DoD’s new climate change policy heats up roles across all components, services

The Defense Department's new policy on climate change forces component heads to consider climate change in almost every decision.

Despite the opinions of some, the Defense Department isn’t taking any chances when it comes to climate change. A new policy integrates climate change considerations into all aspects of the department.

In the memo signed on Jan. 14, but not made  public until Jan. 19, the Pentagon requires DoD components to assess the effects of climate change on the department’s mission and to take into account those effects when developing plans and implementing them.

That means climate change now will be a constant consideration in how DoD goes about its war mission, acquisition programs, readiness plans, construction projects and security judgements.

“The DoD must be able to adapt current and future operations to address the impacts of climate change in order to maintain an effective and efficient U.S. military,” the Jan. 14 directive stated.

The policy appoints the assistant secretary of Defense for energy installations and environment —currently John  Conger — as the primary climate change adaptation official. The assistant secretary will oversee DoD climate change adaptation and resilience research, and development and supporting efforts by the private sector to find technologies and standards to ease adaptation.

The directive also gives the undersecretary of Defense for acquisition, technology and logistics —currently Frank Kendall — the authority to establish climate change boards or councils to integrate climate change into DoD programs and policies.

The directive, in some way, affects every aspect of DoD from tasking the chief of the Joint Chiefs of Staff with assessing security risks posed by climate change, to asking special operations to direct planning for disaster relief in the case of climate change impacts and instability sparked by a lack of natural resources.

A 2013 executive order required DoD to establish a policy to provide the department with resources necessary to manage risks associated with the impacts of climate change. That includes working with federal and state entities to achieve that goal.

Other parts of DoD already have begun assessing the impacts of climate change. In 2014, the Army Corps of Engineers started rethinking how to build and maintain infrastructure that can withstand the extreme weather caused by climate change.

Lt. Gen. Thomas Bostick, the Corps’ commanding general, said in 2014 that the Corps was rethinking its entire planning process to protect communities from floods and droughts. Rather than thinking of its projects as one-off responses to extremely specific vulnerabilities, he said the agency needs to start thinking about watersheds as integrated systems, which in most cases contain numerous other projects managed by other state, local and federal agencies.

The Army Corps of Engineers is conducting several pilot programs with other agencies that attempt to treat entire watersheds as systems, and to manage them accordingly. It’s launched several other pilots that are trying to evaluate specific adaptations to climate change, including how agencies along the Ohio River in Cincinnati would respond to future droughts, and how changes in building technologies in Connecticut might alter how the Corps manages its hurricane protection projects there.

DoD also has been thinking on a national and global security scale about climate change. In July, the department released a study on the risks of a changing climate.

“DoD recognizes the reality of climate change and the significant risk it poses to U.S. interests globally,” the study stated. It is “clear that climate change is an urgent and growing threat to our national security, contributing to increased natural disasters, refugee flows and conflicts over basic resources such as food and water. These impacts are already occurring, and the scope, scale and intensity of these impacts are projected to increase over time.”

The study outlines some measures the military was taking to prepare for climate change, such as creating a larger presence in the Arctic, where more land and sea are exposed as the polar ice caps melt.

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