U.S. Military May Be the Strongest Force in Battle Against Climate Change

The most technologically advanced military in the world cannot afford to abandon scientific rationality when its fundamental power and interests are at stake.
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Fear is a potent force in American politics. It is the force that sustains the War on Terror, the latest calls for further military interventions in Iraqi and Syrian civil wars, and Obama's use of drones on multiple continents. At the same time, fear about the threat of climate change has proven sharply divisive. Appeals to scientific consensus from the left have encountered strong resistance from the right; according to conservatives, "scare tactics" about the threat posed by global warming have not worked. But Republican aversion to scientific rationality is coming under attack from an unexpected direction: the U.S. defense establishment, hardly a hotbed of environmental radicalism, is sounding the alarm about the security threat of climate change.

In a May 2014 report, the Center for Naval Analyses Military Advisory Board (CNA), a Pentagon-funded think tank, detailed how global warming is a "threat multiplier" and already a "catalyst for conflict" in East Africa, the Middle East, and South and Southeast Asia. The Pentagon's 2014 Quadrennial Defense Review, the core document outlining U.S. defense priorities, explicitly states that climate change "will devastate homes, land, and infrastructure", "exacerbate water scarcity", "lead to sharp increases in food costs", aggravate "conditions that can enable terrorist activity and other forms of violence", and "may increase the frequency, scale, and complexity of future [military] missions". The White House this year released a National Climate Assessment report underscoring the likelihood of intensified drought, coastal flooding, and costly damage to vital economic sectors. With such statements, the U.S. joins the more than 70 percent of countries in the world that have explicitly identified climate change as a threat to national security.

On the bright side, it is still technically feasible to mitigate the worst damages. According to the latest report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, seriously disastrous consequences can be averted if global greenhouse gas emissions are reduced 50-70 percent by 2050 (relative to 2010), and phased-out completely by the end of this century. The Pentagon, the single largest consumer of fossil fuels in the world, is already building a 155-acre solar power installation at an Arizona military base to reduce emissions and dependence on a decrepit electricity grid. Such projects carry long-term, strategic benefits. But their continuation and expansion are under threat by persistent inertia in Congress.

After the succession of disquieting Pentagon and White House reports, the House passed Rep. David McKinley's (R-WV) amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA). This amendment blocks the Department of Defense from receiving any funds for the purpose of addressing, or even investigating, climate change. The general takeaway is clear: Congress, the least trusted institution in American public life (with approval rates consistently below 11 percent), is obstructing the military, the most trusted institution (with approval rates consistently above 74 percent). A desire to undermine the Obama administration's climate strategy has led conservatives, in a rare move, to refuse further military funding.

Congress's intransigence is matched only by the fossil fuel industry's determination to extract every last ton of carbon in the ground--even while at least two-thirds of these resources are effectively unrecoverable if the worst climate damages are to be averted. Chevron has already retracted its investments in clean energy projects, while ExxonMobil has stated decisively their intent to greatly expand production and exploration. The industry's public relations juggernaut to undermine the perceived threat of climate change has been remarkably successful. Americans now consistently rank climate change near the bottom of a list of 15 policy priorities.

While the conversation on global warming in Congress dwindles, President Obama's "Climate Action Plan" has had mixed results. In a recent address at West Point, Obama called climate change "a creeping national security crisis" that is central to his foreign policy doctrine. Yet Obama also boasted at a 2012 speech in Oklahoma that the U.S. has enthusiastically fueled the crisis:

"Now, under my administration, America is producing more oil today than at any time in the last eight years. That's important to know. Over the last three years, I've directed my administration to open up millions of acres for gas and oil exploration across 23 different states. We're opening up more than 75 percent of our potential oil resources offshore. We've quadrupled the number of operating rigs to a record high. We've added enough new oil and gas pipeline to encircle the Earth and then some."

To be fair, under Obama's direction, corporate average fuel economy (CAFE) standards for automobiles improved. Still, they remain far below EU standards. The president directed the Department of Energy to improve Renewable Portfolio Standards (RPSs) for electricity production, but the outcomes have ranged, depending on the state, from strictly enforced targets to voluntary participation with hardly any compliance. The Department of Energy has also pioneered ARPA-E, an agency that allocates funds for cutting-edge projects in renewable energy R&D. The projects, however, face continuous threats of curtailment and are chronically underfinanced. Most recently, Obama announced regulations to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from coal power plants by 30 percent by 2030, relative to 2005 levels. However, 2005 is a misleading baseline year since coal emissions were near their peak, and the target is itself entirely insufficient based on the IPCC's recommendations.

Washington's inability to undertake comprehensive action to counter climate change demonstrates the diminished power of the federal government to lead nation-wide campaigns more generally.

Decades of conservative efforts to roll back the power of the American state have undermined the government's ability to act strategically. The federal government's main economic and social wings are exposed to politically determined budget battles and are thus unable to engage in long-run planning. Until such capabilities are developed, the military and its auxiliary industries are the only actors capable of significantly advancing national climate strategy, both in America and around the world.

Ultimately, the most technologically advanced military in the world cannot afford to abandon scientific rationality when its fundamental power and interests are at stake. The U.S. military's pre-eminence stems from the vital position that it has occupied in the American economy since World War II. It has benefited immensely from government industrial policy, to the point where it is currently the only arm of the government with the experience, administrative capacity, and political will to undertake the projects required to rewire national energy and transport systems. The Pentagon also holds an unrivaled capacity to transfer clean technologies to countries around the world in which the U.S. has a military presence. Embracing climate change as a national policy priority would not, therefore, need to imply an expansion of government per se. The military's accumulated financial, technological and industrial resources give it the capacity to act virtually independently when given political free rein.

That political freedom to act does come at a cost, however. Allowing the Pentagon to coordinate national policies has contributed to the disastrously misguided interventions in Vietnam and Iraq, among others. Rampant militarism has imposed large costs on American society, in terms of reintegrating veterans, diverting productive energies from resource-starved civilian sectors and suppressing dissenting voices in politics and civil society. The risks of a new military-led crusade to tackle climate change are considerable. The possibilities for abusing the powers needed to address this challenge are significant. But given the institutional constraints on civilian climate initiatives, it is an option that is arguably more plausible than the alternatives.

There are also more concrete financial factors that make it expedient to tackle climate change through the defense apparatus. With the government under tight budgetary scrutiny from fiscal conservatives in Congress, it has become nearly impossible to undertake new discretionary spending on non-defense initiatives. In spite of having been forced to cut its budget due to spending caps established during the 2013 sequestration, the Pentagon still receives a very significant portion of total federal spending: almost 18 percent in 2013. Most of these funds are classified as mandatory spending that is locked in for years or decades to come. Importantly, defense spending is projected to rise faster than non-defense discretionary spending between 2012 and 2022. This means that instead of waging costly political battles to free up ineffectively small sums of discretionary spending for civilian initiatives, Democrats are better off working with military branches to reallocate defense spending, both discretionary and mandatory, towards such programs.

The American government has a history of pioneering some impressive strategic programs. The Manhattan Project, in a coordinated effort to create the atomic weapon during WWII, dispensed an enormous scale of funds ($22 billion in 2008 dollars) and employed over 100,000 Americans. DARPA, the Pentagon's remarkably successful industrial program, funded and directed innovations that enabled jet aviation, computers, and the commercial-level use of the Internet--transformational technologies at the core of modern economies today. It is a myopic underestimation of U.S. power to assume that the country cannot mobilize and manage analogous efforts to mitigate the risks of climate change.

Responding effectively to climate change need not be the transformative utopian project it is sometimes held to be. It is equally a matter of dealing with existing players, and of choosing one's battles wisely. We might not be able to turn the United States into a country that is hopeful, rather than incessantly fearful. But we can at least try to turn it into a country focused on real threats, and not on threats contrived to preserve an exceedingly narrow and self-defeating vision for state power and security in the 21st century.

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