Last Tuesday local leaders gathered in the wardroom of the Battleship North Carolina to attend lunch and a lecture on the national security impacts of climate change. Organized by the American Security Project, the nonprofit and nonpolitical organization brings together leaders from business, the government, and the military, to promote an honest dialogue about—and forge solutions to—the problems America faces.
Capt. Terry Bragg, USN (Ret.), the battleship’s executive director, hosted the event, and in his opening remarks, he said the battleship “took a whoopin’” during Hurricane Florence. More so, it caused damage upward of $2.1 million to the visitor’s center. The ship actually floated during the high-water level following the storm. To address concerns about the local impacts of sea-level rise (SLR), the battleship plans to transition to a new concept he calls “living with water.” It mitigates and manages impacts by allowing water to transition across the property via a series of canals—similar to how the Dutch have done it for many years.
Still, climate change will have other impacts as well. Due to residual bumps from Hurricane Florence, projections for 2019 will be down $770,000. That’s tens of thousands of people who won’t visit Wilmington to stay in hotels or eat in restaurants. Added to the projected loss is the $3.5 to $4 million that will have to be spent to renovate the visitors center and park, and the Living with Water project, which is expected to cost $2.5 to $3 million.
Capt. Bragg summed it up succinctly: “Climate change costs money.”
Mayor Bill Saffo spoke as well, and recognized how Wilmington’s great coastal location comes with “the reality we are more vulnerable to the impacts of climate change and associated SLR.” He noted Hurricane Florence was a wake-up call, which impacted our housing stock—especially affordable housing. It also damaged our state’s infrastructure, and caused flooding along 1-40 and 1-95. The mayor is working to build a coalition with governments at the city, state and federal levels. “We want to increase investment in resiliency and recovery,” he said. He is calling on the state to provide millions of dollars in additional investments in eastern NC to shore up public buildings, create additional shelter capacity and revamp the emergency operations center (which went down during the height of the storm).
Action already has been taken by the city to address the problems SLR poses. In 2013 the city, county and CFPUA launched the Community Resilience Pilot Project. “The study is focused on identifying strategies to reduce the vulnerability of the city to rising seas, flooding and extreme weather,” according to Mayo Saffo. The study developed a suite of adaptation options, which include relocation of critical facilities and incorporating SLR into building codes. The city has focused millions of dollars into improving stormwater drainage and reducing future risk—projects to serve as a road map to other communities facing similar challenges.
“After this latest round of hurricanes and severe weather events,” Mayor Saffo said, “now has to be the time for our leaders to step up and make necessary investments and policy changes to help communities prepare for what lies ahead.”
Brigadier General Stephen Cheney, USMC (Ret.), CEO of the American Security Project, gave the keynote speech. He began by pointing out the last five years have been the hottest in recorded history. Rising levels of CO2 in the atmosphere are to blame.
“It’s a proven fact,” the general said. He iterated how our priority has to be reducing these emissions by transitioning to alternative forms of energy, such as wind, solar or nuclear.
“It’s an accelerant to instability, a threat multiplier,” General Cheney noted. It’s exacerbated the current crisis in Syria. From 2006 to 2011, they had the worst drought in history, which caused farmers to abandon their fields and go to Aleppo, where ISIS took advantage of the instability caused by a wave of immigrants left without a way to feed themselves. This domino effect can be seen in sub-Saharan Africa, especially at Lake Chad, which has lost 90 percent of its water in recent years. It has displaced another large number of people, who are being taken advantage of by Boko Haram, another terrorist group. If we continue at this rate, Gen. Cheney says, Sub-Saharan Africa will become the “hotbox of the world,” with daytime temperatures reaching over 140 degrees.
“You can’t live there,” he tells. “So there’s another 20-30 million refugees. I tell my European friends, if they thought they had a migration crisis from the Arab Spring now, just wait 20 years.”
Eventually, this migration will cause instability. The proverbial storms on the strategic horizon are made much worse by climate change.
All of it comes at a time when climate change is taking its toll on our military bases. In our own backyard, Camp LeJeune has 30 miles of shoreline marines use for training. Sea-level rise and erosion on barrier islands wash it away eventually. Plus, it endured a lot during Florence: building damage, from flooding and wind, reached $3.6 billion dollars.
“The Corps didn’t budget for that; they didn’t know it was coming,” he said.
Naval Station Norfolk faces a unique problem, too. Their land is sinking and the water is rising, causing piers, where they service ships, to go underwater. Raising piers is an expensive undertaking. To make matters worse, the base itself floods a few dozen times per year from high tides (similar to how our own Water Street or Battleship Road floods). It prohibits sailors from getting on base.
The readiness of our troops is being affected. Cheney was the commanding general of Parris Island in 1999 when Hurricane Floyd hit, and had to evacuate 10,000 Marines in buses from the 13-foot elevation island. He also spoke of how there have been more “Black Flag days,” when temperatures reach high enough to cancel outdoor training exercises, in recent years. It all adds up to impact readiness.
“Climate change is a national security threat,” General Cheney assured. “We know what’s causing it, and we can do things to prevent it. . . . We’re making headway, but we have a long ways to go.”
It is unfortunate the tangible and rapidly-worsening problem of what affects all of us equally has been so politicized. Some elected leaders still deny the fact it’s happening at all (although it is encouraging to see, after the effects of Florence, some shift toward rationality on behalf of Thom Tillis, who, along with still-in-denial David Rouzer, sent a representative to the talk). The U.S. is the second worldwide carbon polluter, sandwiched between China at number one and India at number three, and we remain the only country to pull out of the Paris Accord. Most of our local leaders seem to get it; they have to, given our recent storm history, and the fact Wilmington is surrounded by water. But what will it take for national-level leaders, like our commander in chief, to see change must happen, to understand the grave necessity for action?