The Defense Department is actively engaging a two-pronged approach to confront climate change by avoiding the unmanageable while at the same time managing the unavoidable, according to one DOD climate official.

During Earth Day remarks on Monday at Brown University’s Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs, DOD Climate Resilience Program Director Kate White emphasized how seriously DOD takes climate change amid increased demands on military operations at home and around the world. 

“The issue here that we face is that environmental conditions [directly affect] military planning, and they affect every kind of decision making that we do,” she said. “For instability, competition and conflict, we have to pay attention to the climate.” 

To meet the challenges presented by climate change, White explained how DOD is actively pursuing the concept of climate resilience, which refers to the ability to anticipate, prepare for, and adapt to changing climate conditions — while at the same time responding to, and rapidly recovering from, climate disruptions. 

In working to achieve such resilience, White said DOD combines the concepts of adaptation and mitigation.  

“When we talk about adaptation, what we’re really talking about here is managing the unavoidable changes that are coming,” said White.  

As an example of this, White mentioned data showing that, even if all greenhouse gas emissions ceased tomorrow, there would still be hundreds of years of rising sea levels and atmospheric temperature changes that would impact the planet.  

“We have enough information to adapt now; we don’t have to wait for perfect information,” said White, comparing making climate adaptation decisions to making decisions on the battlefield.   

Turning to mitigation, White said that management of greenhouse gases is a top priority for DOD. 

“If we don’t do anything about greenhouse gases … the air is going to get warmer and we’re going to be facing the same kind of extreme events that we’re facing right now.”  

In preparing for future changes to the climate to maintain climate resilience, White said that it’s imperative to look at the widest possible range of models. 

“If we’re looking at [the models] for decision making, [DOD needs] to know what all of those futures are, so that we can [ensure] that our equipment will work under those conditions, our people will function, our planes will fly, our boats will be able to move at speed,” she said. 

White provided a series of examples of how recent changes in the climate have directly impacted separate branches of the military, including an uptick of flooding on U.S. and overseas military installations, thawing permafrost in the Arctic, and a strain on Air Force resources due to an increased demand to fight wildfires. 

“You can’t adequately prepare for the future if you’re constantly reacting to what’s going on now,” said White.    

Moving forward, White said DOD will continue implementing its climate adaptation plan by making “tough decisions” on how to best manage installations that are vulnerable to climate change, working to decrease operational energy use, and supporting innovation. 

“We have such innovative people in America, [and] we need to put them to work,” said White. “We need to … support them adequately to come up with the kinds of technological innovations we need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.”  

White presented her Earth Day remarks — followed by a brief Q&A — to a group of military fellows who are completing their professional military education at Brown University’s Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs. According to the institute’s website, the program provides “U.S. and international military officers with the opportunity to spend one year auditing graduate-level courses, engaging in security-related seminars, and participating in a security-focused research working group with faculty, students and policy practitioners.”

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