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Army on the front line of fight against climate change

From the pope to the president to Paris, there is a growing national and international discussion about the causes of climate change and what actions, if any, should be taken by policymakers.

The U.S. Army, however, does not have the luxury of engaging in this debate – instead, we must respond to the effects of climate change that are already affecting our mission.

{mosads}We need to look no further than Alaska, long considered to be on the front line of climate change. The Army’s premier training grounds at Fort Wainwright have experienced substantial climate-related challenges in recent years. Warmer weather earlier and for longer periods is restricting live-fire training due to the risk of forest fires, while thawing permafrost threatens our infrastructure.

Loss or restriction on the use of training lands attributed to climate factors incurs real costs in terms of time, money, and resources. Without predictable access to training areas and ranges, individual skills and unit readiness will suffer. This, in turn, can impact the Army’s ability to respond when called upon to meet the needs of the nation – making us more vulnerable at a time when we can least afford it.

The Army is also not immune from the impacts of increasingly frequent extreme weather events taking place across the country.

In August 2013, intense rainfall at Fort Irwin, California, caused severe erosion, washing out roads and toppling training structures and electronics. The event incurred $64 million in flood-related damages, and nearly delayed an important training activity for an Army tactical unit supporting Operation Enduring Freedom. Yet Fort Irwin is located in the heart of the Mojave Desert – an area not known for rain, let alone flood waters reaching as high as 15 feet.

Recent National Climate Assessment projections show these and other extreme weather events – droughts, wildfires, heat waves, floods – will continue to increase in both frequency and intensity.

Incredibly, nearly half of the cost of major construction projects in the Army’s FY2016 military construction budget addresses risk and damage associated with a changing climate.

Because the National Guard and Corps of Engineers act as first responders for recovery operations, and our Soldiers assist with humanitarian missions following natural disasters, the Army is increasingly stretched thin to cover these needs.

With the added pressure of sequestration, there could be real implications for our national defense.

The Army is doing its part to mitigate and adapt to the impacts of climate change. Through our “Net Zero” initiative, we have made significant progress toward the sustainability and resiliency of our installations – ensuring they are able to continue operations, deploy soldiers, and support their local communities in case of a natural disaster.

While we continue to fight this battle on the front lines, we hope Congress will work with us to better assess the challenges posed by a changing climate.

For the U.S. Army, the existence of climate change is not a theoretical debate. It is a reality that we must act swiftly to address. The security of our soldiers – and our nation – depends on it.

Hammack is the assistant secretary of the Army for Installations, Energy & Environment.


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