural infrastructure, incorporation of climate considerations into the strategic basing process, and resilient building codes.

As these hearings illustrate, the clear presidential leadership prioritization of climate change is translating into a lot of work across the Department, but there’s still a lot more to do.

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