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Biden and the Pentagon Can Declare War on Climate Change

Biden and the Pentagon Can Declare War on Climate Change

Thursday, 14 January, 2021 - 05:15

In Germany a couple of years ago, I was at a small luncheon associated with the Munich Security Conference, an annual event sometimes referred to as the “Davos of geopolitics.” There were some dull comments by a few political leaders. Then former US Secretary of State John Kerry took the floor and addressed what he said — correctly — is the greatest long-term threat to global security: climate change.

Kerry electrified the room. In a short but emotional talk delivered without notes, he laid out the reasons he is passionate about reducing global warming and addressing the many challenges presented by the deterioration of the world’s climate. At the time, I thought how much I wished he had real influence on President Donald Trump’s administration, which had pulled the US out of the Paris climate accords.

Well, as the saying goes, elections have consequences. By appointing Kerry as the special presidential envoy for climate, President-elect Joe Biden is signaling how important this basket of issues will be to his administration. What is particularly noteworthy is the inclusion of Kerry not only in the cabinet, but also as a member of the National Security Council. This will be welcomed by environmentalists, of course, and by the Department of Defense, which may come as a surprise to observers who think of the Pentagon as a massive, gas-guzzling, anti-environmental entity.

Actually, the department in general — and the uniformed military in particular — is highly concerned about the effects of climate change, and will be enthusiastic about an administration that takes the threat seriously and is willing to try and reduce it. Why does the Department of Defense care about climate change, and what will the military do about it under Biden?

Let’s start with the ways in which climate is tied to national security. At the top of the list is the immense strain that responding to climatological events puts on the Pentagon’s resources. The military has responded vigorously, domestically and internationally, to forest fires, hurricanes, typhoons, flooding and the civil unrest that often follows such crises. Most scientists attribute the increase in severity of humanitarian disasters to the impact of global warming.

An additional climate-induced threat is the kind of resource scarcity, notably water shortages, that plagues Africa and the Middle East. As agrarian economies falter in drought and higher temperatures, fighting breaks out. The wars in Syria and Mali are examples of conflicts in which soaring heat and water shortages are contributing factors.

Another concern is the possibility of great-power competition in the Arctic. As temperatures rise and the polar ice opens up, the chances of conflict between Russia on one side of the Arctic Sea and North Atlantic Treaty Organization nations — the US, Canada, Norway, Iceland and Denmark (which controls Greenland) — on the other heighten. China, which has a strong interest in shortened shipping routes across the top of the world, is building an icebreaker fleet. And the melting of the ice opens up access to hydrocarbons, which could become a source of disagreement and hostilities.

Finally, the Defense Department is concerned about rising sea levels, which threaten crucial ports in the US and overseas. Norfolk Naval Base in Virginia, which hosts the largest fleet concentration of the US Navy, is frequently flooded, and over time may become untenable as a military port.

Given all of these concerns, the department has been quietly paying more attention to climate issues since the beginning of the Barack Obama administration. Led by former Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus, the service has experimented with adapting its energy needs to a mixture of petroleum and non-fossil fuels. The centerpiece of the effort was the so-called Great Green Fleet, which deployed to the Pacific in 2016 and included the John C. Stennis carrier strike group. The mission was to show that energy conservation and American power projection could stay afloat together.

All the military branches have looked to improve sustainability and decarbonization in their energy consumption. Leading figures including two former chairmen of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Michael Mullen and General Joseph Dunford, and retired Admiral Sam Locklear, who headed the Pacific Command, who have all spoken out forcefully on the issues of climate and national security.

The Trump administration did its best to reverse the military’s switch to alternative energy. Yet Pentagon leaders quietly continued to include climate concerns where they could in strategies and policies. Such efforts won’t just be welcomed under the Biden administration, they will be mandatory.

Look for the Pentagon to clearly articulate the ways in which climate change is a national security threat; restart alternative fuel experiments such as the Great Green Fleet; step up the targets for shifting to sustainable power sources at bases and eventually getting to net-zero emissions globally; improve capability to respond to climate emergencies; and order the various construction arms such as the Army Corps of Engineers to factor environmental concerns into their planning, estimating and building.

The deterioration of the climate is real, and will cause the US significant security concerns. The Pentagon, so often the source of new technologies that change the world, has a chance to demonstrate that one of the largest organizations on earth in terms of personnel, budget, installations and logistics can go green. Climate Czar Kerry will find a willing partner in the Department of Defense.


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