Marine Corps May Be Forced to Build a Sea Wall Around Parris Island, Retired General Warns

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Marine Corps Recruit Depot Parris Island evacuates ahead of Hurricane Dorian in 2019
Recruits from Marine Corps Recruit Depot Parris Island, South Carolina, evacuate to Marine Corps Logistics Base Albany, Georgia, before Hurricane Dorian in September 2019. (Marine Corps photo by Sgt. Dana Beesley)

The impact of climate change may be most visible in the Arctic, but the former commanding general of Marine Corps Recruit Depot Parris Island argued Wednesday that it and other coastal bases face drastic threats from the warming planet.

"I used to command a base that was dramatically impacted, Parris Island, and is now getting flooded routinely just in normal rainfall and sea level rise," retired Marine Corps Brig. Gen. Stephen Cheney said during a discussion on what the U.S. should do to prevent climate change from becoming a national security threat. The event was sponsored by Elected Officials to Protect America, a nonprofit focused on environment and sustainability, among other policy areas.

"They are going to have to put a sea wall around parts of Parris Island, otherwise it's going to go under water," Cheney said.

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Parris Island sits on South Carolina's coast, just north of Hilton Head, leaving it susceptible to hurricanes. The Marine Corps is currently studying whether to close the recruit depot and build a new training facility, but that's to meet a congressional mandate to make its training bases gender-integrated, not an effort to address the effects of climate change.

Cheney, who served 30 years in the Marine Corps, is now president of the American Security Project, a nonprofit, nonpartisan research institute that studies the effects of climate change.

Naval Station Norfolk, Virginia, is a poster child for those effects, he said.

"The piers at Norfolk are going under water; the problem with that is the electricity is run underneath those piers," Cheney said. "As the water level rises, they don't get electricity. You cannot put ships next to those piers."

The Norfolk facility also faces "flooding, literally a dozen-plus times a year, flooding to the extent that nobody can get on the base so the sailors can't get to the ships," he added. "I mean you talk about a national security concern -- it is dramatic."

Cheney was one of a handful of military veterans who attended the discussion to argue for a more decisive national climate plan as President-elect Joe Biden prepares to take office.

In 2017, President Donald Trump withdrew the U.S. from the Paris Agreement on climate, a move that Biden has pledged to reverse when he takes office in January, according to the Biden-Harris transition team website.

Both Biden and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris mentioned climate in their victory speeches Nov. 8, highlighting their intent to focus on climate change as a key policy area.

Oregon State Rep. Paul Evans -- an Air Force veteran and co-chairman of EOPA -- said that the national security issues posed by climate change are "so significant and so big and so impactful" that it's difficult for states to begin to address the problem on their own.

"We are looking forward to the next four years, hopefully, for a more integrated approach to ensure that we, for example, become a part of the Paris accord again," he said.

This year, the U.S. has seen devastating wildfires from California to Oregon, fueled by higher temperatures and drier seasons, Cheney said.

"The more these fires burn, the more carbon dioxide is released, which contributes to the warming of the planet," he explained. "And the more climate changes, the more fires we have, the more sea ice that melts ... the more our national security is going to be threatened."

Last year, the Union of Concerned Scientists, a Massachusetts-based science advocacy nonprofit, released a study warning that rising carbon emissions would likely lead to months where temperatures will reach 100 degrees or higher at Marine Corps Air Station Yuma in Arizona, as well as at Florida's MacDill Air Force Base and Homestead Air Reserve Base.

The Arctic is warming twice as fast as the rest of the planet, Cheney said. He believes the U.S. should build a stronger presence in that region to increase the Pentagon's options for projecting forces in a conflict.

"There is certainly renewed great power competition in the Arctic," he said. "Russia and China continue to dramatically increase their Arctic operations."

Cheney called for the U.S. to ratify the United Nations Convention on Law of the Sea, which would give America greater credibility in disputes over freedom of navigation in the Arctic, he said.

"We've got to invest in the development of a deep-water port in Alaska," he said. "We need it to support greater sea-base power projection."

But overall, the U.S. has to "reduce its carbon footprint and other greenhouse gas emissions and find alternative energy sources," Cheney said. "The more carbon we emit, the hotter the planet gets, which makes melting more rapid. We cannot afford to ignore the risks of a changing climate, and it's right here at our front door."

-- Matthew Cox can be reached at matthew.cox@military.com.

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