The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Is the Pentagon hyping climate change? Here, take a look.

(Department of Defense)

Let’s face it: Climate change can be a murky thing, hard to see and touch in the here and now. Except for some melting icecaps and vanishing species, it’s more future threat than current crisis.

So when the folks at the Pentagon went looking for photos to illustrate how global warming is “already beginning” to affect their 7,000 facilities, they must have been thrilled to discover an alarming image (above, far right) of a four-story building that collapsed when the permafrost melted right out from under it on a military base in Alaska.

There’s just one problem with that photo, which appears on the cover of the “adaptation roadmap” the Pentagon issued last fall: The building is not on a military base. It’s not even in Alaska.

It’s in Russia.

Moreover, the collapse of the building, a block of flats above the Arctic Circle in Russia’s eastern reaches, had nothing to do with climate change, according to the photographer, Vladimir E. Romanovsky, a geophysicist at the Permafrost Laboratory at the University of Alaska-Fairbanks. “It’s not global warming; it’s bad maintenance,” Romanovsky said in a telephone interview. “For the whole winter, there was hot water leaking in the basement.”

Pentagon officials were mortified when we here at the Energy and Environment blog alerted them to the photo’s provenance. They quickly swapped it out for an admittedly less dramatic shot of an Alaska roadway buckled by degraded permafrost (top far right in photo below).

“I’m embarrassed about it,” said John Conger, the acting assistant secretary of defense for energy, installations and environment. “The fact of the matter is we shouldn’t have used it. We asked the Army Corps of Engineers for a picture of permafrost damage in Alaska, and this is what they sent us.”

Problem solved! Except that the photo isn’t the only instance of Pentagon climate hype. The agency has been praised for taking a relatively proactive approach, compared with other federal agencies, to a problem that presents undeniable risks to property and national security. But at the Department of Defense, the immediacy of the threat has, at times, been a little overstated.

For example: Conger, who regularly discusses climate change with the press and in other public forums, often mentions that sea-level rise has forced Cape Canaveral Air Force Base to move its launch pads a quarter-mile inland so “they wouldn’t flood anymore.”

But that’s not true, said officials with both the Air Force, which manages one set of launch pads, and NASA, which manages another.

While Cape Canaveral has been battling beach erosion due to stronger storms, its launch pads have never flooded. And while there is a revised development plan for the cape that involves building future launch pads farther back from the sea – an “adaptation strategy for assured national access to space,” as one presentation put it – those launch pads have yet to be built.

“I think you just got a bad rumor somewhere along the line,” said Nancy Bray, deputy director of operations at John F. Kennedy Space Center.

In an interview, Conger acknowledged the error. “We’ve done some fact-checking today, because you raised the issue, and what was changed was the master plan,” not the actual location of the launch pads. “I’ve used that example in the past, and I won’t anymore.”

Still, Cape Canaveral does offer a genuine example of how the Pentagon is affected by global warming, Conger said. “The fact of the matter is … we’ve changed the planning document to take into account climate change.”

Finally, we come to the example that set this whole line of inquiry in motion: Conger’s assertion that two military bases are running out of water.

“There are a couple bases that run out of water in the West in twenty years,” Conger said last June at a conference on sea-level rise hosted by Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.) at Old Dominion University.  “What do you do when a base runs out of water? Truck it in like you do in Afghanistan?”

That’s an intriguing question, but one that turns out to be largely theoretical. Because the bases – Fort Irwin National Training Center in California’s Mojave Desert and Mountain Home Air Force Base in the high desert of southern Idaho – are decades away from running out of water.

At Fort Irwin, the Army has implemented a host of conservation measures – landscaping with desert plants rather than grass, for example – that have slashed annual water consumption from 1 billion gallons to around 700 million gallons, sharply extending the life of the existing water supply.

“The current survey from the [U.S. Geological Survey] tells us we have 40 to 50 years of water left,” said Muhammad Bari, director of public works at Fort Irwin.

The three basins that have supplied the fort for decades will eventually run dry, Bari said. But the Army has already identified an alternative water source a few miles away. “So we’ll be able to extend our life for the foreseeable future,” he said.

The situation is similar in Mountain Home, where the latest survey shows the regional groundwater aquifer has a “useful life” of 25 to 30 years, spokesman Shane Mitchell said via email. Because the base is one of Idaho’s largest employers, this news greatly troubled state leaders, who worried that the dwindling water supply might cause bureaucrats in Washington – i.e., Conger — to seek to close Mountain Home.

So last year, Gov. C.L. “Butch” Otter (R) sought and won legislative approval to purchase water rights for the base from the Snake River. And in August, J.R. Simplot Co., the potato company, agreed to sell its rights for $2.5 million.

Now those rights are held by the Idaho Water Resource Board, which will keep them in reserve “until we figure out how to get a project in place to get the water to Mountain Home,” said Brian Patton, the board’s executive director. That project, expected to cost as much as $35 million, involves pumping the water “600 vertical feet out of the canyon and across 11 miles of desert.”

“We’re hoping the Pentagon ponies up a major portion of it,” Patton said. To prod Washington to action, the agreement with Simplot says the company can repurchase the rights if the Pentagon fails to exercise them within seven years.

Presented with these facts, Conger argued that the “water thing” was not an exaggeration on his part. “This is actually a real issue,” he said. “Whether this is climate change or just climate, it’s fair to say we’re newly sensitized to some of these problems because of the focus on climate change” in Washington. “I would characterize Irwin and Mountain Home as canaries in the coal mine,” he said. Learning of their plight “led me to ask the question: Shouldn’t we be looking at all of our bases?” So he initiated a comprehensive study of water use “to really get a feel for how big our problem is.”

Conger is also in the midst of assessing the vulnerability of the nation’s military bases to other effects of climate change, including sea-level rise, excessive heat and wildfires. A full report is due out later this year.

“There’s been a series of things that we’ve been doing to try and be reasonable,” he said. “The water one is a future issue, identifying what’s coming down the road.”

David Titley, director of the Center for Solutions to Weather and Climate Risk at Penn State University and a former rear admiral in the Navy, said the Pentagon does deserve credit for taking “tangible, discrete actions … to address some of the impacts of climate change,” though few of them are “as exciting as buildings collapsing in the permafrost.” In particular, he said, planning is well underway for one of the most immediate threats: rising tides at Naval Station Norfolk.

Still, “overhyping is just as bad as ignoring or denying,” Titley said. “This is a challenge, not necessarily a crisis.”