State of the Planet

News from the Columbia Climate School


Decarbonizing the Defense Department

Even without legislation and new funding, on January 20, 2021, the Biden administration can utilize the federal government’s huge purchasing power to begin transitioning away from fossil fuels. Federal buildings can be made more energy efficient and can switch from fossil fuels to renewable energy. The government should convert its motor vehicle fleet from the internal combustion engines to electric vehicles. New legislation would help, but many of these goals could be achieved with existing authorities and reallocation of current resources. Over the past two semesters, I’ve served as faculty advisor to a group of students in Columbia University’s MPA program in Environmental Science and Policy that has focused on decarbonizing the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD).

Our one-year intensive graduate program in environmental science and policy features an integrating workshop class where, in the summer and fall, we conduct a management simulation of a piece of proposed but not enacted environmental legislation. In the spring semester we undertake, pro-bono, real-world projects for environmental non-governmental organizations or government agencies. This past summer and fall I worked with students who simulated the implementation of H.R.2759, the Department of Defense Climate Resiliency and Readiness Act, which was designed to incorporate renewable energy and climate resiliency to support non-tactical aspects of the military. Our student team noted that the Department of Defense consumes about 77% of the federal government’s energy use. The proposed act, according to the student team, “establishes a goal of reaching net zero greenhouse gas emissions for non-operational sources by 2030; directs the DoD to set ambitious interim targets to meet or exceed that goal; and calls for a centralized function of the DoD to combat climate change…”

The Columbia students then summarized the bill’s key provisions:

  1. The DoD must implement climate-conscious budgeting and purchasing in conjunction with its contractors.
  2. The secretary of defense must develop a strategy to incorporate climate resiliency into existing strategies and operations.
  3. The secretary of defense must provide a strategy for transitioning all non-operational sources of the DoD to meet the goal of net zero energy by December 31, 2029.
  4. The DoD is required to continue with research, development, and demonstration of microgrid systems for electric generation and storage.
  5. Within 180 days of enactment, the DoD must develop a climate vulnerability and risk assessment tool to assess how the risks associated with climate change impact its operations and installations.

The fall semester course requires that the students develop a real-world political analysis addressing the question: What would it take to enact this statute? The prospects for the bill being passed with a Republican senate and a Republican president did not seem promising. According to the students in my Environmental Science and Policy workshop group:

“Though the DoD Climate Act has a slim chance of passing under the current administration of President Trump and immediate political climate, particularly in the Senate, it benefits from its strength in appeals to both sides of the political spectrum. While all of its sponsors are Democrats, the bill builds upon existing DoD initiatives and enjoys support from key military personnel, traditionally necessary to unlock Republican backing. This is due largely to its focus on both climate change mitigation and on climate resilience, the latter of which continues to rise higher in priority as a national security issue. In light of the ongoing wildfires in the western United States and hurricanes and flooding in the East, as well as the impact of natural disasters on numerous military bases in recent decades, ensuring resilience against these climate impacts provides a common motive even for those who deny the science behind the human responsibility [for climate change].”

A Democratic president changes the political equation, but it appears that many of the steps required to decarbonize defense would not require legislation. When the Defense Department’s budget is enacted, the technology used to generate energy or propel vehicles is not specified. Takings steps to modernize the department’s energy systems or protect bases from the impact of extreme weather events is simply good management.

In addition to the political analysis, our students are required to develop a first-year program design, identifying implementation priorities for program start-up. They also develop an organizational and contracting plan to address the question: Who will do the work? A budget and financial control system is developed to address two questions: How much will this cost; and, how will we know if the money has been spent? In addition, the students develop a performance management system to define and measure program success and a first-year work plan or “master calendar” that identifies the program’s major tasks for the coming year. The budget developed by the students to jumpstart the Defense Department’s decarbonization is large by any standard other than U.S. Defense Department budgeting. According to the Columbia graduate students:

“The total Year One budget is $58.6 billion, approximately 8% of the proposed 2021 Department of Defense budget. A portion of these funds would have been devoted to energy use and capital investments; this proposal redirects such funds to energy use and investments that reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The budget is allocated to the program pillars per the needs of the initiatives: Mitigation is allotted $40.7 billion, Adaptation is allotted $17.6 billion, and Institutional Changes are allotted $0.3 billion.”

To be clear, the statute we were studying focuses on the nonoperational elements of the Defense Department. It does not include the technology used for battle or to ensure combat readiness. But even excluding those functions, quite a bit remains and the influence of DoD operations on the nation’s economy is massive. The ability of our military to influence the development and diffusion of new technologies is profound and its history is well known. The internet itself began as a Defense Department effort to share data across defense installations. GPS, cell phones, personal computing and a myriad of other technologies now in everyday use began with the U.S. military. The breakthroughs needed to advance the efficiency and lower the costs of solar cells and batteries could well come from DoD contractors, university grantees and national laboratories.

While the statute the Columbia students worked on deliberately omitted decarbonizing battlefield operations, as far back as 2006, during the war in Iraq, U.S. Army commanders were requesting solar energy to avoid the danger of roadside bombs targeting fuel trucks. According to Christian Science Monitor reporter Mark Clayton:

“Memo to Pentagon brass from the top United States commander in western Iraq: Renewable energy – solar and wind-power generators – urgently needed to help win the fight. Send soon. Calling for more energy in the middle of oil-rich Iraq might sound odd to some. But not to Marine Corps Maj. Gen. Richard Zilmer, whose deputies on July 25 sent the Pentagon a “Priority 1” request for “a self-sustainable energy solution” including “solar panels and wind turbines.” The memo may be the first time a frontline commander has called for renewable-energy backup in battle. Indeed, it underscores the urgency: Without renewable power, US forces “will remain unnecessarily exposed” and will “continue to accrue preventable … serious and grave casualties,” the memo says.”

The incoming Biden administration has its hands full. We need to end the COVID-19 pandemic through mass vaccination, ensure that the nation is fed and housed while the economy is revived and then stimulate our nation’s economy. While these urgent tasks are undertaken, we also need to begin the decades-long transition away from fossil fuels. Building the infrastructure needed to transition from fossil fuels could be a central part of the strategy to revive the economy. The climate team assembled by the new president seems capable of using normal executive power to emphasize renewable energy in federal operations. The largest of those operations are in the Department of Defense, and a small group of graduate students at Columbia University has provided a blueprint to get that process moving. Some might even be available for employment when they graduate this May…

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