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Pentagon Pushed to Put Price Tag on Climate Vulnerability

July 10, 2019, 9:01 AM

The U.S. military already knows it faces increasing vulnerabilities from a warming planet, from Virginia naval installations facing more frequent flooding to Air Force bases on the West Coast that wildfires have threatened.

What it doesn’t have is a price tag for replacing buildings, airfields, and other structures vulnerable to what the Pentagon calls “changing future conditions” over the next decades.

Congress is moving legislation that could direct the Defense Department to calculate replacement costs for its most vulnerable installations and ensure that new installations are built to better withstand climate impacts.

Lawmakers are expected this month to wrap up that bill—the fiscal 2020 defense authorization measure—and some members say it’s time for the Pentagon to start putting estimates on the table.

“We should put a price tag on it because a price tag helps to focus the mind on the cost of doing nothing,” Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) said, “even if the bigger issue is, of course, that we should be doing something to address climate change broadly.”

Having a price tag is “important information to know,” said Sen. Kevin Cramer (R-N.D.), an energy adviser to Donald Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign. He noted that the hefty costs of recent storms “have been a pretty prominent part of our discussion both in the disaster relief package as well as the defense authorization act” that recently passed the Senate.

“But I think it would be irresponsible not to consider in that same analysis what the costs of mitigating” future impacts from severe weather on military installations, he said.

Not all Republicans see the issue that way.

Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.), the chamber’s second-ranking Republican, said Democrats may succeed in putting price-tag language in the House version of the defense bill. But doing so could set up a showdown with many Senate Republicans who will resist putting too much of a climate spin on the defense measure, he said.

“The House is going to go their own way on that; it will probably be a very different bill than what the Senate marked up and we’ll have to figure out the differences in conference” when the two versions are reconciled, Thune said. “But I would say there’s probably not a high appetite on our side for litigating climate change in a national security bill.”

House Debate to Start

The House has begun moving its defense bill this week. It would direct DoD to calculate the replacement value for its site, including detailed cost estimates for facilities in poor condition and sited in coastal or hurricane-prone areas.

The House Armed Services Committee, which marked up the House defense authorization bill (H.R. 2500) June 19, said in a committee report that the Pentagon should review how new and renovated buildings that incorporated “extreme weather mitigation measures” weathered significant storms in 2018, notably Hurricanes Florence and Michael.

House Democrats are readying amendments to further strengthen DoD’s reviews of its vulnerability to climate impacts. This includes one from Reps. Veronica Escobar (D-Texas) and Harley Rouda (D-Calif.), made in order July 9 by the House Rules Committee, to require DoD to provide a line item in its annual budget for mitigating and adapting to climate vulnerabilities.

The Senate passed a defense authorization bill (S. 1790) June 27 that would direct DoD to revamp its United Facilities Criteria, a sort of handbook for facilities design, to assess extreme weather risks and ensure its planning incorporates various weather and related projections from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and other agencies.

Obeying Congress’ Orders

Protecting the nation’s infrastructure from climate impacts has been a less fractious issue on Capitol Hill than the underlying climate challenge.

Even Sen. Jim Inhofe (R-Okla.), who has doubted for years whether humans significantly impact the climate, says he’s not opposed to the military considering climate vulnerabilities, noting that previous defense bills have directed it to do so.

“We have always had considerations for climate change,” said Inhofe, the Senate Armed Services Committee chairman, though he thinks Democrats hype climate language “when it’s way down the vine in terms of issues” in the defense bill.

Among lawmakers, interest is especially strong with those representing coastal areas that have been repeatedly battered by severe storms over the last decade.

“We should rebuild things that are resilient; we shouldn’t rebuild things that we know won’t withstand a future disaster,” said Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), whose state is among the most vulnerable to rising sea level and severe storms. “Second, we are going to have to spend some money on resiliency and adaptation.”

Significant Vulnerabilities

Pentagon spokeswoman Heather Babb declined to comment on the defense authorization legislation but said the department already considers climate vulnerability in its planning and decisions.

“The mitigation of climate threats is part of the department’s broader systematic approach to increase installation resiliency, which includes resilience to weather, climate, natural events, disruptions to energy or water supplies, and direct physical or cyber attacks,” she said in an email.

The department also considers resilience in its installation planning and basing processes and seeks to address “environmental vulnerabilities” in an array of decisions and planning from design and construction standards to the protection of utility systems and service and emergency management operations, she said.

A Defense Department January report warned that the “effects of a changing climate are a national security issue” for installations, missions, and operational plans.

Of 18 Navy installations, 16 face both current and potential flooding risks, that report said, highlighting the Joint Base Langley-Eustis in Virginia, an air base that has seen 14 inches of sea level rise since 1930 and today faces “more frequent and severe” flooding.

Also of concern: California’s Naval Base Coronado near San Diego, where some operations are prone to flash floods.

GAO Reviews

The department’s efforts to tackle the challenge, however, have drawn mixed reviews from the Government Accountability Office.

While DoD has recognized climate change as a threat to operations and installations since 2010, its assessments of its climate risks has “relied on past experiences rather than an analysis of future vulnerabilities based on climate projections,” according to a June 2019 GAO study.

The House committee’s report said past storms provided “an unfortunate real-world illustration” of the benefits of climate resilience and data that could be extrapolated for “setting facility standards” to beef up such resilience.

The House fiscal 2020 defense bill calls for a DoD report by December 1, 2020, to include detailed cost estimates and showing how it can better integrate climate resilient planning into installation master plans.

To contact the reporter on this story: Dean Scott in Washington at

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Gregory Henderson at; Chuck McCutcheon at; Rob Tricchinelli at