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A tale of two policies: climate change, Trump, and the U.S. military

  • The U.S. military is preparing for a changing climate, but not in order to protect the Earth’s environment. The Pentagon’s first and foremost concern is to respond to global warming only in so far as that response enhances the military’s “operational effectiveness” – its ability to fight.
  • Jim Mattis, President Trump’s own Secretary of Defense, has spoken out about the dangers of climate change, running contrary to the commander-in-chief whose recently announced National Security Strategy omitted it as a threat. Analysts expect the military to continue with its climate change adaptation and preparedness programs, despite the President’s denialism.
  • However, even as the U.S. military takes steps to make itself more fuel and energy efficient, the Department of Defense remains the world’s largest institutional fossil fuel guzzler.
  • Critics say the greening of the military is positive, but not if its growth comes at the expense of U.S. climate programs at EPA and the State Department. Big increases in the military’s size, pushed by Trump and Congress, are only going to make the Pentagon’s and the world’s carbon emissions worse – which could ultimately impact national security and “operational effectiveness.”
The U.S. war with Iraq was responsible for a vast amount of carbon pollution. A great deal of oil was burned as U.S. forces were rushed from around the globe to the Middle East, with more burned as waves of tanks and other vehicles surged across the desert. Photo by U.S. army CC BY 2.0 via Flickr

The U.S. government appears to be of two minds, with utterly opposing worldviews, on climate change policy.

On one hand, the Trump Administration has pulled out of the Paris Climate Agreement, has proposed eliminating three vital new climate satellites, reneged on an Obama era $2 billion commitment to the Green Climate Fund, and wants to slash funding to U.S. Environmental Protection Agency domestic climate programs and State Department USAID climate programs around the globe. The President has also denounced global warming as a hoax and a Chinese plot.

On the other hand, the Republican-dominated Congress has affirmed that climate change is a prominent national security threat and mandated that the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) look closely at how climate change is going to affect key installations, while also addressing the need to boost the military’s finances considerably to deal with global warming threats. When Trump’s National Security Strategy – announced in January – erased climate change as a threat to U.S. security, that decision drew the ire of a bipartisan group of congressional legislators.

As a result of this dichotomy, the DoD has emerged as an unlikely champion of climate action in the Trump government, with the Pentagon declaring emphatically that a rapidly warming world is bringing with it alarming security risks ranging from rising sea level (which threatens naval bases such as Norfolk, Virginia, the largest in the world), to the “mother of all risksunpredictable and worsening political instability around the globe brought by climate chaos.

U.S. military installations, like Fort Hunter Liggett in California, are installing solar panels so that if the grid goes down, they can remain operational. It is important to realize that the DoD isn’t embracing alternative energy primarily as a means of protecting the environment, but as a means of continuing its military mission. Photo by U.S. Army Corps of Engineers CC BY 2.0 via Flickr

Indeed, Trump’s own Secretary of Defense, Jim Mattis, was hailed before taking office as the “lone green hope,” due to his recognition of global warming’s clear and present danger.

However, the U.S. military is far from being environmentally friendly. It has a horrifically destructive record as one of the planet’s worst polluters, and it also can lay claim to a heavy, and largely unreported, carbon bootprint (it is the single largest institutional user of fossil fuels in the world).

A year into Trump’s term, it remains to be seen whether the president’s climate-unfriendly policies will curtail the DoD’s global warming response. Complicating this question are efforts by the White House and Congress to wildly expand the size of the military, which could exponentially increase its fossil fuel bootprint, something critics argue is the opposite of what is environmentally needed.

Critics say the military should do more to clean up its environmental and climate change act. Others say the Pentagon’s job is U.S. defense first and foremost, and that other government departments need to pull their weight to combat global warming. Photo by U.S. Army CC BY 2.0 via Flickr

A booming U.S. military budget

Trump has been a notably unorthodox Republican President, with a frequently tenuous attachment to his party’s agenda. But when it comes to military spending, he is in tune with long time GOP policy. Trump is currently seeking an $18 billion military bump for 2018, compared to 2017 levels, to be made at the expense of domestic spending, including the budget of the U.S. EPA.

Arizona Sen. John McCain, head of the Senate Armed Services Committee, declared this figure as “inadequate” and laid out his plans for a much larger increase of $85 billion. The 2018 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), signed by the President this past December, goes much further than Trump’s own figure.

The NDAA allots $700 billion, sailing past the $619 billion Congress agreed to in last year’s bill, and includes a budget-cap-busting wish list that revamps the military and includes new navy ships, fighter jets, more troops, and a pay increase for all current officers.

Of course, that behemoth budget boost may never happen as it is Congress that has the final say on the military budget and it has yet to vote. 2018 NDAA spending also exceeds caps set by the 2011 Budget Control Act, and it is uncertain where the increased spending will come from.

However, the NDAA does something Trump probably doesn’t want it to do: it clearly designates climate change as a “direct threat” to the national security of the United States and orders the military to submit a “report on vulnerabilities to military installations and combatant commander requirements resulting from climate change over the next thirty years.”

War ravaged Homs, Syria. Research indicates that climate change helped intensify a severe long-lasting drought in Syria that drove rural inhabitants into cities where they could find no jobs or government support, helping trigger the country’s horrific civil war. The U.S. military has recognized climate change as an escalating cause of geopolitical instability. Photo by Chaoyue 超越 PAN 潘 CC BY-NC-ND-2.0 via Flickr

“A threat multiplier”

While the NDAA mandate is important, it is not entirely new. Climate change has been on the military’s radar for well over a decade, but not due to the threat it presents to the planet’s environment.

First and foremost in the military mind is the Pentagon’s mission: to defend the United States and its national interest. Seen within this framework, climate change is viewed as a “threat multiplier,” rather than a distinct, standalone issue.

“Climate change will contribute to food and water scarcity, will increase the spread of disease, and may spur or exacerbate mass migration,” potentially leading to civil strife and war, reads the grim forecast outlined by the 2010 DoD Quadrennial Defense Review. The Pentagon isn’t alone in its predictions; a report from the American Security Project says that 70 percent of the world’s nations have assessed climate change as a threat to their national security.

However, the U.S. Armed Forces response isn’t to immediately cut its carbon emissions in order to curb climate change. Rather it is to determine how best to defend against the instability and chaos that climate change may bring to the international community, as well as the threat it poses to U.S. military bases and operations around the globe.

The low-lying Republic of the Marshall Islands is increasingly vulnerable to sea level rise. This has implications for the more than 50,000 people who live there, but also for the strategically vital U.S. military bases located on the islands. Photo by Elizabeth Kate Switaj CC BY-NC 2.0 via Flickr

The world’s oceans vs. the Department of Defense

At home, the threat to U.S. military installations is evident. A 2011 U.S. Navy report found that a three-foot rise in sea level would endanger 128 DoD installations, valued collectively at around $100 billion. A further study by the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS), delved deeper into the future of 18 bases which already face flooding: “By the end of this century, most installations can expect a large increase in the frequency of tidal flooding, storm surges that cover greater areas at increased depth, and loss of utilized land area to the sea.”

In short, said the UCS, United States coastal military bases face a “flooded future.”

A three feet sea level rise is already considered by scientists to be “locked in.” But many researchers believe the world could be looking at rises of eight feet, and even up to 11 feet by century’s end, which would swamp pretty much all current DoD base adaptation efforts.

Curt Storlazzi, a scientist with the U.S. Geological Survey, has been carrying out research on the Marshall Islands with funding from the DoD, to look at how climate models threaten U.S installations there. He says that, in the past, the islands were overwashed by storms roughly once every twenty to thirty years. Now, it’s more like once, or even twice, per decade.

“All I can say is we’re talking decades, not centuries,” before the islands are overwashed so frequently that they become almost uninhabitable, he adds. The recent Congress Armed Forces Appropriations bill states quite clearly: “In the Marshall Islands an Air Force radar installation built on an atoll at a cost of [$1 billion] is projected to be underwater within two decades.”

This is a looming reality U.S. coastal military installations face around the globe – many will be overrun by the sea and lost forever soon, without the firing of a single shot by a hostile power.

Donald Trump’s Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis has expressed strong concern about the need to increase mission effectiveness by decreasing fossil fuel consumption based on his experience in the second Iraq War. Reliance on oil left mobile units dangerously exposed in the Iraqi desert when refueling. Photo credit: The U.S. Army on Visual Hunt / CC BY

“Unleash us from the tether of fuel”

As already mentioned, the DoD is the world’s oil-hungriest institution; it consumed 87.4 million barrels in 2014, with nearly half used by the Air Force, and a third burned by the Navy. A 2008 report entitled A Climate of War, and produced by Oil Change International, found that the second Iraq war emitted at least 141 million metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent.

The DoD also owns a mammoth amount of real estate, with several thousands of facilities and structures scattered globally, covering nearly 25 million acres – all with energy demands.

That said, the U.S. military has been working over recent decades to reduce fossil fuel dependency. But this isn’t meant to turn the military into “Prius-driving tree-huggers,” explains Andrew Holland, senior fellow for energy and climate at the American Security Project. The number one Pentagon priority is improving mission effectiveness – the ability to defend and promote U.S interests via military muscle.

Secretary of Defense Mattis’ own concerns with the need to increase mission effectiveness by decreasing fossil fuel consumption can be traced back to the second Iraq War. In 2005, he penned a document “Future Fuels” in which he called on the Pentagon to “unleash us from the tether of fuel.” Reliance on oil left mobile units exposed in the Iraqi desert during refueling, and made the armed forces less nimble in their response to threats scattered across the vast desert battlefield.

War does more than consume gasoline and jet fuel. Pictured here are raging oil well fires outside Kuwait City in the aftermath of Operation Desert Storm; the fires added significantly to atmospheric carbon emissions. The wells were set afire by retreating Iraqi forces to keep the rigs out of U.S. hands. Photo by Tech. Sgt. David McLeod / DoD in the Public Domain

Soon after, President George W. Bush signed into force a bill that mandated the DoD reduce its fossil fuel dependency and ordered each branch to produce 25 percent of its facility energy from renewables by 2025. Since then, the Pentagon has increased energy efficiency at bases, reduced fuel use, and produced around 12.6 percent of its facility energy from renewables as of 2016.

However, the vast majority, around 75 percent, of DoD’s energy consumption occurs not at facilities but in operations – think hundreds of globetrotting aircraft, ships and vehicles. This very big slice of the military’s energy pie is not subject to DoD’s renewable goals.

Still, renewable initiatives are now common-place across the services. Between 2011 and 2015, the DoD nearly tripled the number of renewable energy projects on its bases.

This however, doesn’t mean that preparing for climate change is now the number one priority. Mattis “is not saying it’s the most important issue on his plate, he’s just saying it is an issue,” explains John Conger, former DoD comptroller and senior advisor for the Center for Climate and Security. War, and preparedness for it, is still where the action is.

The U.S. Naval Base at Norfolk Virgina is the largest navy installation in the world. It is also now regularly flooded by sea level rise due to climate change. Unless significant action is taken, with millions spent on sea walls and other adaptations, the base may need to be abandoned later this century. Photo credit: jamesriker on VisualHunt / CC BY-ND

A big, green fighting machine?

Most experts don’t believe that the White House’s views on climate change will significantly redirect the Pentagon from its current course regarding climate change. Even as Trump came to power last January, the U.S. Navy was publishing its Climate Change Installation Adaption and Resilience Planning Handbook. And the navy base at Norfolk continues working to adapt to rising sea levels.

“The Department of the Navy needs to be prepared to mitigate all adverse impacts to its mission from a variety of risk sources, including but not limited to climate change,” Kenneth Huss, a U.S. Navy Spokesperson told, indirectly affirming that the Navy is still committed to climate change adaptation: We “will continue to assess and respond to all issues that have a potential to impact the readiness of our national security missions, planning and installations.”

Likewise, Richard Spencer, Trump’s pick for Navy Secretary, has declared that he is “totally aware of the rising water issue” and he has pledged to prepare his military branch for global warming.

Analysts are less certain, however, whether DoD adaptation efforts will continue at the same rate under Trump as under Obama. Holland and Conger say they don’t expect dramatic changes due to the White House’s denialist position. “It’s not helpful, but I don’t think it’s fatal,” agrees David Titley, a Penn State University meteorologist and former head of the Navy’s Climate Change program. Still, no one is sure exactly how this will all play out over the next three years of Trump’s term.

This chart shows the number of ships in the U.S. Navy as of 2015 under the Obama administration. Trump and Congress want to enlarge the navy significantly, which will increase carbon emissions. However, no one outside of the DoD can say how much those emissions will rise because U.S. military operations emissions data is a state secret. Image courtesy of @Naval Graphics on Twitter

A shift in Congress

As mentioned earlier, Congress is pressing ahead with its plans to enhance military readiness for climate change. Titley relates how the House and Senate have gone from being a headwind on the climate issue to a tailwind, propelling the military forward rather than marooning it in place.

This year’s NDAA makes that clear, as does House Appropriations Committee language in the 2018 Military Construction and Veterans Affairs Appropriations Bill which “urges the Secretary of Defense to plan infrastructure and other projects using the best available data and science on climate to mitigate risks to our armed forces.”

While not “earth-shattering legislation,” Titley says that these bills are proof of how the Congress has quietly and significantly shifted its view. Until recently Congress tried to muzzle the military, telling it to not look at or talk about climate change. Now U.S. legislators are requiring the Pentagon to understand, and respond to, climate consequences. That’s a momentous change, he says.

Soldiers from the 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment conduct security with an M1 Abrams Main Battle Tank in Biaj, Iraq. Seventy-five percent of the Department of Defense’s energy consumption occurs not at its facilities but in its operations – think hundreds of globetrotting ships, aircraft and vehicles. This very big slice of the military’s energy pie is not subject to DoD’s renewable goals. Photo courtesy of the US Army

The state of permanent emergency

But just as significantly, if the NDAA is enacted as written, the military will see a huge increase in size. That fact comes with big concerns. More ships, planes and troops means much more fossil fuel burned, leading to more carbon emissions that help destabilize the global climate, leading to more war and civil disturbances, and to what journalist Ross Gelbspan described as long ago as 1995 as a state of permanent emergency in which nation states stagger from one catastrophic extreme weather event to the next.

Perhaps with that scenario in mind, a Congressional Budget Office (CBO) report released in December outlined a decade-long military build up. The report says that by 2027 the military’s base budget should top $688 billion, 20 percent higher than peak spending back in the 1980s. This would include 237,000 more Americans in uniform and a 30 percent increase in naval capacity, achieving a 355-ship U.S. Navy. The final 2027 ship numbers would be 12 percent higher than plans under the Obama administration, according to CBO estimate.

Casting a glance around the globe, it appears that many other nations are rushing to enlarge their armed forces. According to research by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, global military spending soared to $1,686 billion in 2016, but planet-wide spending to curb climate change stood at just $359 billion in 2013.

The U.S. military is fossil fuel-hungry, and consumes millions of barrels of oil every year. The huge increase in military spending proposed by Trump and the GOP-dominated Congress will enlarge the U.S. Navy, add more warplanes and more troops, increasing the Pentagon’s carbon emissions bootprint. Photo in the public domain via VisualHunt

Another path

Increasing the size of the military in the face of escalating climate chaos is not a strategy everyone supports. A 2016 report, Combat vs. Climate, notes that the U.S. spends 28 times as much on military security as on climate security. This Institute for Policy Studies (IFPS) report says that the increase from 1 to 4 percent in spending on climate security by the Obama administration is not remotely commensurate with the serious threat climate change poses to national security as outlined in numerous studies by the U.S. military. Nor is that expenditure sufficient to bring the military’s carbon emissions under control.

Miriam Pemberton, an IFPS research fellow and author of the 2016 report, agrees that the DoD’s climate change efforts are heading down the right road, but she argues that at the current rate they aren’t nearly enough: “If climate change is a driver of instability as the military says it is… the only way to deal with that is to cut emissions within the civilian sector as well as in the military sector.”

“I think the answer isn’t to green what [the armed services] are already doing, it’s to reduce their spending, their infrastructure and their huge carbon footprint,” says Nick Buxton, a communications consultant with the Transnational Institute. But despite the Pentagon’s efforts to green itself, analysts say, the U.S. military remains a fossil-fuel addicted enterprise.

Buxton also sees a problem in the military serving as the sole federal bastion against climate change, even as Trump guts the capacity of other agencies to deal with the crisis. Buxton is especially concerned over the military tendency to see every issue through the myopic lens of security. Rather than dealing with root causes and playing a serious role in curbing emissions, the Pentagon instead is flexing its military muscle to deal with a world destabilized by climate change.

Military proponents claim that eliminating DoD emissions would cut a mere one percent of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions, a figure arrived at through publicly available data. A decrease of this size hardly seems significant, they say. But many experts doubt the figure, and see it as lowballing. That’s because the true size of the military’s emissions is unknown to the general public because the DoD is exempt from reporting its carbon emissions from overseas bases and operations, according to Tamara Lorincz, a PhD student at the Balsillie School for International Affairs.

Buxton and other analysts argue that instead of pumping more dollars into military expansion, the U.S. should do the opposite: bump up renewable energy domestically and globally and offer vulnerable communities around the world adaptation assistance. Such a strategy would help ease global tensions, he says. Instead, Trump’s proposed 2018 State Department budget would slash USAID climate programs the world over, denying vital climate change adaptation aid.

To his credit, Mattis has acknowledged that tackling global warming requires a “whole of government” approach. That’s something with which Conger agrees, noting that it’s not the military’s job alone to count and cut emissions: “The DoD’s mission is to protect the national security of the United States,” he reiterates. “So, if that requires some more greenhouse gas emissions, then so be it.”

Low lying Pacific island nations, such as Kiribati seen here, are extremely vulnerable to the impacts of climate change. As developing nations are destabilized by global warming impacts, the risk grows of them becoming failed states and ejecting waves of refugees, creating a global state of permanent climate emergency against which the U.S. military will need to defend. Photo by UN Photo/Eskinder Debebe CC BY-NC-ND-2.0 via Flickr

The current bottom line: while the U.S. military is in some ways aligned with environmentalists’ goals – reducing reliance on fossil fuels to make it a leaner, cheaper, more resilient fighting force – it is naïve to expect the DoD to take steps to solve the climate problem single-handedly, and even unwise. As an institution, it won’t accept any policy that reduces its ability to make war.

In the final analysis, it is clear that the mega-expansion of the military as desired by the Pentagon, and as formulated by Trump and the Congress, will lead to more greenhouse gas emissions, not less. That’s especially true because the military’s growth is likely to come at the expense of other agencies, such as the EPA and the State Department along with their climate programs.

As a result, experts say, even as the U.S. military bulks up, its fighting forces are likely to face an exhaustingly high number of international conflicts as global warming devastates crops, shatters developing nation economies, increases the number of failed states, and leads to war after war – leaving the world’s future all the more insecure.

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