The New York Times ran a fascinating piece earlier this month on the U.S. military's efforts to reduce its dependence on fossil fuels. Given the costs and dangers of transporting fuel into war zones, this is a logical policy. And as the article notes, there are all sorts of nifty technologies under consideration: "portable solar panels that fold up into boxes; energy-conserving lights; solar tent shields that provide both shade and electricity; and solar chargers for computers and communications equipment." Plant-based biofuels for aircraft, including fuel made from algae, are also in the works. And, unlike Washington, where action by Congress is required, the Times notes that "miilltary leaders can simply order the adoption of renewable energy."
This is all fine as far as it goes. The Pentagon is the world's single largest institutional consumer of fossil fuels, and if it spends large sums on alternative energy sources it could help get them up to scale, making them cheaper to purchase in the civilian economy. But to really make a difference in climate change, we need to re-think our concept of security, and of what we need to invest in to achieve it.
Climate change is not just an environmental issue, it is also a security issue. In addition to the threat it poses to human life through its direct impacts, its secondary effects are likely to include increased conflict spurred by radically different immigration patterns and competition over increasingly scare resources, from drinkable water to arable land. If nothing is done to slow its onset and curb its effects, climate change will do far more damage to human societies than virtually any traditional security threat, other than a global nuclear conflict (which is a much more unlikely prospect).
Given this reality, wouldn't it make sense to devote some of the $739 billion currently allocated to military purposes -- the highest level since World War II -- to investments in science, technology, incentives and international assistance to address the threat posed by climate change? According to a new report by the Foreign Policy in Focus project of the Institute for Policy Studies, the United States government currently spends $41 on the military for every $1 it spends to address climate change. Even a small shift in that ratio could double or triple U.S. investments in measures to prevent and/or mitigate the worst effects of climate change. In contrast to the short-sighted approach being pursued by Washington, China spends about $2 or $3 on its miitary for every $1 it spends on climate change. This not only puts China in a better position to attempt to curb its massive dependence on fossil fuels, but it also gives it a leg up in the growing global market for alternative energy technologies. A greater U.S. investment in this sphere could open up a commercial market with far more long-term potential than the current U.S. practice of brokering multi-billion dollar weapons deals. And in doing so, it would also create more jobs -- about 17,000 per $1 billion for clean energy jobs versus 11,600 jobs per $1 billion, according to a 2009 study conducted at the University of Massachusetts.
So, while the military's efforts to "green" itself may have some value, the real payoff will only come when we change our national priorities to recognize where the real threats to our lives and livelihoods are coming from.