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Building a Climate-Ready Military

In the past decade, there has been increasing recognition within the national security establishment that climate change is a national security issue. The 2010 and 2014 Quadrennial Defense Reviews, flagship documents by the Department of Defense on US military doctrine, addressed climate change as significant factor in America’s security, stating that: “the impacts of climate change may increase the frequency, scale, and complexity of future mission. . . while at the same time undermining the capacity of our domestic installations to support training activities.” In 2016, the National Intelligence Council released a declassified intelligence estimate that identified climate change as a threat to stability, food prices, public health, and economic development.

Image courtesy of Staff Sgt. Kyle Richardson, © 2014

Perhaps the military’s most compelling comment on climate change came from Admiral Samuel Locklear, then head of US Pacific Command. In a 2013 interview with the Boston Globe, Admiral Locklear cited climate change as the greatest security threat in the Pacific region. He said that climate change-induced upheaval “is probably the most likely thing that is going to happen . . . that will cripple the security environment, probably more likely than the other scenarios we all often talk about.’’ He added that the number of typhoons that season, which can require the US military to respond with humanitarian aid, was already 50% higher than the average, exemplifying the increase in extreme weather climate change can bring.

While the US military has increasingly incorporated threats from climate change in its long-term planning under the Obama administration, the transition to the Trump administration has made the future of these policies uncertain. In order to increase and protect US military capabilities and readiness, President Trump should give his Defense Secretary, former general James Mattis, and his Department of Defense (DoD) the latitude to address climate change as they see fit.

The differences between these two men on climate change are significant. The Trump Administration has removed all references to climate change from the White House website, replacing them with an energy plan that focuses on natural gas and shale oil, and has moved to approve the Keystone and Dakota Access pipelines. Secretary Mattis, on the other hand, has been  a leader in promoting fuel efficiency within the military to “unleash us from the tether of fuel” and has identified climate change as one of the trends the military must adapt to in order to remain “relevant and capable.”

President Trump has pledged to rebuild a military that he views as “depleted.” During his campaign, he outlined a plan to increase the size of the military by increasing spending and eliminating waste and bureaucracy. Making the military more energy efficient and climate resilient is a ready-made, cost effective opportunity to eliminate waste, avoid future costs, and maintain military readiness.

As one of the largest institutional energy users in the world, the DoD has a great deal to gain from fuel efficiency. Between the drawdown in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as comprehensive energy plans from the Army, Navy, and Air Force, the US military has already been cutting its energy use. Energy use by military buildings and facilities has fallen 17% since 2003, and petroleum use has fallen 27% since 2007. While it may be difficult to make combat vehicles more fuel efficient, the thousands of non-combat vehicles used on bases and for logistics provide ample opportunities for electrification, biofuels, and better fuel efficiency, which will further reduce the Department’s fuel use, saving money, reducing greenhouse emissions, and insulating the military from oil shortages or price shocks.

Renewable energy provides similar gains in efficiency while also building resilience at military bases, both big and small. Under the Obama administration, the DoD committed to installing three gigawatts of renewable capacity at bases around the world. In addition to providing cheap, reliable electricity, this also makes bases more resilient to blackouts from the grid. The benefits are even greater for forward operating bases. By using portable solar panels to reduce the use of diesel generators, fewer convoys are needed to resupply the base. Fewer convoys means fewer soldiers that put themselves at risk traveling through hostile areas.

In addition to energy, physical infrastructure, particularly along the coast, is also essential for building resilience and avoiding far larger costs later. A study by the Union of Concerned Scientists in 2016 found that the majority of the military’s 18 coastal bases they looked at would experience ten times the flooding they currently do by 2050, and by 2100 eight of the bases could lose between 25% and 50% of their land area. Affected bases include Naval Station Norfolk, the largest naval base in the world, much of which only sits ten feet above sea level. Increased flooding is already disrupting work at the station, and at Norfolk and other installations, nearby civilian infrastructure that the bases depend on is also at risk.

Maintaining the readiness of these facilities and the soldiers that depend on them means being proactive in planning for climate change. We must build sea walls, harden systems against flooding, and raise or move buildings, piers, and other structures. We may have to spend money in the name of climate adaptation now, but doing so will save money in the long run by avoiding disruptions and costly repairs.

Increasing the energy efficiency and use of renewables will also help protect our military infrastructure in the most significant way – by limiting the degree of climate change that will need to be adapted to in the first place. When it comes to defense, as with agriculture, economics, public health, and most every other field of human endeavor, long-term goals cannot be disentangled from climate change.


Benjamin Dills

Benjamin is a Program Assistant with the Wilson Center’s Environmental Change and Security Program. He focuses his work on international climate, energy, and sustainable development policy, and he has been a member of YPFP’s Energy and Environment Discussion Group for three years. Benjamin holds an MA in Security Policy Studies from George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Affairs. You can connect with him on Twitter @Ben_Dills.
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