John Conger: Can Military Installations Cope with Increasingly Extreme Weather?

An Interview with John Conger

“There’s a lot of urgency around climate change, but the problem is that if people use the resources that are suddenly available to respond to that urgency, and they don’t think through what they do with them, then we’re going to have a lot of mistakes that we’re going to have to make up for later. “

Can Military Installations Cope with Increasingly Extreme Weather?

As extreme weather events become more commonplace, what will the impacts be for joint Canadian American operations, such as NORAD?

Extreme weather events will happen more frequently, certainly, but not more frequently in all the same places. Hurricanes, that might have always been in the American southeast, or in the Caribbean, will hit New England and Canada, where it was less common before. We are going to have to be able to respond to these new weather patterns. We have seen the frequency of billion-dollar disasters increase significantly over time. They’re not going to stop increasing. As we contemplate what kinds of phenomena we’re going to have to respond to, we are going to have to learn to expect the unexpected and be in a position both to respond to and prepare for disasters. Resilience is going to be important, which means when disasters hit, we can weather them better. The military is increasingly seen as a tool in the toolbox of disaster response domestically.

How is increasingly extreme weather disrupting U.S and Canadian military capabilities, missions, and operations? How might future environmental conditions impact DOD/DND’s ability to maintain built and natural infrastructure, as well as ensure military readiness in the future?

Climate change affects the environment in which we operate across the board. The impact will vary, but no part of our military operations will be untouched. The infrastructure that we maintain is certainly going to be affected, and again, this will vary depending on location. Extreme weather such as flooding, drought, and wildfires limits operations. Temperature extremes pose training constraints as well and we are going to have to learn how to operate in new environments. Climate change has made the Arctic more accessible, therefore, we’re going to have to ensure that we can operate in very cold weather. At the same time, we must be able to operate in extreme heat. When our forces deploy to places like the Middle East, it is going to be increasingly common they will encounter temperatures that one would not normally consider healthy at all—this goes for military equipment as well.

How we continue to operate in those temperature extremes is a serious question. There are going to be new areas in which to operate. As the Arctic ice melts and the Arctic Ocean becomes more accessible, we’re going to operate with surface ships in that area and maintain domain awareness across the Arctic to operate successfully in that environment. Climate change drives all of these things. Tactically, infrastructurally, operationally, and strategically, climate change shifts the environment in which we operate. Therefore, it shifts the way we operate.

What kind of investments can be made to ensure the resilience of security infrastructure in North America? How can militaries future-proof their installations to defend against 21st century threats, such as climate related disasters? 

This is a function of reducing risk. When designing infrastructure or facilities, we always make calculations as to whether we should over-engineer. If we think a disaster is very unlikely, perhaps we won’t prepare for it. We don’t harden our facilities for asteroid impact. We don’t expect it to occur. However, the extreme weather that comes with climate change means that once-in-a -generation storms are now happening multiple times a decade. We must be able to adjust our thinking, increase our resilience, and our ability to sustain those kinds of impacts. What kind of investments does that require? It depends. If you have a facility on the edge of a forest, and you know wildfires will be in that area, you’re going to have to invest in things like forest maintenance, to make sure that the wildfires are less likely to come and impact your installation. You’re going to have to make sure that you have energy resilience, because oftentimes powerlines go through those forests. You’re more likely to have a power outage at a critical installation, so you’re going to have to make sure that your backup power systems are capable of handling that kind of environment. That’s just one of multiple scenarios.

Installations in Alaska have been significantly impacted by permafrost thaw. If your foundations crack because the permafrost thaws, and that undermines operations at particularly sensitive locations, then you’re going to have to make investments to ensure those foundations are more secure. I must imagine that Canadian military facilities will have related challenges. Coastal installations where sea levels are rising will see recurring flooding, and that will be the signal that you’re going to want to make those installations higher so that that you’re not building on floodplains.

You’re going to have to make sure that you’ve thought through, and have full expectations, of the threats and the risks that are coming forward. Secondly, we need to look at our critical missions, and make sure that the buildings that they’re in are not particularly vulnerable. There’s a wide range of things to be done. Back in 2013, the U.S. Congress told the Navy to do an assessment of its shipyards. And come up with a 20-year plan for where it needed to invest over time. The Navy came up with a $20 billion plan, over 20 years, across four key shipyards. At the top of the list of projects that were proposed was a flood protection plan at the shipyard in Norfolk. The dry docks at that facility were not built to accommodate sea level rise. The Navy was increasingly concerned about the vulnerability of the nuclear submarines that were going under maintenance at that location. When a nuclear submarine goes into maintenance, they cut it up into rings to do internal maintenance on the nuclear reactor, so in that environment, a flood would be catastrophic. Having insufficient flood protection will be catastrophic as well. They have invested $3 million towards increasing flood protection, which includes making the walls higher around that drydock so that it can accommodate anticipated future flooding. That’s the kind of thing you’re going to look at—what assets are the most sensitive and the most vulnerable? What are the investments I need to make at a particular location? It has to be mission justified, location dependent, and a higher-level decision.

Could the U.S. leverage its international military education and training programs to ensure its allies and partners have the skills to responsibly manage climate-driven disasters?

Yes, I think that is an excellent approach. Those programmes will allow the U.S. to engage on climate change in a way that supports the concerns of many of its partners, and that leverages the expertise the military has developed over time. The U.S. military started looking at climate change a little bit earlier than a lot of its partners. There’s a lot they can share and there’s a lot of thinking that’s been going on regarding resilience. Partnerships and training programmes will help, not only to build capacity, but to build the lines of communication on climate change in a constructive way. Whether that’s the U.S. and Canada building stronger links to talk about Arctic issues, or other deployments that we’re going to do together, or to talk about NATO, and how NATO is increasingly paying attention to climate change. It could also be a partnership with island nations in the Pacific to help them build resilience, because they’re extremely concerned about sea level rise and the potential for permanent loss of land.

What role do military installations have in advancing climate resilience?

Across the Department of Defence enterprise, certainly, it was the installations that really embraced the idea of dealing with climate change. They were facing the nearest term challenges and took concrete steps forward to manage things like flooding, wildfires, energy resilience, and storms. The installations really did lean forward on this, in that context. As we think about the entirety of the populace, a lot of communities are starting to worry about climate change, but they don’t have the resources of the defence department. Installations can help those communities through innovation labs, figuring out what works and what doesn’t work, and helping to promote certain markets.

Microgrids are a good example—smaller, isolated grids, separate from the overarching electric grid, where you can generate power within a fixed location and maintain the power even when the larger grid goes down. DOD has invested a lot of money in micro grids. Some DOD officials have cited that DOD itself represents 1/3 of the global micro grid market. They are driving that technology and the market forward. When communities want to get their own micro grids, they will be doing so on the foundations of that initial defence investment. I think we are going to see patterns like this more and more.

Fundamentally, one of the things that people don’t fully understand is the importance of planning. There’s a lot of urgency around climate change, but the problem is that if people use the resources that are suddenly available to respond to that urgency, and they don’t think through what they do with them, then we’re going to have a lot of mistakes that we’re going to have to make up for later. You must make sure you’re thoughtful about how to address the challenges you’re going to be facing in the future, and make sure that the investments are prioritised accordingly. The Navy example that I used earlier in Norfolk—that was a study of investment which thought about the challenges facing critical infrastructure, without focusing on climate change, and yet the climate change resilience priorities emerged from that holistic study. I think if you start doing the planning with climate in mind, so it’s climate informed, then those priorities will emerge, and will be prioritised accordingly, even if the funding, resources, or planning is not climate specific. To be able to incorporate these things will take time. However, you’re better off thinking them through and acting accordingly. The results will come if you start the process now.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.



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