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Rep. Giffords and the New Energy Economics and Security Consensus

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A confluence of recent events, both tragic and inspiring, have once again reminded us that America's national security is inextricably linked to its energy posture. As a result, a new consensus is emerging within government and the private sector: the U.S. military can make the nation and its soldiers safer while simultaneously aiding in an economic transformation to a less carbon intensive economy.

The emerging consensus was highlighted in this week's announcement of the military authorization's "Buy American Provision," which provides a glimmer of hope for U.S. competitiveness yet also sends shivers down the spines of those worried about a trade war with China.  The importance of this development can only begin to be understood as the realization within Congress, and hopefully the general public, that clean energy stands at the nexus of economic recovery and the nation's security.

The horrifying shooting of Rep. Gabriel Giffords, a champion of renewable energy, prompted a thoughtful article by Politico's Darren Samuelsohn about Rep. Gifford's now notorious questioning of General Petraeus.  During a congressional hearing last June, Rep. Giffords posed a question about how the military was moving to adress the increasingly obvious link between troop safety, national security, and military energy practices:

"In places like Kandahar, where we have a large presence, we have been plugged into a very unsustainable and incapable grid system," Giffords said. "We know that a major part of the upcoming Kandahar offensive will include some serious repairs and upgrades to the energy system, which will include small-scale solar and hydropower systems and also some solar-powered street lights. I'm just curious, General, whether or not there's plans to utilize any of these same technologies at our bases around Afghanistan, and wouldn't that greatly reduce our need for fuel?"

Gifford's rather straightforward question drew the ire of conservative pundits around the nation. Soon she had become a target of Glenn Beck, the Red State blog, and a number of other sources which moved to question her patriotism.  Yet those attacking Rep. Gifford's poignent question failed to pick up on an emerging consensus amongst think tanks, legislators, but most importantly the DoD itself: the military must move to change its energy sources and usage.

In response to Glen Beck and other conservative pundits, Rep. Giffords, rather than counter attacking, simply quoted back to them Osama Bin Laden's own words:

"Even Osama bin Laden recognizes the threat posed by our military's dependence on fuel supply, calling oil our military's 'umbilical cord' and telling terrorists to 'focus your operations on oil, especially in Iraq and the Gulf area, since this will cause the [Americans] to die off."

Rep. Gifford's efforts, though, did not end with a pointed question, she introduced legislation to strengthen the DoD's energy posture with the Department of Defense Energy Security Act of 2010 (DoDESA).  This piece of legislation would have pushed the DoD to source 25% of its energy from renewable sources by 2025, strengthening the DoD's combat readiness in the process (see the video of bill's introduction by Rep. Giffords here).

What Reps. Giffords was in fact putting voice to is "The Military's Clean Energy Imperative," which is increasingly reaching a tipping point of consensus across Congress and the administration.  The reason for the new push is threefold: the nation and military's energy posture puts the U.S. in strategic danger, its soldiers in tactical danger, and its economy in a growing hole.

Strategic Threat

The evolving threat that energy dependence and climate change pose to America's national security, starting this week, will be closely monitored by Medill's National Security Journalism Initiative's newest project, Global Warning.  Boasting top level young journalism and a bevy of exceptional interactive graphics, the project is the latest effort to understand the complex threats posed by global warming and world energy relations.

These threats, and the strategic danger they pose to America, have been well documented by both those within the military, including the important 2010 Quadrennial Report, and those in the policy space, most notably CNAS's "Natural Security" initiative and  CNA's "Powering America's Defense" report.

Most obviously, as a huge importer of oil, the U.S. is subjected to drastic fluctuations in energy supplies and prices.  While some of America's biggest oil trading partners are in fact some of its closest allies, the global nature of oil market makes it impossible to keep America's massive oil consumption from fattening the pockets of unfriendly nations such as Iran. Concerns over oil production have undoubtedly effected America's approach to certain situtions, arguably pulling us into conflicts and wars, most notably in the Middle East.

Tactical  Threat

Receiving less attention has been the the danger that our military's reliance on fossil fuels, especially oil, has posed to our troops.  Brought into the spotlight by an October New York Times article, "U.S. Military Orders Less Dependence on Fossil Fuels", the danger that fuel supply lines pose to American soldiers had been recognized by the military years earlier:

"Concerns about the military's dependence on fossil fuels in far-flung battlefields began in 2006 in Iraq, where Richard Zilmer, then a major general and the top American commander in western Iraq, sent an urgent cable to Washington suggesting that renewable technology could prevent loss of life."

The amount of lives which could be saved by a transition to renewable energy sources is truly staggering. A 2009 DoD report found that, "for every 24 fuel convoys that set out, one soldier or civilian engaged in fuel transport was killed."

Indeed, Glenn Beck would have done well to look into DoD assessments of our military's energy posture before laughing away Rep. Gifford's question to Gen. Petraeus.  The importance of switching our military to more renewable and domestically produced forms of energy and fuel will be an essential aspect of soldier safety in foreseeable conflicts.

Economic Threat

On top of two prolonged wars America is facing tough economic times. Persistent unemployment has been made harder to bear by the increasingly apparent fact that U.S. is falling behind in the race for one of the largest emerging sectors: clean energy. China's massive investments in clean energy, to the tune of $740 billion, threaten to leave America in the dust.  The unfeasibility of massive investments in clean-tech RD&D on the part of American private industry means that government will have to lead the charge, at least initially.  The failure of the 111th congress to pass any sort of bold energy and climate bill, combined with the slim chance that the 112th congress acts to foster an American clean energy economy, means that leadership will have to come from other branches of government.

While not capable of single handedly driving the necessary innovation and deployment of renewable technologies, the DoD could be the spark that has been so sorely missing.  Last July's CNA report, "Powering America's Economy: Energy Innovation at the Crossroads of National Security Challenges," began the conversation about the role that the DoD could play in catalyzing much needed innovation.  "Post-Partisan Power," the recent report by the unlikely triumvirate of the Breakthrough Institute, Brookings, and AEI, furthered the dialogue by showing the bipartisan appeal of a DoD lead effort to invest in America's innovation capacity and the deployment of current technologies.

Both reports point to DoD's historic role as a driver of innovation.  The DoD, due to its defense mandate and gigantic procurement budget, has been able to to both push and pull technology to market.  We can thank DARPA and its predecessor ARPA, the military's high risk, high reward R&D unit, for the research that lead to the internet and GPS technology.  On the other side of the equation, the military has driven down the cost curve on essential technologies through procurement. It is largely because of the DoD that personal computers can be purchased for under a thousand dollars rather than upwards of ten thousand. Between 1955 and 1958 the federal government, led by the DoD, purchased between 36 and 39 percent of semiconductors produced in the U.S. and that figure shot up to between 45 and 48 percent in 1959-1960. A robust and stable market for semiconductor technologies, provided by the military and NASA's 'Buy American' policies, allowed producers to scale productions and thus drive down costs.

Merging Consensuses

For the past year, two separate consensuses have been forming around energy.  On one hand has been the realization that we cannot compete in a globalized economy without investing in a domestic clean energy economy, and that we can't achieve a robust clean energy economy through pricing alone.  The other has been that the strategic and tactical security of the U.S., and its military, are being put at jeopardy by a crippling dependence on fossil fuels, one that can only be overcome through direct government investment in renewable technologies.  The events of the past few weeks have made clear that the future of our economy and national security are in fact intimately intertwined; American greatness in both respects rests on our ability to act boldly on energy.  We must avoid the pitfalls of thinking about energy as an issue independent of national security, the economy, and the climate, and realize that it is the challenge which faces all of them, and by extension all of us.

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