Report

The Head of the U.S. Coast Guard Isn’t Afraid to Talk About Climate Change

It may not be a White House priority. But rising sea levels are critical to the service’s operations.

A helicopter takes off from a U.S. Coast Guard cutter one week after the passage of Hurricane Maria in San Juan, Puerto Rico, on Sept. 27, 2017. (Ricardo Arduengo/AFP/Getty Images)
A helicopter takes off from a U.S. Coast Guard cutter one week after the passage of Hurricane Maria in San Juan, Puerto Rico, on Sept. 27, 2017. (Ricardo Arduengo/AFP/Getty Images)

Even as other government agencies have quietly banished references to climate change, the head of the U.S. Coast Guard does not shy away from the subject that the White House has made practically taboo.

Adm. Paul Zukunft, who retires next month, almost never specifically uses those two words. Instead, he talks about rising sea levels, melting polar ice, and increasingly severe hurricanes. “As a first responder with a U.S. population that is migrating towards the coasts, it presses us into service,” he says in an interview with Foreign Policy.

But Zukunft focuses on the effects, not the man-made emissions driving the rising temperatures. “I don’t assign causality,” he says. “I just know that I own the consequence piece of this one when it comes to mass rescues.”

Over six weeks in 2017, the Coast Guard rescued about 11,000 people from the devastation caused by three major hurricanes: Harvey, Irma, and Maria.

Zukunft says climate change is also crucial to understanding why the United States needs to start paying attention to the Arctic. He insists the United States must prepare more seriously for the potential threat to American lives from the warming climate, particularly at the poles.

Citing the increasing frequency of major storms and the challenges posed by rising sea levels in the Arctic, the customarily low-key Coast Guard under Zukunft has launched a full-court press in Congress to secure funding for more ships and a long-delayed new icebreaker vessel. And it has paid off with bipartisan backing for the Coast Guard’s mission.

Over the past few months, the Coast Guard has gone from staring down a potentially damaging $1.3 billion budget cut in President Donald Trump’s 2018 budget plan to a small budget increase in fiscal year 2018. Now, the service is requesting a significant increase of $1.9 billion in fiscal year 2019’s budget request.

With the Coast Guard now on schedule to receive its first new heavy icebreaker in 40 years, the Coast Guard is going on the offensive to highlight its role on the frontlines of emerging national security threats. For Zukunft, that means a frank approach to climate change focused on how it affects Coast Guard operations.

Zukunft talks about the Coast Guard’s experience in “the fourth coast” in northern Alaska, where indigenous communities are watching their homes be swallowed up by rising seas.

“We have more than 30 villages north of the Arctic Circle in Alaska who are subject to coastal erosion and a rise in sea level,” Zukunft says. “The first thing that strikes you when you fly in by helicopter are the number of homes that are literally toppling into the ocean.”

Although Defense Secretary James Mattis has gone on record citing climate change as a security threat, the National Defense Strategy, the defense budget, and the Trump administration’s public statements suggest otherwise, says Sharon Burke, a senior advisor at New America and a former assistant secretary of defense for energy issues under President Barack Obama.

As a result, the other branches of the armed services have taken a low-key, utilitarian approach focused on the impact of climate change on their concrete objectives.

“When the White House tells [the Defense Department] today, ‘You don’t have to worry about climate change,’ the DoD perspective is, ‘We still have to pay attention, because I need to complete my mission,’” says John Conger, director of the Center for Climate and Security.

A recent study commissioned by the Pentagon, for instance, looked at the impact of rising sea levels on American military sites in the Pacific, and specifically asked the authors of the report to consider potential scenarios for rising seas.

And if climate change is unlikely to resonate with the president, its potential to undermine national security certainly appears to make an impression on Congress. In January, 106 House members — 11 of whom were Republicans — wrote Trump to express their dissatisfaction at the absence of any mention of climate in the National Security Strategy.

Whatever the origins of climate change, Zukunft insists that the Coast Guard is on the frontlines of crises exacerbated by climate change and has no choice but to adapt to reality.

When it comes to sea levels, “the Coast Guard has been the most public about it,” says Heather Conley, senior vice president for Europe, Eurasia, and the Arctic at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. The Coast Guard has also been the “most publicly visible when it is rescuing Americans from storms and helping coastal villages relocate or helping vessels that are stuck in the ice.”

Rising sea levels along the Alaskan coastlines are far from the Coast Guard’s only concern in the Arctic. As climate change allows greater access to the region and its resources, the potential for accidents and great power rivalry increase substantially.

With Zukunft departing soon and after years of inattention by Congress and the executive branch, a relatively small Coast Guard budget increase is unlikely to make much of a difference, especially in the Arctic, Conley says.

“No one budgets for it, and no one at senior levels keeps people focused on the Arctic. It will only be a national tragedy that we cannot respond to that will create the impetus to do it,” she says.

The Coast Guard’s bid to obtain badly needed resources to complete its Arctic mission is symptomatic of Washington’s wider neglect of the Arctic, says David Titley, a retired U.S. Navy rear admiral. When it comes to the Arctic, says Titley, the Coast Guard can fulfill “constabulary missions” such as fishing protection, search and rescue, and pollution protection.

Receding ice in the Arctic also means increased shipping traffic, making the need to prepare for search and rescue operations in case of a “Titanic event” — Zukunft’s term for a sinking cruise ship.

“You have cruise ships in these waters, it’s the last frontier if you will,” he says. “We don’t have search and rescue stations across our fourth coast, the Arctic Coast.”

Apart from the practical effects of a warmer Arctic, Washington faces a strategic challenge from Russian — and potentially Chinese — efforts to freeze the United States out of the region. But Zukunft says U.S. political leaders are not ready to make a commitment to a more ambitious American presence in the north.

“There is no bipartisan, bicameral consensus that we the United States, with a GDP 10 times that of Russia, just need to make it a priority to invest in the Arctic,” Zukunft says.

Martin de Bourmont is an editorial fellow at Foreign Policy. He previously worked as a reporter for the Phnom Penh Post in Cambodia and as a reporting intern for the New York Times in Paris. @MBourmont

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