Arial photography of Offutt Air Force Base, Neb., taken March 17, 2019, shows part of the base under water after the Missouri River flooded. (Tech. Sgt. Rachelle Blake/U.S. Army)
  • University of Arizona researchers are trying to understand how climate change might affect Department of Defense facilities and activities across the globe.
  • They also recommend actions the department can take to both respond to climate-related threats and reduce its own contributions to climate change.

As climate change continues to pose a global threat, new research from the University of Arizona looks at how it may be impacting the world’s largest employer: the U.S. Department of Defense.

A team of University of Arizona researchers set out to understand how climate change might affect Department of Defense facilities and activities across the globe, and what actions the department can take to both respond to climate-related threats and reduce its own contributions to climate change.

With a budget larger than many countries and a huge influence on global politics, the DOD has the potential to serve as an example for other large organizations, or even cities, when it comes to climate adaptation and climate change mitigation strategies, say the researchers, whose results are published in the journal Climate Services.

The team looked specifically at four military bases in the southwestern United States: Fort Huachuca in Southern Arizona, Naval Base Coronado in Southern California, and Arizona’s Barry M. Goldwater Range East and Barry M. Goldwater Range West.

They worked with liaisons and personnel at each base to identify potential climate-related threats facing the bases and their operations. Then, through workshops and discussions, personnel at each base outlined adaptation and mitigation strategies that the bases should consider implementing, which the UArizona researchers summarized in their paper.

The impacts of climate change have already been felt by some of the bases the researchers studied. For example, the authors write that fires and post-fire flooding are significant concerns for resource managers at Fort Huachuca, and a small wildfire in 2011 burned a section of Naval Base Coronado. Those types of events are likely at least exacerbated by climate change, the researchers write.

“The DOD will need to adapt to climate to protect its own facilities, activities, resources and infrastructure,” said study co-author Don Falk, a professor in the School of Natural Resources and the Environment.

“There have been a surprisingly large number of forward-thinking policy statements related to climate adaptation within the DOD,” Falk said. “The department has recognized for a long time that climate change is serious business.”

However, putting policies into action at individual bases is not without challenges, which the researchers outline in their study.

The Challenges

Obstacles such as frequent leadership turnover and base officials’ limited access to decision makers in the military hierarchy can make it hard to put climate adaptation and mitigation strategies into action, the researchers write.

In addition, the researchers found that climate change commitments by high-ranking officials don’t always get translated to action on the ground.

Another issue is insufficient training, capacity and incentives to integrate climate information into short-term and long-term planning.

High turnover among base commanders can also create an environment in which there’s lack of attention to long-term issues such as climate change, the researchers write. In most cases, base commanders are at installations for three years at most.

“This is a problem that’s endemic across the climate change issue, including within Congress. Elected officials work within election cycles only a few years long,” said Gregg Garfin, lead study author and director of the university’s Southwest Climate Adaptation Science Center.

The Recommendations

The study authors say that making meaningful changes within the department might start with emphasizing risks to DOD missions.

“The department’s way of thinking is all about ensuring mission preparedness, and so that’s the doorway to working on climate adaptation strategies with them,” said Garfin, who is also the director of science translation and outreach for the Arizona Institutes for Resilience and an associate professor in the School of Natural Resources and the Environment.

Also important, Garfin said, is finding champions at individual bases to lead climate adaptation efforts.

“These are people who will step up and take on this issue, which we found was really critical,” Garfin said.

The DOD also can pursue climate-related partnerships with nearby land owners and other organizations, the researchers write.

“The department can coordinate and learn from other organizations and share their learning with their neighbors as well, so the department doesn’t have to do all the heavy lifting,” Garfin said. “Building this kind of culture of adaptation to climate change across many entities, I think, will make a large impact.”

In addition, the researchers suggest that the department integrate climate considerations into existing plans.

“Instead of putting a new burden on installations to develop a new standalone climate plan, they can incorporate some risk information into existing plans and operations,” Garfin said. “That seems to be the major solution.”

Some of the easiest changes will likely be operational, say the researchers. For example, aircraft use huge amounts of energy and produce huge amounts of pollution, Falk said, so bases might consider operating solely on electric vehicles.

An existing example of a military base practicing climate adaptation is the solar power plant at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base in Tucson. The base has the Air Force’s largest operational solar array, which provides a large chunk of the base’s power needs.

The UArizona research team hopes similar measures can be enacted across the country.

“As a climate scientist, it was really refreshing to find that at the federal level, the DOD had made many clear, unambiguous fact-based statements about climate,” Falk said. “Their job is to recognize threats and concerns that involve the security of their facilities, activities and the country at large.”

The researchers believe their findings can be applied to other large organizations, or even cities, that are facing similar pressures and challenges related to climate change.

“I think the involvement of the Department of Defense could be a true game changer for the whole process of climate adaptation in our society, for at least two reasons,” Falk said. “They are so large, with a gigantic energy and resource footprint, and anything they do is going to have a ripple effect. Secondly, the military has credibility. When the military comes around on something, people listen.”

The study was co-authored by UArizona’s Katharine Jacobs, Christopher O’Connor, Arin Haverland, Jeremy Weiss, Adriana Zuñiga-Terán and the late Raphael Sagarin, who was principal investigator on the project until his passing in 2015. Additional co-authors are Anna Haworth and Alastair Baglee from the risk management consulting firm Willis Towers Watson in Cardiff, Wales, and Jonathan Overpeck at the University of Michigan. The study was funded by the DOD’s Strategic Environmental Research and Development Program.

Publication Referenced in the Article:

Gregg Garfin, Donald A. Falk, Christopher D. O’Connor, Katharine Jacobs, Raphael D. Sagarin, Arin C. Haverland, Anna Haworth, Alastair Baglee, Jeremy Weiss, Jonathan Overpeck, Adriana A. Zuñiga-Terán. A new mission: Mainstreaming climate adaptation in the US Department of Defense. Climate Services, 2021; 22: 100230 DOI: 10.1016/j.cliser.2021.100230

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