Defense Department Steps Into Adaptation Action

Snapshot: Congress is bringing the Department of Defense into the climate change/sea level rise adaptation game, on and off its bases. Congress has been asking for DoD studies on climate change impacts and this year the DoD Authorization bill has provisions to start spending military funds in the surrounding civilian communities. This puts DoD in the lead in sea level rise adaptation efforts at the federal level. The big question is whether civilian agencies will follow, because DoD can’t do it alone.

Backstory: In 2018, Congress asked DoD to take at look at “Climate Related Risk to DoD Infrastructure.” The study found that over 900 military sites have been hit by flooding - from both storm surge and rainfall - over the last 30 years. This includes over 130 navy installations within 2 kilometers of the shoreline. The Study was updated in 2019 and continues to show the vulnerability.

This year, in the Department of Defense Authorization law, some significant steps were taken to get military installations working with surrounding communities to deal with climate change and sea level rise impacts and develop more resilient systems in support of those installations. It also set up DoD to be the major federal funder of sea level rise adaptation work in communities around its installations, something that raises concerns.

In Public Law 115-232, The “John McCain National Defense Authorization Act of 2019,” there are a number of provisions that put the Department of Defense at the head of federal efforts to address flooding and climate change within it’s operations.

At Section 2805 of the law, a new standard for construction of military facilities is laid out. Any construction in a 100-year floodplain has to add 2 feet above the base flood elevation (freeboard) for non-mission critical projects and 3 feet of freeboard for mission critical projects. The law then goes on to require new design modifications for future construction “in order to anticipate changing environmental conditions during the design life of existing or planned new facilities and infrastructure.” Those future environmental conditions will come from, among other places, the U.S. Global Change Research Office and National Climate Assessment.

So we have the National Climate Assessment outcomes becoming the driving force for new facilities and infrastructure designs to be developed to address those climate outcomes. This is the first federal program to use future conditions as a driver for its actions and the first federal program that begins to design for the future we are facing.

Section 2805 goes on to require energy and climate resiliency to be included in master plans for military installations. It then goes on to define “military installation resilience”: “The term ‘military installation resilience’ means the capability of a military installation to avoid, prepare for, minimize the effect of, adapt to, and recover from extreme weather events, or from anticipated or unanticipated changes in environmental conditions, that do, or have the potential to, adversely affect the military installation or essential transportation, logistical, or other necessary resources outside of the military installation that are necessary in order to maintain, improve, or rapidly reestablish installation mission assurance and mission-essential functions.’’

The law then makes threats to military installation resilience eligible for programs within the DoD Office of Economic Assistance, including Joint Land Use Studies, of the kind we are piloting here in Hampton Roads, Virginia.

In this section we once again have ground-breaking federal authority to include future conditions in the operation of federal facilities. The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) and other agencies have voluntarily looked at their facilities in the face of climate change, but this is a legislated mandate that DoD undertake this work. This section also has DoD working jointly with communities surrounding military installations to plan for dealing with future conditions in order to insure the installation is resilient, by itself and in coordination with the surrounding community.

At Section 2861, the law establishes a pilot program that would allow DoD, for the first time, to spend money off of a military facility to, “…address deficiencies in community infrastructure supportive of a military installation, if the Secretary determines that such assistance will enhance the military value, resilience, or military family quality of life at such military installation. “ What can be fixed as “community infrastructure?” The law says: “The term ‘community infrastructure’ means any transportation project; school, hospital, police, fire, emergency response, or other community support facility; or water, waste-water, telecommunications, electric, gas, or other utility infrastructure project that is located off of a military installation and owned by a State or local government.”

Finally, at Section 2865, the law makes roads that lead into installations that flood eligible for DoD funding under the Defense Access Roads Program. The trigger is: "(i) Beginning in fiscal year 2019, funds appropriated for the purposes of this section shall be available to pay the cost of repairing damage caused to, and for any infrastructure to mitigate the risks posed to, highways by recurrent flooding and sea level fluctuation, if the Secretary of Defense shall determine that continued access to a military installation has been impacted by past flooding and mean sea level fluctuation."

There is NO civilian agency authority to fund this work, so DoD is now the federal lead agency in planning for and dealing with resilient infrastructure issues in communities surrounding military installations.

Together, these new mandates put DoD/base commanders on the hook to help surrounding localities deal with sea level rise and flooding that can affect the operation of a facility. Seems like a logical thing and much needed. But how large is this task? How many billions will it take to make every DoD facility and its surrounding community “resilient” with all the broadly defined “community infrastructure?” The good thing about this is DoD will lead every other federal agency in addressing climate change resilience, and it makes a lie of those in Washington who doubt climate change. The bad thing about this is DoD cannot go it alone and there seem to be no plans to spread the burden across civilian agencies.