US Army plan to combat climate change lacks the fighting spirit

By Neta C. Crawford | March 17, 2022

army soliders with a helicopter in the background Soldiers from A Company, 101st Division Special Troop Battalion air assault into a village inside Jowlzak valley, Parwan province, Afghanistan. (Photo: US Army/CC BY 2.0)

Although it was soon overshadowed by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the US Army released a climate strategy in February outlining the military’s understanding of the risks posed by a warmer world and how the Army plans to respond.

It opened with the unambiguous assertion that “[c]limate change endangers national and economic security, and the health and well-being of the American people.”

But the invasion of Ukraine by Russia will likely push the existential risks posed by climate crisis to national and global security further onto the military’s backburner. In addition to causing much human suffering in Ukraine, Russia’s war has mobilized NATO countries in the region and prompted some members, including Germany and the United States, to increase military spending. For many, Putin’s aggression and thinly veiled brandishing of Russian nuclear forces will undoubtedly reaffirm the importance of US conventional and nuclear forces. Meanwhile, Russia’s war machine pumps out greenhouse gas emissions while also causing widespread destruction and environmental degradation.

In the second installment of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) 6th assessment, released at the end of February, scientists observed that global warming is occurring faster than predicted, that extreme events combined with ongoing warming are “pushing ecosystems to tipping points, beyond which abrupt and possibly irreversible changes are occurring,” and that the opportunities to avert the worst impacts of global warming through mitigation and adaptation are diminishing. As co-chair of the IPCC working group Hans-Otto Pörtner said, “There is a brief and rapidly closing window to secure a liveable future on the planet.”

The military seems to understand the threat that climate change poses to its installations and operations. “The risks associated with climate change are broad, significant, and urgent” the Army’s climate strategy asserts. “The time to address climate change is now.” Secretary of the Army Christine Wormuth writes in her introduction. “If we do not take action now, across our installations, acquisition and logistics, and training, our options to mitigate these risks will become more constrained with each passing year.”

This is consistent with other statements and policies from the Pentagon, which has been alert to the consequences of climate change for decades, funding scientific research that has been key to understanding the processes of global warming. The Department of Defense published an “Adaptation Road Map” as far back as 2014, followed by a “Climate Adaptation Plan” in September 2021.

But while the US military apparatus clearly understands that climate change is a threat to lives and human security, it does not appear to grasp the scale of its own contribution to the problem, which limits the Army’s ability to mitigate that impact. The Department of Defense is the single largest institutional energy user in the United States and accounts for about 1 percent of all US emissions. Indeed, the department’s annual emissions are larger than most countries in the world. As the IPCC report makes clear, adaptation is only possible to a point; mitigation and drastic emissions reductions by major polluters—like the US military—are essential to avoid the worst consequences of the climate crisis.

The complicated relationship between climate crisis and conflict. The Department of Defense’s “Climate Risk Analysis,” published in October 2021, argues that climate change is already “exacerbating existing risks and creating new challenges for U.S. interests.” Indeed, the US national security establishment takes the adverse consequences of climate change as a foregone conclusion and emphasizes increased risks due to global warming. The October 2021 National Intelligence Estimate, “Climate Change and International Responses: Increasing Challenges to US National Security Through 2040,” for example, highlighted growing competition for resources, including cross-border water tension and conflict and the potential for instability and conflict in Central Africa, a region that will feel the effects of global warming most acutely.

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The fact that the Army’s recent assessment echoes what is now seen to be a fait acompli—that a failure to curb emissions will lead to conflict—doesn’t make it so. In fact, the link between climate change and armed conflict is tenuous at best. The most recent IPCC report states that “non-climatic factors are the dominant drivers of existing intrastate violent conflicts, in some assessed regions extreme weather and climate events have had a small, adverse impact on their length, severity or frequency, but the statistical association is weak.” Rather, it’s the other way around: because mobilization and war increase greenhouse gas emissions, conflict makes climate change worse. “Violent conflict and, separately, migration patterns, in the near-term will be driven by socio-economic conditions and governance more than by climate change,” the IPCC authors write.

A pledge with no reference point. As part of its climate strategy, the Army proposes cutting greenhouse gas emissions 50 percent by 2030 compared to 2005 levels. This seems like an ambitious goal.

Unfortunately, the Army’s Climate Strategy does not provide its emissions in 2005, which I estimate were some of the highest levels of emissions over the last 20 years. At the time, the Army was at war in both Afghanistan and Iraq. Since then, the Army reduced operations and eventually withdrew from those wars. It has also already changed the mix of fuels it uses at installations, switching to less greenhouse gas intensive fuels.

The other service branches have also already reduced their emissions for similar reasons, but the Army’s cuts have been the most significant. The Air Force has reduced average emissions by 27 percent; the Navy has shaved off 14 percent. The average emissions decrease for the entire Department of Defense was 28 percent from 2010-2019. By 2019, total Army emissions were about 10.6 million metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent, already 42 percent less than its emissions levels in fiscal year 2010, which were about 18.4 million metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent.

Assuming Army emissions in 2005 were greater (or even the same as) their emissions in 2010, it seems that the Army may already be very close to its target for reductions. Further, if the Army’s goal is, as they also state, to reduce emissions from all installations 50 percent by 2032, from a 2005 baseline, they have already reduced installation emissions 33 percent from 2010 to 2019.

The Army says additional emissions reductions will be accomplished by electrifying all non-tactical vehicles, purchasing or producing carbon-pollution-free electricity at installations, and increasing building energy efficiency. The Army plan also says that it will consider the “security implications of climate change in strategy, planning, acquisition, supply chain, and programing documents and processes.” In addition to emissions reductions, the Army has over 13 million acres of land, which it says it intends to manage with an eye to sustainability: “Stewardship of Army lands can also help mitigate climate change threats by safeguarding forests and other beneficial environments alongside Army RDTE and training.”

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All of this is important and welcome. It is just not ambitious. And the climate crisis calls for ambitious goals and much more significant reductions.

Balancing national security and climate action. The federal government’s policies appear to be ambivalent if not contradictory regarding whether climate change should be treated as an existential threat. On one hand, Congress demanded a plan to reduce military emissions. Specifically, the National Defense Authorization Act, signed in late December 2021, required the “Secretary of Defense submit to Congress a plan to reduce the greenhouse gas emissions of the Department of Defense” no later than September 30, 2022. The law does not require that the Department achieve net-zero emissions or even set a goal for emissions reductions.

In fact, while the Biden Administration issued an executive order in December 2021 mandating federal agencies to be “leading the Nation on a firm path to net-zero emissions by 2050,” it exempted national security agencies from the federal government’s net-zero requirement. Specifically, the order stated, “To the maximum extent practicable and without compromising national security, each agency shall strive to comply with the purposes, goals, and implementation steps in this order.”

Clearly, the question then is what is the “maximum extent practicable” that the military can reduce emissions “without compromising national security.” This is a balancing act weighing the certain consequences of climate change—which the Department of Defense views as a threat multiplier—and those that might still be averted, against the potential risks of conflict that might be averted through other means.

Thus far, the Army has put its traditional mission ahead of emissions reduction. “Climate change and its effects obviously pose a very serious threat to the U.S. national security interest,” J.E. Surash, a senior official in the Army, told the Association of the United States Army in October 2021. “But I want to stress that … climate change does not alter the Army’s overall mission, which is to deploy, fight and win.”

The implicit assumption here is that reducing military emissions “too much” could weaken the United States.

The war in Ukraine, and the mobilization of NATO countries to deter further Russian aggression illustrates two facts: First, war is a greenhouse gas emissions intensive activity. Not only do the armed forces emit greenhouse gases, but the destruction of infrastructure, including the disruption of electricity, causes emissions as well. The longer the Ukrainian power grid is down, the more trees will be cut down for fuel, and the more backup diesel generators will produce greater emissions than other energy sources. Second, the Russian invasion of Ukraine will likely pull even more attention and interest in the military away from emissions reductions in favor of increasing military strength.

However, the fact that the US military was able to reduce its emissions while at war in Iraq and Afghanistan suggests that it can remain capable and reduce fuel use at the same time. Which raises the larger question of how much the US should rely on the military—as compared to the tools of diplomacy, economic incentives, and economic sanctions—to respond to and shape the international security environment.

The world cannot afford either more war or more greenhouse gas emissions.

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