U.S. Department of Defense: A War on Climate Change

U.S. DoD's Newest Threat: Global Climate Change.

The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), ratified by the United States and put into effect in 1994, marked the beginning of the U.S. government voluntarily reporting greenhouse gas emissions as well as taking documented steps towards future reductions [1].  In the years to follow, significant data was compiled in order to track the current steady state of emissions.  As reported by the Department of Energy in 1997, as was true in prior years, the federal government was the single highest user of energy in the U.S., and the Department of Defense (DoD) consumed 75% of that energy share reported [1].

Once identified as the dominant user of energy, DoD had to shift focus towards identifying sources of energy consumption and grading the risk in reducing emissions.  While the DoD is comprised of a multitude of defense agencies and organizations, this summary will focus on the impact climate change has on the Armed Forces, as a representation of DoD.

The U.S. Armed Forces, comprised of Army, Air Force, and Navy, rely on fossil fuels to utilize mission-essential assets [2].  The top contributors to greenhouse gases are: military vehicles, ships, and aircraft.  Additionally, DoD manages millions of acres of land across the Unites States, including billions of square feet of facility and installation space [3].  In a direct response to the call for reduced greenhouse gas emissions, the DoD concluded that military readiness would be jeopardized:  the manner in which DoD Armed Forces units train and deploy would be halted [4].  Furthermore, concerns arose within the Armed Forces that foreign nations hosting the U.S. military would impose pressure to significantly reduce emissions.  Being in a position to influence policy, DoD pushed forward new policy allowing provisions for ships, aircraft, and vehicles that only operate on fossil fuel to be excluded from normal emissions reports, and reported separately, as well as for foreign nation purchases [5].

In 2010, the DoD formed a working group to discuss approaches and concerns regarding climate change.  The group consensus centered around a significant need for Research and Development (R&D) in the form of usable data to analyze and assess further risks on future missions, infrastructure, and general vulnerabilities [6].

DoD publicly outlined significant concerns to the current operating model, as well as steps to mitigate any decreased ability to operate under full mission readiness.  In 2014, DoD released a Climate Change Adaptation Roadmap to trace specific scientific metrics to missions and potential vulnerabilities [7].  This Roadmap intertwines scientific research and strategic planning and policy, and could potential set the stage for future planning.

In 2014, the U.S. Secretary of Defense, Chuck Hagel coined climate change as a “threat multiplier” [8].  DoD has also publicly theorized that significant regional instability is a real danger as sea levels continue to rise.  As diseases spread and more frequent, food shortages increase, severe storms impact partner nations, the Armed Forces are called upon to provide humanitarian assistance and disaster relief response [8].  Not only will this require a change in operational planning to ensure units are capable and available, but instability also jeopardizes security for both the region impacted as well as military and civilian relief-assistance personnel.

While skeptics view some of the actions taken by the military as “at odds with environmental protection” [9], DoD has also realized that actions taken now to reasonably reduce emissions at the installation level will contribute to cost savings and greater efficiencies in the future [10].  The question is now, will this message penetrate from the highest headquarters down to the individual installations, and will this continue to be an agenda, which requires human capital to enforce, given the myriad of routine operational tasking facing the DoD, specifically the Armed Forces.  (726 words)

[1] Roy K. Salomon, “Global Climate Change and U.S. Military Readiness,” Federal Facilities Environmental Journal, Summer 1999, p.135.

2 Ibid., p.136.

3 Sarah E. Light, “The Military-Environmental Complex,” Boston College Law Review, Vol 55: p. 880.

4 Ibid., p. 137.

5 Ibid., p. 139.

6 The Department of Defense and Climate Control: Facilitating the Dialogue,” Office of Naval Research, January 2012.

7 “Defense Department Unveils Climate Change Adaptation Roadmap,” Inside the Pentagon, October 16, 2014.

8 “Military Must Be Ready for Climate Change Challenges: Hagel,” RTT News, October 13, 2014.

9 Light, p. 886.

10 Inside the Pentagon, October 16, 2014.


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5 thoughts on “U.S. Department of Defense: A War on Climate Change

  1. This posts outlines an interesting double bind that the U.S. government faces: climate change will increase instability and national security risks globally, which will require an increased U.S. military presence; at the same time, however, the military is a large contributor of the United State’s greenhouse gas emissions. How can the U.S. military respond to global warming induced instability while not perpetuating the underlying problem? It seems to me that the government should put substantial resources towards innovation and finding technologies that allow the U.S. to reduce its emissions without reducing its military effectiveness. These breakthroughs would likely have applications in the private sector as well.

  2. Thanks for addressing this subject. Your example definitely highlights the challenges of effectively conducting business when faced with increasing constraints applied by government entities. Here, it is curious that the government is the business and national, heck global, security is the deliverable.

    Outside of nuclear, no other source of energy generates the energy density and power that comes with fossil fuels. Since WW2, oil has powered the United States military to exceptional results. While technology has advanced, the energy that sources that technology has remained consistent.

    I would be curious whether there is a conservation program that would do more help to address the impact of the DoD on the atmosphere than changing the energy source. In being better stewards of the resources at their disposal, the DoD would provide the taxpayers and the citizens of the world a better outcome. How much can be trimmed? The answer of that question would really fascinate me.

  3. Anja – I definitely agree that the DoD needs to take action now for meaningful cost savings and efficiencies in the future. While internal bureaucracy might make that endeavor difficult for DoD implement by itself, I see this as a major business opportunity for federal government contractors such as Booz Allen Hamilton and Leidos. Some recent examples include:

    • Booz Allen Hamilton’s Natural Infrastructure Asset Management initiative to enable DoD military installations to manage natural assets such as air, land and water resources and biodiverse ecosystems (http://www.boozallen.com/content/dam/boozallen/media/file/natural-infrastructure-asset-management-cs.pdf)
    • Leidos’ materials and corrosion technologies for the DoD to manage material degradation for life-cycle and sustainability improvement (e.g. Leidos Chlorinator/Dechlorinator Paired System to service U.S. Navy submarines and surface ships – https://www.leidos.com/infrastructure/environmental-sciences/corrosion)

    As the DoD continues to do its part in our global fight against climate change, I would recommend that DoD consider these public-private partnerships more to increase their efficiency of implementation.

  4. This issue is certainly very critical from a national security perspective. But so far some of the Navy’s attempts to reduce carbon emissions have not been robust. This year, the Navy had hoped to operate a Great Green Fleet, a Carrier Strike Group composed of various ships and aircraft running on nuclear power and biofuel. A few of the ships operated on a blend of 10% biofuel and 90% conventional fossil fuel, and use of biofuels in Navy aircraft has been even more limited. It will be interesting to see whether this is a serious initiative, or just an empty gesture.

  5. I found this a really interesting and insightful piece. The relationship between climate-related disasters and increased conflict has been a rising concern in recent years, for example with former UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon describing the conflict in Sudan’s Darfur region as the world’s first climate change conflict. Research is still ongoing to establish to what extent climate change could increase conflict in vulnerable regions, but the findings to date suggest that it will not be insignificant; for example Stanford-led research suggests that a 1% increase in temperature leads to a 4.5% increase in civil war in Sub-Saharan Africa. It is interesting to think about how the US Armed Forces fits into the conflict-climate change picture. On the one hand, the DoD is clearly a major contributor to global carbon emissions, but on the other hand it is also likely to play a significant role in responding to the impact of climate-related disasters globally.

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