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DOD Combines Adaptation, Mitigation to Confront Climate Change

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.

A person in business attire stands at a lectern in front of a sign that reads “Watson Institute.”
Kate White
Kate White, director of the Defense Department’s Climate Resilience Program, discusses how DOD is tackling climate change during remarks at Brown University’s Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs, April 23, 2024.
Photo By: Courtesy photo
VIRIN: 240423-D-D0439-001Y

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.  

A sailor uses an ice auger during daylight to cut into snowy ground as another sailor approaches. A submarine can be seen in the distance.
Ice, Ice Baby
Naval Special Warfare operators and Norwegian naval special operations commandos test ice thickness near the USS Hampton submarine in the Arctic Ocean to establish a landing zone for a helicopter during Arctic Edge, March 9, 2024. The exercise is designed to bolster skills in an Arctic environment.
Photo By: Navy Petty Officer Jeff Atherton
VIRIN: 240309-N-AP176-1277Y

"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. 

A helicopter flies with a water bucket attached.
Hawaii Wildfires
Hawaii National Guard soldiers drop water on wildfire areas in Kaanapali, Maui, Aug. 26, 2023. The soldiers were supporting Maui County authorities with wildfire recovery and response efforts as part of Joint Task Force 5-0.
Photo By: Army National Guard Spc. Sean Walker
VIRIN: 230826-Z-LU739-2042Y

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. 

Civilians in reflective vests stand outdoors.
Power Team
Members of the Army Corps of Engineers temporary power team discuss their mission in Kahului, Hawaii, Aug. 23, 2023. The team recently received a certificate of appreciation from the White House for its work installing generators and providing electricity following the Hawaii wildfires.
Photo By: Joseph Paul Bruton, DOD
VIRIN: 230824-A-PZ119-1125Y

"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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