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Defense Experts Call on Biden to Ready Military for Climate Change


The incoming Biden administration should press U.S. defense and intelligence agencies to do more about climate change, a panel of national security experts said yesterday.

And one way to do it is through the power of their massive federal budgets.

The talk, hosted by the Center for Climate and Security, was centered on the advocacy group’s Climate Security Plan for America, released in 2019.

The plan calls on officials in the White House, the Department of Defense, the Department of Homeland Security and elsewhere to develop holistic strategies to meet the threat of climate change and mitigate the country’s contributions to its destabilizing effects.

Sherri Goodman, who from 1993 to 2001 was the first deputy undersecretary of Defense for environmental security, said the Center for Climate and Security plan is “a road map for how to elevate climate as a core national security priority.”

“This is an opportunity now to up our game and reenergize and get a lot of things done that we have been working on for many years,” Goodman said. “At the end of the day, as we say, strategy without a plan is hallucination.”

Climate hawks have been heartened by Biden’s win in the 2020 election, and many are hoping to see the incoming administration revive or surpass Obama-era environmental regulations that were rolled back during the Trump administration.

But some would like to see defense leaders go further by using the purchasing power of the U.S. military to fuel investments in clean energy and preventive technologies to mitigate the effects of climate change.

The U.S. military budget in fiscal year 2019 was $686.1 billion, which included $244.4 billion in operations and maintenance and $138.6 billion in personnel. The panelists said at least part of the hundreds of billions of dollars Biden planned to invest in clean energy could go to security projects, including microgrid investments domestically or support for countries with unsustainable energy infrastructure abroad, if they had national security relevance.

“We have to make climate change a key part of literally every part of government responsibilities we have,” said retired Navy Vice Adm. Dennis McGinn.

‘Culture eats strategy’

One hurdle for the incoming administration is the entrenched reluctance of some military leaders to treat climate change as a threat.

Alice Hill, a former senior counselor to Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano and a National Security Council veteran, said she faced midlevel career officials in DHS who were climate skeptics.

She said Biden’s next appointees will have to highlight the danger that climate changes poses to the United States and the world, and encourage leaders to develop plans for worst-case scenarios.

“We’re going to have to have strong leadership … to really turn around the mindset to understand that this isn’t a question of who you’re going to shoot or what hill you’re going to take,” Hill said.

Hill joined fellow panelists in saying that required education on climate resilience in officer training could help spread awareness of the urgent threat of climate change.

And McGinn said the Biden administration could kick-start a culture change by having a list of “concrete and measurable actions” to pursue on day one in order to convince longtime leaders there is a path forward.

“Culture eats strategy for breakfast,” McGinn said. “We’ve got to walk the walk and talk the talk.”

Leadership in the White House

The panel was optimistic about Biden’s early Cabinet appointments. In particular, they praised the influence that former Secretary of State John Kerry could have on the National Security Council, saying his leadership on key environmental policies would be vital in a room filled with defense experts.

“The opportunity in front of the incoming administration is to really hopefully … allow for reality to be considered in our national security decisionmaking,” said Michael Wu, a fellow at the Center for Climate and Security. “I think Secretary Kerry’s appointment is a tremendous first step in that because the National Security Council is where we consider those challenges.”

Similarly, Goodman called for the “climatization of security.” She said she hopes the Biden administration will return to the “three Ds” of diplomacy, development and defense that were priorities in the Obama years.

The plan calls for a Climate Security Conflict Prevention Framework under the U.S. Agency for International Development, which would direct international development dollars toward stabilizing countries deemed most at risk for climate change.

The idea, Hill said, is to prevent crises of migration from regions such as Central America due to climate catastrophe. This year alone, Hurricanes Eta and Iota affected millions of Central Americans, according to the Red Cross. Those disasters have the potential to spur migration north, the Associated Press reported.

“We are somewhat behind in the U.S. compared to others in understanding how this could affect what we have traditionally understood as national security when people lose access to fresh water, food, shelter,” Hill said.

Buying a cleaner future

One way the Pentagon can mitigate its contribution to climate change is through the purchase of cleaner energy and infrastructure on its military bases, several panelists said.

Currently, the military has a maintenance backlog on its bases with a price tag of more than $100 billion. With Biden’s $2 trillion climate plan, some of that money could go toward building green infrastructure and investing in clean vehicles, Wu said.

That investment “lays a foundation for the kinds of advanced energy and infrastructure systems that we’re going to need for tomorrow’s military,” Wu said.

Wu called for a new Office of Energy Innovation in the Department of Defense to compete with investments made internationally. He pointed to Japanese investments in hydrogen technology as an area where the United States could join its allies in preparing for the future.

“We haven’t played any role in the climate security mechanism in the U.S. to date, and now we can,” Wu said. “My hope is that enables us to build on the good work that’s already been done by the countries that have been active in it.”

Reprinted from Climatewire with permission from E&E News. E&E provides daily coverage of essential energy and environmental news at www.eenews.net.

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