WASHINGTON – When I headed the U.S. Southern Command a decade ago, I took a trip to the Brazilian military’s jungle training site near Manaus in the Amazon River basin. I spent time both in the jungle with Brazilian troops and on the river, meeting with some of the 300 indigenous groups that populate the region, which spans nine South American nations.
I came to understand that Brazilian pride in controlling much of the rain forest is palpable and well-deserved. Now, of course, that pride is being challenged by the 60,000 fires spotted there this year. The recent Group of Seven summit set off a heated international conversation about how to contain the fires. Brazil is being harshly criticized by leaders around the world — French President Emmanuel Macron in particular.
The Amazon is not just a vast body of water — it is the beating heart of a vast rainforest that supplies as much as 6 percent of the world’s oxygen, and is home to perhaps 2 million distinct species. Let’s be clear, because of climate change, the burning rainforest affects the entire world. As the planet warms, weather patterns become less predictable, and increasingly destructive storms ensue. Melting ice at both the North and South Poles is causing rising sea levels.
For the United States, the warming of the planet is a fast-rising threat to national security. And for the U.S. Navy in particular, this is a crisis.
To take just one example, the U.S. military has its most important collection of installations in the Hampton Roads region of Virginia: a vast naval station that is home to nearly 100 warships; Langley Air Force Base, headquarters of the powerful Air Combat Command; and the crown jewel of fleet construction and repair, the Norfolk Naval Shipyard. All are significant, but the most important in many ways is the shipyard.
More than two centuries old, the yard has been a construction site for everything from early American frigates to World War II battleships to today’s nuclear-powered aircraft carriers. But in the last decade, it has had nine significant floods, with many millions of dollars in damage. Of particularly concern are the dry docks, which allow the huge warships to be carefully balanced upright while out of the water, permitting work on the exterior hull and propulsion system.
As the sea level rises in the Norfolk area, all this complex infrastructure is threatened. Compound the rising waters with an increased likelihood for hurricanes to hit the region, and the vulnerabilities are obvious and alarming. As my good friend Denny Ginn, formerly the admiral in charge of all navy installations, has said, “it’s not a matter of if, only a matter of time” before we have a catastrophic event.
Almost a third of the navy is nuclear-powered — all 69 submarines and all 11 aircraft carriers — and there are only four shipyards certified to work on their nuclear systems. The thought of losing one of the two most important of these (the other is in Bremerton, Washington, and inaccessible for the Atlantic Fleet), and the one closest to a major fleet concentration area, is keeping admirals awake at night.
The other two nuclear shipyards are at Pearl Harbor in Hawaii and Kittery, Maine, and they are smaller and focused only on submarines.
Rising sea levels, big potential storms, and a lack of preparation are a bad combination for not just the navy, but are reflected in the other services as well. There are many other bases that are similarly vulnerable across the U.S. and abroad — notably Naval Station Mayport in northern Florida and air bases on the panhandle such as Tyndall Air Force Base, which was devastated by Hurricane Michael this spring.
Given the skepticism of the Trump administration toward the science of climate change, it is unlikely for now that the services will be able to overcome political opposition to focusing resources on dealing with the challenges.
Early in his administration, Trump pulled the U.S. out of the Paris climate accords. He failed to even show up for the discussion of global climate at the G-7 summit on Aug. 26. As the Amazon burns, the response from the U.S. has been muted, limited to a few “go get ’em”-type tweets from Trump to President Jair Bolsonaro of Brazil, and sending a single firefighting aircraft.
The U.S. needs a comprehensive approach to climate that combines a renewal of international partnerships such as the Paris climate accords; better interagency cooperation between the Department of Defense and the rest of government, especially National Weather Service and Federal Emergency Management Agency; and private-public cooperation to reduce greenhouse gases.
If this administration is unwilling to do so, states and local governments have to answer the call, working directly with the private sector. Americans need to understand how those rising plumes of smoke over the Amazon are a direct threat to our national security.
James Stavridis is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. He is a retired U.S. Navy admiral and former supreme allied commander of NATO, and dean emeritus of the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University.