Uncle Sam Wants You…to Stop Denying Climate Change

The military is planning for global warming. Why can’t lawmakers follow its charge?


Photo: Ilona Meagher

Top U.S. military brass can hardly stop talking about climate change. The Pentagon released its first big report on global warming in 2000. Three years later came a paper by military strategists with the stated purpose of “imagining the unthinkable”—namely, climate change as a national security threat. Then 2007 brought another report, published by retired generals, and a climate conference paid for by U.S. Army War College. And earlier this month, the Pentagon released its most recent global warming manifesto, the “2014 Climate Change Adaptation Roadmap,” to much fanfare.

These reports make it clear that the U.S. military will have to deal with a lot of global turmoil due to climate change. Increased droughts could fuel wars over water rights, and as agriculture suffers, skirmishes could break out over fertile land, too. Some commentators have linked a climate change–induced drought to the rise of the terrorist group ISIS in the Middle East. Global-warming refugees will strain humanitarian resources, possibly causing conflicts as they seek new homes, and many of the military’s own low-lying coastal bases could one day find themselves underwater.

But the steady beat of climate-change talk coming from the Pentagon is really annoying deniers in Congress. This year, the House of Representatives passed legislation forbidding the Department of Defense from spending money on climate change. Luckily for national security’s sake, neither the Senate nor the military paid the bill any mind. And the Pentagon continues to prepare for a warming world. Here are four big ways how.

Net Zero

No, the military is not behind the company that once promised us free Internet access forever. (Sigh.) With 17 pilot installations, Net Zero is the army’s plan to limit its bases to the energy they generate and water they can collect and treat on-site. Net Zero bases will also be forbidden from depositing garbage in landfills.

Fort Hunter Liggett is building a large solar array in California. The compost bins at Joint Base Lewis-McChord in Washington State have rescued 28,905 tons of organic waste from landfills. The Oregon National Guard and the Marine Corps in Hawaii are studying the possibility of using ocean waves to generate electricity. The list goes on.

In addition to shrinking the troops’ environmental footprint, Net Zero improves the military’s readiness for future campaigns, which could involve fights over resources.

“If you’re sending troops into a conflict abroad where water is scarce, Net Zero preparations give the army confidence that it can operate in those limited-resource environments,” says Sarah Light, a professor who studies environmental law at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton business school.

The "USNS Comfort" anchored off the coast of Port-au-Prince, Haiti, in August 2011.
Credit: Photo: U.S. Navy

Humanitarian Intervention

When a massive earthquake struck Haiti in 2010, the U.S. military was among the first responders. The navy sent the USNS Comfort to the island and ferried injured Haitians by helicopter to the ship’s 1,000-bed medical facilities. Its surgical, pediatric, and intensive care units came in handy, as did the military translators who helped doctors diagnose and advise the patients. Although there are plenty of other groups that provide humanitarian assistance, none of them can match the personnel and equipment of the U.S. armed forces.

Climate change doesn’t cause earthquakes, but as it intensifies, we’re likely to see more disasters of similar size and scope. Hurricanes could become more intense, wildfires are already more frequent, and flooding will place highly populated coastal cities at risk. The military has to be ready to intervene more frequently and with even greater expertise.

But there’s a problem: “The statutory authority for these kinds of missions is murky and utterly inadequate,” says Stephen Dycus, a Vermont Law School professor who studies national security and environmental law. “The predictability of our response is a mess."

In other words, there is virtually nothing in federal law explaining when, how, and why the president should send military forces abroad during humanitarian crises. The most commonly cited authority in the U.S. code says nothing about natural disasters, humanitarian intervention, or even the military. It merely authorizes the president to deploy personnel to assist an international organization.

Recognizing the potential for confusion and political debate here, the military issued a joint publication in January laying out the principles of when and how it should provide humanitarian aid. It’s another example of the military acting in anticipation of climate change, as our political leaders fiddle away in Washington.

Investing in Technology

In his farewell presidential address in 1961, Dwight Eisenhower warned Americans of the rise of the military-industrial complex—the exchange of money and power between the armed forces and the corporations that manufacture weapons of war. That ship has pretty well sailed. The military-industrial complex is here to stay. So we might as well make it use of it. In that vein, Wharton’s Sarah Light writes about the emergence of what she has termed the “military-environmental complex.”

“Just as military needs drove the development of technology in the 20th century,” she explains, “the military’s need to reduce energy use is driving the development of green technology today.”

Advanced batteries, for example, help both environmental and military efforts. The average soldier on a 72-hour mission in Afghanistan carries 70 batteries, which make up 20 percent of the 90-or-so pounds he or she hauls. The military needs lighter, more powerful, longer-lasting batteries. Those same high-tech batteries could expand solar adoption in the private sector. Solar users have trouble getting off the grid, because the sun shines on the opposite side of the world for several hours of the day, and there is no commercially viable battery that can store enough power to get a homeowner (or factory, or restaurant, or warehouse…) through the night.

The Department of Defense could solve this problem, which private markets have so far failed to crack. Although it may not do so through direct investments in research and development; the military’s second-largest expense, behind munitions, is batteries. As such a huge consumer of technology, its buying power alone can speed new products to market.

Room for Improvement

The military is hardly an environmental saint. It is, by far, the single-largest energy user in the United States, consuming 880 trillion BTUs per year. That’s nearly 1 percent of total U.S. energy use. The military also remains exempt from the vast majority of environmental protection laws, such as endangered-species statutes and mandatory disclosures of toxic-chemical releases.

And though the Department of Defense has spent 14 years discussing climate change, its reports have a troubling tendency to talk about planning for, or thinking about planning for, or convening a committee to think about the planning of a response to, some aspect of climate change. The reports’ glossy pictures, showing turtle hatchlings and amphibious assault vehicles, do little to distract from this aspirational language.

Nevertheless, the leaders of our armed forces have long since moved past tired debates about whether climate change is real and are at least doing some recon for taking action. It’s time for the rest of the country to fall in.

This article was originally published on onEarth, which is no longer in publication. onEarth was founded in 1979 as the Amicus Journal, an independent magazine of thought and opinion on the environment. All opinions expressed are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the policies or positions of NRDC. This article is available for online republication by news media outlets or nonprofits under these conditions: The writer(s) must be credited with a byline; you must note prominently that the article was originally published by NRDC.org and link to the original; the article cannot be edited (beyond simple things such grammar); you can’t resell the article in any form or grant republishing rights to other outlets; you can’t republish our material wholesale or automatically—you need to select articles individually; you can’t republish the photos or graphics on our site without specific permission; you should drop us a note to let us know when you’ve used one of our articles.

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