The Navy Understands Climate Change Is a Grave National Security Issue – Will the Nominee for Secretary of the Navy?

January 31, 2017 | 1:47 pm
Shana Udvardy
Senior Climate Resilience Policy Analyst

March 2, 2017 Update:

This past Sunday, February 26, 2017, Mr. Philip Bilden withdrew his name from consideration for the Secretary of Navy citing difficulties in “separating himself from his business interests.” This comes just one month after the White House nominated Bilden on January 25 and after the Secretary of Army nominee Mr. Vincent Viola withdrew his name on February 3, stating similar challenges of separating his business interests. Both billionaires, it is of little surprise that Mr. Viola and Mr. Bilden have insurmountable conflicts of interest that have forced each of them to withdraw their names from consideration. Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis’ statement last Sunday indicates that he will recommend a new nominee for Secretary of Navy in the coming days.

As the Secretary of the Navy, Mr. Bilden will lead and manage the hundreds of thousands of sailors, Marines and civilians and oversee the under secretary, four assistant secretaries, and a general counsel. In his role as Secretary of the Navy, Bilden will be stepping into a now well-established record of the Navy leading the Military on climate change science and action.

Phil Bilden, President Trump’s nominee for Secretary of Navy

A Snapshot of The Navy’s Climate Leadership Demonstrates Smart Action

Climate action by the Navy dates back to 1990 when the U.S. Navy War College published a report on their climate change research and analysis entitled Global Climate Change Implications for the United States. Since then, civilian and military defense leaders alike have taken climate change seriously (chronological list can be found here) because they recognized it as a matter of national security.   Today, the thinking is found across all branches of the military, for good reasons, but the Navy maintains an important leadership role in ensuring our military is preparing for the threat of climate change

Former Navy Secretary Ray Mabus, the longest standing Secretary of the Navy who served throughout President Barack Obama’s administration and led the Navy’s climate change actions, stated in his farewell speech that climate change is a grave national security issue.

The scientist behind much of the steadfast climate change efforts was Rear Admiral David Titley, the former Oceanographer and Navigator of the US Navy, who led Task Force Climate Change (TFCC).  Created in 2009, this task force addressed the naval implications of a changing Arctic and global environment. In this interview, Rear Admiral Titley underscored that the military ‘would prefer to plan for something that doesn’t happen than to be taken by surprise.’

In 2010, the Navy released “A Navy Energy Vision for the 21st Century” that committed the Navy to both reducing climate pollution and mitigating climate impacts.

Rand’s assessment of the Navy, compared to the Department of Defense efforts on climate change resiliency and adaptation, found that compared to other military branches the Navy’s roadmap was structured particularly well and the implementation plan had actionable items, responsibilities and timeframes.

The Impacts of Rising Seas on the Navy Are Already Being Felt

NAS Key West is Expected to Lose Currently Utilized Land to Sea Level Rise

It is no wonder that the Navy’s efforts to address climate change impacts are ahead of those of other branches. Navy installations tend to be at sea level and therefore are more vulnerable to rising seas and storm surge.

The Union of Concerned Scientists conducted analysis of how sea level rise will impact 18 military installations along the East and Gulf coasts. The results of this analysis can be found in the US Military on the Frontlines of Rising Seas report.  We found that over the next 100 years, all of the sites we studied will be at risk of more frequent and extensive tidal flooding, loss of land to flooding, and more impacts from storm surge.

Of the sites studied, Naval Air Station Key West (NAS Key West) faces the starkest risks. Located in the low-lying Florida Keys, NAS Key West will experience rising sea level between 3.8 and 6.2 feet over the course of this century.

By 2100, our analysis found that between 70 and 95 percent of NAS Key West will be inundated by daily flooding.

Global sea level has risen about eight inches since 1880 and while this affects all of the world’s coasts, the East and Gulf coasts of the United States have seen some of the fastest rates and highest absolute increases of sea level rise. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) recently released a new sea level rise study and found that the East Coast and parts of the Gulf Coast will experience even higher sea levels than the world average.

This means the seas could rise 8 feet higher than it is now by the end of the century (a foot and a half higher than predicted in the latest assessment, in 2014).

While the Navy has a strategic road map for climate action, there’s a long way to go to ensure its infrastructure and operations are resilient to the changes ahead. The Navy needs a strong leader at the helm.

If Confirmed, Will Bilden Continue the Navy’s Leadership on Climate Change?

The short answer is we don’t know. There is little information on the nominee. But here’s what we do know. First, if you have been following my colleagues’ blogs on the Administration’s nominations for Secretary of State,  the Environmental Protection Agency Administrator, and the Secretary of the Department of Interior, then you know that batting average of nominees who believe in climate change isn’t good.  They all say that climate change is real but obfuscate about the human contribution.

Second, we know that according to Breaking Defense, Bilden has less relevant experience than any of his nine predecessors since 1980. Bilden also became the frontrunner above Representative Randy Forbes (R – VA) who had been the lead candidate.

Here are a few relevant things we do know:

According to the US Naval Institute News, Bilden is originally from Rhode Island, having returned just three years ago after spending twenty-one years in Hong Kong, where he founded and led the Asian branch of a private equity firm HarbourVest Partners, LLC. During his tenure there, the Washington Free Beacon reported that he opened a Beijing office in 2012 where he was in charge of large investments in Asia and served on advisory boards of several large hedge funds. Bilden’s two sons served under former Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus under the Obama Administration, who as mentioned earlier implemented many climate change initiatives.

Having lived in Hong Kong for two decades, its likely Bilden experienced firsthand the storm and flood risks that are increasing and becoming more frequent due to climate change. Southeast Asia is considered a disaster hotspot due to the region’s climate hazards (floods and typhoons) and to the inability to adapt to these threats. Provided his time in the region gave Bilden experience with such events, he may appreciate the need to ensure that the Navy stands prepared to protect its sailors, Marines and civilians and the infrastructure that they depend on.

The Navy Needs a Strong Leader at the Helm to Continue to Lead on Climate Change

The Navy’s role in leading on climate change is crucial to ensuring that our national defense is addressing climate change head on. Consider that in 2016, North America suffered 160 disaster events, its largest number of disasters since 1980 indicating the unrestrained effects of climate change.  Zurich’s global ranking of the likelihood of a specific risk occurring globally within the next 10 years, extreme weather events are first for likelihood and second for impact (after weapons of mass destruction).

NS Norfolk is located in the Hampton Roads area of Virginia, a region where natural subsidence, low-lying topography, and changing ocean circulation patterns contribute to above-average rates of sea level rise. Much of the station is less than 10 feet above sea level. With between 4.5 and nearly 7 feet of sea level rise expected later this century, land loss is foreseeable.

At Naval Station Norfolk, located in the Hampton Roads area of Virginia, rising seal levels between 4.5 and nearly 7 feet is expected later this century.

The Senate panelists must ask is this the leadership we need in such an important position at this moment in time? It’s a sure bet they will likely ask why Phil Bilden should be put ahead of the military-backed Randy Forbes (R – VA), who has extensive Military and government experience. While Representative Forbes has a poor track record on the environment (5% score by the League of Conservation Voters), he did support legislation on flood insurance reform, clean energy, and Gulf Coast restoration. Bilden lacks military and governing experience and has no track record on the environment.

He only adds to President Trump’s “wall-street” cabinet, most of whom have little to no government experience or expertise in the mission of the agencies they are being appointed to lead.