Skip to main content
You have permission to edit this article.
Local Opinion: Is the Department of Defense ready for climate change?

Local Opinion: Is the Department of Defense ready for climate change?

The following is the opinion and analysis of the writers:

Climate change is making headlines on the global stage at the climate summit, but are our local military bases ready?

Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin III notes in the Department of Defense’s (DOD) September 2021 Climate Adaptation Plan that “climate-related extreme weather affects military readiness and drains our resources. In just the past few years, wildfires have forced evacuations at bases in the western United States, while hurricanes on the East Coast and flooding in the Midwest have inflicted billions of dollars of damage on facilities that are home to key warfighting capabilities.”

Current and former military leaders recognize that climate change is a potentially game-changing global force, serving as a catalyst for regional crises such as food shortages, migration and armed conflicts. The DOD has to look clearly at emerging threats, and climate is driving many of them.

Austin points out what we should all know by now: “no entity has the luxury of ‘opting out’ of the effects of climate change, no portion of the department — not a service, a command, or an activity — can ‘opt out’ of the requirement to adapt to a changing climate.”

Climate change has been recognized as an urgent issue for DOD for at least a decade, but recently published work in the journal Climate Services led by researchers at the University of Arizona identifies ways that the DOD can accelerate the task of managing climate risks “on the ground.”

Working with four military installations in the southwestern United States, our team discovered both barriers and opportunities to implementing climate adaptation planning and strategies.

Leadership support for climate adaptation is complicated by frequent rotation of personnel, including top leadership such as base commanders. This undermines the accumulation of climate-related institutional knowledge and the ability to focus on decades-long challenges, such as climate change. As one DOD interviewee mentioned “10 years is five commanders away” — in other words, climate change, unless an immediate threat, is someone else’s problem.

Further, we found that the processes for decision-making, including approving and funding military construction and purchasing, have not included managing climate risks in the criteria used to rank proposals — which increases the difficulty of achieving climate adaptation objectives.

Statements recently made by the DOD in its Climate Adaptation Plan reinforce our recommendations described in our May 2021 paper. For example, partnerships with neighboring towns, federal land management agencies, transportation departments, Native American tribes and others can often be fostered at little additional cost to the DOD.

The plan mentions multiple benefits of partnerships, and notes that DOD natural resources programs, in partnership with nearby communities, can reduce pollution, associated public-health impacts, and form a foundation for climate readiness. Our discussions with DOD representatives, consultants and researchers, strongly recommended that collaborative work with universities, government research laboratories and federal agencies can support DOD climate adaptation initiatives, through applied research and information outreach to communities.

A key climate adaptation asset for the DOD is its mission-oriented attitude. Military installations are vital to protecting U.S. national security. Given the huge investment of public funds in the DOD, anything that slows down accomplishing their mission, such as a lack of preparedness for climate risks, is also a waste of public investment. The mission-oriented attitude of DOD personnel can focus actions on getting climate action done in our nation’s domestic installations.

In the DOD’s Climate Adaptation Plan, Austin says that “planning for today and into the future is our business, and we would not be doing our job if we weren’t thinking about how climate change will affect what we do.”

We couldn’t agree more. This summer’s heat waves, floods, and multimillion acre fires ring an alarm bell of urgency for the DOD and all of us to manage climate risks — and mainstream climate considerations into our decisions and our jobs. Climate affects all of us, whether you believe it or not.

Dr. Katharine Jacobs is the Professor of Environmental Science at the University of Arizona and the Director of the Center for Climate Adaptation Science and Solutions at the UA. Dr. Gregg Garfin is the Associate Professor in the School of Natural Resources and the Environment, and University Director, Southwest Climate Adaptation Science Center. Dr. Don Falk is Professor in the UA’s School of Natural Resources and the Environment.

Dr. Jacobs and Dr. Garfin will join the American Security Event for a virtual event on Tuesday, November 16th on climate change and national security in Southern Arizona.

Subscribe to stay connected to Tucson. A subscription helps you access more of the local stories that keep you connected to the community.

Catch the latest in Opinion

* I understand and agree that registration on or use of this site constitutes agreement to its user agreement and privacy policy.

Related to this story

Most Popular

  • Updated

OPINION: "The Afghan refugees arriving in Tucson will have traveled almost 8,000 miles to get here. First wave, second wave, and now this wave. A man who crossed the Spin Gar Mountains with his sons on donkeys, the man pulling a cart of used clothes in Islamabad, the families caught in the crush to board a plane out of their homeland. Strip away the differences, and it is all the same trauma, the same displacement," writes Tucsonan Adele Barker. 

OPINION: "In this season of Thanksgiving, let’s all be grateful for what we’ve inherited and often take for granted, a system made up of three branches of government with built-in checks and balances, and redouble our efforts to be worthy and engaged stewards of democracy," writes Tucsonan Colleen Coyle Mathis. 

Get up-to-the-minute news sent straight to your device.


News Alerts

Breaking News