President Trump’s Visit to Newport News, VA and His Speech Aboard the USS Gerald R. Ford: The Climate Connection

March 3, 2017 | 1:43 pm
Shana Udvardy
Senior Climate Resilience Policy Analyst

Yesterday President Trump visited Newport News Shipbuilding and delivered a speech aboard the USS Gerald R. Ford underscoring that he will be strong on defense and will increase defense spending by $54 billion. While the story in the headlines center on proposed increases in defense spending, the story that you didn’t hear about yesterday is that major military assets, including in the Hampton Roads area, are at increasing risk from sea level rise due to climate change. And President Trump has thus far refused to acknowledge that threat to military readiness.

While there may be much political fodder on whether President Trump’s defense spending is too much or too little, for a sober analysis see Joe Bouchard, Retired Captain and former Commander of Naval Station Norfolk (13 News Now at minute 3.12).  However, the cost of President Trump’s promise to increase the defense budget will be on the shoulders of the nondefense federal agencies whose budgets will be cut to meet President Trump’s plan to reduce federal spending by $10.5 trillion over 10 years.  And climate change research across those agencies is likely to suffer a substantial blow in the process.

Connecting the dots: The climate change connection

What, you may ask, is the climate change connection? Simply put, Newport News, VA is a hotspot of sea level rise and the Navy has been a leader on climate change adaptation for almost 30 years.

US Naval Station Norfolk

With the budget issues aside, the real cost to the American people, especially those in the Hampton Roads area, is this Administration’s pending attack on federal climate change action and the “sidelining or suppressing of climate science”, which as Ken Kimmell, the president of the Union of Concerned Scientists stated, “is an abuse of power.”

So, the President, who called climate change a hoax, yesterday was at one of the hotspots of an accelerating pace of sea level rise due to climate change.  Newport News and its neighbors in the Hampton Roads area know first-hand that climate change is not a hoax.  In fact the citizens in the Hampton Roads area feel the impacts of flooding due to sea level rise and the impacts of storms quite frequently, and are planning for it.

For the Hampton Roads area, sea level rise is a “backyard issue like no other”

As the Old Dominion University states, sea level rise is a “backyard issue like no other”, making the Hampton Roads area a “proving ground for action”. In our US Military on the Frontlines of Rising Seas report we looked at the impacts of sea level rise, frequent flooding and storm surge on 18 military installations, including Naval Station Norfolk, where the USS Gerald Ford will be based, Joint Base Langley-Eustis, and Naval Air Station Oceana Dam Neck Annex, all of which are located in the Hampton Roads area in Virginia.

Established in 1917, Naval Station Norfolk supports a population of 6,700 people and includes 75 ships, 134 aircraft, 13 piers and 11 hangers. It lies within a region where natural subsidence, low-lying topography (less than 10 feet above sea level), and changing ocean circulation patterns contribute to above-average rates of sea level rise.

We found that at the end of this century much of the installation will be under water at high tide due to an increase of between 4.5 and nearly 7 feet of sea level rise. We found similar results for NS Norfolk’s neighbors. Under the highest climate scenario, by the end of this century roughly 60 percent of Fort Eustis and nearly 90 percent of Langley Air Force Base (AFB) will flood daily essentially becoming part of the tidal zone. At Naval Air Station Oceana Dam Neck Annex, our data show that by the end of the century under the worst case scenario the installation will see 6.9 feet of sea level rise which essentially will place 75 percent of the installation underwater.

The concern is not limited to the Hampton Roads area:  DoD’s Environmental Programs conducted a more comprehensive sea level rise study that provides a database and a scenario planning tool for the 1,774 military installations worldwide to plan for a particular future timeframe (2035, 2065, and 2100).

Is Hampton Roads a proving ground for action?

That is a softball question: yes, it is. Here’s what some of the military sites are doing:

  • Naval Station Norfolk is working to make their installation more resilient by raising some of it piers, restoring two of its 100-year-old piers, rebuilding one new pier, and participating in a regional Pilot Project to coordinate resilience to sea level rise led by the Old Dominion University (ODU).
  • Joint Base Langley-Eustis raised electrical transformers and HVAC units and removed mechanical rooms from basements in most of its facilities; installed integrated flood barriers at entrances to numerous flood-susceptible facilities; utilizes a powerful pump system to remove water from the installation grounds and reduce infiltration and otherdamage to facilities; and utilizes a NASA Langley Research Center flood tool to accurately predict (at individual building level) inundation based on storm surge data, in order to tailor flood prevention efforts on at-risk facilities.
  • Naval Air Station Oceana Dam Neck Annex is managing its flood risks by investing in beach nourishment and maintenance of a one-mile long rock-core dune.

On a broader scale, ODU recently released their second report on the “Hampton Roads Sea Level Rise Preparedness and Resilience Intergovernmental Pilot Project”, an effort that seeks to bring a “whole of community and whole of government” approach to sea level rise resilience and preparedness planning.

Will the security and readiness issues of a changing climate hit home for President Trump?

While Trump’s fly-in visit to Newport News and the Navy and the fact that Trump’s Mar-a-Lago estate is impacted by sea level rise ought to raise his awareness to the impacts of climate change, it’s unclear whether they will. Since the election, what we know to be true is that President Trump’s positions haven’t visibly changed.

President Trump had a chance to nominate a leader to the helm of the Navy, and as I report in my blog, he instead nominated another businessman and billionaire, Mr. Philip Bilden, who had to withdraw his name a month later due to challenges in separating his business interests.

Estimates show that the Mar-a-Lago estate in Palm Beach, FL could be underwater in just 30 years. Our own data show that Miami (just 70 miles south of Palm Beach) in just 30 years’ time would face roughly 380 high-tide flood events per year, becoming a daily occurrence and affecting new low-lying locations, including many low-income communities with limited resources for preparedness measures.

This juxtaposition of rich and poor communities underscores an issue that we will be grappling with for years to come. While the very wealthy, like President Trump and his cabinet picks can pay to fortify their private homes against the impacts of climate change or take the loss of devalued real estate, the low-income communities cannot.  This socioeconomic gap will plague communities and the nation alike until the nation as a whole gets a handle on how to prepare all communities, rich and poor, for the impacts that are being felt now and will accelerate and increase with time.

It’s our national security at stake

Beyond the local level impacts, climate change also presents national security concerns and raises “unique separation of powers issues between the president and Congress with regard to how the military can respond.”  It is still unclear to what degree the Administration and Congress may or may not gridlock climate change action.

The good news is the Pentagon understands the importance of planning for a “wide spectrum of threats” including the risks and impacts that they will face under a changing climate. In fact, the military sees climate change as one of the many challenges they face and must prepare for and has a good track record over the years on linking climate impacts and security.

DoD’s 2014 Climate Change Adaptation Roadmap provides actions and plans to increase its resilience to the impacts of climate change. DoD sharpened its efforts last year with Directive 4715.21 Climate Change Adaptation and Resilience which assigns responsibilities to each of the branches.

The big question is, will congressional attempts to defund that work continue and will President Trump defend it?