Monday 23 September 2019

Juliette Kayyem: 'A reminder even military can't fight climate change'

Notebook

'A June report from the US Government Accountability Office criticised the Pentagon for its lack of planning with this tart assessment:
'A June report from the US Government Accountability Office criticised the Pentagon for its lack of planning with this tart assessment: "The assumption that current and future climate conditions will resemble those of the recent past is no longer valid."' (stock photo)

Juliette Kayyem

What's your back-up plan for when your back-up plan is underwater?

That's the question many are facing as Hurricane Dorian hits the US. In its path are a string of military bases that, among their other vital missions, form the backbone of response plan during emergencies. For years, the military has turned a blind eye toward the warming climate. Soon, if not after this hurricane then perhaps after the next one, we will learn this lesson the hard way.

In emergency management, the first responders are always local officials. A plant explodes, a tornado strikes, a chemical truck overturns and, in most instances, local capacity is enough. Should locals need help, they turn to surrounding communities and, if necessary, state assets. That's the first back-up plan.

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If states get overwhelmed, they then turn to the Federal Emergency Management Agency (Fema). Fema does not maintain troops or significant supplies. It's more like a 1-800-HELP! clearing house.

US military bases favour the coasts; it's a fact of history that many of those are on the east coast. But no matter where they are, our military bases are unprepared for climate change. They often sit at or just a few feet above sea level, and are often surrounded by water, not merely near it. Much of their most important work actually takes place where land meets sea.

An early warning came in August 1992, when Hurricane Andrew, a Category 5 storm, flattened Homestead Air Force Base south of Miami. That storm should have triggered alarms from Portsmouth, New Hampshire, to San Diego. By 2016, the National Intelligence Council listed more than 30 US military installations at risk from rising sea levels. Then, in 2018, Hurricane Florence damaged Camp Lejeune in North Carolina; the same year, Hurricane Michael slammed into Tyndall Air Force Base in Florida. The two storms closed parts of both facilities and racked up nearly $9bn (€8.1bn) in repairs.

This past June, after a five-month delay, the Pentagon finally satisfied a congressional request for a list of 46 bases most affected by climate change. That list includes eight in Florida, three in South Carolina, two in North Carolina and six in Virginia. Among them are the Naval Submarine Base in Kings Bay, Georgia, Joint Base Charleston in South Carolina, Lejeune in North Carolina, and Joint Base Langley-Eustis in Virginia. These are all massive, strategic facilities; and, this week, they are busy beefing up their defences against a hurricane.

But denial is still the order of the day. A June report from the US Government Accountability Office criticised the Pentagon for its lack of planning with this tart assessment: "The assumption that current and future climate conditions will resemble those of the recent past is no longer valid." Earlier this year, the navy, the service with the most bases at risk from rising sea levels, scuttled a task force on climate change.

This helps explain why the White House's decision to divert funds from the military to support border wall funding is not only unsound but also dangerous.

What happens when multiple back-up plans falter? In disaster management, we call that a "single point failure" - nothing left to plug the holes. Even if the back-ups work this time, Hurricane Dorian will not be the last storm. Someday, we will have a single point of failure. And it will be us. (© Washington Post)

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