The US Navy’s War Against Climate Change

As climate change threatens to alter the ocean environment, the Navy must strategize for the future.

In 1907, the US Navy’s Great White Fleet of 16 steam-powered, steel-hulled battleships circumnavigated the Earth in a dramatic show of America’s technological advancement to global threats of the time [1]. 105 years later, the Navy debuted its Great Green Fleet, a carrier strike group operating on a petroleum-biofuel blend, in a show of force against America’s newest threat – global climate change [2]. With the safety of global supply chains at stake, and threats to its own logistics operations imminent, the US Navy has been preparing for climate change for more than a decade.

Part of the Navy’s mission is to protect freedom of the seas around the world, which allows global supply chains to exist. Climate change stands to complicate that mission as environmental conditions are expected to leave waterways open longer [3]. Additionally, Arctic warming is expected to increase global competition for resources in the region, which contains 22 percent of the world’s untapped oil and gas deposits [4]. Increasing shipping traffic combined with competition from other nations will require more Navy ships in operation to protect American assets.

Navy officials also need to consider the effects that climate change will have on its own supply chain. Increased operations for US warships will result in higher fuel consumption and cost. The Navy already accounts for 30 percent of Department of Defense energy use [5]. When the price of a barrel of oil increased by $30 several years ago, the Navy took a billion-dollar hit to its budget [6]. Fossil fuel consumption is expensive and unpredictable in a world that requires more Navy ships due to climate change.

As climate change causes sea levels to rise at an accelerating pace, Navy officials must be prepared to respond to the adverse effects that this will have on its logistics ashore. For instance, a three-foot rise in sea levels, which is expected by 2100 in some moderate models, will cause damage to 55 naval installations valued at $100 billion [7]. Naval Station Norfolk, home to the Atlantic Fleet, has seen sea levels rise 14.5 inches in the past century and already deals with periodic flooding [8] [9].

In response to the threats posed by global climate change, the US Navy has spent the past decade tweaking its strategy to prepare for future unknowns. Much of this strategy revolves around fossil fuel consumption. Its 2010 Quadrennial Defense Review stated, “energy security for the Department [of Defense] means having assured access to reliable supplies of energy and the ability to protect and deliver sufficient energy to meet operational needs” [5]. As such, the Navy has invested heavily in biofuel as a method to not only do its part to mitigate climate change, but also increase fuel efficiency and reduce cost uncertainty associated with fossil fuels. By 2020, half of the Navy’s energy consumption is expected to come from alternative sources [5]. The Navy has also experimented with new forms of propulsion to improve costs while increasing operating time at sea. The USS Makin Island, an amphibious assault ship the size of an aircraft carrier, has a hybrid-electric drive that saved the Navy $2 million on its maiden voyage [6].

[Source: CBS Evening News]

In addition to preparing for the increased operations that climate change will cause, the Navy has also invested in improving infrastructure to handle sea level rise. At Naval Station Norfolk, flooding has been mitigated by double-deck piers [8]. More must be done, however, to prevent catastrophic problems that climate change will cause to the Navy and its supply chains.

The Navy’s development of a climate strategy hasn’t been without challenges. The current geopolitical environment threatens to derail efforts to be proactive with climate solutions.  President Trump has claimed that climate change is a hoax [10], and congress has attempted on more than one occasion to bar the Navy from buying fuel that costs more than oil [2]. Although biofuels are expensive compared to fossil fuels at the moment, in the long term they have potential to scale to be cheaper and more efficient. With the dangers of climate change in mind, I recommend that Navy leaders continue full steam ahead in developing biofuels, regardless of the political party in power. The Navy also needs to continue to invest in shipbuilding to meet the demand for operations that climate change will cause.

Can the US Navy continue to effectively prepare for the effects of climate change in the current geopolitical environment? Will investment in biofuels bring costs down enough to justify the switch from fossil fuels?

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[1] “The World Cruise of the Great White Fleet,” https://www.history.navy.mil/browse-by-topic/exploration-and-innovation/world-cruise.html, accessed November 2017.

[2] Woody, T 2012, ‘The Navy’s Great Green Fleet Strikes Back’, Forbes.Com, p. 46, Business Source Complete, EBSCOhost, viewed November 2017.

[3] Timothy Gardner and Andrea Shalal-Eda, “White House Releases Plan to Make Arctic Shipping Safer,” http://www.reuters.com/article/us-usa-arctic-whitehouse/white-house-releases-plan-to-make-arctic-shipping-safer-idUSBREA0U00X20140131, accessed November 2017.

[4] Max Strasser, “As the World Warms, Navy Strategists Plan for an Arctic Rush,” http://www.newsweek.com/2014/05/09/world-warms-navy-strategists-plan-arctic-rush-249099.html, accessed November 2017

[5] Admiral Gary Roughead, “Navy Energy Vision,” http://greenfleet.dodlive.mil/files/2010/10/Navy-Energy-Vision-Oct-2010.pdf, accessed November 2017.

[6] “The US Military Goes Green,” https://www.wsj.com/articles/the-u-s-military-goes-green-1396982680, accessed November 2017.

[7] Reinhardt, F.L. & Toffel, M.W. 2017, Managing Climate Change: Lessons from the U.S. Navy, Harvard Business Review, Boston.

[8] Laura Parker, “Who’s Still Fighting Climate Change? The US Military,” https://news.nationalgeographic.com/2017/02/pentagon-fights-climate-change-sea-level-rise-defense-department-military/, accessed Noevember 2017

[9] Matt Smith, “The Pentagon Just Issued Marching Orders on Climate Change,” https://news.vice.com/article/the-pentagon-just-issued-marching-orders-on-climate-change, accessed November 2017

[10] Yeganeh Torbati, “Trump’s Climate Doubts Ignore US Military Consensus on Risks,” https://www.reuters.com/article/us-usa-climatechange-military/trumps-climate-doubts-ignore-u-s-military-consensus-on-risks-idUSKBN18T2YF, accessed November 2017.

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4 thoughts on “The US Navy’s War Against Climate Change

  1. Moving away from fossil fuels as much as possible is certainly a strategic move for the Navy. I agree that it’s an important focus and I hope the Navy continues to invest in alternative energy as a strategic goal. One point I would add is that in my opinion the Navy’s move away from fossil fuels needs to be as broad as possible to encompass different existing and emerging technologies. Biofuels, while greener than fossil fuels, still pose a lot of the same operational and strategic challenges of traditional fuel (namely you need to transport the fuel!). I believe the Navy has also invested heavily in nuclear power for portions of its fleet (subs in particular but I believe other ships as well), which has the advantage of not requiring refueling.

    Many of these initiatives gained steam when fuel prices surged in the early 2000s. It will be interesting to see what happens now that fuel is (comparatively) cheap, and has remained so for almost a decade (since the crash in 2008). I wonder if political appetite will remain for this type of spending if fossil fuels remain relatively cheap for the next decade?

    1. Completely agree on the nuclear operational advantages. My vote is all in to get the eco advantages and the bonus of not having to refuel (and having a lot of extra space on the ship e.g. to carry more jet fuel for aircraft that enable much more flexibility)

  2. I agree that the Navy and the U.S. Department of Defense has, at large, been leading climate change efforts for more than a decade. It goes without saying that an increased dependence on biofuels or other environmentally sustainable practice would undeniably benefit the U.S. Government budget, the environment as a whole, and the global trade economy. As a leader of nations the U.S. and its defense elements can often act as an example or proof of concept to other nations and private industries [1].

    The U.S. Navy and its sister branches are in a unique position that allows them to be slightly more shielded from market trends. As this relates to fossil fuels versus biofuels the Navy can, in some case more accurately track the supply, implementation, and effect of different technologies in a shorter cycle than private industry. This will allow them to continue the forward momentum gained in the early 2000s [2]. For instance, the past two decades have forced the U.S. DoD to reassess it reliance on resource-heavy assets. The U.S. Army has a mission to fight and win in a “complex world”. This complex world increasingly includes limited resources and strict supply allocations to drive increases in capability without increasing resource footprints [3]. Inherently this will prioritize efforts that lead to competitive advantages in defense and supply chains are critical elements of being on the leading edge in the defense sector and defending the United States.

    The U.S. Navy and associated branches of the military will continue to be sustainability leaders for the U.S. and international community driven by both the bottom line and necessity.

    [1] Roger M. Natsuhara, “The US Military Goes Green,” Wall Street Journal, April 8, 2014.
    [2] John P. Quinn, “The U.S. Navy’s Sustainability Imperative,” Center for a Better Life, September, 2011.
    [3] Raymond Odierno (GEN), “Win in a Complex World,” US Army Training & Doctrine Command, October 31, 2014, pp 37-38.

  3. From an admittedly uninformed position, Nuclear stands out to me as a highly compelling solution. It solves the environmental and oil market exposure problems, but it also seems to have many operational advantages as well. For example – high energy density, it simply takes up less room than massive fuel tanks and allows the excess space to be devoted to other things. It also provides immense flexibility to reroute when needed or engage in prolonged missions that would otherwise be slowed by refueling needs. I understand that upfront cost is a significant for nuclear. But it seems like something definitely worth considering in light of the environmental benefits being compounded by additional operational benefits.

    The heritage foundation shares some of these arguments in favor of a more nuclear powered navy http://www.heritage.org/homeland-security/report/the-advantages-expanding-the-nuclear-navy

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