A senior Pentagon official warned the U.S. military is "not ready" to handle climate change, a national security issue that touches nearly every aspect of Defense Department planning.
"We are not where we should be, and now is beyond the time when we need to get in front of that challenge," Deputy Defense Secretary Kathleen Hicks told CNN.
Beyond rising sea levels and extreme weather, climate change has opened up new areas of strategic competition like the Arctic and intensified the competition for scarce resources, such as the raw materials required to make the lithium-ion batteries crucial to electric vehicles.
"It's something like $750 billion of investment worldwide going on in lithium-ion batteries," Hicks said. "The challenge is most of that is happening in China. They dominate that supply chain. It's a significant national security challenge for us."
Hicks, the first woman to hold the Pentagon's number two position, leads the military's different efforts on climate change. On a recent two-day trip to Michigan, Connecticut and Rhode Island, Hicks saw work on the first generation of electric military vehicles, including an electric light reconnaissance vehicle at GM Defense.
As the civilian automotive industry goes green, the Pentagon will follow.
"If we don't follow and be part of the solution, we will be left behind," Hicks said, "and our vehicle fleets won't be able to be supported."
But electric military vehicles pose their own set of challenges. Although an electric vehicle can be much quieter and emit less of a heat signature — critical advantages on a battlefield — it also needs to be recharged somehow. Refueling a gas vehicle requires supply lines to bring in the fuel, but it is still faster and more efficient than recharging an electric vehicle on a battlefield.
The temporary solution, Hicks says, is hybrid tactical vehicles. It's an interim solution to bridge the current gas vehicle fleet and the future electric fleet.
"I do see that future. It's not right around the corner, but we are definitely moving in that direction," said Hicks. "We have to."
The fight against climate change has been a cornerstone of the Biden administration's agenda. In his first week in office, President Joe Biden signed an executive order that put the climate crisis at the center of foreign policy and national security. "There is little time left to avoid setting the world on a dangerous, potentially catastrophic, climate trajectory," Biden wrote in the order.
The number of personnel days for National Guard members fighting wildfires in the Western United States has increased more than tenfold, from about 14,000 five years ago to 176,000 this year.
Climate change will be folded into the updated National Defense Strategy, due next year. In last year's budget, the Defense Department devoted $617 million to preparing for climate change and mitigating its effects. But this pales in comparison with the damage from extreme weather events.
Two hurricanes — Michael in 2018 and Sally in 2020 — caused $4 billion in damage at Tyndall Air Force Base and Pensacola Naval Air Station in Florida, according to a Department of Defense report. Hurricane Florence in 2018 caused about $3.5 billion in damages and repairs at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, and flooding at Offutt Air Force Base in Nebraska caused about $500 million in damages in 2019, the report said.
But the Defense Department still lacks a thorough understanding of the threat to its roughly 5,000 military facilities around the world. Last year, the department released its DoD Climate Assessment Tool to better comprehend the hazards of climate change based on historical data and future assessments. The department will use the tool to look at 1,400 facilities worldwide.
"Once we start to understand that we can't opt out of climate change in anything that we do — it's just a fact, a reality of how we think about the future — then we can start to really get in front of and be productive" on climate change, said Hicks.
For all of the Defense Department's efforts related to climate change, Hicks knows it can play only a small part in addressing the huge challenge.
The Defense Department did not send a top representative to the recent COP26 conference on climate in Glasgow, Scotland. But Hicks welcomed the conference as an opportunity for key players to work together on an issue bigger than any one nation.
"The United States can do a lot to help this world problem," she said, "but it can't do it alone."