This article is part of a series form Future Tense and New America’s Future of Land and Housing Program on reimagining how America will adapt to climate change and sea level rise.
On May 11, Rep. Betty McCollum, a Democrat from Minnesota, set off a minor congressional temblor at the very end of a hearing about the defense budget. But the matter at hand was not Ukraine, China, extremism in the military or anything else that you might immediately identify as a live-wire issue. It was just BRAC, or Base Realignment and Closure—the process by which the U.S. Department of Defense decides which military bases live or die. McCollum, the powerful Defense Appropriations Subcommittee chair, suggested it was time to revive the dormant military procedure to save “billions of dollars” for taxpayers and fund higher military priorities, such as more ships. Her Republican counterpart, Ken Calvert, allegedly agrees.
Usually, BRAC is a matter of shedding excess property or unused land, and as McCollum pointed out, the Pentagon has identified around 20 percent of its holdings as excess. But in a hearing back in 2019, other Members of Congress floated a different metric for deciding which bases to close: vulnerability to natural disasters. If climate change were to become a BRAC criterion, that could mean consequences for communities—for which bases are often an important source of jobs and economic activity—and also for the way military forces train and deploy.
The Department of Defense occupies more than 500,000 structures, spread across nearly 28 million acres worldwide, with military facilities in every American state. DoD is, for example, the single largest employer in the three most populous states—California, Texas, and Florida—as well as Alaska, the largest.
DoD started consolidating that footprint at the end of the Cold War through the BRAC process, shutting down or significantly rearranging some 200 military installations since 1988. Closed bases go on to a variety of futures. Williams Air Force Base in Mesa, Arizona, for example, was closed in 1991 and is today part Superfund site, part commercial airport, and part college campus. (Several schools have facilities there, including Arizona State University; ASU is a partner with Slate and New America in Future Tense.) San Francisco’s Presidio is a national park.
And then there’s Homestead Air Reserve Base in Homestead, Florida, which closed as an active base after Hurricane Andrew devastated the area in August 1992. Today, it’s a sleepy training facility, ringed by shuttered businesses. Hurricane Andrew was the most expensive hurricane in U.S. history until 2005, when Katrina came along and inflicted more than $9 billion in damage to military facilities and equipment. That was also the last year Congress authorized Base Realignment and Closure. In the years since, however, Army, Navy, Air Force, and Marine Corps bases have sustained billions more in damage from severe weather, including North Carolina’s Camp Lejeune, Florida’s Tyndall Air Force Base, and Nebraska’s Offutt Air Force Base. Winter Storm Uri in 2021 affected bases across Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas, and Louisiana, many of which also suffered damage from Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria. Wildfires and drought have dogged defense facilities across California, and melting permafrost is racking up significant bills in Alaska.
The cluster of military facilities in Hampton Roads, Virginia, including the world’s largest naval facility, are a special case. Because the land there is sinking as the sea is rising, the area already struggles with flooding, even when it’s not raining. The Navy recently announced a $200 million project to address the problem by raising the piers, which seems a bit like moving your sandcastle a foot up the beach when the tide starts coming in. This may be a necessary fix, along with other measures such as artificial oyster beds, but it’s temporary.
But how long will the Department of Defense—and the American taxpayer—keep paying the repair bills in these places?
That question may be bigger than BRAC, which is actually a singularly unpopular bureaucratic maneuver. McCollum notwithstanding, most members of Congress would probably rather poke their eyes out with a fork than allow another round of base closures in their districts. And yet the storms, droughts, and heat will just keep on coming. Perhaps it’s time for the Pentagon to admit that BRAC isn’t going to happen and look for other, aggressive ways to streamline the property footprint and increase resilience to severe weather. On a bipartisan basis, Congress has steadily shown a willingness to consider such resilience improvements, and the Biden administration just asked for $3 billion for climate initiatives in 2023. Even that won’t be enough, however, for places like Norfolk, which may require more radical land use management, realignment of some key missions, and doubling down on shared community resilience measures. More generally, the Pentagon should ruthlessly integrate disaster risk reduction into how it spends all military construction, operations, maintenance, and related dollars.
This is one time when sounding the retreat may be the only way to win the battle.