Small Wars Journal

The Time for “What’s Next?” is Now: Preparing for a Climate Changed Future Within our Military and Coastal Communities

Sat, 07/28/2018 - 12:12am

The Time for “What’s Next?” is Now: Preparing for a Climate Changed Future Within our Military and Coastal Communities


Madeleine Terry, Elizabeth Andrews and Heather Messera


The widespread effects of Arctic melting and climate change on our society and overall well-being are relatively well understood today, but what about the effects of climate change on national security? Unbeknownst to many, the impact of sea level rise on our country’s national security infrastructure is concerning now and becoming more threatening every day. On Monday, July 9, 2018, The Center for Climate and Security, the Virginia Coastal Policy Center at William & Mary (W&M) Law School, and the W&M Whole of Government Center of Excellence held a forum on preparing for this climate changed future, addressing the impacts that climate change will have on our military and coastal communities and national security efforts as a whole.


The timely and much-needed forum brought together over 70 civilian, military, inter-agency, and academic experts to discuss the best ways to create a Whole of Government response to the risks that sea level rise and a warming Arctic present to our country and, in particular, to the Hampton Roads region of Virginia – home to 29 separate federal entities and 17 major federal facilities. Among the key themes of the day were: the national security threats of sea level rise on Hampton Roads; the national security implications of a warming Arctic; the importance of inter-agency and Whole of Government approaches to successful resiliency efforts; and the creative ways in which the Commonwealth of Virginia and other high-risk coastal regions are facing the challenges of climate change and sea level rise as a community.


The Honorable John Conger, Director for The Center for Climate and Security, and former Assistant Secretary of Defense for Energy, Installations, and Environment, set a strong tone for the day’s conversation, stating: “It doesn’t take a science degree to see that the Arctic is melting. It is time for ‘what’s next.’ We are at a point in the conversation where we have established that it is time to prepare. We have the foresight and more importantly, the responsibility to prepare for the eventualities that will follow.” W&M Law School Professor Elizabeth Andrews ’84, Professor of the Practice of Law and Director of the Virginia Coastal Policy Center, echoed Conger’s sentiments and noted such preparations must be regional cooperative solutions where all aspects of our government work together and do not stop at the military “fence line.”


Mission Melting Arctic: The Effects of a Changing Climate on Maritime Security


“The Arctic is the harbinger of what is to come.” – Rear Admiral David W. Titley, USN (ret.), Founding Director, Center for Solutions to Weather and Climate Risk, and Advisory Board Member, The Center for Climate and Security


The warming Arctic has the potential to play a greater role in geopolitics and America’s national security than ever before. The melting Greenland ice sheet has the capacity to eventually raise sea level height as much as 7 meters in some regions. As warming Arctic ice becomes water, a new domain will open for maritime tourism, trade, and naval traffic.  Such changes may create potential friction between the states that border the Arctic Ocean, as well as with other states that will want to leverage its waters for their own economic and geostrategic gains.


The first panel of the day, chaired by Dr. Donglai Gong, Assistant Professor, Virginia Institute of Marine Science, W&M, made one lesson about the Arctic abundantly clear – what happens in the Arctic does not stay in the Arctic. Gong drew from his numerous field experiments in the Far North to emphasize the extent to which long term decreases in sea ice will impact marine transportation, resource development, and national defense. This is particularly true in the Hampton Roads region, home to the greatest a critical mass of military installations in the United States. Titley provided a full picture of the impacts 1-2 meters of sea rise within the next century will have on the infrastructure and readiness of forces stationed in coastal Virginia. Titley and The Honorable Sherri Goodman, Senior Advisor for International Security with The Center for Climate and Security, examined the national security implications of these changes in greater detail. Building upon Gong’s points that the central Arctic will be summertime ice-free during our lifetime, the two began a conversation about the role that “milder” Arctic conditions will have on China’s ability to create a new “polar silk road,” laying down infrastructure and trade routes which would be free from any single major power’s governing authority and which would avoid historical strategic pressure points in the Straits of Malacca and elsewhere. All panelists agreed that an appropriate understanding of the situation in the Arctic and an appropriate policy response would require significant discussions within and preparations by the national security and military communities.


Scott Genovese, Director of the Global Maritime Operational Threat Response (MOTR) Coordination Center, concluded the panel by narrowing in on this idea of inter-agency cooperation and preparation. Focusing on the processes that his organization must design and deploy in a crisis, he outlined that Whole of Government approaches are imperative to successfully respond to national security threats.  He suggested that trust-based networking and collaboration between agencies, such as the Navy (DoD) and Coast Guard (DHS), are vital as we face increasingly unexplored and complex challenges in the evolving Arctic maritime domain.


Keynote Speech: Resiliency and Disaster Preparedness in Virginia


“A resilient Virginia is one that maintains services and livelihoods after a natural disaster and covers all catastrophic perils, not just flooding. Resiliency to me is not just about infrastructure security but also the security of human health, property, our economy, and quality of life.  Our plan is to build and secure so that when an event hits, we can weather it and be back online as soon as possible with as little disruption as possible.”The Honorable Joshua Saks, Deputy Secretary of Natural Resources, Commonwealth of Virginia


Stepping up to the podium just four weeks into his role as Deputy Secretary of Natural Resources for the Commonwealth of Virginia, Saks demonstrated his passion for disaster preparedness and mitigation and his determination to create a more resilient Virginia.


Throughout his keynote speech, Saks gave audience members a peek into how the Commonwealth of Virginia and the Administration of Governor Ralph Northam are working to make climate change and sea level rise a priority. Saks emphasized the need to extend flood plains, lower flood insurance, improve community education on the risks within the region, and, most importantly, the need to develop a Whole of Government response to the issues facing the area and the entire country. In his closing remarks, Saks struck a final note that natural disasters are not just catastrophes, but also opportunities to rebuild in a better way and to mitigate the impacts of similar events in the future.


The Water’s Cutting Edge: Creative Responses to the Security Risks of the Rising Seas


“The geophysical architecture of our world is changing, and we are moving too slowly to mitigate the risk. It is not just the military bases and facilities that need creative responses, but also the neighborhoods and communities surrounding them.” – Lukas Haynes ’93, Executive Director, David Rockefeller Fund


While the national conversation is just beginning to reveal the true complexity of the interplay among climate change, sea-level rise, and national security, experts are developing more concrete response options and clearer forecasts than ever before. In the second and final panel, chaired by Andrews, participants took a deeper dive into the creative ways we can build resiliency, touching on how other high-risk regions across the country are spearheading efforts to rise to the challenge.


In his introductory remarks, Haynes asserted that national and homeland security impacts have the highest potential to unite law and policy makers of good faith behind common sense solutions to the basic security challenge of climate change. Conger noted that, contrary to popular belief, these common-sense solutions are not always high tech, do not require extraordinary efforts, and often only require wiser spending of currently allocated resources rather than additional funding. Andrews noted that communities do not use one pinpoint number for predicted sea level rise; predictions are set forth in ranges, which change as we accumulate more data. Conger recommended the “Four P’s” of short term success to combatting climate change: upfront Planning; Partnering with federal, state, local, and private entities; improving Policies; and Protecting your mission, not your infrastructure. By providing examples of successful responses to climate threats such as the San Diego Greater Port District and Commander Navy Region Southwest partnership, the Charleston Resilience Network, and the Southeast Florida Climate Change Compact, Rear Admiral Ann Phillips, USN (ret.) M.B.A ’16, Advisory Board Member of The Center for Climate and Security, illustrated why, in particular, the “participation” aspect of problem solving is integral to the success of resiliency efforts. Philips stressed that if we continue to attempt to “solve” sea level rise one city at a time, if businesses continue to remain inactive in finding solutions, and if there is no overarching or leading entity to pull individual organizations together, we will remain in a stove-piped, under-resourced situation where programs and municipalities continue to compete with one another. Rather, she noted that we should be finding regional solutions that benefit all stakeholders – military installations as well as the surrounding communities.


Throughout this panel, participants agreed that resiliency efforts in our country will not be successful without Whole of Government, and even Whole of Society, trust and collaboration, regardless of the chosen method of response.


The Future of Climate Change and National Security


While it is almost impossible to determine the precise long-term effects of climate change and sea level rise on our world, we have unprecedented foresight into how they will affect certain regions, including our coastal military installations and the surrounding communities.  It is possible, and crucial, that our states and federal government begin to plan and prepare for what comes next. Regardless of the specific circumstances faced by each community, the most successful efforts to combat the national security challenges posed by climate change will surely come through improved communication, coordination, and collaboration between all levels of government and the private sector.


Collaborative events like this climate and national security forum are essential to supporting and creating successful resiliency efforts and it is the continuation of similar open-dialogue events that will allow the Whole of Government collaboration we need to become a reality.


To watch the event, click here.  For additional information, please contact


Read more:

The Center for Climate and Security

Virginia Coastal Policy Center

W&M Whole of Government Center of Excellence

About the Author(s)

Heather Messera is the Senior Fellow for Government Affairs at the Center for Climate and Security. She has almost two decades of experience in the defense policy world, enjoys analyzing over-the-horizon threats to national security, and is a graduate of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (B.A.) and the U.S. Naval War College (M.A.).

Elizabeth Andrews is the Director of William & Mary Law School’s Virginia Coastal Policy Center. Professor Andrews is a graduate of the College of William and Mary and received her Juris Doctor degree, summa cum laude, from the Washington College of Law at American University.

Madeleine Terry graduated William & Mary in 2015, focusing on international relations. Terry is currently working as a research assistant for the William & Mary Whole of Government Center for Excellence.



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