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The U.S. military is terrified of climate change. It's done more damage than Iranian missiles.

Among the Pentagon's fears is that weather-related catastrophes could mean it has to commit most of its resources to disaster relief missions.
Image: A soldier stands guard at the damaged entrance to Tyndall Air Force Base in Panama City, Forida on Oct. 11, 2018, in the aftermath of hurricane Michael.
A soldier stands guard at the damaged entrance to Tyndall Air Force Base in Panama City, Fla., on Oct. 11, 2018, in the aftermath of Hurricane Michael.David Goldman / AP file

In a few hours of extraordinary violence on Oct. 10, 2018, Tyndall Air Force Base in the Florida Panhandle was utterly devastated, with 95 percent of its buildings severely damaged or destroyed. At that time, Tyndall served as the home base for nearly one-third of the Air Force’s fleet of ultra-valuable F-22 Raptor stealth fighters. Seventeen of the irreplaceable aircraft had been crammed into a hanger in advance of the tide of destruction — only for chunks of the hangar’s roof to collapse on top of them.

The dangers include flooding, fires and storm damage to its military bases a la Tyndall, but also degrading the effectiveness of forces in the field.

For several days, it seemed like the Air Force had lost about 10 percent of its deadliest fighter aircraft in one fell swoop, though by good fortune, the Raptors all reportedly proved repairable. The Air Force is still footing a staggering $5 billion bill to rebuild Tyndall and another base and move F-22 operations elsewhere.

The damage sounds like the results of an attack in a war. But Tyndall was struck by the 150 mph winds of Category 5 Hurricane Michael, not enemy bombers. It was an early manifestation of the same extreme weather that’s wreaking havoc now in Hurricane Sally and the California wildfires.

While hurricanes and fires may be inevitable natural phenomena, scientists have repeatedly found persuasive evidence that climate change has greatly increased the severity of extreme weather events. In some cases, it is even possible to draw a direct line between global warming and a given disaster.

“Sometimes connecting climate change to a specific weather event is difficult,” CBS meteorologist Jeff Berardelli noted. “With Hurricane Michael, it's not.” He pointed out that “Earth's waters are getting warmer due to an increasing global temperature, and warmer waters fuel hurricanes.”

That fall, the waters of the Gulf of Mexico averaged 3 to 5 degrees Fahrenheit higher than usual. Reportedly, that correspondingly heightens wind velocities in storms to the point that they can be 60 to 100 percent more destructive.

The destruction at Tyndall was worse in terms of material losses than anything the U.S. military has experienced from missile attacks in the Middle East. So while the Pentagon makes plans for possible wars with foreign adversaries, it has concluded since 2010 that it also must reckon with the certainty of climate change.

The dangers include flooding, fires and storm damage to its military bases a la Tyndall, but also degrading the effectiveness of forces in the field, increasing demands to respond to environmental disasters and potentially the collapse of the infrastructure it depends upon to function. Thankfully, the U.S. military is preparing for this reality even if the federal government isn’t.

While the Trump administration appoints climate deniers, kills environmental regulations and waters down reports on climate change, the Defense Department has discretely continued studying expected effects of climate change based on projections by climate experts — and the conclusions of those studies are nothing short of terrifying.

A 2019 report by the Pentagon concluded that 79 military bases will be affected by rising sea levels and frequent flooding. The largest naval base on the planet, located in Norfolk, Virginia, may become unusable due to flooding caused by a rising sea level and more frequent hurricanes — threatening to take out the home port of six aircraft carriers. Island bases, including a missile test range and a billion-dollar air defense radar, risk becoming uninhabitable due to flooding and saltwater contamination.

In fact, an Army War College study concluded that coastal saltwater intrusion would “compromise or eliminate fresh water supplies in many parts of the world.” That poses additional challenges as troops in the field will grow increasingly dehydrated due to warming and risk experiencing water shortages.

The Defense Department also fears that climate-change-related catastrophes could inflict such widespread damage on U.S. infrastructure that the military may have to commit most of its resources to disaster relief missions unprecedented in their scale.

For example, damage from storms and increased energy consumption linked to rising temperatures could cause the collapse of the United States' aging energy infrastructure in the next 20 years, leaving tens of millions without electricity and the air conditioning, refrigeration, internet and smartphone conveniences we take for granted in modern life. Population movement due to these disasters, and rising insect populations due to temperature changes, could then lead to more pandemics.

Flooding could also damage and destroy U.S. ports through which America receives around 80 percent of its agricultural imports and exports, causing further economic chaos. Thus the military could end up having to devote most of its resources to huge humanitarian relief operations rather than focusing on foreign threats.

The military can’t single-handedly stop climate change, of course. It can only plan to mitigate damage and build up responses. These preparations are still likely inadequate compared to the scale of the anticipated problem, but they’re a start.

Additionally, the Pentagon must do more to reduce its own carbon footprint, as it is the largest single institutional producer of greenhouse gases on the planet, having generated an estimated 766 million metric tons of CO2 emissions between 2001 and 2017. It generates more pollution annually than many small countries.

Preparatory measures undertaken by the Pentagon include building sea walls around vulnerable bases, planning to transport more water for units deployed in the field and preparing logistical capabilities that can respond to severe weather events like Hurricane Maria, which devastated Puerto Rico in 2017.

The Pentagon must do more to reduce its own carbon footprint, as it is the largest single institutional producer of greenhouse gasses on the planet.

The Department of Defense has also implemented a strategic sustainability plan that requires every U.S. military base to reduce its reliance on fossil fuels by a certain amount every year. New military vehicles are being designed for higher heat tolerances and greater requirements for energy efficiency.

Undoubtedly, follow-through on these policies won’t always be rapid or comprehensive enough. For example, increased flood risks at Offutt Air Force Base in Nebraska, home of the Strategic Command that controls U.S. nuclear forces and spy planes, were known, but construction of $22 million in levee reinforcements was tied up in red tape — resulting in hundreds of millions of dollars in damages from flooding in 2019.

While the military may still not be doing enough to follow through on its reports and mitigate the effects of the oncoming tsunami of climate-change-related catastrophes, it at least is recognizing they are real, will impose tangible material hardships and risks and need to be systematically planned for. If only that could be said for the country as a whole.