The US still has time to correct course on climate change

The US still has time to correct course on climate change
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A new report from the federal government details how human activity, primarily burning fossil fuels, is causing climate change. Released Nov. 3, the National Climate Assessment warns of stronger storms, hotter heat waves and rising sea levels.  

As if Texas, Florida or Puerto Rico needed a reminder of the power of storms, or California the threat from fires, or Hampton Roads the intensifying troubles from rising seas, now, thanks to the NCA Special Report, along with libraries–worth of strong climate science research that has come before it, we know that the climate is changing, and its daily effects, combined with extreme weather, are taking this visceral toll on our homes, families, communities and livelihoods.


Over the decades I spent on the bridge of Navy vessels and in command of a ship, squadron, and Strike Group, I learned first-hand just how hard it is to maneuver a ship at sea- there’s no turning on a dime for a ship the size of a small city. But if you plan your route well, you will only need small adjustments to reach your destination. 


Policy-making to guide our way through the climate crisis is no different: The sooner you start the smoother the ride. The longer you wait, the more drastic and costly the course correction. Changing things as complex as our energy system, as interconnected as our infrastructure, and as vital to national security as our military bases is not something that can be done quickly. 

The latest report tells us that unless we end carbon pollution, oceans could rise an astonishing eight feet by 2100. Much of Hampton Roads sits only eight feet above sea level. It’s hard to imagine one of the world’s biggest military bases becoming Atlantis, or becoming an island, but that’s where we’re headed. Even today we are experiencing serial flooding that impacts Hampton Roads Boulevard and other critical base access arteries on an increasing basis. 

By 2050, studies by the Union of Concerned Scientists have shown many regional federal military installations could experience daily flooding over nearly 20 percent of their total land area, with a corresponding impact to infrastructure and facility access. 

Some of us have been preparing for this. The Department of Defense and a number of other federal, state and local agencies participated in a pilot project in the military-heavy region of Hampton Roads to map out how to adjust to coming changes. We found answers about what we can do to keep ourselves safe from the changing climate.

Unfortunately, after issuing recommendations, the project has been largely ignored by policymakers. But it illustrated the need for close cooperation between local governments and communities, as infrastructure projects threatened by rising waters connect our various municipalities.

It also demonstrated how we would need to work with the state government, given the various regulations and issues outside our immediate borders. And with the outsized federal government presence here thanks to arguably the largest Navy base in the world, among many other facilities, we’re also going to need D.C.’s cooperation. 

Just last week the U.S Army Corps of Engineers released a Draft Coastal Storm Risk Management Study and Environmental Impact Statement for the City of Norfolk, with a $1.8 billion dollar estimated cost, over $1 billion of which is expected to be federal dollars. This is just the beginning, what will the cost be for the other 16 cities and municipalities in the region, and what will the cost be for the many unique federal facilities here, national assets, most of which would be extremely difficult to re-locate?

But of course, global warming is a global problem, one that requires action from the global community. 

Though that might make the climate challenge seem all the more overwhelming, the global unity on this issue that has emerged in recent years is encouraging. Right now, negotiators from around the world are in Germany discussing how to implement the Paris Agreement on climate change. Now, even war-torn Syria has joined the agreement, and only the United States has threatened to leave it.

In the face of that threat, thousands of local leaders from U.S. cities and states, but also businesses, universities and churches, are working to uphold our commitment to the agreement, regardless of what happens in the White House. For example, outgoing Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe announced in Bonn that come January, Virginia will be introducing legislation to implement a cap on carbon emissions, with the ultimate goal of linking Virginia to the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, a network of states working to reduce emissions.

Each city is a ship, then, each state a fleet and each nation a Navy. From the global level to the city level, we must all work toward the same goal: an economy powered by clean energy instead of fossil fuels. But unless we begin to act now, our vessel is sure to wreck on the shoals of extreme weather. 

Rear Admiral Ann C. Phillips, U.S. Navy (Retired), a surface warfare officer for 31 years, is an independent consultant focused on sea level rise, resiliency and climate impact, and is an Advisory Board Member for The Center for Climate and Security.