ERDC researcher impacts Department of Defense policy through Climate Action Team

VICKSBURG, Miss. — When the U.S. Army Engineer Research and Development Center’s (ERDC) Samantha
Cook enrolled as a music major at the University of New Hampshire (UNH), she never dreamed that an elective
class called Global Environmental Change would dramatically change her life.

The ERDC-Cold Regions Research and Engineering Laboratory (CRREL) Research Physical Scientist now recalls that it was the first time she heard the phrase “global warming.”

“I just took one look at the issue and said, ‘this is the problem of our generation,’” she said.

Cook described how she changed her major, earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in geology from UNH, and then found a position with CRREL.

Since November 2021, she has been on a detail with the Department of Defense’s Climate Action Team, helping to shape DOD guidance and policy on issues pertaining to climate change in support of the Office of the Secretary of Defense (OSD) and the armed services.

“We were just having a meeting earlier about writing a water resilience policy,” she said. “We’re impacting the entire Department of Defense — it’s just very exciting.”

The Climate Action Team was formed in March 2021 after President Joe Biden signed Executive Order 1408 January 27, 2021. The first part of the Executive Order on Tackling the Climate Crisis at Home and Abroad addresses how the U.S. will put the climate crisis at the center of foreign policy and national security.

“Some of our activities are longer-term, such as developing the DOD Climate Adaptation Plan, which addresses planning for the future and how we’re going to adapt to climate change; then there are shorter-term tasks, such as preparing briefs that describe how climate change may impact installations in the next 50-100 years,” Cook said.

Although there are several ERDC researchers working on the Climate Action Team from ERDC’s CRREL and the Construction Engineering Research Laboratory (CERL), Cook’s role is unique. A water resilience team was also formed in 2021, and it’s staffed by OSD and armed services personnel.

“One of my jobs when I came on board was to take over as lead of that team,” Cook said. “I hold weekly meetings with them, and we do things that the rest of the Climate Action Team aren’t involved with, things that specifically pertain to water, because water is going to be one of the biggest issues when it comes to climate change.”

Cook said that while sea level rise will be an issue, her number one concern is access to clean drinking water.

“If you look at California and the western U.S., drought has become increasingly problematic,” she said.

The National Defense Authorization Act authorizes funding for the U.S. military each fiscal year. In fiscal year 2021, section 2827 stipulated that OSD and the armed services must improve water management and security on military installations.

“We developed a methodology; it was piloted at 16 installations — and when I came on board, we had just received results through a data call from those installations and summarized everything in a report to Congress that was signed out in April,” Cook said. “Now we’ve revised that method, and we’re doing another round of assessments.”

“We ensure that DOD is meeting the climate change requirements in the NDAAs or House reports,” she said.

Dr. Kate White is Program Director for Climate Change at the Office of the Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Environment & Energy Resilience (ODASD (E & ER)) and oversees the activities of the Climate Action Team.

“It’s been an outstanding experience working with Sam and the other ERDC team members,” White said. “The DASD (E & ER), Mr. Richard Kidd, has very much appreciated the contributions from Sam and other subject-matter experts from ERDC and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers districts and divisions. We anticipate adding additional detailees in March 2023.”

The detail experience has landed Cook exactly where she wants to be.

“When this detail position came out, I said, ‘I have to be on this team, I have to figure out how I can do this,’” Cook said. “And really the way I wound up as the water resilience person is the position description said you had to be proficient in Geographic Information Systems (GIS), and I was.”

“I know all about DOD’s water, now,” Cook said. “I’m leading the DOD water resilience team. It’s created new opportunities for me at ERDC. I joined CERL’s water group and the USACE Climate and Preparedness Community of Practice. If I could give someone advice on applying for details, I would say put your name in the hat, because you never know what’s going to happen.”