Armies Fight Wildfires. But They Can Do So Much More About Climate Change | Opinion

While Australia burns and its prime minister and our own president are still in climate denial, it's a good time to ask what role the military plays in responding to the climate emergency. For the first time in its history, Australia has deployed reserve forces to support its volunteer firefighters on the front lines of the climate catastrophe that has already destroyed more acreage than Massachusetts, Rhode Island and Connecticut combined.

And while the Trump Administration is planning to issue new guidance to exclude climate change in federal infrastructure planning, the president has also signed several defense bills with bipartisan support directing the Department of Defense to include climate change in both its infrastructure and operational planning. This Administration may think that denying climate impacts will enable more pipelines and free us of environmental "constraints." But the U.S. military knows addressing environmental considerations will make it better prepared to face the climate risks of extreme weather and natural disasters.

One of America's largest, most powerful, and traditional institutions is actually preparing for climate risks by its own quiet competence. This institution is both inherently conservative as well as admired and trusted by a majority of the American public. The institution? The U.S. military.

To some, the U.S. military may seem like an unlikely climate savior. It is an incontestable fact that the Department of Defense was one of the nation's worst polluters. It is also, however, incontestable that the U.S. military has a long history as both an explorer and protector of the environment. This latter legacy has come into stark relief over the past three decades as the links between climate change, environmental impact, and U.S. national security have become increasingly clear. With the most to gain from alternative energy sources and the most to lose from the instability generated by a changing climate, the Department of Defense has undergone a significant cultural change in regards to the environment—one that can and should be seen as a model for breaking the impasse in our national dialogue on climate change.

On the surface, environmentalists and military brass might seem like strange bedfellows, but the two cultures have more in common than most outsiders might think. For starters, the U.S. military has always been a proud pioneer of environmental exploration and conservation, beginning with the naturalists Lewis and Clark—who were also Army officers acting under the orders of President Jefferson. Three quarters of a century later, in 1879, U.S. Navy Lieutenant George Washington De Long set sail for an expedition into the High North, where he disproved scientific theory at the time about warm waters off Russian Siberia. (The expedition ultimately cost him and most his sailors their lives.) Today, the U.S. military is the nation's second largest land owner and a protector of many prized ecosystems and endangered species, from the last long leaf pine forests at bases in the south east—home to the endangered red-cockaded woodpecker—to the desert tortoise, which lives compatibly with the Marines' live fire training in the Mojave desert at 29 Palms and the Army's National Training Center at Fort Irwin.

It has always been a part of the military's job to secure energy to power our economy. From Naval officer and strategist Alfred Thayer Mahan who, in the nineteenth century, stressed the acquisition and defense of coaling stations to the Persian Gulf Wars of the 1990s, the U.S. military consistently identifies and acts in the interest of energy security imperatives.

Today, this imperative is more pressing than ever. The Department of Defense is the single largest energy user in the country. While it has been reducing its reliance on fossil fuels with initiatives such as renewable fuels, advanced batteries and microgrids, to power domestic military installations, its energy consumption still sits at one percent of total U.S. energy use. In other words, DoD has significant incentives to find cheaper, sustainable energy sources. These incentives extend especially to the operational world, where we both want to reduce the risks for soldiers convoying fuel to the front in Afghanistan and Iraq and where we want our transport and weapons systems to be more nimble. Current R&D efforts are aimed at reexamining how DoD powers military operations, which have traditionally relied on fossil fuels and nuclear energy.

In the last decade, for example, we finally broke the previous iron law of military acquisition that had led to each successive generation of weapons system needing more fuel to improve performance. Today we know that we can improve the performance and precision of weapons systems such as aircraft propulsion systems by conserving, not wasting energy. For example, Pratt & Whitney recently completed performance tests of an early version of a fuel burn reduction demonstrator F-35 engine, which could improve thrust by up to ten percent and reduce fuel consumption by up to six percent.

These shifts in DoD's thinking didn't happen overnight, of course. The military earned its reputation as a climate polluter in the 1980s and '90s when environmental organizations sued DoD for base pollution and failing to comply with environmental laws. U.S. military ammunition factories and maintenance depots had been spilling toxic chemicals, which led many military bases to be declared Superfund sites. As the nation's largest industrial organization, the military was as guilty as other toxic polluters at the time, but—crucially—the military also internalized a number of important environmental lessons during this time.

For starters, the Pentagon welcomed engagement. While most environmental organizations had never dreamed of setting foot in the nation's largest 5-sided building, we invited them in and encouraged them to visit their local military bases. These constructive conversations helped DoD develop needed solutions, and ever since, our military has been at the leading edge of research and development to clean up these hazards and to find alternatives to these pollutants.

For example, the military once used chemicals for firefighting that were eventually found to cause cancer and to grow the ozone hole over Antarctica. When the Montreal Protocol was signed in 1987 and Congress directed that ozone-depleters be phased out, the U.S. military took the initiative to find and test technological substitutes. Other military research has led to the technologies that allow us to remove perchlorate and chlorinated solvents from groundwater and may someday enable us to better deal with the "forever chemical" PFOA.

In other words, when the military is given a directive or when it identifies a threat to its mission, it quickly looks for solutions. And today, our military is on the front lines of experiencing the devastating impacts of climate change. Because climate change precipitates disaster—both at home and abroad—DoD recognizes that it poses serious threats to U.S. national security. Indeed, despite national ambivalence, climate change has been widely understood by the military community since 2007 as a "threat multiplier," meaning it aggravates other security threats, from terrorism to natural disasters. As climate change causes ever greater numbers of humanitarian disasters, massive migrations, and unstable political environments abroad, the national security implications for the U.S. are increasingly driving military planning, resource allocation, and military operations.

The changing climate places not only increased but also wildly varied demands on DoD. Training missions have been compromised by wildfires and coastal military bases have been ravaged by hurricanes. Our troops are deploying to new regions such as the Arctic that have opened to geostrategic competition because of the melting ice and collapsing permafrost. Foundational DOD documents such as the National Security Strategy and National Military Strategy include climate risks among geostrategic planning factors.

Indeed, while no other national policy can manage to address climate change directly, our military is tackling its impacts head on. Bipartisan efforts on defense bills signed by President Trump in the last three years have directed the military to identify its bases and operations at greatest climate risk and to begin a variety of efforts to improve resilience and reduce carbon footprint.

The military can't and won't, of course, single handedly stop climate change. But in order to make meaningful progress, climate leaders themselves have stressed the importance of political coalitions. Given that climate change still represents a significant divide in American politics—and given the high esteem with which Americans of all political persuasion and socioeconomic status hold the U.S. military—it is difficult to imagine a more potent alliance than that between these strange bedfellows. In the end, what the U.S. military does to preserve readiness and resilience in the climate era may be a model for the rest of our nation in climate proofing our future.

Sherri Goodman served as the first Deputy Undersecretary of Defense (Environmental Security) and was Founder and Executive Director of the CNA Military Advisory Board, whose landmark reports include Advanced Energy and US National Security (2017) among others. Goodman serves on the Boards of the Atlantic Council and the Center for Climate & Security.

Greg Douquet is a former Marine Corps colonel, Co-Founder and Managing Partner of Red Duke Strategies, LLC, and Co-Director of the Atlantic Council Global Energy Center's Veterans Advanced Energy Project.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own.​​​​​