Armed Conflicts, Climate Change, Environment, Headlines, Human Rights, North America

Climate Concerns Spur Changes in U.S. Military

Matthew Berger

WASHINGTON, Apr 29 2010 (IPS) - Though some conservative politicians and activists in Washington remain unconvinced of the need for action, the U.S. military is taking the effects of climate change increasingly seriously.

Addressing a crowd of about 400 people gathered to hear about the significance of climate change to U.S. national security Wednesday, Nathaniel Fick, CEO of the Washington-based think tank Centre for a New American Security, pointed out how the first event CNAS hosted on this topic drew only about 50 attendees in June 2008.

“Natural security issues are clearly taking hold, growing in importance, reaching new audiences, and becoming more mainstream. And rightfully so,” said Christine Parthemore, who directs the think tank’s Natural Security Programme, which analyses the interrelationship of natural resources and national security.

Wednesday’s event launched two new reports from CNAS examining this relationship. These join a growing body of reports by civil society and government alike on the importance of climate change to military operations – and the importance of militaries in addressing and responding to aspects of climate change.

The impacts from extreme drought, heat waves, desertification, flooding, and extreme weather events like hurricanes are all expected to continue to escalate as a result of climate and are cited in CNAS’s report as reasons why the military needs to be prepared for a climate change-impacted world.

The 105-page report, titled ‘Broadening Horizons: Climate Change and the U.S. Armed Forces’, says the effects of these environmental events will be amplified by existing socio-political factors. “Countries and regions of strategic importance – from Afghanistan to the Arctic, China to Yemen – are likely to confront major environmental pressures on both their societies and ecosystems,” it says.

Counterinsurgency expert and CNAS non-resident senior fellow David Kilcullen also pointed Wednesday to such phenomena as desertification leading to humanitarian situations like mass migrations. “These changes are happening now and they’re impacting national security issues now,” he added.

Due to increasing humanitarian crises, including the January earthquake in Haiti, the role of the military has moved far beyond combat, said Rear Admiral Philip Cullom, who heads the U.S. Navy’s task force on energy issues. The acceleration of climate change will only exacerbate those crises.

“Due to the scale of natural catastrophes, we are facing the militarisation of humanitarian relief” since militaries are the only institutions with the capacity to deal with disasters of such massive scale, Cullom said.

And even on a practical, day-to-day level, adapting to climate change will impact the armed forces. Transportation of fuel in combat zones is treacherous and requires personnel and money that could otherwise be used elsewhere.

The U.S. military has not been blind to this mountain of reasons why they should take steps to both address their preparation for the impacts of climate change and their own contributions to these impacts.

In February, the U.S. Department of Defence released its Quadrennial Defence Review and, for the first time ever, identified climate change as a having an impact on its operations around the world.

“While climate change alone does not cause conflict, it may act as an accelerant of instability or conflict, placing a burden to respond on civilian institutions and militaries around the world. In addition, extreme weather events may lead to increased demands for defence support to civil authorities for humanitarian assistance or disaster response both within the United States and overseas,” it said.

The report also laid out how the military is addressing climate-related issues, both in its own operations – in terms of reducing the military’s reliance on fossil fuels, for instance – and in helping develop energy efficient and renewable technologies.

The Pentagon sees energy security – “assured access to reliable supplies of energy and the ability to protect and deliver sufficient energy to meet operational need” – as a strategic priority, and one which greener energy can help it secure.

A report released last week by the Washington-based Pew Project on National Security, Energy and Climate commended the U.S. military for its clean energy programmes. It pointed to the Department of Defence’s goal of getting 25 percent of its electric energy from renewable sources by 2025, the U.S. Air Force’s goal of meeting 25 percent of base energy needs with renewable energy sources by 2025, and the U.S. Marine Corps’ 10X10 campaign, which aims to reduce energy intensity and water consumption and increase the use of renewable electric energy.

Along the way to those goals, the U.S. Navy is developing a “green” carrier strike group that will run on alternative fuels by 2016. Last week, they successfully tested their “Green Hornet” jet, which runs on 50 percent biofuel and 50 percent fossil fuel. The “Green Hornet” more directly addresses energy independence that environmental impacts due to the energy and resources required to produce the biofuels, but it does also mean fewer emissions from military operations.

Fort Irwin, in south-eastern California’s Mojave Desert, has been ground zero for many of the Department of Defence’s green initiatives. Most notably, it is expected to become energy independent by 2022, when the military’s largest solar installation is expected to be completed at the base.

But one key difficulty in bringing the military up to date with the realities of a changing climate remains, says another report released Wednesday by CNAS.

National security professionals “currently lack the ‘actionable’ data necessary to generate requirements, plans, strategies, training and material to prepare for future challenges” related to climate change, the report says. “Though the scope of and quality of available scientific information has improved in recent years, this information does not always reach – or is not presented in a form that is useful to – the decision makers who need it.”

That gap in information may have been partly addressed at the event Wednesday. For about 40 minutes, Carol Browner, director of the White House Office of Energy and Climate Change Policy, spoke and then answered questions on a variety of climate change-related issues before the largely national security-focused audience.

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