Sea Level Rise, National Security, and Hope for Bipartisan Action on Climate Change: Obama’s Commencement Speech

May 20, 2015
Rob Cowin
Former contributor

Today, the president wisely chose to elevate the issue of climate change in a national security context while giving the commencement speech at the Coast Guard Academy in New London, CT. The timing is opportune politically because the only bipartisan movement (or agreement) on climate in this congress has been around the issue of national security. Sea level rise, and the tidal and storm surge flooding that come with it, is already challenging our defense infrastructure, and it can have real consequences for our military readiness as well.

National security still appears to be an area where science and pragmatism trump party politics, which gives me some hope that Congress will eventually prioritize investments in preparedness and legislate policies that incentivize rapid reductions in heat-trapping emissions to preserve our nation’s long-term security.

Bipartisanship around climate as a national security issue

In the past several months, there have been several indicators of Republicans’ willingness to engage on climate as a national security issue, specifically with regard to national security infrastructure.

During the Keystone amendment votes earlier this year, for example, Senator Murkowski (R-AK), Chair of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee, spoke in response to an amendment from Senator Coons (D-DE) affirming that climate change threatens our infrastructure and national security, and that we need to invest in resilience. Senator Murkowski called this an issue the two parties could work together on.

In late March, the Senate Budget Committee approved an amendment from Senator Kaine (D-VA) that would set up a fund for Defense Department facilities to better withstand the impacts of climate change. All of the Democrats and five Republicans (Senators Ayotte, Toomey, Graham, Corker, and Johnson) supported the amendment.

And in April, the Senate approved a motion by Senator Bennet (D-CO) to instruct budget conferees to support resolutions creating deficit-neutral reserve funds for addressing the economic and national security threats from climate change and bolstering the resilience of DOD infrastructure.

While this may not seem like much, consider the inhospitable congressional climate for action on …well, climate. These are all signs that Republicans feel comfortable talking about climate in a national security context and that focusing on extreme weather impacts to defense infrastructure is safe territory politically. The more Republicans acknowledge the threat climate impacts pose to our critical military instillations and support federal action on preparedness, the better the opportunity for federal action to reduce emissions.

Norfolk, VA, home to Naval Station Norfolk, is projected to experience over 182 tidal flooding events per year by mid-century. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Norfolk, VA, home to Naval Station Norfolk, is projected to experience more than 182 tidal flooding events per year by mid-century. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Encroaching tides on U.S. military infrastructure

Tidal flooding, driven by sea level rise, will dramatically increase in U.S. East and Gulf Coast communities over the next 30 years. Read the report.

Tidal flooding, driven by sea level rise, will dramatically increase in U.S. East and Gulf Coast communities over the next 30 years. Read the report.

Last year, we released a report called Encroaching Tides, in which we used NOAA tide gauge data to project changes in the frequency of tidal flooding events 15 and 30 years from now using location-specific sea level rise (SLR) projections.

The analysis showed that the multi-billion dollar naval base at Norfolk should plan for approximately 180 tidal flooding events a year by 2045; just the lifetime of a home mortgage. And we know that the threats to naval infrastructure are even more severe when you factor in storm surge flooding.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers did a study on sea level rise and increasingly intense storms and their risk to Naval Station Norfolk, concluding that “For the 100-year storm, the surge levels could inundate approximately 60- 80% of the Naval Station Norfolk under the present sea level and different SLR scenarios.”

Climate impacts on military readiness

At the 4th Annual Defense, National Security, and Climate Change Symposium back in April, Donald Schregardus, Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Navy, emphasized the importance of climate readiness and its effect on mission readiness. Paul Friday, Assistant Chief of Staff and Director of Government and External Relations, Marine Corp Installations East, expressed his concern about the climate impacts on the land where they train.

Of course the issue of international destabilization resulting from climate-stressed resources has serious implications for America’s security and interests abroad. In both a domestic and an international security context, climate change is a threat multiplier.

DOD taking action

Fortunately, the Department of Defense gets this and is already taking action. The DOD recognized the threat of climate change in its 2014 Quadrennial Defense Review, saying:

The impacts of climate change may increase the frequency, scale, and complexity of future missions, including defense support to civil authorities, while at the same time undermining the capacity of our domestic installations to support training activities.

A 2014 study from the CNA Military Board makes a number of recommendations to help increase the resilience of military infrastructure and preparedness, including:

The projected impacts of climate change should be integrated fully into the National Infrastructure Protection Plan and the Strategic National Risk Assessment.

Similarly, a 2014 GAO report points out the need for the DOD to improve infrastructure planning to better prepare for climate risks.

Preserving the well-being of our nation

Today, the president is highlighting arguably the most fundamental argument to bridging the partisan divide on climate change: national security.

Climate change is undermining America’s national security. The president understands this. The Defense Department understands this. Even members of Congress understand this.

Let’s hope they can seize this moment and come together to make public policy that is in the best interest of preserving the well-being of our nation.