What the U.S. Navy Can Teach Us About Fighting Climate Change

  • Navy Ship

(This article was previously published in the Stevens Point Journal & Wausau Daily Herald)

The U.S. military has its problems. It’s overfunded, wasteful and unnecessarily deployed in many cases. But I’m surprised, even shocked, with its contributions for solving climate change.

You won’t find many climate change deniers in the military, especially in the U.S. Navy. They know climate change is occurring and they know what causes it — humans burning fossil fuels.

Remember, the military developed steel, radar, GPS and microchips last century and these then became widely adopted in the civilian population. Now, they’re doing it for energy efficiency, especially biofuels.

The Department of Defense has set a goal to meet 25 percent of its energy needs with renewables by 2025. The Navy has responded exceptionally well because its history is one of transportation adaptation: sails to coal to gasoline to diesel to nuclear — and now to a 50-50 blend of biofuels to fuel the fleet, using gasoline plus algae and waste cooking oil.

Some 75 percent of the world’s fuel and 90 percent (as of 2008) of global trade travels by sea. Shipping is the sixth-largest emitter of carbon dioxide in the world after China, the U.S., Russia, India and Japan. The DOD burns an average of 12 million gallons of oil per day, one-third of which is used by the Navy. Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus says that energy efficiency is absolutely needed because of increasing uncertainty of oil supplies and costs, worldwide.

To this end, he’s developed the “Great Green Fleet,” as described by Julia Whitty in her recent story “Full Green Ahead” in Mother Jones magazine. In July 2012, the fleet was “mobilized and demonstrated” 100 miles off the Hawaiian coast. It was a carrier strike group of five ships, four of which used biofuels, and 71 biofueled aircraft.

This demonstration was part of an initiative involving $510 million in energy reform with DOD and the Departments of Agriculture and Energy. The goals: 1) reduce energy consumption, 2) decrease reliance on foreign oil and 3) significantly increase use of alternate energy.

But biofuels are just part of the Navy’s energy strategy. In addition, they will: Award equipment contracts based on better fuel efficiency; deploy (not just demonstrate) a Great Green Fleet by 2016; phase in hybrid fuel and electric vehicles to halve petroleum use in the Navy’s 50,000-commercial-vehicle fleet by 2015; require by 2020 that each base be at least 50 percent self-powered by renewables (solar, wind and wave energy); and assure by 2020 that at least 50 percent of the Navy’s total energy consumption comes from alternative sources.

These changes, as with radar, GPS and microchips, will ripple into the civilian world. Perhaps the greatest ripple will be biofuels. The Navy is investing $170 million in American biofuel companies. And these biofuels will not be corn or food-based. That would be counterproductive as it would cause instability in food prices and social unrest.

Basically, as the Navy leads, civilians will follow. The civilian airline industry is one that is especially interested in biofuel development. They are already facing carbon emission taxes in European airports, so are looking closely at hybrid biofuels.

The Navy realizes, as Whitty writes, that “climate change is a national security challenge with strategic implications — affecting U.S. military installations and access to natural resources worldwide.” Rising sea levels is one of the biggest challenges they face. For example, the world’s largest naval base at Norfolk, Va., has ocean waters rising one-quarter of an inch per year, among the fastest rises in the world. Moreover, a 620 mile stretch along the East Coast (with nine other naval bases) has ocean water rising at three to four times the rate of the rest of the world.

The Navy has problems which it is working to solve. It appears that it might be working at solutions to climate change that will help solve problems for civilians as well.

Kent D. Hall of Stevens Point is a member of the Central Wisconsin Chapter of the Citizens Climate Lobby.