U.S. Navy becomes serious about climate change

If the world’s leaders were to learn that all civilizations on Earth were going to be attacked by alien beings from outer space, and if they knew they had only a few years to respond, what do you think they would do?

Would they search for evidence to show that aliens could not possibly exist, declare the idea a hoax and insist that any defense of our planet would not be worth the cost? Or would they study ALL the evidence, analyze the risks and look for the best way to address the uncertain crisis?

I keep thinking about this hypothetical alien scenario when I hear certain members of Congress ignoring climate change and essentially spitting in the face of climate scientists by calling their best research a “hoax.”

Greenhouse warming may seem like an alien concept to some people, but here’s my point: If you run and hide until the aliens have landed, you face a much greater peril than if you face the problem in a practical way.

Now I’m all for discussing the many uncertainties — such as how high ocean waters may rise under various assumptions. But please don’t tell me that some basement scientist has disproved the idea that temperatures are rising or has shown that humans could not possibly affect the Earth’s climate.

Here’s what I’m wondering: Would those who turn their backs on climate change act the same way if the entire Earth were under attack from a common enemy? Maybe our nation’s leaders would be better able to deal with a direct attack, uncomplicated by the uncertainties of science.

That’s more than I wanted to say about people who choose to ignore climate change. What I really wanted to write about is the U.S. Navy’s serious approach to the topic, which can provide an example for the rest of us.


In May of 2009, the Chief of Naval Operations established “Task Force Climate Change,” designed to ensure that the Navy meets its national security obligations as the oceans and shorelines undergo significant changes.

Heading the task force is Rear Adm. Dave Titley, the Navy’s chief oceanographer. Titley said he was once a climate-change skeptic (see top video). But after he dug into the data, he changed his mind.

Now Titley is focused on updating the Navy’s mission, force alignment, tactics, facilities and research. He sees countries throughout the world working together to deal with the effects of climate change.

“In this context, climate change may be viewed as a ‘common enemy’ that will bring nations together towards a common end,” Titley said during the United Nations Conference on Climate Change two years ago in Copenhagen.

The Navy task force has called on more than 400 people from 120 government and non-government entities around the world to help the Navy prepare for the future.

Last year, when the task force outlined its priorities, Titley had this to say:

“We must ensure our Navy is fully mission-capable and ready to meet national requirements in the future. That responsibility includes anticipating the impact of changing climatic conditions on mission requirements, force structure and infrastructure.”

Titley outlines some of his thoughts in the video you’ll find at the bottom of this page.

Meanwhile, last month, Titley was pleased with new guidance from the National Research Council titled “National Security Implications of Climate Change for U.S. Naval Forces.”

The review committee stated in the report:

“Even the most moderate current trends in climate, if continued, will present new national security challenges for the U.S. Navy, Marine Corps, and Coast Guard. While the timing, degree, and consequence of future climate change impacts remain uncertain, many changes are already under way in regions around the world, such as in the Arctic, and call for action by U.S. naval leadership in response.”

The report made six recommendations for action:

  1. Support ratification of the United Nations Convention on the Law of
    the Sea:
    The Arctic and other regions are becoming prone to geopolitical disputes because of potential new shipping lanes and access to natural resources.
  2. Prepare for anticipated strain on Navy capabilities: More severe or more frequent droughts, floods, storms and other events can reduce available food and water supplies, calling for increased humanitarian aid and putting greater stress on governments around the world. Geopolitical conditions in the Arctic may require increased ship deployments, including specialized vessels such as icebreakers.
  3. Address vulnerabilities at coastal installations: Sea level rise will occur at different rates in different places. Each naval installation should assess its specific risks and develop a plan to maintain capabilities.
  4. Consider climate change effects in relation to U.S. allies and their militaries: Vulnerability assessments should be conducted at overseas installations, taking into account the risks of localized conditions. To cover contingencies, develop or expand maritime partnerships with other nations.
  5. Address technical underpinnings that allow the Navy to operate throughout the world, especially in the polar regions: The Navy will need to maintain its navigation and communication systems as well as oceanographic data as it increases its mobility. Also, submarine movements and training should be increased in the Arctic.
  6. Support research and development with implications for Navy operations: Consider a philosophy of increasing access to previously classified information that can aid climate researchers and ultimately help the Navy prepare for changes. The Navy should become more involved in specific research, such as sea-level rise and ice depths in specific locations.

All the while, the Navy is working hard to address its contribution to greenhouse gases and its use of nonrenewable energy supplies. For examples of this effort, check out the latest issue of “Currents” (Winter 2011), the Navy’s environmental magazine.

One last thing: Titley is one of many people featured in a new PBS documentary called “Earth: The Operators’ Manual” about creating a sustainable society. The program is scheduled to air on many stations (including Spokane’s KSPS) tonight at 9 p.m. After that, it should be available as streaming audio on the “Earth: The Operators’ Manual” website.

KCTS, Channel 9 in Seattle, will delay the program until April 24 at 3 p.m.

The video below describes Titley’s views on why the Navy cannot ignore climate change.

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