Internal changes to a draft Defense Department report de-emphasized the threats climate change poses to military bases and installations, muting or removing references to climate-driven changes in the Arctic and potential risks from rising seas. Graphic: The Washington Post

By Chris Mooney and Missy Ryan
10 May 2018

(The Washington Post) – Internal changes to a draft Defense Department report de-emphasized the threats climate change poses to military bases and installations, muting or removing references to climate-driven changes in the Arctic and potential risks from rising seas, an unpublished draft obtained by The Washington Post reveals.

The earlier version of the document, dated December 2016, contains numerous references to “climate change” that were omitted or altered to “extreme weather” or simply “climate” in the final report, which was submitted to Congress in January 2018. While the phrase “climate change” appears 23 separate times in the draft report, the final version used it just once.

Those and other edits suggest the Pentagon has adapted its approach to public discussion of climate change under President Trump, who has expressed doubt about the reality of a phenomenon that scientists agree presents an increasing danger to the planet. While military leaders have said they see a changing climate as a driver of instability worldwide, they have also sought to stay out of a politically charged debate about its causes.

Heather Babb, a Pentagon spokeswoman, declined to comment on the draft report, which outlines the results of the department’s first-ever survey of officials at different installations about the effects of climate change. The Post was not able to verify who made the changes reflected in the two documents.

“As highlighted in the report, the effects of climate are a national security issue with potential impacts to missions, operational plans, and installations,” Babb said in a statement. “DOD continues to focus on ensuring its installations and infrastructure are resilient to a wide range of threats, including climate. The Department has a proven record of planning and preparing for such threats.”

According to John Conger, who served as a senior Pentagon official under the Obama administration and was among the officials who initiated the multi-base survey that forms the basis of the report, employees from a dozen different Defense Department offices could have made changes to the text as it made its way through the bureaucracy’s clearance process, which often makes for “lowest common denominator” documents.

Conger, who is now director of the Center for Climate and Security, said the alterations “change the feeling of urgency in the report, but not its fundamental conclusion – that our military installations are clearly experiencing climate impacts.”

The final document, a 32-page report to Congress, was published more than a year after the earlier draft. It, like its earlier version, finds that out of more than 3,500 military sites around the world, 782 reported being affected by drought, 763 by major wind events, and 706 by flooding, along with other problems — results that drew considerable attention when they debuted in late January.

But the December 2016 draft was far more direct in its discussion of climate change and in particular the issue of sea-level rise — a well-known problem facing many military sites in coastal areas, from the sprawling naval base in Norfolk to the Ronald Reagan Ballistic Missile Defense Test Site in the Pacific’s remote Marshall Islands. Seas are currently rising by about 3.2 millimeters per year, and scientists fear the rise could accelerate in coming decades.

The final Pentagon document even omits, in several cases, the simple observation that learning about bases’ vulnerability to sea-level rise was a core part of the survey that is the subject of the report. That survey itself asked each military site how much of its area was located at elevations between 0-3, 0-6, 0-9, or 0-12 feet above sea level.

The final document also removes a map showing “those sites that indicated possible effects could occur due to increased mean sea level between 0-3 feet.” (A few references to sea-level rise do remain in the final version of the report and in the survey questions themselves, contained in an appendix.)

“The wordsmithing, not saying ‘climate,’ I could live with that,” said Dennis McGinn, a retired Navy vice admiral who served as assistant secretary of the Navy for energy, installations and environment in the Obama administration, when some of the changes were described to him. “But taking out … maps of critical areas of flooding, that’s pretty fundamental. And the Arctic, that’s huge, for a lot of reasons, not just for Department of Defense, but for the Coast Guard, and commercial shipping business.” [more]

Pentagon revised Obama-era report to remove risks from climate change

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