Sunday, October 2, 2011

Sustainability and Defense

Is climate change a significant threat to our future, and already harming us? Or a scientific theory not yet supported by real evidence?

The Army and Navy say it’s real; and they’re working hard to minimize the harm it’s doing to our national defense.

"We’re not dealing with projections, we’re dealing with data," Admiral David Titley, director of the Navy’s Climate Change Task Force, told a conference in August. Army sustainability guru William Goran described "compelling data over the past thirty years" during his visit to Las Cruces last month.

In Alaska, where much Army training takes place, the trainers are losing ground rapidly – and literally. The earth up there is normally frozen most of the year. When it isn’t, vehicles can’t even move, and training is impossible. Recently, frozen-ground days have been declining in spring and fall. Valuable training can’t happen because of the change in climate. The Army also has to dig deeper just to anchor buildings in Alaska.
The Navy faces bigger difficulties.

The Arctic is opening up for navigation. Some say this could mean a new fleet.

Sea-levels are rising - which Goran calls "a significant risk" to the Navy. Most bases are at sea level.

The seas are growing more acidic. As Titley notes, "one billion people who today get their protein from the ocean may not be able to do that, and in the face of all the other challenges we have on land, as our population goes to about 9 billion, it will be a huge challenge for us, and will have tremendous national security implications."

These are not abstract ideas, but practical problems our military faces right now.

The military forces also recognize that the rise in sea-level could be a significant "stressor" on national governments. Particularly in nations where the government isn’t too popular or stable, this could help create conflicts our Army and Navy might have to deal with. "Climate change wouldn’t be the sole cause, but would contribute to conflict," Goran says.

Goran is a key member of the Defense Department’s team working on sustainability, which the local Sustainability Plan defines as "that which ‘ meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.’" Sustainability presents complex set of problems in which climate change is one factor.

The push for sustainability isn’t designed just to save money or the environment. It saves lives. It saves U.S. soldiers’ lives.

For example, on average, every 22 times a convoy has to transport gasoline to the front, a soldier dies. If we can cut fuel needs by ten per cent, we probably save some of those soldiers, since fewer convoys will be required.

Batteries – for communications devices, lap-top computers, etc. – are the heaviest single item a soldier carries in his pack. If we could lighten that load – say, with a lightweight method to recharge batteries in the field – soldiers could carry more bullets or grenades or food or water, or just carry a lighter pack.

Soldiers are already carrying solar backpacks into the field. The backpack contains a lightweight solar array that can recharge batteries or run the lap-top in the field. Military officials say the solar backpacks are performing even better than anticipated. (Solar tents are also in the field "at a high technical-readiness level but not in mass production yet.")

The military also seeks to analyze use of resources such as electric power and fuel, to synch up distribution and increase efficiency. This involves matching supply and demand, often using a localized "smart grid."
Similarly, armies traditionally have a burn hole where they burn everything; but some of what they burn hurts the environment – and the health of citizens and soldiers. Now the army seeks to separate materials, and also to conduct burns in a way that the burning may generate steam or electricity. That’s a far more efficient, and easier on soldiers’ health.

More generally, the Army seeks "to reduce our boot-print" on the environment, for a host of reasons. Trying to help stem the tide of pollution and global warming is one. Saving money and preserving health are two. But a major reason is the military’s need to be as flexible as possible in responding to danger in the field.

Agility is a key military need to which sustainability contributes. DOD Director of Training Readiness & Strategy Frank DiGiovanni, an old Air Force fighter pilot, says that there’s never been an action by our adversaries that we were fully prepared for. There probably never can be, since we probably can never anticipate every new wrinkle or accidental event. However, we can increase our flexibility. Decreasing resource needs increases the Army’s capacity for adaptive, flexible responses to changing circumstances.

Climate change and dwindling resources are facts, not pseudo-scientific chatter. Sustainability is a key concept we all need to learn, as our military has, in trying to make the best of our world – and at least in the military context, it can save lives.

The City of Las Cruces also has a sustainability plan. (You can read the entire thing on the City’s web-site, - click on Environment, then on "Sustainability Program" under "Conservation" in the chart that comes up.) It appears to be a very reasonable stop in the right direction, and – as in the Army plan – calls for care in balancing various factors so as not to do more harm than good. A later column will examine it.
[The column above appeared in the Las Cruces Sun-News today, Sunday, 2 October.]

      Sustainability is a vague-sounding word that so far has drawn more hot words than careful study.  Locally,  the City's web-site contains the local Sustainability Plan, as noted in the column.   I've read it.  I've also read  Agenda 21 on the UN's Department of Economic and Social Affairs web-site.  Some people are screaming as hysterically about Agenda 21 as the women in old movies used to do when they jumped up on chairs at the news of a mouse in the same zip code.  Anyone who's curious -- or feels inclined to scream -- ought to read the thing.   Nothing in it is mandatory.  Both it and the City's Plan are somewhat generalized and high-sounding goals which sound pretty good; the real story will be in the nature of implementation.  Neither document makes for exciting reading and neither warrants fear or excitement.

      Climate change has drawn a great deal of careful study, and the serious scientists seem unanimous that it's a significant problem, that we may have lost the chance to prevent it, but that we may still have time to mitigate its effects somewhat.  The "science" opposing it begins to resemble the "science" of tobacco companies trying to show that maybe cigarette smoking was relatively harmless.  It's so much dung thrown against the wall, in the hope it'll stick long enough that big companeis can reap more profits before they have to start taking the kinds of corrective action that might make them less profitable.  If you have some honest doubt about climate change, you might be interested in some of the discussions by some of the military men quoted in the column, and others.   For example,
Admiral Titley, the Navy's Chief Oceanographer, was a skeptic about climate change.  So was
General Gordon Sullivan, former Chief of Staff, U.S. Army, who's featured in another video on the same web-site.

        The problem is that powerful corporate interests are against doing anything about pollution greenhouses gasses or climate change because it undermines profits in the short run.  Don't blame 'em.  Corporate managers have a single legal duty: to maximize profits for shareholders.   And shareholders are either rich folks who want to keep raking in the most-possible money or everyday folks who either want to maximize profits or, if they understand that foregoing part of the profit could be a better deal for them and their kids and grandkids in the long run, don't have enough knowledge or voting power to make anything happen.
Meanwhile the Far Right gets bankrolled by just those corporations and rich folks, and also has a penchant for unthinking responses as meaningful as "Four Legs Good, Two Legs Bad" in Orwell's Animal Farm.  Government is bad.   Corporate freedom to maximize profits and urinate on our future is good.

        One of my favorite stories was told by James Woolsey, former CIA Director and former  Undersecretary of the Navy.  He had testified on the subject before the House of Representatives, and a "congressman was arguing with me because I’d presented some of the reasons I thought climate change was a significant problem, so I finally said, ‘Congressman, look: set aside climate change, do you realize 7 of the 9 things I’ve suggested will help us be a lot more resilient against terrorism or oil cutoffs - and he said, ‘Oh, well, if you do ‘em for that reason, it’s fine.’" 

        Woolsey also responds to the argument that there were variations in climate well before people were sufficiently numerous or sufficiently industrialized to affect the atmosphere much.  He says, essentially, "Yeah there was climate change before humans; and people got lung cancer before people smoked; and yes, we might get lucky and some of the extreme manifestations may not happen so quickly – and you may get lucky if you smoke five packs a day, and live to 95 and get shot by a jealous husband."

        All this and more is in videos on the web-site where Titley tells his story.

        To a small part of my mind, of course, it's unnatural to be seeing military folks making so much sense.  I came of age during the War in Viet Nam.  But even then, if you looked beneath the surface, blaming that war on the military wasn't fair.  It was a war that never should have been fought; and it was a war that couldn't be win except by, as one retired military man put it at the time, "Bombing the Vietnamese back to the Stone Age."  (We nearly did, and never came close to winning.)  Military officers didn't decide to fight that war.  Politicians did, for the same kinds of knee-jerk reasons some folks oppose looking rationally at climate change.  ("Gotta stop the Communists" blinded them to the real nature of the Vietnamese situation and to thousands of years of Vietnamese history.)  Then once we were in that quagmire, military analysts often pointed out the improbability of any good result; but politicians intercepted those analyses before they reached the public, and promised Victory. 

1 comment:

  1. Great to see this ran in the Las Cruces Sun-News. The impacts of climate change are clearly already upon us.