Michael Nelson floats in a boat made from a metal tub and fishing floats after the Neuse River went over its banks and flooded his street during Hurricane Florence September 13, 2018 in New Bern, North Carolina. Some parts of New Bern could be flooded with a possible 9-foot storm surge as the Category 2 hurricane approaches the United States.
Hurricane Florence pummels the Carolinas
01:34 - Source: CNN

Editor’s Note: CNN national security analyst John Kirby, a retired rear admiral in the US Navy, was a spokesman for both the State and Defense departments in the Obama administration. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his. View more opinion articles on CNN.

CNN  — 

This past week the US military has been preparing for the aftermath of three storms: two in the Pacific and, of course, Hurricane Florence barreling in on the East Coast.

The Navy sortied dozens of ships out of harm’s way. Those ships will be equipped and properly stocked to help needy communities on the ground if need be. The Coast Guard is preparing its helicopter and small boat fleet to rescue those in peril. And the National Guard in several states is being called up.

It will comfort many Americans to know their troops are ready to pitch in. This is common practice for our military, coming to the aid of communities when requested by local authorities to do so. Last year was no exception, as servicemen and women helped save lives, clear debris and rebuild after each of the major hurricanes we experienced.

I hope many Americans also understand that many of those same troops will be unable to comfort their own families, leaving them behind and very much in harm’s way. I’ve had to do that myself, back in 1995, catching the last flight out of Pensacola to join my unit just as Hurricane Opal roared ashore. It’s a tough thing to do. But, as an old Navy shipmate of mine reminded me today, it comes with the job.

“You prepare your family,” he said. “You prepare your ship. Then, you prepare to support the country or our partners if they need our help. This is what hurricane season means for us.”

He’s right, of course. But I also hope hurricane season reminds us all – not just the military, not just the Navy – that we aren’t fully prepared for the devastating impacts of climate change. And that lack of preparation is only getting more pronounced as the Trump administration continues to roll back years of responsible and bipartisan efforts to address the challenge.

Just this week, as the President warned people to stay out of Florence’s path, his team is preparing to make it easier for energy companies to release methane into the atmosphere. By a level of magnitude, methane is far more capable than carbon dioxide of trapping heat in the atmosphere.

Now, I just can hear the critics. We’ve been slammed by hurricanes for centuries, they’ll say. They come and they go. Thunderstorms off the west coast of Africa move out over warm ocean water, where they run smack dab into converging equatorial winds. Those winds and that warm water fuel a heat exchange that sets it all spinning and – boom, you’ve got a hurricane.

It’s just nature, right? Inevitable.

Well, no. Not entirely. The water in that ocean is now warmer than it’s ever been, fueling bigger, more – and more frequent – storms. Since 1972, there have been an average of six Atlantic hurricanes per year. Last year, there were 10. And we humans are much to blame for that.

“Human-induced climate change continues to warm the oceans,” claims a recent study published in Earth’s Future, an online scientific journal. “The resulting environment, including higher ocean heat content and sea surface temperatures, invigorates tropical cyclones to make them more intense, bigger, and longer lasting and greatly increases their flooding rains.”

We’re also paying a lot more money to recover from these things. A new estimate out Wednesday predicts Florence may well cost more than $170 billion in rebuilding costs alone. That would make it $45 billion more expensive than last year’s Hurricane Harvey, which itself was second only in damages to Hurricane Katrina at $160 billion.

Hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria cost a combined total of $265 billion. That’s equal to almost one-third the Defense Department’s budget for this year and just about as much as the 2019 budget requests of the Departments of Agriculture, Commerce, Education, Energy, Health and Human Services, Homeland Security and HUD – combined.

Not to mention, of course, the loss of life. We now know that nearly 3,000 Puerto Rican residents were tragically killed by Hurricane Maria alone, making it the deadliest Atlantic hurricane in almost 15 years.

So, what to do about all this?

Well, yes, batten down the hatches. It’s not likely to get any better any time soon, so people living in coastal areas need to make sure they are ready – and for longer periods of time. We need to invest in better infrastructure: stronger bridges and abutments, better drainage, berms and levies. And we should continue to explore opportunities in renewable energy and encourage climate-healthy policies by our local governments, communities and businesses.

All this will cost more money, no question. But it’s a pittance compared to the death and destruction we’ll be paying for by ignoring the scientific evidence staring us plainly in the face.

It’s not fake news. It’s not a Chinese hoax. It’s irrefutable.

According to last year’s Global Change Research Program Climate Science special report, global temperature has increased by nearly 2.0°F (or 1.0°C) since the turn of the last century, making this the warmest period in the history of modern civilization. The previous three years alone were the warmest ever recorded on Planet Earth. That means more drought, more polar melting, more tidal flooding, more sea-level rise, more forest fires and, yes, more violent storms.

And make no mistake, climate change imparts real national security risk. More destructive weather patterns in various parts of the world mean more famine, more territorial grabs, more refugees and more instability our troops may be required to help alleviate.

The effort and resources we expend to help deal with climate-induced crises, while necessary and even altruistic, also drains resources and time away from other important military missions. To be sure, our troops train for humanitarian assistance and they’re very good at it. No one should question the value of such capability. But when they’re demonstrating that capability, they’re not doing other things.

Then, too, is the threat to our military installations. I remember visiting Norfolk with then-Secretary of State John Kerry back in 2015. He boarded a warship pierside, where Navy officials walked him through all the extraordinary efforts they were taking to stem the effects of sea level rise right there on that base and in that port. It was serious. And it was sobering. By some estimates, the Hampton Roads area – home to the biggest naval base in the world – could see more than 12 inches of rising seawater between now and 2050.

Norfolk is by no means alone. A recent Defense Department climate impact study found that nearly half of 1,684 military sites reported damage from climate-related phenomena, calling it an “unacceptable impact” on military operations.

Kerry put his finger on it. “We have a moral responsibility to protect the future of our nation and our world,” he said. “That is our charge. That is our duty. And for our shipmates, all of us, the generations that follow in their footsteps, we have to get this right.”

Hurricane Florence is coming. That much is inevitable. We’ll clean up. We’ll rebuild. In the weeks and months to come, we’ll all help the people of the Carolinas get back on their feet. We’ll all be shipmates.

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    But we shouldn’t be afraid or unwilling to take a longer, larger view of the bigger storm brewing out there. What shouldn’t be inevitable is the devastating impact of climate change.

    We still have time to get this right.