Defense Secretary Hagel Reaffirms Climate Change, Sustainability are Central Military Concerns

By Benjamin Schneider

It may come as a surprise to many Americans that the U.S. military is deeply committed to addressing the threat of climate change and developing renewable energy sources. That’s what Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel spoke about on Friday [Nov. 22, 2013] at the Halifax International Security Forum in Nova Scotia, where he assured the audience the emerging impacts of climate change on national security are a priority.

“Climate change does not directly cause conflict, but it can add to the challenges of global instability, hunger, poverty, and conflict,” Hagel said. “Food and water shortages, pandemic disease, disputes over refugees and resources, more severe natural disasters – all place additional burdens on economies, societies and institutions around the world.”

The military’s concern about climate change is not new – a 2006 report issued by eleven retired admirals and generals, for example, warned climate change threatened Amerca’s national security. It is also not a partisan issue – Thomas Fingar, who served as chairman of President Bush’s National Intelligence Council, warned climate change “will have wide-ranging implications for US national security interests over the next 20 years.”

But Hagel’s speech Friday was a reminder that climate change and renewable energy are very real concerns affecting military strategy not just in the future, but right now. Environmentalists often discuss climate change and sustainability in terms of how we can preserve the planet’s resources for the benefit of future generations. But military planners, meanwhile, must consider the impacts a melting Arctic will have on national security. And they have been investing in renewable and efficient energy for years because it allows them to be stronger and more secure. Hagel gave some recent highlights about their progress:

  • Afghanistan combat outposts are using tactical solar gear, which last year allowed them to keep 20 million gallons of fuel off the battlefield.
  • Also last year, the U.S. Air Force developed and implemented more efficient routes that saved them $1.5 billion.
  • Private sector investments on Department of Defense installations are expected to generate 3,000 megawatts of renewable energy by 2025.

Hagel should be commended for bringing attention to an issue that rarely receives enough, especially in the environmental movement. For understandable reasons, certain threats posed by climate change resonate with some people more than others.  The thought of food shortages in third world countries, or rising sea levels, or dying polar bears is more than enough to make the average, card-carrying “green” person want to stand up and take action to save the planet.

But while climate change is of course an environmental threat, it is also a security threat. It’s important to remember that if we’re going to take comprehensive action in the fight against climate change, we’ll need support from more than the traditional allies of the movement. Reminding such potential supporters that the U.S. military worries about climate change too might be one good way to do it.Φ

Benjamin Schneider is a communications manager at Environmental Defense Fund, focusing on climate and clean air issues. 

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