As the single largest consumer of energy in the world, the U.S. military is poised at the center of two of the most life-altering issues of our time: climate change and the height of oil production (“peak oil”). Surprisingly, the Pentagon began taking both matters seriously much sooner than the rest of government, which still has its fair share of skeptics.
A 2007 Pentagon-funded report by 11 high-level retired officers concluded that climate change is a “serious threat to America’s national security.” A few weeks later, another Pentagon-commissioned report called on the military to “fundamentally transform” its assumptions about energy because the current strategy of global engagement with highly energy consumptive technologies is “unsustainable in the long term.”
Before the antiwar movement rejoices in the end of U.S. hegemony and environmentalists celebrate the move toward sustainability, it’s important to remember that the Pentagon is still developing solutions to these issues and in the world of warfare things often don’t get fixed until they are first completely destroyed (e.g., Iraq and Afghanistan).
At first glance it would appear that the Pentagon is serious about reducing its dependency on oil, if not its greenhouse gas emissions. In the two years since those reports came out, the Pentagon has pledged to get 25 percent of its energy from renewable sources by 2025. It’s already leading the way among all other government agencies with nearly 12 percent of all Department of Defense (DoD) electricity coming from renewable sources. In fact, the Air Force is the number-one consumer of renewable energy in the United States and has built the world’s largest solar photovoltaic system at Nellis Air Force base in Nevada. Meanwhile, the Navy operates the largest wind/diesel hybrid plant in the world—located in, of all places, Guantánamo Bay, Cuba.
The DoD also likes to brag that its total site-delivered energy consumption declined more than 60 percent between 1985 and 2006, but when the reasons for this drop are examined the green veneer starts to fade. As energy analyst Sohbet Karbuz noted in a 2007 paper for the Energy Bulletin, “The main factor behind that reduction was the closure of some military bases, privatization of some of its buildings, and leaving some energy related activities to contractors.” The most important factor in energy consumption—vehicles, which account for nearly three-quarters of DoD site-delivered energy—went up during that period.
Furthermore, despite all its green efforts, the military has some major—if not insurmountable—hurdles to overcome. For starters, each soldier consumes 25 percent more energy than the average U.S. citizen—who already consumes 15 times more energy than does the average person in a developing country. Seventy-eight percent of the Pentagon’s energy consumption comes from oil, and the average U.S. soldier in Iraq uses more than four gallons each day. War and energy expert Michael Klare compared that figure to the one-gallon–per-day oil consumption rate of the average WWII soldier and postulated that “if this rate of increase continues unabated, the next major war could entail an expenditure of 64 gallons per soldier per day.”
Back in 2007, when the Pentagon received those two reports, Klare warned of the “green” approach, calling it “an environmentally-friendly facade” that does little to prevent it from maintaining and developing its existing, interventionist force structure. Add to that the inability to prevent more greenhouse gases from entering the atmosphere. A 2008 report by the Institute for Policy Studies found that for every dollar Washington allocated to climate change in last year’s budget, $88 would be spent on military. And for every dollar spent on researching climate-related technologies, $20 would be spent on developing new weapon systems.
While it’s no surprise that the military continually seeks to upgrade its equipment, most of the existing Air Force, Navy, and Army fleets run on oil and are expected to last until 2030. Replacing them would be not only a logistical nightmare, but also extremely expensive. That’s why explorations into biofuels and synthetic liquid fuels from natural gas and coal are underway. Unfortunately, merely creating such alternatives emits more greenhouse gases than conventional oil.
This notion plays into Klare’s second warning, that of a continuation of the Carter Doctrine, whereby “the Pentagon will increase its efforts to maintain control over foreign sources of supply, notably oil fields and refineries in the Persian Gulf region.” Evidence of this scenario can already be seen in Obama’s ever-expanding timeframe for withdrawal from Iraq and reluctance to discuss the closure of bases within the country.
So if the military’s plan is to invest in enough renewable energy as to give the appearance of progressive green thinking and prolong the life of whatever oil is left, but not invest enough to change its agenda of global dominance by 2030, we are left squarely in the middle of both issues. By most accounts, peak oil is expected to occur somewhere around 2015—right around the time we will know whether the world has averted the tipping points that would send the planet into certain uncontrollable climate change. Of course, avoiding tipping points by keeping emissions down will be impossible if the world’s largest consumer of oil and energy continues consuming at even three-quarters its current pace.
By the Pentagon’s own figures, the U.S. military uses more fossil fuels than any other single entity. But the Pentagon’s figures only take into consideration vehicle transport and facility maintenance. They don’t account for the energy needed to build something like the massive imperial embassy or mega-bases in Iraq or reconstruct the rest of the country. They also don’t factor in the energy used by related branches, like NASA, the nuclear industry, or the thousands of contractors that make or do things for the military.
In this light, it’s hard not to see the military as the reason we may very soon witness a significant sea-level rise, accompanied by droughts, crop failures, and the mass migration of millions from the global south. Yet the U.S. military isn’t listed as one of the World Wildlife Fund’s “footprint issues.” Nor is it mentioned by the Natural Resources Defense Council or Sierra Club as the largest consumer of the “dirty fuels” both lobby against.
How could such an oversight exist? Noted writer and farmer Wendell Berry, who has spent most of his life linking issues of the environment to the many maladies of our society, once said that just as military violence is ignored by most conservationists, violence against the earth is a matter ignored by most pacifists. The antiwar and environmental movements must bond over this common enemy and see, as Berry put it, that we cannot hope to end violence against each other until we end our violence against the earth.