If President Joe Biden declares a national climate emergency, the Pentagon is likely to get a sudden influx of money to start working on its long list of resilience and adaptation projects, observers say.
The declaration of a national emergency could empower the Pentagon, under the National Emergencies Act, to start military construction projects that aren’t otherwise authorized by Congress, and that are deemed necessary to support the armed forces.
Such authority for the military has been invoked at least three times in the past, including once in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, according to the Brennan Center for Justice.
Details on how much money would be released are unclear. But observers say any amount could make a meaningful dent in the nation’s emissions, because the Defense Department is one of the world’s biggest energy consumers. The Pentagon releases some 56 million tons of carbon per year, according to McKinsey & Co.—an amount greater than entire nations like Libya, Hungary, Sweden, and Portugal.
To Jason Bordoff, a former special assistant to President Barack Obama on climate change and now dean of the Columbia Climate School, using emergency powers to unlock military funding is becoming a practical necessity.
“The paralysis we’re seeing in Congress runs the risk of making ourselves more vulnerable to geopolitical risks from an energy perspective,” Bordoff said. “So if we can’t get something through Congress soon, executive action may be an increasing recourse.”
Following setbacks on his climate agenda from the Supreme Court and Congress, Biden this week considered an emergency proclamation providing broad executive power to tackle climate issues and is still weighing a declaration. “I’m running the traps on the totality of the authority I have,” Biden told reporters on Wednesday. “I will make that decision soon.”
The extra money from an emergency declaration would stiffen the Pentagon’s might as a fighting force, according to military officials who have repeatedly made the case that addressing strong storms, rising sea waters, and intense heat shores up national security.
“It makes the military better able to do its core mission,” said Erin Sikorsky, former deputy director of the National Intelligence Council’s strategic futures group. “When it’s not worried about its bases along the Gulf Coast being inundated and having billions of dollars worth of damage, or things like the heat wave we’re seeing, that makes sense from a US national security perspective.”
The specific projects the Defense Department would undertake wouldn’t be known until military officials go through an internal ranking exercise, said Sherri Goodman, a former deputy undersecretary of defense for environmental security.
That process will balance the installations most critical to the military’s mission against the ones most vulnerable to climate impacts like storms, rising sea waters, wildfires, and extreme heat, according to Goodman, now a senior fellow at the Wilson Center.
A further consideration will be projects that are already scoped and ready to go, she said.
“Many projects are in the queue that engineers have been scoping out for many years, because obviously military bases have a lot of older building stock,” Goodman said. “In a perfect world, you’d be upgrading all the time, but there’s only so much money, and there are so many things in the queue.”
Members of Congress have cited an increased risk of climate change-induced flooding at installations in Maryland and Virginia, including Naval Station Norfolk, Naval Support Activity Hampton Roads, Langley Air Force Base, Naval Support Activity Annapolis, and Naval Air Station Patuxent River.
‘Move a Little Faster’
The military already has a handle on its facilities’ climate readiness. Recently the Pentagon ordered its installations to draft plans that include analyses of climate resilience, and it has created a climate assessment tool to measure exposure, sensitivity, and adaptive capacity at various facilities.
Some climate-related work already underway is likely to rank high on the military’s list of priorities. For example, Florida’s Tyndall Air Force Base is still recovering from Tropical Storm Michael, which in 2018 destroyed an emergency operations center. A new structure that can withstand higher winds is now being built.
New construction is also happening at Nebraska’s Offutt Air Force Base, which was flooded by rising waters from the Missouri River in 2019. More than 1 million square feet of space was destroyed, and many new structures are either being built or planned.
“This authority would say, ‘Let’s move a little faster, let’s reassess in light of this summer’s heat emergency. Now we know runways can melt in extreme heat. What do we need to do?’” said Goodman.
Republicans Push Back
Not everyone agrees that a national emergency should be used to fund such projects.
“Funds appropriated for military construction projects should be spent on projects to enhance our nation’s military readiness, not the president’s political agenda,” said Rep. Austin Scott (R-Ga.), a member of the House Armed Services Readiness Subcommittee. “The Defense Department’s job is to protect us from our adversaries, not climate change.”
Under an emergency order, the White House “could take billions of dollars from already underfunded military construction projects that will leave our service members vulnerable elsewhere, despite the fact the Biden administration requested significant investments in climate resiliency,” said Rep. Michael Waltz (R-Fla.), the subcommittee’s top Republican.
Waltz also said inflation has already driven up the cost of military construction, and the Biden administration didn’t ask for additional funds to fill the monetary gap.
The Biden administration’s budget asks for $2 billion for installation resilience and adaptation. Under Biden’s plan, about one-quarter of that amount would be set aside for a program that funds projects that save energy and water, reduces the Pentagon’s power costs, and improves energy resilience and security.
Lawmakers in the House have approved $37 billion more than the $773 billion Pentagon budget the White House has requested for fiscal 2023, and the Senate has agreed to surpass the request by $45 billion, although little of that money is dedicated for climate adaptation.
Another potential obstacle to a presidential emergency is litigation, Jody Freeman, former climate change counselor in the Obama administration, said in a recent tweet. A future president could also nix the declaration, as the Biden White House did to President Donald Trump’s national emergency along the southern border. Trump invoked the military construction power as part of that order.
To Sikorsky, now director of the Center for Climate and Security, the military’s close attention to climate change reflects an awareness of facts that rises above the partisan fray.
“I think of the military as pragmatic more than anything,” she said. “It’s about doing whatever it takes to get the mission done.”
—With assistance from Roxana Tiron.