The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The U.S. Army has released its first-ever climate strategy. Here’s what that means.

A Marine wears knee braces and a backpack that harvest energy from his movements during an exhibition of green energy technology in Twentynine Palms, Calif., in 2016. (Gregory Bull/AP)
Placeholder while article actions load

The U.S. Army released its first climate strategy this week, an effort to brace the service for a world beset by global-warming-driven conflicts.

The plan aims to slash the Army’s emissions in half by 2030; electrify all noncombat vehicles by 2035 and develop electric combat vehicles by 2050; and train a generation of officers on how to prepare for a hotter, more chaotic world. It is part of a broader effort by the Biden administration to address climate change across government agencies, including at the Pentagon.

Here’s why it matters.

Why does the Pentagon care about climate change?

The nation’s military staff hasn’t suddenly turned into a bunch of tree-huggers. But strategists are increasingly alarmed about the security implications of climate change.

The strategy notes “an increased risk of armed conflict in places where established social orders and populations are disrupted. The risk will rise even more where climate effects compound social instability, reduce access to basic necessities, undermine fragile governments and economies, damage vital infrastructure, and lower agricultural production.”

Analysts fear what could happen if fights erupt about access to water, for instance. The Mekong River is vital to Southeast Asian nations, and its headwaters are in China. A climate-change-driven drought in Syria that lasted from 2006 to 2010 is widely credited with being among the sparks for the deadly conflict there. The melting of ice sheets in the Arctic Ocean has sparked a great-power competition for control of the north.

Spurred by President Biden’s focus on climate change, the Pentagon, the National Security Council and the U.S. intelligence community in October all issued thorough — and somewhat dire — assessments of the threat global warming poses to U.S. security.

Militaries are among the world’s biggest emitters. This general wants them to go green.

What’s actually going to change in the Army?

The strategy sets out ambitious goals: carbon-free electricity for installations by 2030. Net zero emissions from Army installations by 2045. An increasingly electrified vehicle fleet, including developing electric tactical vehicles — the ones that actually drive out into combat — by 2050. Microgrid installations on all Army posts by 2035, paving the way for increased renewable energy. Thinking more about climate issues when making decisions about how the Army manages its vast land holdings.

The Army also wants to train its personnel about climate issues and to reduce the carbon footprint of its military exercises.

The strategy still needs to be backed by an actual budget. Until then, it remains partly theoretical. And there aren’t any price tags in the 12-page document that was released publicly.

But experts say the goals are concrete and should result in swift movement.

“This level of detail is impressive. … It has very concrete objectives that are measurable,” said Erin Sikorsky, who led climate work for the U.S. intelligence community and is now the director of the Center for Climate and Security, a Washington-based think tank. “This is something the U.S. is leading the way on.”

Why does it matter what the Pentagon does to address global warming?

The Defense Department has a vast footprint: It accounts for 56 percent of the federal government’s carbon footprint and 52 percent of its electricity use. So when it does anything, it creates huge ripples. And the Army is the largest military service. It also means that most efforts to address emissions related to the federal government are minor compared with the Pentagon’s.

The military hasn’t traditionally been a focus for environmentalists, partly because the culture and politics of the Pentagon and the green movement haven’t intersected. But that is starting to change.

“Looking at the federal government, there’s just no way around it. You have to have DOD front and center” if the government is going to work on climate change, said Sharon Burke, a former assistant secretary of defense in the Obama administration who works on climate security issues.

“There are things about that that kind of boggle your mind. It has the country’s single largest day-care system. It just has a ton of scale,” Burke said.

Decisions taken at the top to reduce emissions and incorporate climate change into planning can have a major impact, on everything from the Army’s hundreds of thousands of vehicles to the more than 16 million acres of land it manages around the world.

Climate change is highlighted as a security issue as NATO leader visits COP26

Wait — isn’t the military supposed to fight wars, not battle global warming?

The Army has made clear that its climate efforts are directed toward its core mission: “to fight and win the nation’s wars,” as Paul Farnan, the acting assistant secretary of the Army for installations, energy and environment, put it Wednesday. “Every one of those steps is going to increase the effectiveness of our fighting force.”

Proponents of incorporating climate change into military efforts say that in many cases, doing so can actually improve the fighting effectiveness of troops. In combat, the supply lines that provide fuel for forward operating bases, Humvees and other fighting vehicles are major targets for attack. Taking fossil fuels out of the equation — or even just improving the fuel efficiency of tanks and other heavy vehicles — can save soldiers’ lives.

That’s what inspired Richard Nugee, one of the most senior generals in the British military, to write a climate strategy for his country’s fighting forces last year. He said he was tired of senior defense officials dismissing the climate as an afterthought. NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg has also made climate change a pillar of the defense alliance, and he made waves last year when he became the first NATO leader to attend a United Nations climate conference.

Critics, though, say the climate issues are a distraction from the core business of the military. At best, skeptics say, they take resources away from bigger issues, like Russia’s potential invasion of Ukraine, or the strategic competition with China. At worst, critics say, they actually weaken the military.

“You’re talking about changing military operations. You’re talking about fighting wars in a different way in order to conserve energy,” said Mark Cancian, a former senior Pentagon official who once oversaw defense spending within the Office of Management and Budget.

What else is the Defense Department doing right now on climate issues?

There are efforts across the Pentagon and the individual military services to incorporate climate issues into their planning. In recent weeks, the Defense Department signaled that it wants to move toward carbon-free electricity where it can and that it will start asking its contractors to total up the emissions of the bombs, fighter jets and other military hardware they are supplying to the armed forces.

It adds up to a concerted effort to shift the way the U.S. military thinks about climate issues.

“Climate change threatens America’s security and is altering the geostrategic landscape as we know it,” Army Secretary Christine Wormuth wrote in a foreword to the strategy. “For today’s Soldiers operating in extreme temperature environments, fighting wildfires, and supporting hurricane recovery, climate change isn’t a distant future, it is a reality.”

Sign up for the latest news about climate change, energy and the environment, delivered every Thursday