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  1. Opinion

Climate change is threatening America's national security at military bases across Florida, including MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa | Column

Sunlight peeks through the damaged ceiling of Hanger 5 at the Tyndall Air Force Base early this year in the Florida Panhandle. Crews are still working to clear debris and repair damaged buildings months after Hurricane Michael devastated the area. [Times photo by Tailyr Irvine]
Sunlight peeks through the damaged ceiling of Hanger 5 at the Tyndall Air Force Base early this year in the Florida Panhandle. Crews are still working to clear debris and repair damaged buildings months after Hurricane Michael devastated the area. [Times photo by Tailyr Irvine]
Published Jul. 5, 2019

Floridians know that climate change is endangering their health, prosperity and communities. A new hurricane season is a reminder that it's also threatening America's national security — beginning with military bases right here in Florida.

When Hurricane Michael struck the Panhandle last fall, it devastated Tyndall Air Force Base. Winds of 160 mph ripped off roofs and damaged or destroyed nearly 700 buildings; 11,000 people had to relocate. Forty percent of the base's F-22s were unready to fly and had to be stowed in hangars that could not protect them. Every plane was damaged.

Congress recently delivered a down payment on repairs — but only after Tyndall ran out of rebuilding funds this spring, and had to put a hold on new projects.

This growth in savage storms spells greater danger for military bases across Florida. The Navy's list of most threatened bases includes Naval Air Station Key West, hammered by Hurricane Irma two years ago. The Marine list includes Blount Island Command near Jacksonville.

The Air Force recently reported that six of its 10 most vulnerable bases are here in Florida — including facilities near Miami and Brevard, as well as Tampa's MacDill Air Force Base, which it ranked as more vulnerable than Tyndall.

The hard truth is that rising ocean temperatures — fueled by climate change — are increasing the intensity, rainfall and flooding produced by hurricanes. Last year alone, damage from extreme weather to U.S. bases cost more than $8 billion, including nearly $5 billion for Tyndall.

The challenge isn't limited to hurricanes. Record flooding in the Midwest flooded much of Offutt Air Force Base, home to Strategic Command. In California, wildfires fueled by drought have forced military installations to evacuate.

Around the world, climate change has become what former Secretary of Defense James Mattis called "a driver of instability" that's causing headaches for U.S. troops and military planners. Mattis testified before Congress that "the effects of a changing climate — such as increased maritime access to the Arctic, rising sea levels, desertification, among others — impact our security situation."

At MacDill's Central Command, for example, our military leaders know that climate stress is driving water scarcity, food insecurity, economic displacement and increased migration. Record droughts devastated crops and rangelands in Syria, driving farmers and herders from their barren lands to overpopulated urban centers and feeding the instability that led to the civil war.

Congress deserves bipartisan credit for their recent focus on this issue. Since 2017, they have upgraded building codes, required vulnerability assessments of military bases, asked for a new Arctic strategy and declared that "climate change is a direct threat to the national security of the United States."

With its enormous number of vulnerable bases, Florida will be at the forefront of the effort. Can bases like MacDill AFB improve their resilience? Are they working with communities like Tampa to promote collaborative resilience, since storms don't respect fence lines?

Our military leaders have a responsibility to prepare for the changes that are coming. Our political leaders have a responsibility to support them.

John Conger, director of the nonpartisan Center for Climate and Security, served as acting assistant secretary of Defense for Energy, Installations and Environment.

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