It was overshadowed by the presidential campaign, but last Dec. 5 a bit of environmental legislative history was made. After repeated failures, and in the face of opposition from the White House, the Senate's Committee on Environment and Public Works passed legislation that would mandate greenhouse gas reductions for the American economy, a vital step to implementing a national carbon cap-and-trade program. What changed? The Democratic seizure of Congress in 2006 made a big difference, replacing global warming skeptic Sen. James Inhofe as committee chairperson with the green Sen. Barbara Boxer. But the real transformation came not from a Democrat but a Republican the veteran Virginia Sen. John Warner. Though Warner had voted against similar measures in the past, this time around he not only supported the bill which calls for cutting greenhouse gas emissions to 2005 levels by 2012, and then 70% below 2005 levels by 2050 but co-sponsored it with Sen. Joseph Lieberman. "We had a bipartisan breakthrough, thanks to the wonderful John Warner," says Boxer.
Climate change is usually characterized as an environmental threat, but it wasn't melting icebergs or endangered polar bears that made Warner change his mind. "I have focused above all on issues of national security," Warner said after the bill passed committee. "I see the problem of global climate change fitting squarely within that focus." For Warner, unchecked global warming could create a world that is inherently more dangerous for the U.S. Acting to mitigate climate change was another way of keeping America safe. It's a message that resonates with Americans who would sooner log a tree than hug it, and raises the possibility that conservatives and liberals might find common ground on climate change. "I find [conservatives] skeptical on this issue," says James Woolsey, a right-leaning Democrat who was director of the Central Intelligence Agency between 1993 and 1995, under former President Bill Clinton. "But when I mention the connection to security, suddenly things like solar power start looking a lot better."
Last year saw a raft of studies tracing the linkage between global warming and global instability, and none was more influential than a report released last April by the CNA Corporation, a Pentagon-funded think tank. A team of 11 high-level retired officers including Marine General Anthony Zinni, former head of U.S. Central Command, which has responsibility for the Middle East termed climate change a dangerous "threat multiplier." If unchecked, the report warned, warming could lead to resource wars, environmental refugees and failed states in already vulnerable regions of Asia, Africa and the Middle East the very places where you'll find American troops today.
The retired officers who made up the CNA panel are hardly environmentalists, and many said they came to the report skeptical of climate change. That was then. "It's now a mainstream security issue, not a fringe movement for tree-huggers and Birkenstock wearers," says Sherri Goodman, who chaired the CNA report and served as deputy Undersecretary of Defense for environmental security in the Clinton Administration a position that does not exist today. "It's affecting the lives of billions and so we've got to understand what those threats are, and how to plan for them and reduce them."
The dangers outlined by the CNA report mostly lie in the future, but there are security concerns connected to global warming that threaten us right now. The U.S. is increasingly dependent on foreign oil for its transportation needs, importing 60% of its petroleum, up from 40% during the first Gulf War. Foreign oil dependence by itself isn't necessarily risky the biggest share of our imports now comes from Canada, which hasn't been a threat since the War of 1812 or so. But much of that oil still comes from the Middle East, Russia and Venezuela three parts of the world whose interests are often immiscible with those of the U.S. By burning ever-increasing amounts of oil, we're not only adding carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, but adding to the bank accounts of people who don't like us very much. The New York Times's Thomas Friedman calls it the First Law of Petropolitics as the price of oil goes up, we're effectively propping up hydrocarbon-fueled autocracies like Iran. Oil, firmly above $100 a barrel, is now more expensive than it has ever been before a level that might never have been reached if the U.S. had long ago made a concerted effort to shift to alternative fuels. Even as America spends up to $3 billion a week in Iraq, some of your gasoline bill is surely finding its way to al-Qaeda. "We're paying for both sides in the war on terror," says Woolsey. "That's about as nuts as a society can be."
No one knows that insanity better than the energy-intensive U.S. military, which is paying for our oil in blood and treasure. A soldier in Gulf War I needed four gallons of fuel a day to support him; in 2006, each solider dispatched to Iraq and Afghanistan required 16 gallons of fuel a day. That figure will likely go up in 2007, the military energy bill rose from $10.9 billion to $13 billion, burning 340,000 barrels of oil a day. Protecting petroleum supplies soaks up a huge chunk of the Pentagon's budget $44.4 billion in 2003, according to a government consultant while getting the fuel to troops on the front lines exposes convoys to roadside bombs and other dangers. It's little wonder that an April study by the Pentagon concluded that its reliance on oil makes its ability to respond to global hot spots "unsustainable in the long term." What's true for the armed forces today is true for the rest of the nation.
But the military, at least, is beginning to do something about it. In Iraq, Marine Major General Richard Zilmer requested renewable energy sources like solar panels and wind turbines, so that soldiers in the field could produce more of their own energy on site and reduce the need for vulnerable fuel convoys. By spraying desert tents with an adhesive foam that sealed open spaces, Army engineers were able to reduce energy loss in the camps by 50%. "Being more energy efficient puts fewer kids at risk," says Alan Schaffer, who runs the Pentagon's office of defense research and engineering.
Back on the bases, the Army has decreed that all new buildings should be at least Leadership in Energy and Design (LEED) standard, the baseline for green building. With the help of the private contractor Actus Lend Lease, the Army has put energy efficient housing in New York's sprawling Fort Drum, geothermal power in Louisiana's Fort Polk and the world's largest solar community in Hawaii. The rest of the country should take note. "When the Army does something, it's worth looking at," says Tad Davis, deputy Assistant Secretary of the Army for environment, safety and occupational health.
At the same time, the sheer size of the U.S. military budget, compared to our spending on global warming, shows that the idea of climate security has a long way to go. A January report by the Institute for Policy Studies crunched the numbers: for every dollar Washington allocated to climate change in the 2008 budget, $88 would be spent on defense. The figures on research and development vital given the need for government support of emerging clean tech were almost as skewed. For every $1 to be spent on researching climate-related technologies, $20 would be spent on developing new defense systems. The cost of the war in Iraq will run into the trillions money that might have kept America safer had it been spent on the climate instead. But global warming long-term, diffuse remains a far more difficult threat to perceive than the lone terrorist or the rogue state. "It's much easier to mobilize around a bad guy," says Goodman. "How do you mobilize against nature?"
If we want to survive the future, we'll need to learn how. But the two sides climate and defense needn't be opposed. In a recent paper, James Woolsey imagined a dialogue between John Muir, the founder of the Sierra Club, and General George Patton on climate change. In Woolsey's telling, Muir cares about the environment, and Patton about security, but in subject after subject alternative energy, increasing efficiency, improving the electrical grid they come to the same green conclusion, if for different reasons. "It just happens that the two ideas produce the same outcome," says Woolsey. "There is something there for everybody." With reporting by Mark Thompson/Washington