“Climate change is an urgent and growing threat to our national security, contributing to increased natural disasters, refugee flows, and conflicts over basic resources such as food and water.” - Department of Defense Report, 2015
For centuries, Americans have relied on the military to keep them safe from foreign threats. In recent years the military has identified climate change as one of the most dangerous of these threats. To that end, the military has taken the lead in transitioning to renewable energy. Despite making significant investments in renewable energy, the military still remains one of the world’s largest polluters, accounting for 1% of America's total energy consumption and emitting more carbon than 100 countries combined.
A New Threat
Every four years, the Department of Defense produces a Quadrennial Defense Review where it summarizes the major threats that Americans face. For the first time ever, the 2010 report listed climate change as a threat. The Pentagon’s report explained that climate change could require the military to get more involved in responding to the natural disasters that climate change has made more frequent and more deadly. Some of those disasters such as hurricanes pose a serious threat to military bases in the Gulf Coast. Strategists inside the Pentagon also understood that as the earth heats up, migrants will be chased from their homes, people around the world will fight over dwindling resources, and the economic deprivation caused by climate change will drive people into the arms of terrorist groups.
The Great Green Fleet
In the years since the Quadrennial Report, the military has launched 1,390 renewable energy projects across its hundreds of bases, and between 2011 and 2015 nearly doubled its renewable power generation to the point where it could power more than 280,000 U.S. homes. Although this progress is welcome, it has still fallen short of what is needed. If the military were its own country, it would be the 47th largest polluter in the world, and its fuel consumption puts it ahead of most medium-sized countries. The military purchases nearly 270,000 barrels of oil per day, enough to heat more than 37,000 two-bedroom houses.
In 2016, the Navy deployed the “Great Green Fleet” of ships powered by biofuels into the pacific. Modeled on the Great White Fleet launched in the early 20th century, the Great Green Fleet was intended to demonstrate the navy’s commitment to clean energy. Unfortunately, this fleet’s voyage was a triumph of style rather than substance, as the navy found itself spending four times more per gallon than it would have if the ships used conventional fuels. For a navy that goes through nearly 3.5 million gallons of fuel per day, clean energy must be more cost-effective than the biofuels used by the Great Green Fleet.
The military has been required by the National Defense Authorization Act (every year congress funds the military through a new NDAA) to get at least 25 percent of its facilities energy from renewable sources beginning in 2025. In 2017 the military got 8.7% of its facilities energy from renewable sources, and nearly doubled that number to 15.8% in 2018. This too is welcome news, but congress needs to think bigger. Facility energy is only one piece of the puzzle. The military operates a vast fleet of planes, ships, tanks, and cars, and making a dent in climate change requires that they too get more of their energy from renewables.
What can the rest of us learn?
In a time of political polarization, the military remains one of the few institutions that commands the public’s confidence. Warnings from military leaders that climate change presents a serious threat are more likely to be taken seriously by Americans, even those who might be predisposed to ignore warnings from scientists and environmental activists. This makes it especially concerning that an institution as well-funded and respected as the military remains one of the largest polluters. The military has made some progress in increasing its production of renewable energy and will soon be required by congress to get 25 percent of its facilities energy from renewables, but that won’t be enough. To solve the problem of climate change, congress shouldn’t limit its focus to just one percent of America’s energy consumption.