Hicks defines need to focus DOD on climate change threats

  • Published
  • By Jim Garamone
  • DOD News

As Deputy Defense Secretary Kathleen Hicks spoke to West Point cadets today about climate change and the military, the Category 3 Hurricane Idalia slammed ashore in Florida.

The storm is just the latest in environmental impacts caused by climate change. Hicks pointed to the firestorm in Maui, floods in Pakistan, droughts in Africa and heat domes in the United States and Europe as other examples of this. 

Hicks spoke to the Sustainable Infrastructure, Resilience and Climate Consortium at the U.S. Military Academy. "A question I hear often is, 'Why does the Department of Defense care about climate change?'" she said. 

The answer is simple, although the solution is not. "Climate change is a national security issue, and for the national security community, that declaration is not controversial — it's fact," she said. 

The U.S. national security community first listed climate change as a threat in 2008, and since then DOD has been working to understand the threat and what the department must do to combat it while operating in a changed environment. One constant in the study of climate change is the United States will "not compromise on military capability or the readiness of our forces," the deputy secretary said.  

Climate change requires DOD to rethink how to best protect warfighters and prevent conflict. It affects how the United States supports allies and partners. It must be – and is – a part of every strategic decision the department makes. 

The impacts on the department run the gamut. "You can't train for combined operations with allies and partners if the training facilities are flooded," Hicks said. "You can't run an installation without water because you're in a drought, and you can't adequately prepare for future threats if you're occupied with urgent crises." 

Responding to climate crises is a manpower drain. For Hurricane Idalia, there are 5,500 National Guardsmen already standing by in Florida. That number will increase as the storm moves into Georgia and South Carolina. 

It's not just hurricanes. "The number of personnel days the National Guard spent on firefighting increased from 14,000 in fiscal year 2016 to 176,000 days in fiscal 2021," she said. "That's more than twelve-fold in just five years, and it is a major redirection of time, attention and resources."  

These conditions will persist or get worse. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration scientists said July 2023 was the hottest July on record. It follows the hottest June on record. The ocean and land are heating and ocean currents and the atmosphere are affected. Glaciers are disappearing. The icecaps in Greenland and Antarctica are shrinking.  

"Those of you from or who have visited states like Arizona, Texas and Florida, you might've experienced firsthand the record-breaking temperature streaks this summer in the air and surrounding water — ripe conditions for a climate catastrophe," Hicks said. "Around the world, we're also seeing how climate change is altering the global landscape, and with it, our mission. 

"You understand and are concerned about how dire environmental conditions can create humanitarian crises, how these circumstances can make nations vulnerable to instability, competition and conflict, and how advancing related innovation and collaboration can ensure our national security," she said. 

Extreme heat, floods, rising sea levels, droughts, wildfires and more frequent and intense storms and other natural disasters — compounded by climate change — are reshaping DOD's operating environment, and degrading military readiness, the deputy secretary said.  

Climate hazards affect basing and access to locations vital for deterrence. They destroy critical infrastructure and capabilities. They put troops and military families in harm's way. And they are costly, Hicks said. 

"In recent budgets, we have been forced to absorb billions of dollars in recovery costs from extreme weather events," she said. This includes $1 billion for rebuilding Offutt Air Force Base, Nebraska after historic floods. It was $3 billion to rebuild Camp Lejeune, North Carolina after Hurricane Florence and $5 billion to rebuild Tyndall Air Force Base, Florida after Hurricane Michael. 

"In 2021, I saw firsthand the damage caused to Pensacola Naval Air Station in the wake of Hurricane Sally," she said. "Historic levels of rainfall damaged more than 600 facilities on the air station, which trains 59,000 students a year. It suffered $450 million in damages. In viewing the devastation, I was struck by how much our readiness depends on how well we adapt our plans, our missions and our budget to ensure resiliency of our facilities, installations and capabilities. How we must make sure we have what we need to operate in a different climate." 

She noted that even West Point, New York, is not immune as the historic post received more than six inches of rain in just an hour last month. "I am relieved that staff, faculty, cadets and other members of the community remained safe. That's paramount," she said. "Later today, I will see firsthand some of the flood damage on campus. Estimates show that the flooding caused more than $150 million in damages. I will be thinking intently about how we can better withstand such challenging conditions to further ensure your safety and safeguard our capabilities." 

Climate change is a problem for today, but it will also be a problem the cadets must grapple with even if they spend 40 years in uniform.  

"It is reshaping the geostrategic, operational and tactical environments, with profound implications for U.S. defense policy," Hicks said. "But with every challenge we face, comes an opportunity. And in the case of climate change, we have a twofold opportunity: to make our military more sustainable and create an operational advantage for our warfighters. Because, as it turns out, what's good for the environment also benefits our military." 

She pointed to the Army's Multi-Domain Task Force as an example. The task force is made for the Indo-Pacific as it seeks to operate with a light logistics footprint, using less fuel and dispersed across vast distances, she said.  

"In the Indo-Pacific, it's no stretch to say that operational energy will dictate the margin of victory in a near-peer conflict," she said. "Nations that are most resilient and best able to manage the effects of climate change will gain a strategic advantage. So the department must prepare for and adapt to climate change better and faster than its competitors. In addition, how the Department of Defense does this will shape perceptions of America's leadership in confronting global challenges."  

The strategic environment has already become more complex with China as the pacing threat followed by Russian leaders who will invade peaceful neighbors. North Korea, Iran and the threat of global extremism are also concerns. Added to this is climate change. 

"To train, fight and win in this increasingly complex environment. The department must consider the effects of climate change in every policy, strategy and level of the enterprise and invest accordingly," Hicks said.  

DOD has put the taxpayers' money to good use. DOD is working off its climate adaptation plans. "These investments, mainly in technology and innovation, mitigate risks to the warfighter, and increase resiliency and operational capability," she said. "We have requested an unprecedented level of climate-related investments to increase combat capability and mitigate risk — growing from more than $600 million in fiscal year 2022 to more than $5 billion in our proposed budget request for fiscal year 2024 budget."  

Each service has its own set of sustainability and operational issues to adapt to. "For the Air Force, it's refueling planes," she said.  

DOD used three billion gallons of fuel last year to power planes, ships and tactical vehicles. Of that, the Air Force consumes roughly two billion gallons of aviation fuel per year, she said. That is why the new blended-wing body aircraft is so important. The concept is up to 50 percent more energy efficient. "In a theater as vast as the Pacific, this transformational technology will be vital," she said. "Increased efficiency of the blended-wing design offers us more aircraft range and cargo capacity. And without having to more frequently fuel and refuel, our military is more agile and can operate at less risk." 

Military bases are another source of significant energy consumption. "Our military bases house critical missions that need to stay up and running, no matter the conditions," Hicks said. "But even here we can improve energy resilience. We can strengthen resilience by taking advantage of clean energy technologies like energy storage and distributed generation like solar panels. The value of technologies, like microgrids and distributed generation, isn't limited to military bases. In fact, the lessons we are learning … are applicable to critical infrastructure well beyond defense, like hospitals and water treatment facilities."