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Hurricane Michael Reminded America Why Climate Change Is a National Security Risk

For the Air Force, climate change just got personal.
Wreckage at the Tyndall Air Force Base following Hurricane Michael.

Wreckage at the Tyndall Air Force Base following Hurricane Michael.

At least 35 people were killed when Hurricane Michael barreled into the Florida panhandle last week, the latest in a string of storms whose growing intensity scientists have linked to climate change. But while America's elected leaders continue to deny the existence of climate change, there's at least one faction of the Trump administration that's taking the threat seriously: the United States military.

For years the Department of Defense (DOD) has viewed climate change as a "threat multiplier," rather than a direct national security concern like it would, say, a terror organization. "Climate change will contribute to food and water scarcity, will increase the spread of disease, and may spur or exacerbate mass migration," reads a grim forecast outlined in the 2010 DOD Quadrennial Defense Review. The message in the report is clear: The stresses of increasingly destructive weather will only exacerbate the existing sources of terrorism and extremism—poverty and economic insecurity, for example—that are on the forefront of the Pentagon's mind. But, as Michael showed, climate change can also pose a more direct threat to security—by destroying military defense systems.

Consider the case of Tyndall Air Force Base, home to 55 fifth-generation F-22 Raptor fighter jets that are essential to Air Force operations. At least 33 of the aircraft were dispatched to safety at a base in Ohio ahead of Michael's landfall, but satellite photos published by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in the aftermath of the storm revealed the wreckage of several of the pricey stealth fighters among the debris; according to reporting from Foreign Policy, "as many as" 17 Raptors "may be damaged or destroyed." (The Air Force says the damage to the aircraft "was less than ... feared.")

Any losses with these jets are pretty devastating. As noted by Task & Purpose, only 80 of the Air Force's 182 Raptors are mission-capable, mostly because of the airframe's unusual production history and the scarcity of spare parts. And those Raptors are valuable: Not only are they responsible for the majority of intercepts conducted against Russian aircraft near Alaskan airspace, but they're an essential part of the U.S.-led campaign in Syria. The fact that a storm system seems to have decimated a critical part of the Air Force's air superiority fleet means, for the military, climate change just got even more personal.

The Tyndall incident isn't the first weather-based catastrophe to hurt a highly valued aircraft. Just look at storm surges: At least 200 military installations participating in a vulnerability assessment have already been affected by storm surge flooding, according to a Center for Climate and Security report released this year (a figure that marks an increase from 30 installations a decade ago).

Certainly the Tyndall incident also won't be the last of its kind—and it's not just air superiority that will suffer in the future. The DOD's 2014 climate adaptation roadmap detailed potential vulnerabilities in coastal infrastructure and supply chains, all of which drain resources away from other sources and reduce overall readiness. And despite the Oval Office's political obstinance with regard to climate change, the Pentagon can't ignore the imminent threats to its 7,000 installations worldwide. Even Secretary of Defense James Mattis opted to circumvent the commander-in-chief rather than acquiesce to the cancelation of federal climate-related agency actions.

Mattis' doggedness shouldn't come as much of a surprise: In 2017, Mattis vowed in a 58-page written testimony to the Senate Armed Services Committee that he would make addressing the threat climate change poses to U.S. national security a top priority as head of the Pentagon.

"The effects of a changing climate—such as increased maritime access to the Arctic, rising sea levels, desertification, among others—impact our security situation," Mattis wrote. Perhaps now the elected officials in D.C. will follow Mattis' lead and see not only that climate change is real, but that it's truly a matter of national security.