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,
[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,