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A bit over a year after identifying climate change as a "significant challenge" for the US military, the US Department of Defense has given its top officials orders for handling the hazards posed by a warming world.
The boring-but-important 12-page document issued in January tells the armed service chiefs and top civilian officials to identify how climate change will affect their missions, figure out how to manage any risks it poses, and factor those into their planning. It gives specific tasks to various Defense Department offices and regional commands, from determining how higher sea levels or longer droughts affect US bases to what new gear might be needed to work in a thawing Arctic.
"Although this looks very bureaucratic in nature, I would actually give the department full credit for it," said David Titley, a retired rear admiral who served as the Navy's top oceanographer. "I think this is one of the more significant steps they've done, because they've linked that high-level strategy down to a daily to-do list."
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Titley said the new order means the Pentagon "is now thinking seriously" about whether American soldiers, sailors, airmen, or Marines "have the right tools, the right equipment, the right training, and the right risks for a changing environment."
But Defense analyst Andrew Holland said the directive isn't likely to affect the typical grunt right away.
"Your average private isn't going to be doing those sorts of plans, but he may see some changes based on this," said Holland, the senior fellow for energy and climate at the American Security Project, a Washington think-tank.
The Navy is already trying to figure out how to protect its Atlantic fleet headquarters at Norfolk, Virginia — the world's largest naval installation — from the two-pronged threat of rising seas and a sinking shore. Norfolk is already seeing periodic coastal flooding from a rising ocean, and Titley said 2012's Hurricane Sandy showed how badly a big storm could hit vital urban systems like the New York subways that few had thought of as vulnerable.
And the seagoing service isn't alone: The Army's officer training academy at West Point, New York, barely 50 miles up the Hudson River from Manhattan, plans to move its sewer treatment plant up from the riverbank because of the threat of future storm surges and sea-level rise, Holland said.
But Holland said Pentagon officials are still struggling to figure out how other expected changes — to food, water, and energy supplies, increases in extreme weather, and an increase in refugees — will affect operations overseas.
"These guys already have a lot of responsibilities in the world already, with terrorists, and insurgencies, and dealing with a rising China, and dealing with any number of other hot spots all around the world," he said. "The last thing they need or want is a new mission, especially a new mission that is unfunded, basically."
The new directive is aimed at shifting that mindset.
"You're supposed to think about the risks of climate change to stability," Titley said. He said he's particularly concerned about the Arctic, where the opening of sea lanes under what was once thick ice could produce a potential flashpoint among nations of the North.
"My personal opinion is we don't want to overly militarize or overly build up the threats in the Arctic," he said. "But the fact is the Russians are building up their military capabilities in that part of the world very substantially, and we need to at least pay attention to that."
In October 2014, the Pentagon called climate change a "threat multiplier" that can accelerate or magnify a crisis. President Barack Obama has highlighted in the issue in his last two State of the Union addresses, and called it an "immediate threat" to American interests in a speech at the US Coast Guard Academy last May.
But Obama's emphasis on climate change has fueled attacks from the Republican-dominated Congress, many of whose leaders still challenge the scientific consensus on man-made climate change. In 2015, the House Budget Committee identified climate science as an area where lawmakers could "cut waste, eliminate redundancies, and end the abuse or misuse of taxpayer dollars."
Titley appeared at a Senate Commerce subcommittee hearing that attacked climate scientists. The hearing was called by Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, the GOP presidential candidate who insists that no global warming has occurred since 1998 — an assertion contradicted by the findings of US and international science agencies.
"Senator Cruz was asking me which is more important, climate or ISIS?" Titley said. "And what I told Senator Cruz at the hearing back in December was we don't get to pick and choose. We're a big country, and we have to deal with both … Mature superpowers have to deal with more than one thing at a time."
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