The widespread destruction in Houston shows that the changing climate is a direct threat to our citizens’ security right here at home. While military leaders and other planners know that storm extremes are increasingly likely as the climate warms, we have not yet taken the steps we need to prepare ourselves for these events. Here’s what the U.S. needs to do to protect citizens from the growing threats.
by Sherri Goodman, former deputy undersecretary of defense
Even as emergency management officials in Texas scramble to rebuild after Hurricane Harvey, they acknowledge that they were unprepared for the scope and strength of the storm, which was made more severe by the effects of climate change.
The widespread destruction in Houston shows that the changing climate is a direct threat to our citizens’ security right here at home. Hurricane Irma gaining strength in the Caribbean and threatening Florida and Puerto Rico is further worrying officials and emergency responders. It’s clear that we need to think bigger and act now.
Emergency planners and military planners alike, at both FEMA and Department of Defense, routinely use exercise-planning tools like war-gaming to prepare for extreme weather events. We plan and exercise for a nuclear attack by North Korea. We prepare for the next phase of Russian and Chinese aggression. We prepare for deliberate terrorist attacks on the homeland. But we are not yet clear-eyed about the threat of extreme weather in the era of climate change.
Too many elected officials still deny that warming ocean and atmospheric temperatures are changing the strength and severity of storms. As a nation we have not even begun to adequately prepare for storms like Hurricane Harvey and Irma, and that leaves our citizens vulnerable.
Scientists are clear that climate change makes hurricanes like Harvey more powerful and dangerous through warmer air and water and rising sea levels. Above-average temperatures in the Gulf of Mexico caused Harvey to grow stronger and gather more moisture before making landfall, while rising sea levels contributed to Harvey’s storm surge. After hitting land, Harvey stalled for many days over southeast Texas, contributing to the record rains in a pattern consistent with climate change.
“While we cannot prevent future extreme weather events from occurring, we can do more to assess the risks of living in the new normal of climate-fueled disruptive weather and water events.”
Yet while military leaders and other planners know that storm extremes are increasingly likely as the climate warms, we have not yet taken the steps we need to prepare ourselves for these events. For example, while defense strategy documents recognize climate change as a threat multiplier, plans for military construction and infrastructure do not yet fully account for increased flood and storm risk.
As we are tragically learning from Hurricane Harvey (and should have already learned from Superstorm Sandy and Katrina), extreme weather poses a massive national security risk not just overseas, but also here at home.
The military operates under a framework of risk preparedness every day and recognizes that it will never have 100 percent certainty about any threat it faces. That’s why the DoD and all infrastructure planners need to integrate the range of probabilities associated with the impacts of climate change into all of its domestic infrastructure planning and risk assessments in order to increase resilience both at home and abroad.
While we cannot prevent future extreme weather events from occurring, we can do more to assess the risks of living in the new normal of climate-fueled disruptive weather and water events. We need to be planning today for the next event that will disrupt lives, safety, health and infrastructure at every level.
First, we need to use flood and other risk standards that reflect the higher temperatures, warmer waters, and more intense rainfall of the current era. The past is no longer sufficient to predict the new normal now that the reality of climate change is here.
Second, we need to ensure that our investments in infrastructure take into account a climate-threatened future. The Department of Defense is beginning to make this commitment, as evidenced by recent statements by Secretary of Defense Mattis and other senior DOD officials. And earlier this summer, a bipartisan vote in the House of Representatives defended a provision identifying climate change as a “direct threat to the national security of the United States.”
The provision also requests a report from the Department of Defense on climate change risks to its mission and major military installations over the next 20 years. This is hopeful progress: because of bipartisan action in Congress, our military will be preparing plans to further resilience of both the force and military bases at risk of sea level rise, storm surge and coastal inundation.
Finally, our military is a crucial part of communities across the country-we can see this vividly in the valiant rescues underway by men and women in uniform in Houston. Both civilian and military communities need to come together in planning for future extreme weather events.
DOD’s vibrant community partnering program is a great example of how the military can enable those serving to connect with their communities on a wide range of common issues, from health to environmental protections. Programs like these can help us assess risks today and prepare communities for devastating weather events of tomorrow.
We ignore these risks at our peril. Not only our national security, but our homeland, is at greater risk until we take the climate threat seriously.
Commentary by Sherri Goodman, a former deputy undersecretary of defense (Environmental Security), founder of the CNA Military Advisory Board, and Senior Fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Center.