Mission Ready for Climate Change

Five things the West can learn from the military about climate adaptation.


Arizona’s first major wildfire of 2014 ignited this past spring on Fort Huachuca, a U.S. Army base not far from the Mexico border. The incident marked the second time in three years the army was fending off flames in a part of the country where rain is always scarce and temperatures can peak into the '90s in April.

“As they have more hot and dry days when they can’t use tracers or do live (ammunition) training exercises, that impacts (the Army) and other military units, such as Navy SEALs or Special Forces, that are trying to use Fort Huachuca,” says Rafe Sagarin, a research scientist with the University of Arizona’s Biosphere 2.

The military, in other words, is paying attention to the risks of climate change. In mid-October, the Department of Defense released its 2014 Climate Change Adaptation Roadmap, a 16-page report outlining the Armed Forces’ response plan for global warming. In defense parlance, climate change acts as a “threat multiplier” that can exacerbate conflicts and political stability. The roadmap report states: “Climate change will affect the Department of Defense’s ability to defend the Nation and poses immediate risks to U.S. national security.”

Colorado Gov. Bill Ritter Jr. and Maj. Gen. Mark A. Graham, commanding general, Division West, First Army and Fort Carson, prepare to cut the ribbon on the Fort Carson solar array Jan. 14, 2008. U.S. Army photo by Michael J. Pach.
The department’s severe outlook places it ahead of Congress in preparing for climate change. Plans and actions at installations are also blazing trails for neighboring cities on how to adapt to new and risky conditions. So, with that, we give you five things the West can learn from the military about climate adaptation:

1. Be Mission Oriented

Government leaders, particularly Republicans, have ducked climate action by claiming not to understand the causes of global warming. The military, with its own conservative leadership, isn’t equivocating.

“Military personnel are very action-oriented,” says Sagarin, who is researching climate adaptation at several military installations. “We say, ‘What do you need to do on this base, Colonel?’ and then we can immediately move into mission space and how they are going to be impacted by the changes we’re anticipating and how they are going to respond. We don’t go in there and talk about the latest IPCC report.”

2. Start Small…Then Go Big

Fort Carson, outside Colorado Springs, Colorado, is an Army base serving 68,000 people, including personnel and families. From an initial small and high-cost solar array, Fort Carson now is working to be a net-zero-energy, water and waste district by 2020 – that produces as much energy as it uses and reuses nearly all of its wastewater. The base has a 4.7-megawatt solar array (operating at less than half of the original per-watt cost as the sector has grown), 78 buildings constructed under LEED green-building standards, and homes with efficient, indirect evaporative coolers (instead of conventional swamp coolers). “We’re taking small steps today so we can take bigger steps in the future,” says Vince Guthrie, Fort Carson utilities program manager.

3. Look Long

Fort Carson would rank among Colorado’s 15 largest cities, but it’s taken a more aggressive approach toward energy efficiency and conservation than municipalities.

“A Defense installation has a long-term financial outlook,” Guthrie says, “so projects can have a 10- to 15-year payback.” Compare that with nearby Colorado Springs Utilities, which also provides services to the base: “The city’s other customers want the lowest possible utility cost now,” Guthrie says, “whereas we’re trying to get a hedge against higher energy costs in the long term.”

4. Go with Allies

At Naval Base Coronado and Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton, near San Diego, California, training beaches have eroded due to increased wave action and surges. The losses prevent Marines and Navy SEALs’ training, and also stall efforts to protect the threatened western snowy plover, which need undisturbed beaches for nesting.

The military is working with Sagarin and others to understand how to turn short-term fixes, such as rebuilding sand berms every year, into long-term solutions. But the Armed Forces are not abandoning the birds: The bases partner with the San Diego Zoo to protect undeveloped shorelines and clear out predators and non-native plants, and have some of the most productive nesting sites for the birds.

“All these agencies and groups need to work together and not just have an inter-agency dialogue,” Sagarin says. “We’re seeing the importance of – what biologists call – symbiotic partnerships.”

5. Freedom Isn’t Free… and Neither Is Water

Cities that try to regulate strict building requirements and steep utility rates often face criticism from residents who feel their rights – to, say, water their lawn – are being curtailed.

Military bases can be “more prescriptive” in setting rules, says Guthrie, but he adds that both communities and the military are ultimately trying to sway personal behavior.

“Anytime we encourage people to conserve, they feel like we’re challenging their quality of life,” says Guthrie. Cities and community members “can learn from the Department of Defense – it all starts with a vision and, to deal with climate change, you have to get culture change and that is something we deal with everyday.”

Joshua Zaffos is a contributing editor at High Country News. He tweets @jzaffos. Editor's note: An earlier version of this story indicated Sagarin is affiliated with the University of Arizona's Institute of Environment, but that has changed to Biosphere 2.

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