Why the Military Can’t Deny Climate Change
Big Oil is a big risk for national security. Can our military—the world's No. 1 oil guzzler—change the politics of climate change?
This article from the YES! Media archives was originally published in the Summer 2012 issue of YES! Magazine. It has not been updated.
Retired Brig. Gen. Steven Anderson calls himself “an accidental environmentalist.”
His epiphany about climate change started with a tactical problem. In 2006 and 2007, when he served as the military’s chief logistician in Iraq, he coordinated the transport of millions of gallons of fuel across the country to power everything from vehicles to the large compressors used to cool individual tents—or, as Anderson puts it, for “air conditioning the desert.” He was taking one casualty for every 24 fuel convoys, and he was doing 18 convoys a day. That’s one casualty every other day. He needed to get the trucks off the road. He needed to find a way to reduce the military’s fuel use.
“There’s a direct relationship between energy and the military. The more energy consumed, the less effective you are militarily because you’re more vulnerable,” said Anderson, who reported to General David Petraeus. “They love to take out our field trucks. They make a big boom when they do.”
Since then, Anderson, like many military leaders, has realized that guzzling oil makes the United States vulnerable in other ways. “I’m a soldier,” Anderson said. “Why should I be concerned about climate change? Climate change brings about global instability. That makes the world more vulnerable and it’s more likely that soldiers like myself will have to fight and die somewhere.”
The question remains, can the weight and pragmatism of military leadership sway political leaders in Washington?
Never mind D.C. conservatives who claim to be tough on defense and suspicious of climate science: The Department of Defense isn’t denying that climate change is a major national security threat. “The change is happening. It’s just a reality,” said retired Marine Col. Mark Mykleby, a former strategy assistant to the Joint Chiefs of Staff. “Science tells us it’s coming our way.”
The Defense Department first acknowledged climate change as a factor in its operations in its 2010 Quadrennial Defense Review. “[Climate change] may act as an accelerant of instability or conflict, placing a burden to respond on civilian institutions and militaries around the world,” read the report.
Now the military is going green. Taking fuel trucks off the road. Developing solar energy.
Their reasons are strategic, not altruistic. “The Department of Defense is involved in this area for national security reasons,” said Dan Nolan, co-author of the blog dodenergy.blogspot.com, which monitors the department’s positions on energy use. “It’s not economic. It’s not environmental. It’s a national security mission.”
But the message is clear. From the most practical standpoint, the United States cannot afford to ignore climate change or rely heavily on fossil fuels any longer. The question remains, can the weight and pragmatism of military leadership sway political leaders in Washington?
The Long Fight Against Oil Addiction
The military has been concerned about oil dependence for decades. “This isn’t some newly green military,” said Andrew Holland, senior fellow for energy and climate policy at the non-partisan American Security Project. “When they do have to fight a war, they want to mitigate risks to their personnel and equipment.”
And foreign oil use has long put the United States at risk. “Eight presidents have declared addiction to foreign oil a threat to national security,” said Bill James, an Army veteran who now runs a company that offers a solar-powered transportation system. “The military cannot consume at the scale it is consuming and still defend the nation. If you’re not self-reliant and able to defend the nation within its resources, you’re not able to defend the nation.”
James goes even further, noting that if the eight presidents, from Nixon to Obama, are correct, then foreign oil is an enemy of the Constitution. That would mean anyone using foreign oil is aiding and abetting an enemy. “Anyone,” he said, “who doesn’t aggressively cut oil consumption to within domestic production is technically committing treason.”
Climate change simply brings the question of alternative fuel development into sharper focus.
“[Climate change is] a threat multiplier, increasing instability in some of the most volatile regions in the world,” said Lt. Gen. Norman Seif, a retired U.S. Air Force commander who is now active in promoting clean energy. “That can be a threat to us and our own national security.”
Shrinking Carbon Bootprints
The military imperative is to prepare. In many ways, it’s leading the way in the development of new energy sources, said Brandon Fureigh, advocacy director for the Truman National Security Project. And with a massive budget and an oversized carbon bootprint, the military is in a good position to drive innovation. “The military has always been a good testing ground for technology in general and one reason is they have a large budget,” he said, noting how ideas sparked by military research trickle into the general business arena. Its budget for clean energy has tripled in the last four years to $1.2 billion.
The Pew Project on National Security, Energy, and Climate breaks down the different approaches each military branch is taking to reduce dependence on oil in its report, “From Barracks to the Battlefield. Clean Energy Innovation and America’s Armed Forces.”
For example, the Army is working toward a “Net Zero” Initiative, starting with 17 bases that, by 2020, will use only as much energy and water as they can produce. It has added 4,000 electric vehicles to its arsenal and installed its first wind turbine.
The Air Force has set the aggressive goal of obtaining 50 percent of aviation fuels from “alternative blends” by 2016. About 99 percent of its aviation fleet is certified to fly on a 50-50 alternative blend of biofuels and jet fuel. The Navy has a goal of creating a “Great Green Fleet,” a strike group powered largely by biofuels, by 2016. It is also experimenting with algae-based biofuels. Not all of their new fuels are green: the options include a synthetic liquid fuel that is derived from coal or natural gas. And some crop-based biofuels have a major environmental impact because they divert land from forest and food cultivation. But the Defense Department requires that new fuels have a carbon footprint no greater than what they replace.
Engineers with the U.S. Marines in Afghanistan work on a solar-powered water purification system that can filter 60 gallons of water per minute. Photo from U.S. Marine Corps.
The Marines aim to reduce battlefield fuel demand by 25 percent by 2015 and 50 percent by 2025, in part through the introduction of solar-powered equipment. In March, Marine Col. Bob Charette, director of Expeditionary Energy for the Marine Corps, told States News Service that the solar-powered generators were also saving lives. “A lot of our enemies can follow us around by the noise of our generators,” he said. “Marines start using this, and they believe it scares the bad guys because they can’t hear where we’re at because there’s no generator running.”
Fureigh noted that solar-powered equipment allowed the Marines to clear their packs of batteries, leaving more room for food and other supplies.
To those who say climate change is a myth, Dan Nolan says that, at the very least, the research and work the military is doing will result in cleaner air and better technology.
Politics or Pragmatism?
Of course, not everyone supports the military’s green policies. In February, Virginia Republican Representative Randy Forbes pounded his desk after hearing Secretary of the Navy Raymond Mabus Jr. detail some of the Navy’s plans for going greener during a House Armed Services Committee Meeting.
“You’re not the Secretary of the Energy—you’re Secretary of the Navy,” Forbes told Mabus.
“If you’re not self-reliant and able to defend the nation within its resources, you’re not able to defend the nation.”
Instead of spending money on biofuels, Forbes said the Navy should spend more money on new ships and airplanes.
“I love green energy. I’m not against it,” Forbes said. “It’s a matter of priorities.”
Mabus also caught an earful from Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.), during a March hearing of the Senate Armed Services Committee. Inhofe, who is a vocal denier of human-made climate change, said the high cost of a “50/50 blend” of diesel fuel and a biofuel supplement—$15 per gallon versus $5 per gallon for regular fuel—made its use prohibitive.
Similarly, Sen. John McCain (R-Az.) said the Navy’s biofuels push could become a “Solyndra situation,” referring to the now-bankrupt solar energy company that benefited from millions of dollars in Energy Department loan guarantees.
To wean the military off foreign oil, the United States should drill domestically, some opponents say. But Fureigh, of the Truman National Security Project, said that won’t work.
“Oil is a global commodity,” he said. “Even if we flooded the market with the oil in our reserves, gas would still be high because OPEC would shut down production.”
“Being reliant on a single source of fuel is a danger in itself,” Fureigh said. “It’s a significant cost for the U.S. in life and treasure to be reliant on this particular source of fuel.”
Democrats have come out in support of the military’s stances on energy efficiency. Senators Bernie Sanders and Sheldon Whitehouse recently held a hearing with the Environment and Public Works Committee that reviewed the military’s commitment to sustainable energy. “Sustainable energy investments by the military also benefit the taxpayer,” said Sanders. “The Department of Defense is the largest consumer of energy in America … So it is no wonder the military sees reducing reliance on costly fossil fuels—imported in some cases from hostile, unstable nations—as a priority.”
When there are fewer soldiers spending their time protecting fuel convoys, there’s more time for them to do hearts-and-minds-type missions.
And the White House is pushing for more. Obama and the Department of Defense recently announced plans to invest in billions of dollars worth of renewable energy projects around the country. The department will develop 3 gigawatts of renewable power in the next several years, equivalent to powering 750,000 homes.
Cleaner Energy, A More Secure World
In the Middle East, realities in the field lend immediacy and urgency to new strategies that can break America’s oil habits. By Anderson’s count, more than 1,000 Americans have been killed moving fuel in Iraq and Afghanistan, usually in convoys that some soldiers call “Taliban Targets.”
After writing an op-ed on the subject that appeared in The New York Times, Anderson received an email from an Army company commander in Afghanistan. The commander explained that every two weeks, he had to shut down his combat operations to get fuel and, while he was gone, the enemy would re-entrench their positions. “I have to start over every two weeks,” he wrote.
Energy efficiency and military effectiveness go hand in hand. When there are fewer soldiers spending their time protecting fuel convoys, there’s more time for them to do hearts-and-minds-type missions.
Anderson stressed it’s not just foreign oil that’s the enemy; fossil fuels, in general, are the problem. He has publicly come out against domestic developments like the Keystone XL pipeline because, he said, they would only feed our oil addiction.
In an editorial co-written with other former military officers and published in multiple newspapers, Anderson noted that “clean energy is a solution we must pursue.”
“Without changing our energy mix,” he wrote, “we will continue to undermine our economic stability—and with it, our stature in the world.”