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Addressing and Mitigating Climate Impacts While Increasing Military Capabilities Within the Departme

By Matthew Calabrese

Joe Biden’s recent election as the forty-sixth President of the United States is set to bring new priorities to the Pentagon come January, especially regarding his promises to incorporate climate change into federal and defense policy. On the campaign trail, Biden proposed a $2 trillion plan to tackle climate change. One of the areas the President-Elect targeted in this plan was the unique impact climate change poses to U.S. domestic and international military installations.

At the final presidential debate, President-Elect Biden called climate change an “existential threat to humanity” and promised to substantially reduce the nation’s carbon emissions, in part, by weeding the United States off of its fossil fuel dependency. However, to do so, the Biden Administration will undoubtedly have to galvanize senior leadership within the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD), U.S. military service branches, and Congress.

The DoD is charged with managing military installations worth nearly $1.2 trillion. Since 2010, DoD has identified climate change as a threat to military facilities and operations. As recently as 2019, the DoD reported to Congress that “[t]he effects of a changing climate are a national security issue with potential impacts to [DoD] missions, operational plans, and installations.”

The 2019 DoD report assessed a sampling of seventy-nine mission-critical installations from the U.S. Army, U.S. Navy, U.S. Air Force, and other DoD agencies. The report found that over the next twenty years, fifty-three installations will face threats from recurring flooding, forty-three installations will face threats from drought, and thirty-six installations will face threats from wildfire.

Citing the 2019 report, President-Elect Biden’s climate plan has proposed directing the Secretary of Defense and the Secretary of Energy to – “develop specific inventories of the most acute vulnerabilities in our critical infrastructure due to climate change, and prioritize upgrades, hardening, and resilience investments to mitigate them.” The details of this plan’s implementation in practice remain to be seen. 

Still, the Biden Administration is also widely expected to pursue policies that further encourage a reduction in military fossil fuel use and increase the military’s usage of renewable energy sources. Energy is at the heart of almost every military mission. Things like powering installations, flying planes, driving ships, and deploying warfighters into combat zones all require sufficient and reliable energy sources. In fiscal year 2017, the DoD was, even after increased renewable energy utilization, one of the world’s largest fossil fuels consumers, using eighty-five million barrels of fuel to power ships, aircraft, combat vehicles, and facilities.

Accelerating the use of renewable fuel sources in the U.S. military can save lives and create a more capable fighting force. For example, in combat zones, mobile solar units reduce the need for diesel fuel generator deliveries to overseas bases. These decrease the likelihood of an attack on delivery convoys and effectuate a more reliable energy source. At sea, the Navy’s use of technologies such as hybrid electric drive (HED) saves fuel, making the Navy more effective in their mission and less reliant on energy availability. 

Renewable fuel innovations also increase readiness and make the U.S. military a more capable and lethal fighting force. For example, at Marine Corps Air Station (MCAS) Miramar, through a renewable energy microgrid power system, the base can “island” itself from external power sources for up to fourteen days, allowing the air station to continue aviation operations in the event of a regional or national catastrophic power outage.

The DoD has a clear and present role to play in President-Elect Biden’s policy theme to “Build Back Better.” For instance, climate change implications do not just affect military facilities and mission-critical infrastructure through rising seas, storm surge, and flooding, or hinder military readiness through delays in training exercises due to wildfires and heatwaves; climate change currently creates, and will create, a more volatile global security environment. The DoD and service branch contingencies must now include increased plans for additional humanitarian disaster relief operations from increased natural disaster frequency and intensity and prepare for conflict initiated by population migrations and natural resource instability.

However, President-Elect Biden’s climate plans, especially related to military energy innovation and upgrading military installations, will require congressionally appropriated funding. These plans, like other high-profile policy promises made by President-Elect Biden, may prove to be an uphill battle in Congress.

However, while options may prove to be limited through Congress, much like previous Presidents, President-Elect Biden would be well within his authority to issue an Executive Order to develop or implement plans that consider climate change into DoD operations. Such an order could have the effect of speeding up both military and private sector efforts and ensure U.S. military’s capabilities in an unknown and unstable landscape.


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