Senior Pentagon official warns US military ‘not ready’ for climate change
“We are not where we should be, and the time for this challenge is now over,” Assistant Secretary of Defense Kathleen Hicks told CNN.
Beyond sea level rise and extreme weather conditions, climate change has opened up new areas of strategic competition such as the Arctic and intensified competition for scarce resources, such as the raw materials needed for make lithium-ion batteries essential for electric vehicles.
“It’s something like $ 750 billion in investment in lithium-ion batteries worldwide,” Hicks said. “The challenge is that most of this is happening in China. They dominate this supply chain. It’s a big national security challenge for us.”
Hicks, the first woman to hold the number two position in the Pentagon, is leading the military’s various efforts on climate change. On a recent two-day trip to Michigan, Connecticut and Rhode Island, Hicks saw work on the first generation of electric military vehicles, including an electric light reconnaissance vehicle at GM Defense.
As the civilian auto industry turns green, the Pentagon will follow suit.
“If we don’t follow through and are part of the solution, we’ll be left behind,” Hicks said, “and our vehicle fleets will not be able to be taken care of. “
But military electric vehicles pose their own set of challenges. While an electric vehicle can be much quieter and emit less heat signature – critical advantages on a battlefield – it also needs to be recharged somehow. Refueling a gasoline vehicle requires supply lines to bring fuel, but it’s still faster and more efficient than recharging an electric vehicle on a battlefield.
The temporary solution, says Hicks, is hybrid tactical vehicles. This is an interim solution to bridge the gap between the current fleet of gas vehicles and the future electric fleet.
“I see that future. It’s not close, but we’re definitely going in that direction,” Hicks said. “We must.”
Tackling climate change has been a cornerstone of the Biden administration’s agenda. During his first week in office, President Joe Biden signed an executive order putting the climate crisis at the center of foreign policy and national security. “There is little time left to avoid putting the world on a dangerous, potentially catastrophic climate trajectory,” Biden wrote in the order.
The number of person-days for National Guard members fighting wildfires in the western United States has more than increased tenfold, from about 14,000 five years ago to 176,000 this year.
Climate change will be included in the update of the National Defense Strategy, expected next year. In last year’s budget, the Department of Defense allocated $ 617 million to climate change preparedness and mitigation. But that is nothing compared to the damage caused by extreme weather events.
Two hurricanes – Michael in 2018 and Sally in 2020 – caused $ 4 billion in damage to Tyndall Air Force Base and Pensacola Naval Air Station in Florida, according to a Department of Defense report. Hurricane Florence in 2018 caused approximately $ 3.5 billion in damage and repairs at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, and flooding at Offutt Air Force Base in Nebraska caused approximately $ 500 million in damage in 2019, according to the report.
But the Defense Ministry still does not have a thorough understanding of the threat to its 5,000 or so military installations around the world. Last year, the department released its DoD Climate Assessment Tool to better understand the dangers of climate change based on historical data and future assessments. The department will use the tool to examine 1,400 installations around the world.
“Once we start to understand that we can’t opt out of climate change in everything we do – it’s just a fact, a reality of how we think about the future – then we can start to really get ahead and be productive “on climate change,” Hicks said.
For all of the Defense Department’s efforts related to climate change, Hicks knows he can only play a small part in meeting the enormous challenge.
The Department of Defense did not send a high representative to the recent COP26 climate conference in Glasgow, Scotland. But Hicks welcomed the conference as an opportunity for key players to work together on an issue bigger than any nation.
“The United States can do a lot to solve this global problem,” she said, “but it cannot do it alone”.
CNN’s Jeremy Moorhead contributed to this report.