Implications of Climate Change for U.S. Naval Forces

While in the public eye many members of the House and Senate continue to debate global warming, it’s somewhat reassuring that behind the scenes some areas of the government are taking steps to address foreseeable complications from our changing climate.

Officially, though perhaps quietly, Congress has already acknowledged there is a problem. Tucked away in Public Law 110-161, the innocuously titled Consolidated Appropriation Act, 2008, Congress finds that:

(1) greenhouse gases accumulating in the atmosphere are causing average temperatures to rise at a rate outside the range of natural variability and are posing a substantial risk of rising sea-levels, altered patterns of atmospheric and oceanic circulation, and increased frequency and severity of floods, droughts, and wildfires;

(2) there is a growing scientific consensus that human activity is a substantial cause of greenhouse gas accumulation in the atmosphere; and

(3) mandatory steps will be required to slow or stop the growth of greenhouse gas emissions into the atmosphere.

This same Act also allotted funds in support of the study and investigation of the “serious and sweeping” issues related to climate change.

Photo courtesy of Official U.S. Navy Imagery. Some rights reserved.

When I daydream about the more liberal departments, branches and agencies in the US, ones that I imagine are leading the way in climate change research, our armed forces don’t typically come to mind. How refreshing, then, to find that the U.S. Department of the Navy has sponsored a study exploring predicted effects of climate change on naval operations.

The study was conducted by the National Research Council, at the behest of the Chief of Naval Operations. The question at hand? “What does climate change mean for the U.S. naval forces…and…what does climate change mean for U.S. naval forces in terms of the national security implications?” Specifically, the Council was charged with the following:

1. Examine the potential impact on U.S. future naval operations and capabilities as a result of climate change. . . .

2. Assess the robustness of the Department of Defense’s infrastructure for supporting U.S. future naval operations and capabilities in the context of potential climate change impacts. . . .

3. Determine the potential impact climate change will have on allied force operations and capabilities. . . .

4. Examine the potential impact on U.S. future naval antisubmarine warfare operations and capabilities in the world’s oceans as a result of climate change; specifically, the technical underpinnings for projecting U.S. undersea dominance in light of the changing physical properties of the oceans.

The resulting report addressed both near- and long-term implications for the Navy for each of these directives, and presented findings and recommendations grouped into six different areas “that need U.S. naval leadership.” These range from coastal installation vulnerabilities due to anticipated increased storm surges to strains on naval capabilities due to increased disaster relief-related missions.

The basic takeaway? That “even the most moderate current trends in climate, if continued, will present new national security challenges.” The findings weren’t optimistic, but they were founded in science and accompanied by specific action items. In our current political climate, this reason and foresight borders on the inspirational. For more information, you can read the full report.

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