Storm clouds loom as the USS Farragut conducts group- training exercises in the Atlantic on 17 September 2014 (© U.S. Navy photo by Mass-Communication Specialist 3rd Class Jackie Hart, Flickr Commons) The day before President Obama convened the United Nations Security Council late last month to address the threat of foreign fighters in Iraq and Syria, he took part in the largest summit of world leaders ever to meet in pursuit of a comprehensive climate change agreement. It was a good thing he did, as there is plenty of environmental policy work left to do if governments are to improve upon the false start that the 2009 Copenhagen summit has come to represent.

There is also every reason to anticipate that nearer-term issues like terrorism and Ebola may distract the United States from driving international change on emissions and clean energy. But, as U.S. Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel made clear last week in Lima, Peru, the U.S. Armed Forces aren't waiting around to see what—if any—progress will be made in the run-up to the Paris climate summit scheduled to take place in late 2015. Instead, they mean to adapt to those aspects of climate change that, at this point, no amount of international cooperation will be able to reverse.

The 2014 Quadrennial Defense Review articulated the U.S. Department of Defense’s strategic interest in climate change for its potential to impair U.S. military operations, exacerbate global instability, and affect the roles and missions of U.S. Armed Forces. The Department’s new Climate Change Adaptation Roadmap builds on that document, giving form and direction for an enterprise-wide iterative process to determine how U.S. forces should posture themselves for more challenging environments.

The roadmap is garnering a lot of public attention, but the initiatives it sets out are not new to one branch of the Armed Forces in particular: the Navy. Of all the services, the Navy is the farthest along in its own investigation of climate change, a fact due in no small part to its predominantly coastal profile and a planning outlook in which the issue of how to sustain global fleet operations predominates.

Practical and formative experiences with sizeable weather events in recent years have also done much to confirm for Navy leadership the wisdom of determining what exactly a changing climate entails for a service with sprawling operational responsibilities and highly concentrated domestic support facilities. The havoc wrought by Hurricane Ivan on Pensacola, Florida, in 2004 demonstrated how even a middling storm could disrupt the fleet's primary aviation and cryptology training centers for weeks. The 2010 flooding of the Navy's personnel management command in Millington, Tennessee, brought the service’s assignment and promotion systems to a standstill, and reduced its leadership to communicating with the on-scene commander via Facebook. This event ultimately generated a reexamination of the resiliency of the Navy’s information networks in locations previously thought to be secure.

Evidence of a changing climate has also forced the Navy to recognize new demands on its capabilities. The Navy’s massive response to the catastrophic Indian Ocean tsunami in 2005 recalibrated the service’s outlook on disaster response as a core mission set. Naval response to Hurricane Katrina’s destructive force later that same year gave leaders a glimpse into a future where the requirement for military support to civil authorities might grow exponentially. More recently, the U.S. Seventh Fleet’s response to Japan's calamitous blend of earthquakes, tsunamis, and nuclear fallout during the 2011 Fukushima incident provided a vivid example of how nature and technology can interact to amplify environmental threats to U.S. fielded forces, test naval capacity to render assistance to an ally, and raise the costs of disaster response for the American people.

Guided-missile cruiser USS Princeton displays the Navy Energy Security flag during the Great Green Fleet demonstration portion of the Rim of the Pacific (RIMPAC) 2012 exercise off Pearl Harbor (© U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Ryan Mayes, Flickr Commons)

Since the Navy’s formal investigation of climate change began in 2009, it has added to the emerging scientific consensus and spurred further study of the timelines along which we should anticipate more challenging events. The Navy set an early example for interagency coordination with the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the Department of Energy, and other agencies; it also had a profound influence on Department of Defense strategic planning for the Arctic region. As early as 2010, the Navy’s so-called “green fleet” initiatives illuminated the nexus between environmental awareness, energy efficiency, and climate change adaptation that will almost certainly characterize the future flexibility of other branches of the U.S. Armed Forces as well. Reliant as it is on partners at sea in addition to key overseas installations like Guam in the Western Pacific and Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean for operational support, the Navy’s examination of climate change had from the outset uniquely called for infrastructure vulnerability assessments of the type vocally advocated in New York after Superstorm Sandy in 2012. As a result, Secretary Hagel is set to begin implementing similar assessments throughout the Defense establishment’s 7,000 facilities worldwide.

Nevertheless, regardless of how consistently the Navy articulates its interest in climate change, its investments keenly reflect an awareness of the U.S. government’s bleak fiscal situation—and are decidedly measured as a result. Potentially revolutionary exploratory projects, such as the Navy’s recent conversion of seawater into fuel, are pursued with modest investment and conservative transition plans. Major demonstrations like the 2012 “great green fleet” test, conversely, generate much media attention but focus on exhaustively tested, low-risk adjustments—in that instance, “drop-in” biofuel alternatives and proven engineering modifications—rather than on truly high-payoff innovations.

The result is that, five years into a highly structured approach to drive climate change adaptation into all aspects of the fleet, the Navy’s concrete investments—whether related to military construction, operations, maintenance, or procurement—lag well behind its public outreach.  Congressional marks in years past halted a long-running Navy civil engineering project to rebuild and raise its piers in Norfolk, Virginia, where local and federal authorities anticipate that land subsidence and local tidal conditions will expose the world’s largest naval base to the leading edge of rising sea levels. Just last week, the Oceanographer of the Navy (the service’s Task Force Climate Change Director), lamented the state of the U.S. government's weather modeling capability and suggested that longer-term requirements would continue to lose out to current crises.

With an eye to this longer-term war of attrition against climate change, the service has placed most of its bets in the field of energy alternatives. Last month, in a joint announcement with the Department of Energy, the Navy announced its intent to become the largest Defense Department purchaser of renewable energy. The Navy’s Arctic investments, by contrast, remain a blip on the horizon with the identification of new capability requirements delayed until after 2020 in favor of doctrinal review and other internal assessments. These anecdotes would reflect a prudent approach to long-term military planning despite significant budgetary constraints if it weren’t for the fact that the Navy continues to accept risk in military construction and base operating support to balance its budget and is already programming capability improvements into the 2020s.

As it stands, the Defense Department’s rhetorical response to climate change—including the 2014 roadmap’s description of it as an “immediate risk” to national security—vastly outstrips any actual preparations to address the threat. Meanwhile, the political dynamics surrounding climate change justify little optimism that a more active readiness effort is forthcoming. Reliable access to shale gas and tight oil effectively removes energy scarcity as an incentive to pursue energy alternatives, especially for skeptics of either the impact or imminence of climate change. Similarly, the non-linear change that characterizes climatic trends from year to year provides plenty of fodder for those who consider any warning against climate-driven conflict an example of threat-hyping.

Fleet replenishment oiler USNS Henry J. Kaiser delivers a 50-50 blend of advanced biofuels and traditional petroleum based fuel to the USS Princeton during the Great Green Fleet RIMPAC 2012 demonstration (© U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist Seaman Apprentice Ryan J. Mayes, Flickr Commons)

Meanwhile, real-world trends and ongoing analyses evince the need for greater action. Recounting evidence of accelerated polar warming, drought, and wildfires, a recent Center for Naval Analyses study highlights a steepening cost curve for every year the U.S. military delays incorporating non-traditional security tasks into its mission set. Arctic tourism and natural resource extraction are already upon us, yet the United States lacks the ability to sustain a maritime presence in the high latitudes—such as might be required to perform search and rescue operations, mitigate the impacts of a large oil spill, or ensure that all Arctic nations are in compliance with international norms.

Keeping up with the security implications of climate change would not be easy even if defense funding were no object, and budgets have been strained for the past several cycles. Now in its 239th year, the Navy—like each of the service branches of the Armed Forces—finds itself mired in a serious readiness challenge as a result of unceasing operational demand and dwindling resources. Years of continuing resolutions in place of defense authorizations, the advent of painful Budget Control Act spending caps last year, and proliferating global crises in recent months have left the Navy’s balance of investments—encompassing fleet material condition, operational proficiency, and future capability—tenuous at best. Even if allocating resources towards plausible climate outcomes that may well manifest a generation from now remains a priority of executive branch leadership, the question of how the Navy will balance climate preparedness against more immediate needs remains open. If the criticism that beset the Navy’s recent alternative fuels experiments and the Defense Department’s latest roadmap is any indication, the answer appears grim at best.

President Obama is right to place climate change at the top of a litany of global threats facing the United States for its singular ability to “define the contours of this century.” It is similarly heartening to see Secretary Hagel lend backing to the Navy’s climate-readiness initiatives, because there is no doubt that preparing for the future will require more investment in that realm.  But speeches and roadmaps do not necessarily guarantee funding. Absent firm programming guidance, rhetoric is too easy to disregard; the fact that the new Defense roadmap contains a less concrete work-plan than the Navy’s 2010 document on which it was modeled is not encouraging.

For several years and on a number of fronts, the U.S. Navy has been preparing to carry out the business of national security amidst the impacts of environmental climate change, and will soon be in a position to adjust its training and equipment spending accordingly. But, faced with a political and fiscal climate in which falling service budgets have heaped on the pressure to meet current requirements with risky tradeoffs in the longer term, how effectively it will be able to do so in the future remains to be seen.