WASHINGTON — The ongoing war in Afghanistan, looming defense cuts and greater military focus in the western Pacific dominated President Barack Obama’s unusual Pentagon appearance in January to present his new national defense strategy.
Environmental concerns weren’t in Obama’s talking points that day, but it’s that aspect of his strategy that drew particular fire this week as the Republican Convention in Tampa rolled toward Mitt Romney’s acceptance Thursday night of the GOP presidential nomination.
In short, the Republican platform charges the Pentagon worries too much over global warming instead of far more important security issues.
“The strategy subordinates our national security interests to environmental, energy and international health issues, and elevates ‘climate change’ to the level of a ‘severe threat’ equivalent to foreign aggression,” the platform reads. “The word ‘climate,’ in fact, appears in the current President’s strategy more often than Al Qaeda, nuclear proliferation, radical Islam, or weapons of mass destruction.”
The defense strategy labels the risks from climate change “real, urgent and severe,” warning it could spark wars as nations battle over dwindling resources and refugees flee drought- or flood-stricken lands.
But while environment and energy issues in the context of defense have become a hot-button issue under Obama, the idea that climate is a security issue was on the table well before he took office.
In 2008, a simulation by researchers at the National Defense University examined the security implications of rising sea levels driving refugees from low-lying Bangladesh into India and touching off fighting between Muslims and Hindus.
The year before, a group of retired three- and four-star admirals and generals concluded in a study for the Center for Naval Analysis that climate change is a “threat multiplier” that raises the likelihood of conflict in the globe’s most dangerous regions.
And with reports from scientists this week that Arctic Sea ice has shrunk to its smallest size since satellite monitoring began decades ago, there are indications that security effects of climate change could be felt outside of heavily populated southern regions. New sea routes may soon be opening and with that, international jockeying over maritime influence and claims will pick up, said former Pentagon strategist Barry Pavel, now director of the international security program at the Atlantic Council of the United States, a NATO-oriented Washington think tank.
“This is a climate issue and a defense issue that is coming on fast whether we like it or not,” Pavel said. “The military has got be tracking these things, and not doing so would be negligent.”
Climate change is hardly a core strategic priority, Pentagon spokesman Lt. Col. James Gregory said, but it’s one planners have to prepare for.
“The Department is prudently considering how to factor climate impacts into its mission areas, such as the potential for instability and conflict, (and) the needs for humanitarian assistance and disaster relief,” he wrote in an email.
Republicans in Congress are leading a fight against another energy- and environment-related initiative dear to the Obama administration, hammering the Navy’s quest to fuel its ships and aircraft with advanced biofuel made from algae, among other things. A purchase of 450,000 gallons fueled a demonstration of the “Great Green Fleet” in a recent exercise in the western Pacific. But the House has approved a measure that would slash Pentagon investments in biofuel production.
Navy Secretary Ray Mabus said the effort will eventually ensure a secure fuel supply that doesn’t depend on the volatile Middle East.
“We can’t afford not to do this,” he said in July. “First, our dependence on foreign sources of fossil fuel is rife with danger for our nation and it would be irresponsible to continue it. Second, paying for spikes in oil prices means we may have less money to spend on readiness.”
But the Navy biofuel costs $27 a gallon, compared to about $3.50 for regular fossil fuels, and opponents call it a simple waste of money.
David Kreutzer, an energy researcher at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative Washington think tank, said there’s abundant domestic gas and oil to fuel the military no matter what happens in the Middle East.
According to his calculations, the U.S. military needs around 360,000 barrels of crude a day to carry out its operations. A single oil well in the Gulf of Mexico is capable of providing most of that volume, Kreutzer said.
He added that even if the military cuts all fossil fuel use, it would not have a measurable effect on the rate of climate change.
“There’s no case you can make they can moderate global warming by switching to biofuel,” he said, “and there’s no case you can make this is as cheap as domestic fossil fuels.”
An analyst from across the political spectrum said that view is short-sighted and could kill development of an eventual source of abundant energy.
“The Republican platform is an oil-above-all platform that opposes investments in alternatives to oil, including advanced biofuels,” said Daniel Weiss, senior fellow director of climate strategy at the Center for American Progress Action Fund, a Washington-based progressive advocacy organization.
The military has played a vital role in developing the high-tech advances that have defined the modern age long before they were cheap he said.
“Under the Republicans' view, there would have been no need to invest in the internet through ARPA because it was not cost competitive with the US post office,” he said.