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Can sustainability activists learn to love the military?

Sensemaking / Can sustainability activists learn to love the military?

In the war against climate change, argues Paul Gilding, the military could be our best defence.

23 Aug 2011

On the surface, activists and the military are worlds apart. But look closer, and their mutual interests appear surprisingly aligned.

Take the potential of a global shift to renewables, particularly solar and wind. With zero fuel cost, and a power source available all over the planet, a whole range of geopolitical and military risks associated with securing energy supplies are eliminated – along with the enormous costs involved. A fascinating peer reviewed study, reported in the journal Foreign Policy, pointed out that keeping aircraft carriers in the Persian Gulf from 1976 to 2007 cost over $7 trillion.

This was a direct subsidy to fossil fuels by the tax payer, as the explicit mission was to secure oil shipments. Such missions will not be required to keep the sun shining or the wind blowing.

The US Department of Defense is increasingly focused on this issue [see panel below] – which makes sense when you realise its annual energy bill is a cool $20 billion. So it’s no surprise that it has a renewable energy target of 25% by 2020 – more stretching than most countries, including its own!

Then there are the security implications of climate disruption. Military planners, whose job is to rationally assess current and future threats to national security, are acutely aware of the broader risks posed by climate change and resource constraint, and senior officers are now voicing those concerns in public.

Among them is the former Commander in Chief of the US Central Command, retired Marine Corps General Anthony Zinni. We either address climate change today, he warns, or “we will pay the price later in military terms. And that will involve human lives. There will be a human toll.”

Zinni was part of a high-level Military Advisory Board review in 2007, which concluded that climate change would act as a ‘threat multiplier’ by exacerbating conflict over resources, especially because of declining food production, border and mass migration tensions, which could increase political instability and create failed states.

Similar conclusions were reached by the National Intelligence Council, the coordinating body of America’s 16 intelligence agencies, whose chairman warned that, left unchecked, climate change has “wide-ranging implications for national security because it will aggravate existing problems”, especially in already vulnerable areas such as sub-Saharan Africa and the Middle East. The message was repeated by the Pentagon in 2010: its Quadrennial Defense Review described global warming as “an accelerant of instability or conflict”.

The military, it seems, is ahead of its political masters. And it’s becoming increasingly frustrated at the lack of a political response. In April 2010, 33 retired Generals and Admirals wrote to the Senate majority and minority leaders stating baldly that “climate change is threatening America’s security … by decreasing stability, increasing conflict, and incubating the socio-economic conditions that foster terrorist recruitment”.

Across the Atlantic, the respected British defence think tank, the Royal United Services Institute, has concluded that: “Climate change will drive as significant a change in the strategic security environment as the end of the Cold War. If uncontrolled, climate change will have security implications of similar magnitude to the World Wars, but which will last for centuries.”

Take particular note of the last two words: “for centuries”. With this level of awareness, it cannot be long before the military and intelligence communities start to demand urgent and dramatic action. I don’t necessarily expect US bombing missions on rogue nations’ coal plants, or an axis of evil defined by Australia’s coal, Canada’s tar sands and Russia’s oil. But I do see as inevitable that the security apparatus will come down on the side of action on sustainability.

I approach this issue with an unusual background. Indeed, at one point in my [Greenpeace] activist history, I was serving in the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) while simultaneously engaged in waterborne protests confronting US and UK nuclear-armed warships sailing into Sydney harbour. The result was some very ‘interesting’ personal engagements with military intelligence, which led to my rapid departure from the RAAF.

But despite our differences, I learnt during my years of service, and since, that the military is full of people with genuine concern for society. They have indeed chosen a career where some of them put their lives on the line for that commitment – a level of commitment that Western activists rarely have to face.

I am not naïve about the historical role of the security apparatus in progressive issues, and I understand that many in the sector are about as progressive as Donald Rumsfeld. But it would be both naïve and bad strategy for the sustainability movement to let this stand in the way of a robust engagement with these people who have, like us, made it their lives’ work to make the future a better place.

“Why should a dried up little country with a crazy dictator like Libya play havoc with America’s energy future?”

Former California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger was on characteristically robust form, as he welcomed the news that the US Navy has set itself the ambitious goal of sourcing half its energy needs from non-fossil sources by 2020.

A more measured assessment came from Tom Hicks, Deputy Assistant Secretary of the US Navy for energy. “[It’s] a recognition that as a nation and a Navy we rely too much on fossil fuel.”

It’s part of a shift that is seeing the military become a growing focus for the country’s fledgling green tech sector – so attracting substantial investor interest.

The Navy’s plan is already underway. California-based Solazyme Inc. is delivering just under 200,000 gallons of algae-based biofuel – a small fraction of the eight million barrels of alternative fuel which the service will need if it’s to hit its 2020 target. The Army, meanwhile is experimenting with hybrid vehicles, even to the extent of ‘hybridising’ the notorious Hummer.

Under the 2020 plan, half of all US naval bases will be net-zero energy consumers, thanks to a variety of onsite generation methods. Each base would produce enough energy to power itself, but wouldn’t meet its own demand for every second of every day. “At times you may be pulling [power] from the grid”, explains Hicks. “At other times, you may be pushing power into it.”

Behaviour change, too, is playing a part. Under a programme being piloted at two bases in Hawaii and South Carolina, personnel are encouraged to cut electricity use through a simple incentive scheme. If they use less than the target amount, they get their money back; if they use more, they pay a financial penalty. As a result, consumption has fallen by up to 20%.

Solar is winning its spurs on the battlefield, as well, Hicks explains, with soldiers in Afghanistan able to use it to power communications and other equipment. “Instead of [having to come back to base to recharge batteries] every two to three days, they’re able to go out for three weeks without a battery refresh.” That gives solar a strategic importance, because it requires “less people at risk delivering things to conduct their operation”.

All this interest in renewables, from one of the US’s biggest purchasers, is sending ripples through the green tech market. Solazyme’s shares rose 15% on the back of its latest contract. It’s encouraged the company to invest in R&D on industrial-scale production of algae fuels, Solazyme told Green Futures, and helped establish it as an industry leader in the area.

“There are many others out there that are building the facilities to ample scale,” says Hicks, citing Amyris, Gevo and Honeywell International as biofuel companies keen to exploit a growing market. As Hicks puts it: “I think we’re sending a pretty powerful demand signal”. And investors are starting to respond.

Chandler Van Voorhis, Managing Partner and Chief Development Officer at C2 Invest, is one financier who’s watching closely. “When you think about it, a lot of [new] technology comes out of the military”, he concludes. “Eventually, it gets commercialised.”

John Eischeid is a New York-based journalist and regular contributor to Scientific American.

Paul Gilding is a writer and campaigner. His latest book is The Great Disruption.

Photo credit: F. Baptista / Greenpeace

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