Time, Tide and… Massive Capital Expenditures, Wait for No One
The US Navy takes serious action to adapt to sea level rise.
The US Navy’s mission is to provide combat power anywhere in the world on short notice. This mission has immediate, obvious, and inescapable implications to which the leaders of the Fleet have to constantly attend, namely: 1) since ships don’t travel with the extraordinary speed of aircraft, the Navy is required to be constantly deployed around the globe and, 2) logistics are the biggest challenge for such a hugely asset heavy force that needs to be constantly at sea.[i] As a result, the Chief of Naval Operations (known as the “CNO”, the Navy’s highest ranking officer) and his staff tend to be the ultimate in practical thinkers. Recently, this includes steps addressing both mitigation of and adaptation to climate change, even in the face of sometimes-hostile political sentiment emanating from Congress.
It should be no surprise that the majority of the US Navy’s facilities (totaling $850 billion worth of land and 550,000 facilities worldwide[ii]) are in areas that are susceptible to sea level rise. The impacts of sea level rise on these facilities are as obvious as they are severe. Since the Navy is required to be on-duty and operating 365 days a year, an interruption of major facilities for any reason poses serious operational challenges. While there are many critical naval installations that could be used to make this case, the most affected and the crucial is close to home. Naval Station Norfolk in Virginia is the largest Navy base on earth[iii] and the hub of the US Navy. By 2100, it is projected that the base will experience severe flooding 280 times a year.[iv] As concerning as this projection is, the bigger concern is the fact that this is not the only major naval base that faces such a fate – there are currently 18 major installations with similar projections– and that the options to combat these problems are limited. It isn’t as though the Navy can simply move the base to Kansas City and be rid of the sea level rise issue.
What many people may find interesting is that the Navy, unlike other parts of the US government, is not sitting idly by while the seas rise and the world changes around them. In fact, the US Navy is at the forefront of battling climate change, both through mitigation efforts and adaptation programs.[v]
While the Navy has taken steps to reduce its dependence on fossil fuels, its most significant investments have been on the adaptation front. Starting with the formation of the Task Force Climate Change in 2009, the Navy has undertaken a project to review each facility that it operates, focusing on projections of sea level rise and it’s effects on each installation’s ability to continue to function. These studies have already lead to significant infrastructure investments at key installations, including rebuilding the piers that house Nimitz-class aircraft carriers at Naval Station Norfolk,[vi] a major expense undertaken during a time of significant top-level budget constriction. This story is not unique, as there are currently significant infrastructure investments happening at bases around the world in order to prepare for the probability of rising sea levels.[vii]
The Navy is doing a laudable job in addressing the effects of climate change internal to its own organization; however, I would strongly recommend that the Navy do a more public job of socializing the broader costs and challenges that it expects to see as a result of climate change. While showing the world that the Navy sees building up sea walls at Naval Station Norfolk as vital is important and powerful, the impact from telling the world the projected cost of the mass migration that will occur when the average summer temperature in the Middle East makes it uninhabitable would be much greater.[viii]
The topic of climate change is rife with open questions. Among these, there are two that have a direct effect on the Navy. First, how acceptable is it that a military branch is making a stand on a contentious issue? While it is important to note that the idea of the US military leading social change is not new (desegregation is a seminal example), it is worth considering what this mode of social change says about current political processes. Second, how acceptable is it that the US Navy’s budget, which is granted to maintain and improve the combat capability of the Fleet, is being expended in a large quantities to combat a phenomenon that is affecting all parts of the world? Should the US government establish a separate “Climate Change Adaptation Fund” so that the costs of rising sea levels can be properly accounted for, instead of being hidden in a top-line military budget?
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[i] Department of Defense 2014 Climate Change Adaptation Roadmap. https://www.acq.osd.mil/eie/Downloads/CCARprint_wForward_e.pdf
[ii] Laura Parker, “Who’s Still Fighting Climate Change? The U.S. Military..”, National Geographic Magazine, 7 Feb 2017. https://news.nationalgeographic.com/2017/02/pentagon-fights-climate-change-sea-level-rise-defense-department-military/, accessed November 2017.
[v] Forest L. Reinhardt and Michael W. Toffel, “Managing Climate Change: Lessons from the U.S. Navy.”, Harvard Business Review, July-August 2017. https://hbr.org/2017/07/managing-climate-change, accessed November 2017.
[vi] Dianna Cahn, “Study: Storms would submerge Norfolk Naval Station.”, The Virginian-Pilot Online, 2 Nov 2013,
https://pilotonline.com/news/military/local/study-storms-would-submerge-norfolk-naval-station/article_42a5dbec-4ba4-59a9-a1e3-b525d7a6e87d.html, accessed November 2017.
[vii] Department of Defense 2014 Climate Change Adaptation Roadmap. https://www.acq.osd.mil/eie/Downloads/CCARprint_wForward_e.pdf
[viii] Anmar Frangoul, “Climate change could make North Africa and Middle East ‘uninhabitable’”, CNBC.com, 4 May 2016,
https://www.cnbc.com/2016/05/04/climate-change-could-make-north-africa-and-middle-east-uninhabitable.html, accessed November 2017.
Student comments on Time, Tide and… Massive Capital Expenditures, Wait for No One
Scott – Thanks for this interesting read. I’m happy to see that the Navy is taking action today on this important issue. To answer your questions:
1) It is perfectly reasonable that the Navy is taking a stand on global warming since its effects will require considerable investment to counteract. That said, I wonder if the current rate of ocean rising (about 1/8 of an inch per year, per NOAA ) is enough to require the Navy to take action now. If they have a buffer of 1-2 feet before action must be taken, I would encourage them to delay these expenditures until just before it is too late. Doing so would serve the Navy well for a few reasons: i) if, somehow, the ocean levels stabilize, they will save billions of dollars ii) new technology may be invented in the meantime to reduce the cost of adapting facilities and iii) every that billions of capital expenditures is delayed creates real value due to the time value of money (albeit this is lower because the US government borrows at very low rates).
2) It feels reasonable that the cost of these expenditures are being included in the Navy’s budget because they are directly related to the maintenance of Navy base facilities. That said, it would be helpful for the American public to know how much in aggregate the US government is spending on actions like these so that they realize how expensive global warming already is for our country. I suspect that this figure would help to shift public sentiment towards recognizing global warming as a near term problem, which may result in legislation that helps to counteract global warming’s effects. Given that the Navy’s expense in this area is likely larger than any other government agency’s, I would encourage the Navy to take the initiative to aggregate this figure.
Very interesting read !
To answer second and third questions i would say its both appropriate for navy to allocate budget and there also needs to eb an additional official fund . The Navy is responsible for ensuring sustained protection, even if it comes at the expense of indirect capital expenditure.
I was also wondering about the inplication of increasing geo storms due to climate change on naval fleets at sea. Does unpredictable storms impact navys ability to perform its duties ?
Thank you for such an interesting read. It is very impressive to see Navy has taken actions toward the global warming (raising sea level) issue. To answer your questions, first, I do not think Navy should make a stand on a contentious issue. Secondly, I do not think that it is acceptable to include such expenses in the US Navy’s budget even it may seem like that these spending is directly related to the maintenance of Navy base facilities. I would also I would imagine other organizations, who have designated funding, and take on more hands on responsibilities on this issue. Giving the tight budget of the US military spending, it would be helpful to set separate funding and organizations to handle this global phenomenon. This climate change impacts almost everyone in the world, and it dose not seem reasonable to have these expenses in the top-line of the Navy budget. The Navy should separate these indirectly related expenses to show the public its budget allocation.
Scott – great work on this. It is a very interesting question whether or not the Navy should be taking a stand on climate change, especially given the current administration’s views on global warming. Forest Reinhardt and Michael Toffel made effective points in the HBR interview noted above that the job of the Navy is “all about force readiness” and ensuring the safety of American citizens against long-term, potentially low likelihood events. This allows them to be more fact-based, and avoid the political distractions surrounding the issue.
Another interesting question raised in the interview is how will the Navy handle the additional demand given the expanding available marine traffic near the melting poles, especially at a time when the current administration plans to decrease government spending going forward. Given this point, it may make sense to bury some of this research cost into the Navy’s top line budget, as the administration is likely to be more receptive to an increase to the Navy budget, rather than a “Climate Change Adaptation Budget” that may be harder to stomach given their current stance on the issue.
Nicely done – thoughtful, well written, and compelling.
Upon reading this I reflected on some of our discussions around the Navy, and more broadly the U.S. Military, often leveraging the worldwide facilities that you described above to provide help during certain natural disasters. If climate change does lead to the flooding of major cities in both the developed and developing world, and in turn more powerful natural disasters, I wonder how much demand there will be for the Navy to come to their aid. Furthermore, I wonder whether we, as a nation, will be prepared both in terms of our resources, and our commitment to helping, to respond effectively. Certainly an off-shoot of your main argument, but one that could bring us some serious economic and moral considerations in the future.
Upon reading this article, what stood out was the infrastructure investments the Navy was proactively making to combat climate change. As a civilian, I did not realize branches of the military were taking proactive measures to respond and adapt to rising pressures from climate change. However, the question that remained for me is whether or not the organization, the Navy, has the ability to change its structure to embed this into their culture. The Navy’s goal is to provide combat power at short notice. What role / person within the organization is responsible and held accountable for mitigating against climate change? It seems that despite the good intentions of these efforts, in a dire situation, climate change might be overlooked. How does the Navy ensure that sustainability issues are acknowledged as critical to the mission, and not just a “nice to have”?
Great write-up. The military’s pragmatic approach to the threat of climate change is an under-reported but essential development, and you’ve addressed the real-world implications of climate change and military readiness nicely.
To your first question – while I recognize the military’s legacy as a forerunner of social progress on specific issues (e.g., desegregation, DADT), I think that framing is insufficiently expansive with respect to the issue of climate change. The threat of climate change, unlike other examples of socially regressive policy with respect to race, gender, or sexual orientation, is a practical and immediate readiness issue which immediately affects the posture of our military around the world. Clear-eyed assessments from the highest levels of the armed forces are unanimous in their belief that climate change is a risk to national security with many dire implications that you’ve highlighted – such as threats to existing installations and increased geopolitical strife driven by future resource scarcity and inhospitable climates.
Nearly seventy years ago, those advocating for integration of the armed forces could cite American values and equal treatment under the law as ideals worth embodying. Today, top commanders can – and should – do that and more, going beyond simply embodying our values of environmental stewardship and efficient use of resources and asserting the objective facts of the case to those who continue to frame climate change in partisan terms. I believe strongly that the objective facts plus the military’s history of clear-eyed pragmatism with respect to significant change adds gravity to the call to action against climate change, and will help drive the conversation forward in a way that (hopefully) can even permeate the political context we live in today.
Great article, and questions. I think the second question you pose is actually a bit more contentious as it actually questions the same philosophy that drives our need for a Navy to begin with. Many Americans question the massive U.S. military spending around the world to begin with. If the government agrees that we should be spending our own money to combat military problems abroad (granted that we may be legitimately doing that out of concerns that issues abroad could threaten us domestically), how is our spending to address climate change-driven threats any different? Does it purely come down to the fact that some people don’t believe in climate change, and the current administration may want to ignore it? The same argument could be made about the existing Navy spend on military threats. I think the more likely reason that this spend is so contentious is the time horizon. You cite that the floods are projected in 2100. Terrorism or war could happen any day, and I think that’s what truly differentiates what current spend will go towards.
Thanks for the insightful read! To answer your first question, I believe it makes sense for the Navy to take a stand on the issue of climate change. However, the Navy has maintained a strong reputation across all segments of the U.S. population, so they should focus on the less controversial aspects of it (such as the fact that the earth is getting warmer and sea levels are rising), but not taking a strong stand on issues that may divide the public (such as whether it’s caused by humans and what the appropriate government response should be).
On your second question, I believe the investments on climate change mitigation should focus on whether this is the right priority for the U.S. Navy as a whole. For instance, with the building of artificial islands in contested waters near China, the U.S. Navy could prioritize a policy that addresses this issue. Therefore, I believe the Navy should take a holistic approach to prioritizing its projects, especially if the time horizon is 100 years. If after this prioritization exercise the conclusion is to prioritize climate change response, I would support the investments the Navy is making.
Hi Scott – Thanks for the article. You raise some very interesting questions here. First off, I think it is not only acceptable for the military to be taking a stand on this issue, but is critical for them to do so. The military is responsible for the defense of the country and is expected to do so regardless of the current political climate in Washington. This includes being able to analyze and assess the risks from any event disrupting its ability to carry out its mission. Rising sea levels are not a new phenomenon the Navy is just starting to deal with, but is something that has been steadily occurring since the founding of the modern naval fleet. Having said that, I believe it is a major issue that the U.S. is not properly allocating costs that are resulting from this issue. Concealing or shuffling these costs around will only serve to delay the recognition of the importance of this issue and allow the denial of climate change to continue to linger in the political sphere. Finally, I am not so concerned about the Navy’s budget being used to combat a phenomenon that is affecting the entire world. While rising sea levels affect everyone, the improvements and investments being made by the military are primarily self-serving and in the interests of the American people.
Hi Scott, I loved this. To address your questions…
(1) I think there’s a fair argument to be made that any proactive measures against climate change require broad public cooperation and therefore it is not possible to “combat” climate change without engaging the public. Others may argue that the Navy’s role should be to adapt to the changing climate, but especially since combatting threats to our national security is their job description, I feel they are the right people for the job.
(2) In theory, I think it should be a separate fund for climate change. In practice, would not want Congress to eliminate it from the Navy’s budget because I don’t think the political willpower to create a Climate Change fund exists.