The National Guard Bureau’s top officer says he believes the world’s climate is changing, and that this year’s deadly and destructive hurricane season underscores the importance of keeping Guardsmen dispersed across the United States so they can respond quickly to natural disasters.
“I do think that the climate is changing, and I do think that it is becoming more severe,” Air Force Gen. Joseph L. Lengyel said Tuesday. “I do think that storms are becoming bigger, larger, more violent. You know, I never know if this one speck of time is an anomaly or not, but, you know, we’ve all seen now three Category-5 storms that popped out in a period of a month.”
Lengyel’s comments aren’t quite accurate. While hurricanes Irma and Maria reached Category-5 strength, hurricanes Harvey and Jose topped out as Category-4 storms. But they illustrate, nonetheless, the general’s concern now and in the future. They are worries that senior Pentagon officials, including Defense Secretary Jim Mattis also have expressed for years, but break with President Trump, who has questioned whether climate change is a hoax.
Lengyel, speaking with reporters in Washington, said the National Guard will continue responding to natural disasters as a part of its “job jar” and preparing for them alongside local first-responders across the country. To do so, he added, the National Guard must keep people and equipment staged in areas where mega storms and other environmental catastrophes are likely to put people and property at risk.
The general’s comments come amid a review that could consolidate some National Guard installations across the country. Lengyel acknowledged Tuesday that there is room for some consolidation in areas where population has diminished, but advocated keeping Guardsmen dispersed.
“Whether that’s in Oklahoma where you have a lot of tornadoes, or whether that’s in the Northwest where you have a lot of fires, or whether it’s in the gulf or on the East Coast, we need force structure that is in all 54 states, territories and the District of Columbia so we can respond,” he said. “It doesn’t work for me to put all of our forces on one base in any particular state.”
In recent weeks, the National Guard has activated thousands of members to respond to Harvey, which made landfall in Texas on Aug. 25, and Irma, which devastated islands in the Caribbean beginning Sept. 6 and came ashore in Florida on Sept. 10. Lengyel said that Guardsmen and women, and their equipment, already are being prepared to respond to Hurricane Maria. The storm devastated Dominica, an island commonwealth located in the Lesser Antilles, on Monday, and is expected to reach Puerto Rico, a U.S. territory, by Thursday.
“Once the storm passes, we can move them in, and that’s what we do,” the general said.
The Pentagon has called climate change a global security threat, saying it could degrade living conditions, jeopardize human safety and undermine nations’ ability to meet the basic needs of their citizens.
A changing climate will have real impacts on our military and the way it executes its missions,” according to a 2014 assessment conducted by defense officials in the Obama administration. “The military could be called upon more often to support civil authorities, and provide humanitarian assistance and disaster relief in the face of more frequent and more intense natural disasters.”
Mattis and other members of the Trump administration, such as Navy Secretary Richard V. Spencer, have adhered to that point of view. Mattis, responding in testimony to questions posed by the Senate Armed Services Committee after his confirmation, wrote that climate change is “impacting stability in areas of the world where our troops are operating today” and that it is appropriate for American military commanders worldwide to incorporate such “drivers of instability” into their planning.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has said that while it is too soon to say definitively that human activities have caused an increase in hurricanes, they may already have done so. Regardless, global warming is expected to cause an increase in tropical cyclones in the future.
“Anthropogenic warming by the end of the 21st century will likely cause tropical cyclones globally to be more intense on average” by 2 to 11 percent, according to a NOAA assessment. “This change would imply an even larger percentage increase in the destructive potential per storm, assuming no reduction in storm size.”
Lengyel, asked Tuesday if the National Guard needs more boats, high-water vehicles or other equipment to prepare for climate change, said that the military officials consider that, but he continues to make sure that anything they buy “first and foremost” can be used in combat.
“I look at equipment that works for both the war-fight piece and the homeland piece,” he said. “It’s rare that we have a domestic-only capability.”