Hurricanes Irma and Harvey Reveal 'Massive National Security Risks,' Warns Former Defense Department Official


Sherri Goodman, a former senior U.S. Defense Department official, has issued a stern warning that extreme weather events like Hurricanes Harvey and Irma pose a "massive national security risk." Writing in a CNBC op-ed Tuesday, Goodman, one of the highest-ranking women ever to serve in the Defense Department, urged the government to start integrating the potential impacts climate change into infrastructure planning.

"The widespread destruction in Houston shows that the changing climate is a direct threat to our citizens' security right here at home," she writes. She explained that the federal government is currently unprepared to deal with the climate threat:

We plan and exercise for a nuclear attack by North Korea. We prepare for the next phase of Russian and Chinese aggression. We prepare for deliberate terrorist attacks on the homeland. But we are not yet clear-eyed about the threat of extreme weather in the era of climate change. ... As we are tragically learning from Hurricane Harvey (and should have already learned from Superstorm Sandy and Katrina), extreme weather poses a massive national security risk not just overseas, but also here at home.

Goodman served as Deputy Undersecretary of Defense for Environmental Security under Bill Clinton, from 1993 to 2001. As the Pentagon’s chief officer responsible for environmental, safety and occupational health, she was afforded a unique view on the potential impact of climate change and extreme weather on national security.

She argues that "while defense strategy documents recognize climate change as a threat multiplier, plans for military construction and infrastructure do not yet fully account for increased flood and storm risk."

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Texas National Guard soldiers were deployed to Houston to help victims of Hurricane Harvey. (credit: Lt. Zachary West , 100th MPAD)

Goodman also castigated climate-deniers-in-office, whose decidedly unscientific views have put the public at risk: "Too many elected officials still deny that warming ocean and atmospheric temperatures are changing the strength and severity of storms. As a nation we have not even begun to adequately prepare for storms like Hurricane Harvey and Irma, and that leaves our citizens vulnerable."

While there is a lack of governmental preparedness to handle climate change-related extreme weather events, overdevelopment is another fundamental problem: This was tragically revealed in the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey.

"The region’s flat landscape and relative lack of regulatory hurdles—Houston is the largest U.S. city without zoning laws—allowed development to continue more or less unchecked," writes Mary Mazzoni on AlterNet. She noted research from Texas A&M University showing that "the White Oak Bayou watershed, which includes much of northwest Houston, lost more than 70 percent of its wetlands between 1992 and 2010."

By paving over so much of its wetlands, which act like massive sponges that can absorb tremendous amounts of flood water, Houston set itself up for disaster.

"The widespread destruction in Houston shows that the changing climate is a direct threat to our citizens' security right here at home," writes Goodman. "It's clear that we need to think bigger and act now."

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U.S. Army soldiers and U.S. Navy sailors load bottled water in Beaumont, Texas for delivery to victims of Hurricane Harvey. (credit: Tech. Sgt. Larry E. Reid Jr./U.S. Air Force)

While Goodman's warning comes at a time when the nation is gripped by the devastation of Hurricane Harvey and the current progress of Hurricane Irma, her idea is not new. In fact, she echoes the sentiment behind a 2015 White House report, in which President Obama made a powerful case that climate change has far-reaching national security implications.

Shortly after the report was released, Obama delivered the commencement address at the United States Coast Guard Academy in New London, Connecticut. "I know there are still some folks back in Washington who refuse to admit that climate change is real," he told graduating cadets. "Denying it, or refusing to deal with it endangers our national security. It undermines the readiness of our forces."

There are signs that the government is waking up to the connection between climate change and national security. "Earlier this summer," Goodman points out, "a bipartisan vote in the House of Representatives defended a provision identifying climate change as a "direct threat to the national security of the United States."

It's a start.

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