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SOTU 2012: Behind Obama's Clean Energy Shout Out to the DoD

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During the state of the Union Address on Tuesday, Obama shouted out the DoD as a clean energy partner.

I'm proud to announce that the Department of Defense, the world's largest consumer of energy, will make one of the largest commitments to clean energy in history -- with the navy purchasing enough capacity to power a quarter of a million homes a year.

Unlike some of Obama's other claims (such as the fantasy that American influence has not waned and that America is even more respected around the world) -- this one is true. It's not only true, it's just the tip of the iceberg of what the DoD is doing to promote clean energy.

Is this DoD greenwashing for good PR? Smart investment to reduce cost? Yes and yes. But above all, the DoD is serious about clean energy for one primary reason: survival.

During the UN Conference on Climate Change in Durban last December, the Department of Defense held a series of sessions touting its agenda to confront climate change.

Sitting in on one of the sessions, I expected a bunch of smoke and mirrors but instead what I heard bowled me over. Climate deniers would have heckled these military officials out of the building!

Here are some of the main points that DoD officials drove home:

The threat of climate change is real. Research conducted by the U.S. Navy Task Force on Climate Change shows that ice thickness north of Barrow, Alaska has decreased by 40 percent since the 1980s and more than 20 percent below the record minimum since 2005. By 2050 navy researchers project we could be seeing 2-3 months of ice free conditions, leading to devastating sea level rise and increasingly severe storm flooding and damage. In the words of Rear Admiral David Titley "Our land is the climactic tail being wagged by the ocean dog. There's a lot of heat going into the ocean."

The threat is large enough to warrant bold goal-setting. The navy's goal is to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by 50 percent by 2020. [Note -- this nearly meets science-based targets of 50 percent reduction below 1990 levels by 2017, set at the World People's Conference on Climate Change and the Rights of Mother Earth in Cochbamba, April 2010.] The army has set a goal of net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2030.

The threat is also large enough to warrant innovation and significant investment to achieve these goals. The DoD is investing billions in R&D for emerging renewable and energy efficiency technologies. One of the most amazing examples they gave was a nanosolar power project being tested on a national guard base in California. In this project, solar panels are created by spraying nanoparticles onto thin aluminum sheets. Yeah. But the DoD isn't just playing with high-tech toys like this. They are also exploring ways to address transportation challenges and reduce energy consumption through renewables.

The DoD is shape-shifting into a climate change warrior. Simply because, as one of the presenters put it: "Energy dependency and climate change threatens our effectiveness as war fighters." In addition it became clear through the session that the U.S. Navy considers themselves an impacted community, as rising sea levels threaten almost every navy installation across the world.

So, in fact, Obama should not just have shouted the DoD as a partner in clean energy projects, but as a leader driven not by politics or profit but by the sheer self-interest of survival. And because I support any concerted effort to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, here are some words of advice to the DoD to help them surpass their greenhouse gas reduction targets:

CLOSE OVERSEAS BASES -- the DoD has nearly 1,000 overseas military bases across the world, which, if you project from General Accounting Office figures, could cost more than an estimated 50 billion to maintain, and emit approximately 220 million tons of CO2. Closing bases including bases in Guam, Guantanamo and South Korea would not only greatly reduce costs and energy consumption, it would reduce the DoD's toxic impacts on surrounding base environments and communities.

CLEAN UP YOUR MESSES -- the DoD is responsible for unspeakable amounts of radioactive and chemical waste across the world. The DoD should pay into environmental justice and climate adaptation funding to clean up its waste and support affected communities in repurposing former military land for community and ecological benefit.

CUT TRANSPORTATION EMISSIONS BY STOPPING DRONE MISSIONS -- the DoD owns at least 600 drone planes that are powered by jet fuel. Jet fuel accounts for 58 percent of site delivered energy consumption by the U.S. military. Stopping these missions would greatly reduce fossil fuel emissions as well as civilian deaths from drone strikes in Pakistan.

FAST-TRACK CIVILIAN TRANSFER OF SOLAR NANOTECHNOLOGY and other renewable energy and efficiency solutions, influence Congress to end oil subsidies, and use this money to subsidize affordable availability of these technologies so the greenhouse gas reduction targets set by the military can also be set and achieved by grassroots communities across the country, in lieu of massive destructive projects like the Keystone XL pipeline and natural gas pipelines.

Just some modest proposals to support the DoD in their quest as climate change warriors. After all, why shouldn't climate change be tackled by the biggest polluter and greenhouse gas emitter in the world? But clean energy investment is only one aspect of what's needed. Stopping consumption and waste production at the source by pruning the wasteful practices of empire will get at the root of climate disruption. Now if only the Obama administration would follow suit.

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