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The Military’s Battle Against Climate Change

Army Sgt. David Breaud directs a high water vehicle down a flooded roadway.
Sgt. Jerry Rushing
U.S. Department of Defense
Army Sgt. David Breaud directs a high water vehicle down a flooded roadway.

This week the Trump administration disbanded a federal advisory committee for the National Climate Assessment. It is one of several steps President Donald Trump has taken to diminish the fight against climate change. But Trump’s skepticism of climate change puts him at odds with officials in the Pentagon. 

For years military leaders have warned of the dangers climate change poses for national security. Droughts are causing economic instability in developing countries, while sea-level rise is impacting the safety of military bases in the U.S. Host Frank Stasio talks with Jay Price, WUNC military reporter, about the dangers of sea-level rise for the Naval Station Norfolk.

He also speaks with retired Marine Corps Brig. Gen. Stephen Cheney, CEO of the American Security Project, about the geopolitical effect of climate change. Cheney speaks tonight on the panel “Emerging Global Threats: Effects of Climate Change on US Military Operations at Home and Abroad” at the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences in Raleigh at 7 p.m.


Gen. Cheney on the threats climate change poses to national security: I break it into two parts. I call it strategic and tactical. When you look at long-term strategic implications of climate change there is no doubt it is a threat multiplier and contributor of instability. It’s contributed to the Arab Spring. It’s contributed to migration worldwide. So it’s fueled these events, not necessarily been the primary cause. That is just strategic high level. And then on the tactical side your bases and stations that are on the coast are going underwater. So if you’re a base commander, you want your base to be viable so you’re looking at the alternatives of what I’ve got to do to save my base.

Jay Price on the effects of climate change at the Naval Station Norfolk: When I think about the military and climate change, I think of the word “practicality.” They have to be practical. They don’t have time to get caught up in this whole ‘is it or isn’t it.” They just have to deal with it and the effects they are seeing. One of the places where the effects are most obvious is the Norfolk Hampton Roads area. The sea level is rising faster than anywhere else on the East Coast, in part because the land is sinking at about the same rate the water is coming up on reasons unrelated to climate change …. Because the land is sinking that area has become an important test bed, a hot house, for ideas and pilot programs. Norfolk is one of those places where they spent a lot of federal money trying to figure out ways to blunt the effects of climate change and sea-level rise.

Gen. Cheney on the ways climate change has caused instability across the world: When you look at what happened in the Arab Spring it was a contributor there. What happened in Russia was the wheat fields were decimated by drought. They stopped exporting wheat – drove the wheat prices up in the Middle East which helped create an economic crisis in Egypt. That’s just one example. Syria from 2007 to 2011 has the greatest drought in their history, so their crops dried up. The people in the suburban areas in Syria migrated to the cities. Aleppo being a prime example become a superb target for ISIS … Bangladesh is the poster child for sure. They get anywhere from one to four feet rise in sea-level change. They are going to have 20 to 30 million refugees. The sad thing is they know they are going to have this sea-level rise, so the question is where they are going to put those people.

Jay Price on the impact of climate change on bases in North Carolina: One of the bases that is at risk is, of course, Camp Lejeune. That is our main coastal base here. It is likely that the area they use for amphibious landing practice, the hallmark of the Marines, is threatened. The Outer Banks are what they are. Barrier islands shift around, and they are particularly vulnerable. That beach can, and probably will, be eaten away. According to the report last from the Union of Concerned Scientists, they are likely to see a lot more flooding. A lot of what they call nuisance flooding, but still it’s things that can impede training, which is what they do when they aren't fighting.

Charlie Shelton-Ormond is a podcast producer for WUNC.
Longtime NPR correspondent Frank Stasio was named permanent host of The State of Things in June 2006. A native of Buffalo, Frank has been in radio since the age of 19. He began his public radio career at WOI in Ames, Iowa, where he was a magazine show anchor and the station's News Director.
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