A Marine safely stows a solar panel https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:USMC-120105-M-AU542-028.jpg

Recently, I toured a U.S Navy mine sweeper and destroyer during Fleet Week. Just before the tour entrance line a tent with exhibits caught my attention. On the first table were a set of small bottles containing various kinds of liquid fuels, a sampling meant to highlight the biofuels now being developed and used by the Navy. At the second table I was greeted by a Navy public relations specialist who handed me a quarterly magazine devoted exclusively to the Navy’s energy and environmental initiatives.

The U.S. Navy isn’t the only service seeking to make itself less dependent on fossil fuels and friendlier to the environment. The U.S. Department of Defense (DOD) has committed itself to more sustainable practices and alternative fuels across all services. The reason: The DOD takes climate change and fossil fuel dependence as serious risks to the nation’s security and to the U.S. military’s own ability to fight and protect the nation.

Why does the U.S. military establishment take these threats seriously and act on them in such a thoroughgoing fashion while the military’s strongest congressional supporters are the most ardent opponents of sustainable practices?

Using the hawkish Center for Security Policy’s (CSP) 2013-2014 congressional scorecard as a proxy for devotion to all things military, we find 21 so-called "champions" of national security in the U.S. House and Senate who voted for all items favored by the CSP during the session. Among those 21 legislators, nine had a 0 percent rating from the League of Conservation Voters for 2014, four had a 3 percent rating, four had a 6 percent rating, one had 20 percent rating, one had a 60 percent rating, and two were not rated.

This is not a perfect indicator by any means, but it provides a general outline of the disconnect between a military establishment which has embraced sustainability and its most ardent legislative supporters who refuse to recognize and act on those same imperatives for sustainability in the civilian economy.

Certainly, part of the explanation is that the budget of the U.S. military is very large, and many constituencies which benefit from it in both political parties need to be satisfied before it can pass. But another part of the explanation is the way the military assesses risk versus the way we assess risk in the civilian economy.

For military commanders every decision has life-and-death implications. Poor planning for any part of military operations–food, clothing, shelter, fuel, weapons, ammunition, intelligence, transport, coordination with other armed services, and so on–can hinder success and cost lives. Contingencies, however remote, are often considered since they can mean substantial loss of life if ignored. Essentially, mission planners are asking, "What if?"

Climate change models suggest widespread disruption of agriculture, water supplies and coastal settlements (due to sea level rise) resulting in growing instability around the world and leading to increased military threats. A 2015 DOD report to Congress on climate-related risk summarizes the department’s thinking.

The DOD also understands that renewable energy gathered on military bases is less vulnerable to disruption from hostile actions, actions that could prevent imported fuel from reaching those bases and which could also compromise civilian electrical grids. The department has therefore adopted aggressive goals for renewable energy with the Navy setting a 50 percent goal by 2020.

Why is the DOD moving so fast? Because it perceives that risks related to fuel supplies and climate change are real and immediate. The department believes these risks must be addressed now to maintain readiness not only for violent attacks from hostile forces, but also for sustainability in peacekeeping operations and humanitarian missions.

Why are we not applying the same analysis to the U.S. civilian economy? Certainly, there are many people who do, but they have not been able to convince enough federal legislators to move more quickly on an energy transition that would both lessen our dependence on fossil fuels and mitigate climate change.

But the most important difference is that in civilian society we have to set policy by consent, by legislative action. In the military, policy can be set by top commanders and enforced, policy that often puts security above cost and that fossil fuel lobbyists are generally impotent to alter.

Moreover, civilian society operates under a market system in which priorities for investment are affected by millions upon millions of buying and investment decisions made by individuals and companies. And, those individuals and companies have a say in public policy, a say that tends to value stability over change.

For example, utilities are being forced to adopt renewable energy targets by state utility commissions around the country. But, it would be difficult to force those utilities to shut down, say, half their fossil fuel plants by 2020 without bankrupting them and endangering the stability of the electrical grid to boot. Existing infrastructure is not so easily disposed of because its owners want to get maximum value out of it before disposing of it and because its integration with larger systems (such as the electrical grid) must be carefully taken into account.

Still, the threat of climate change to food and water supplies, to the stability of existing infrastructure including coastal settlements, and to the health of human populations (more very hot days and more tropical diseases) suggest that adapting to and mitigating climate change ought to be as much a priority in U.S. civilian society as it is in the U.S. military. And, we now have compelling demonstrations from the military that a rapid transition can take place.

All we have to do is to find the will to make that transition. The military recognizes that its effectiveness at its mission is at stake. If only we civilians everywhere could embrace alternative energy and climate-change adaptation and mitigation with the same zeal, maybe the very conflicts which the U.S. military anticipates as an outcome of climate change and resource pressures could be considerably lessened or eliminated.

And then, just maybe the sailors I met during Fleet Week wouldn’t have to fight in conflicts related to those twin risks because we civilians would be taking climate change and energy resource pressures as seriously as they do and doing what is necessary to address them.

Photo: A Marine safely stows a solar panel after a day of drawing in the suns thermal energy and converting it into useable power via a Ground Renewable Expeditionary Energy Network System. After being collected by the solar panels, the energy passes through a control box, where a GREENS system operator can charge up to four lithium batteries at a time. (5 January 2012). Source: US Marine Corps via Wikimedia Commons