The Department of Defense isn’t adequately accounting for the effects of climate change on contractors’ infrastructure and supply chains, according to a report issued Monday by the Government Accountability Office.
The Defense Department and its military departments are “potentially jeopardizing their missions” by not accounting for climate risks, such as floods damaging facilities or cutting off access to services like information technology, the yearlong GAO audit found.
If the department doesn’t take steps to update its climate resilience guidance for critical commercial facilities, it will leave “gaps in its knowledge” of potential climate and weather risks, the GAO said.
The Pentagon didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment about the report. Since 2010, it has identified climate change as a threat to defense operations.
The report found the Pentagon faces a “longstanding challenge” in assessing overall risks for commercially owned facilities that can support defense installations and weapons systems.
The Defense Department recognized in 2012 that it wasn’t paying enough attention to challenges outside the facilities it owns, and called the limited understanding of supply chain risks a “pervasive problem,” the report said.
Challenge for Defense
The department’s mission assurance guidelines outline requirements for assessing some commercially owned facilities. But defense officials told the GAO they didn’t conduct these assessments due to limited access to the facilities.
Sherri Goodman, the U.S. deputy undersecretary of defense for environmental security in the Clinton administration, said she found the GAO report “deeply concerning” because the country prizes itself on having the best military operation in the world.
Goodman, now a senior fellow at the Wilson Center’s Environmental Change and Security Program, pointed to hurricane damage at the Tyndall Air Force Base and Camp Lejeune marine base as examples of how not climate-proofing military bases can have billion-dollar price tags.
She also likened the supply issue to national shortages of personal protective equipment during the coronavirus pandemic, because both are highly dependent on the resiliency of the supply chain.
She found the GAO’s recommendations “certainly doable,” and said their reasoning for the shortfalls “sounds like a lack of leadership.”
“This administration thinks climate is a four-letter word, so they don’t know how to spell it. They want to ignore it,” she said. “What DoD needs to do is confront reality so that we can make these bases resilient to the impacts of climate change today.”
The GAO said military departments should update and incorporate climate resilience into their policies on acquisition and supply, in line with Directive 4715.21 on climate change.
The Department of Defense concurred with three of the GAO’s recommendations and partially concurred with three others.
Sens. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and Jack Reed (D-R.I.), who commissioned the GAO report, sent a letter Friday to Secretary of Defense Mark Esper, urging him to implement the GAO’s recommendations “as rapidly as possible.”
The senators wrote that they found the GAO’s conclusions disturbing, given the unassessed risks to critical missions. They also asked the Department of Defense to provide a staff-level telebriefing about efforts to comply no later than Sept. 15.
“We recognize that incorporating climate risk analysis into the DoD’s contracting processes in a systematic way is a challenging task, but the potential risks to DoD operations and mission-critical assets are significant,” the senators wrote.
Warren introduced legislation in May 2019 that would require the Pentagon to adjust to climate change impacts, including having net-zero emissions from non-combat bases by 2030.
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