In the middle of March, Marine Commandant Gen. Robert Neller, the U.S. Marine Corps’ top officer, issued a grim warning to the Pentagon on the state of his fighting force.

In a pair of memos addressed to Navy Secretary Richard Spencer and acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan, Neller outlined a series of unexpected demands that he said pose an “unacceptable risk to Marine Corps combat readiness and solvency.” Chief among them was President Donald Trump’s state of emergency declaration regarding troop deployments and wall construction at the U.S.-Mexico border. Those unplanned burdens, according to Neller, required an unwelcome shift in resources, forcing the Marines to significantly scale back and, in some cases, cancel outright critical training and exercises. That loss “will degrade the combat readiness and effectiveness of the Corps,” Neller wrote.

But it wasn’t just training that was affected. In an expanded list of “negative factors,” Neller also warned about the scarcity of Pentagon-allocated funding for rebuilding efforts after Hurricanes Florence and Michael, essentially arguing that unpredictable weather events and natural disasters pose as grave a danger to military readiness as the president’s erratic border deployments. Hurricanes Florence and Michael, the two most destructive storms of 2018, together accounted for 100 deaths and tens of billions of dollars in damages throughout the Carolinas and the Florida Panhandle. The storms also proved costly to Marine Corps facilities in the region. Camp Lejeune in North Carolina fared worst of all: Lejeune and its ancillary outposts incurred some $3.6 billion in damage, with hundreds of structures rendered uninhabitable for months.

“The inability to reprogram money and the lack of a supplemental for Hurricane Florence damage is negatively impacting Marine Corps readiness,” Neller wrote. “We are not receiving the fiscal support necessary to address the critical situation in North Carolina.”

“We’re not far away from hurricane season, and we’re still recovering from the damage from yesterday.”

Shanahan appears to have received Neller’s message loud and clear. Days after Neller’s memos leaked in March, Shanahan told officials from the Army, Navy, Marine Corps, and Air Force that he planned on reallocating $600 million in defense funding for “near-term” recovery efforts (that is, rebuilding) and natural disaster preparedness. Of that sum, $400 million would go toward repairing storm damage at Lejeune — a “down payment” on future military construction funding, according to Military.com.

“Shanahan’s request for reprogramming is clear proof the Pentagon takes this seriously,” says Esther Babson, program director for climate security at the American Security Project, a public policy think tank. “We’re not far away from hurricane season, and we’re still recovering from the damage from yesterday.”

But this funding amounts to a one-time apportionment and doesn’t account for the very large, very dirty elephant in the room: climate change. The Pentagon needs to put more resources toward disaster mitigation, because extreme weather events like major hurricanes are predicted to grow more frequent. And given the U.S. armed forces’ ostensibly nonpartisan position in American politics, Neller’s memos effectively amount to a rebuke of the White House’s counterfactual stance on climate change. But with a president who apparently believes wind power causes cancer — and who is on record scoffing at the science of climate change — will the memos carry any weight?

In the next month, the Pentagon will provide a list of military construction projects available for postponement in order for the Defense Department to pony up $3.6 billion to pay for the border wall under Trump’s February 15 national emergency declaration, according to a Pentagon memo obtained by Task and Purpose. That’s down from $6.8 billion in unawarded projects that the Pentagon originally offered up for potential cancellation in March, but it still represents a major retasking of military resources.

Which raises the question: Is Trump bankrolling his version of border security at the expense of the military’s own safety?


Scientists are in broad agreement about the relationship between our warming planet and increasingly extreme weather events. To date, there have been some 230 peer-reviewed studies analyzing weather events. Taken together, they suggest that climate change raises the risk that extreme weather systems — including drenching tropical storms — will occur.

Extreme weather puts all of us at risk, but coastal developments that face both rising sea levels and punishing rainfall are particularly in trouble. That includes many military installations. “The world is warmer, which means more evaporation and more moisture, which means more rainfall and heavier rainfall,“ says Shana Udvardy, an analyst with the Union of Concerned Scientists, a nonprofit science advocacy organization. “That means new challenges at military installations in terms of land loss and storm surge.” The flooding experienced during Hurricanes Florence and Michael, which saw military levees and emergency barriers overtopped and broken, represents “a perfect storm of factors that creates unpredictable systems,” she says.

For its part, the Pentagon has spent years preparing for future climate threats. A 2003 Pentagon briefing titled “An Abrupt Climate Change Scenario and Its Implications for United States National Security” asserts that climate change “could potentially destabilize the geopolitical environment, leading to skirmishes, battles, and even war due to resource constraints.” Climate change is, in the DoD’s own words, a “threat multiplier” — it worsens resource scarcity, which almost inevitably means political instability and the violence that tends to follow it.

Allowing critical installations — and the military personnel who populate them — to languish in the face of extreme weather is more of a national security threat than immigration at the U.S.-Mexico border will ever be.

In 2014, the Pentagon released a sprawling climate adaptation road map that detailed potential vulnerabilities in its coastal infrastructure and supply chains. The White House took notice. A 2016 directive from President Barack Obama instructed the DoD to make climate change an even greater priority. And that mandate seemed, at least for a while, like it might continue under Trump. In 2017, Trump’s nominee for defense secretary, James Mattis, vowed in his written testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee to make addressing climate change a top priority.

“The focus of the military has always been the extent to which climate change has an impact on [a] mission,” says John Conger, director of the Center for Climate and Security, a D.C.-based think tank, and a former assistant secretary of defense for energy, installations, and environment in the Obama administration. “Even if the administration says, ‘Don’t worry about emissions, and don’t worry about climate change,’ the military still pays attention.”

Indeed, even now, despite the president’s apparent skepticism toward climate science, the Pentagon has largely maintained its focus on climate change. After Trump rescinded Obama’s instruction to make climate change a prerogative, Mattis used a semantic tactic to effectively circumvent the president, instructing his department not to look at the reason behind extreme weather events, but rather to focus on the simple fact that extreme weather events exist — and to create a mitigation strategy under that premise. When asked in late March about the potential threat of climate change, Shanahan echoed Mattis’ sentiment: “I believe we need to address resilience in our operations and how we design out our facilities.”


Nowhere is that threat more apparent than in Camp Lejeune. Even prior to Hurricane Florence, the 246-square-mile training facility had a long history of toxic contamination. Drinking water was laden with dangerous levels of chemicals from the 1950s until at least 1985. Flooding from Florence led to an influx of vermin and mold to the base, in addition to the structural damage caused by the wind. According to a DoD analysis released in March, construction of a border wall under Trump’s emergency declaration would likely drain unawarded funds that could have been used on a water treatment plant at Lejeune, an installation the Navy deemed necessary to furnish the base’s 137,000 personnel with safe drinking water.

No wonder Neller was so frustrated. According to Newsweek, Neller authorized the leak of his memos, doing so because “he didn’t want the Marines and families at Camp Lejeune to get fucked” by political jousting on Capitol Hill over funding allocations. Neller’s point was clear: Allowing critical installations — and the military personnel who populate them — to languish in the face of extreme weather is more of a national security threat than immigration at the U.S.-Mexico border will ever be.

“We’re all humans in this,” says Babson of the American Security Project. “It’s the people who want to protect the country who end up shouldering the burden.”


In the months since Hurricane Florence devastated Camp Lejeune, at least three more high-profile military installations in the continental United States have been catastrophically damaged by extreme weather. In October, Tyndall Air Force Base in Florida took a direct hit from Hurricane Michael, forcing the Air Force to relocate a sizable chunk of the critical F-22 Raptor fleet elsewhere. In late March, the so-called bomb cyclone that blanketed the Midwest with record flooding ended up engulfing Offutt Air Force Base in Nebraska, home to U.S. Strategic Command. Those same floodwaters rendered Nebraska’s Camp Ashland, a critical National Guard training and education hub, nonoperational: 51 of the base’s 62 buildings were wrecked by water damage.

These natural disasters are costly for the Pentagon and pull resources from readiness-related projects. According to outgoing Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson, the service will need an additional $5 billion over the next three years to repair the damage to Offutt and Tyndall alone. There are also the unexpected disruptions in training and costs of shifting around personnel and resources; for example, permanently rebasing the F-22 training unit from Tyndall Air Force Base to Joint Base Langley-Eustis in Virginia or shuffling 100,000 soldiers from Camp Ashland to different bases the Midwest. Climate change and extreme weather is expensive, and all the time and money spent dealing with its aftermath takes away from the U.S. military’s ability to do its core job: protecting the country.

Still, there’s a sliver of hope. More and more Americans are accepting the reality of climate science, and according to Conger from the Center for Climate and Security, “there’s really more bipartisanship on this issue on Capitol Hill than people realize,” particularly in the national security sphere. “The debate is moving,” he says, “from ‘What are the sources of climate change?’ to ‘What are we going to do?’”