Climate change is costing the Air Force billions

By Molly Taft

Greg Brudnicki, mayor of Panama City, Florida, has lived in the community for 55 years and said he has never seen a storm like Hurricane Michael. The cyclone barreled through the Florida panhandle in October, flattening beach neighborhoods and piling 20 years’ worth of debris on Panama City alone.

Tyndall Air Force Base, located 12 miles east of the city, provides more than 30 percent of the city’s economy, Brudnicki says, and, like much of the surrounding area, it was completely decimated by Michael.

“It just looked like somebody went through and kicked down all the buildings,” said Brudnicki, who toured the base shortly after the storm. “It looked like missiles came in and blew the place up.”

Contingency responders set up at the damaged Tyndall base on October 18, 2018. CREDIT: US Air Force

Brudnicki’s use of military imagery is fitting. Storms like Michael portend a growing budget problem for the Pentagon, as climate change inflicts billions of dollars in damage to military bases.

Tyndall is just one of several military bases hit by extreme weather in the past year, and the high cost of repairs foreshadows a major upcoming problem for the U.S. military. Last week, the Air Force announced that it was seeking $5 billion for repairs to two bases following recent extreme weather events, Tyndall and Nebraska’s Offutt Air Force Base.

Both are smaller bases that officials say were completely unprepared for the severe impacts of October’s Hurricane Michael and recent floods in the Midwest. Both of these weather events have distinct links to climate change: Michael gained strength from unusually warm waters off the Panhandle, while heavy late winter storms paired with unusually balmy weather supercharged runoff that helped lead to the Midwest’s disaster.

An aerial view of the flooded Offutt base on March 17, 2019. CREDIT: US Air Force

It’s easy to gloss over big price tags when it comes to the military — after all, the Department of Defense’s 2019 budget is a cool $686.1 billion. But last week’s ask isn’t cheap.

“This is a big number,” said John Conger, the director of the Center for Climate and Security, a nonpartisan think tank focused on the security risks of climate change. The $5 billion “is more money than the Department requested last year for all its hurricane recovery,” Conger said, explaining that DOD infrastructure was less impacted by hurricanes Maria, Harvey, and Florence, which struck in 2017, than it was by disasters from this fiscal year.

Tyndall is facing particularly expensive repairs — and ones that need to come quick. Officials said last week that if Congress can’t find $1.2 billion of the requested $5 billion by May 1, work at the Tyndall base will halt completely. And it’s not just jets in Florida that are in jeopardy. Since money to make immediate repairs to the two bases came from other operating budgets, the Air Force will also be forced to cut projects at 61 bases in 18 different states and cancel nearly 20,000 pilot training hours to make up for the money it already spent.

“Think of it as an immediate problem, and then a long-term problem,” Conger said. The bases need a big injection of money in the short term, followed by sustained investment to complete the repairs.

Rep. Neal Dunn speaks at Tyndall Air Force Base, January 23, 2018. CREDIT: US Air Force

Even as the military contends with the very real costs of climate change, the Trump administration continues to deny that rising temperatures pose a security threat. Over the past few months, the administration has been working behind the scenes to form a National Security Council panel stacked with climate deniers, which reports suggest is intended to challenge established science. The administration’s plans have been met with widespread opposition from former military officials, security experts, and climate scientists.

Trump’s allies have been happy to repeat the president’s talking points on climate change even as they grapple with the fallout from extreme weather events. Rep. Neal Dunn (R-FL), whose district includes Tyndall, has been working with the military to obtain emergency funding for the base, but he has also gone on the record questioning humans’ impact on climate change. Dunn’s office did not respond to a request for comment.

This isn’t just an issue for representatives, like Dunn, who are grappling with extreme weather in their districts. The disaster-induced budget crunch threatens to deprive bases across the country of needed funding, as the Air Force looks for a way to pay for repairs at Tyndall and Offutt.

A fighter jet takes off from Hill Air Force Base, March 25, 2014. CREDIT: US Air Force

One of the bases targeted for potential funding and staffing cuts, according to Air Force documents, is Hill Air Force Base in Utah’s first district. The district is represented by Rep. Rob Bishop and Sen. Mike Lee, both Republicans, who have made headlines recently for their theatrical climate denial in response to the Green New Deal  — Bishop by chowing down on a burger in front of reporters and calling the Green New Deal “genocide,” Lee by proposing that Americans have babies to fix climate change.

Regardless of what Bishop and Lee say in Washington about climate change, it’s clear that their district could be financially altered by climate impacts at bases hundreds of miles away. Both men have been enthusiastic supporters of Hill and outspoken about the economic opportunity it provides their constituents. “My number one priority in the U.S. Congress is supporting our military and defending and promoting Hill Air Force Base and the other valuable military installations in Utah’s First District  — not just because they provide Utah jobs, but because they are critical to our national defense,” Bishop’s website reads.

As rising temperatures fuel increasingly disastrous storms, extensive fixes like these could become a regular problem. NOAA’s 2019 spring outlook, published last month shortly after the floods, predicted weeks of extended flooding in the Midwest like those that hit Offutt. Overwhelming evidence shows that precipitation is getting heavier and flooding risk is going up as a result, while recent research is also showing that climate change is directly contributing to the hurricane intensity. Last month, the Pentagon sent Congress a list of military bases most at risk from climate change, but the list included neither Tyndall or Offutt.

Facing high costs from extreme weather, the military has shown a willingness to break from the White House on climate change, acknowledging that more severe weather poses a real threat. The Air Force said in February it will rebuild Tyndall as “the base of the future,” with plans to make it resistant to storm surges and high-speed winds.

“Resilience is something that’s a Department priority, and I think it’s something Congress would like [the DoD] to prioritize,” Conger said. “You have to expect that you’re going to get damaging storms more often, so it’s in our interest to get our bases ready.”

Molly Taft writes for Nexus Media, a syndicated newswire covering climate, energy, policy, art and culture. You can follow her at @mollytaft.


 

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