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Why the military is paying attention to energy efficiency and global warming.

As a young student naval aviator many years ago, I made my first carrier landing off the coast of Pensacola. I remember every detail: a brilliant blue sky accented with billowing white clouds, clear blue, almost iridescent waters of the Gulf of Mexico, pristine white beaches and the deep green of the coast, outlined by its bays, rivers and canals.

As I focused my attention to the business at hand and flew my T-2B Buckeye trainer toward the tiny black dot that was the USS Lexington flight deck, I thought I had never seen such beauty as the Florida Panhandle and the Gulf of Mexico.

This month, after many years, including a 35-year Navy career, I returned to Florida's Gulf Coast on a different mission. Accompanying my former boss, retired Sen. John Warner, who served as secretary of the Navy when I was a junior officer in the early '70s, I came to present the strategic findings by CNA's Military Advisory Board, a panel of retired admirals and generals who produced two reports, "National Security and the Threat of Climate Change" ( and "Powering America's Defense: Energy and the Risk to National Security" ( The reports, each the result of more than a year-long study, found an inextricable link between U.S. energy use, climate change and national security.

Just as the beauty of the gulf may juxtapose oddly with the tough reality of the military missions we trained for above its waters, so the tie between national security and climate change may seem strange - at first. But as military professionals, we are trained, and learn by hard experience, to carefully plan, make decisions and take action when faced with threatening situations, even when those situations are defined by ambiguous information.

Strategic decisions are, by necessity, based on trends, indicators and warnings because, as a chairman of our panel, retired Army Gen. Gordon R. Sullivan, said, "We never have 100 percent certainty. We never have it. If you wait until you have 100 percent certainty, something bad is going to happen on the battlefield."

After carefully considering the threat of climate change and America's current energy consumption to our national security, the CNA Military Advisory Board finds the trends and warnings are clear. Our sobering conclusion is that climate change and the U.S. energy posture constitute a serious and urgent threat to national security - militarily, diplomatically and economically.

Climate change differs from traditional military threats. It is not a well-defined enemy or a specific crisis spot with a fixed timeline for response. Rather, it is a threat multiplier that magnifies instability in the most volatile places in the world and increases a variety of threats across the board.

This will inevitably create a growing need for U.S. military intervention with missions ranging from humanitarian assistance, to peacekeeping, to the need to deal with dangerous conflicts over resources in regions critical to U.S. national security. The conditions created by climate change will vary across the globe and affect different locations, including in our own nation, in a variety of ways: drought, flood, extreme weather events, crop failure, acidic oceans, fishery collapse, starvation and disease.

These conditions will lead to conflict over scarce resources and cause mass migration by people in search of security and the essentials of life, creating sustained natural and humanitarian disasters on a scale and at a frequency far beyond those we see today.

This, in turn, will create great social and political instability where demands for basic human needs exceed the capacity of governments to cope. As fragile states become failed states, desperation, hopelessness and a vacuum of governing power create a dangerous breeding ground for extremists and terrorism.

When populations get more desperate, the likelihood of military conflicts goes up, and the more instability, the more likely and greater the pressure to use our military. Climate-driven crises are already happening. Darfur and Somalia are present-day examples of instability and failing states. In South Asia and in the Middle East, very densely populated regions with long-standing tensions, climate change will create greatly increased competition, and perhaps regional conflict, over traditional supplies of fresh water.

As the Himalayan glaciers recede, nations such as China, India and Pakistan will have to deal with internal and external unrest due to a much less reliable source of water to meet the needs of growing populations. There already exists a rapidly increasing competition for diminishing supplies of water for agriculture and basic human needs in the Middle East.

The danger of oil

At the same time, increasing demand for, and dwindling supplies of, fossil fuels will lead to greater instability around the world, including many of the places worst hit by climate change. In our second report, the CNA Military Advisory Board concluded that America's approach to energy has placed the nation in a dangerous and untenable position. The report identifies a series of current risks created by America's energy policies and practices.

Militarily, our inefficient use and overreliance on oil adds significantly to the great risks already assumed by our troops. It reduces combat effectiveness and exacts a huge price tag in dollars and lives. It puts our troops - more directly and more often - in harm's way.

Fuel convoys can stretch over great distances, traversing hotly contested territory and become attractive targets for enemy forces. Ensuring convoy safety and fuel delivery requires a tremendous diversion of combat force. As in-theater energy demand increases, more assets must be diverted to protect fuel convoys rather than to directly engage enemy combatants.

We saw this in Iraq and we are certainly seeing it in Afghanistan where the speed of military operations, the size of the force and its effectiveness is literally paced by our ability to get fuel when and where it's needed. Consider the recent hijacking of fuel trucks by the Taliban in Afghanistan and the ensuing civilian deaths, greatly damaging the political goals that are central to the NATO and coalition mission.

The commandant of the Marine Corps recently deployed an energy audit team to Afghanistan to find ways to increase energy efficiency and to use more sustainable forms of energy in order to lighten the expeditionary load, lower logistics vulnerability and improve fighting effectiveness.

Beyond the military's own fuel needs, our nation consumes more oil than any other single country. Ensuring the flow of that oil stretches our military thin - the men and women already fighting wars on two fronts. We rely on our armed forces to protect sea lanes and maintain a continuous high level of forward presence to ensure we can fill up our cars and trucks. The October 2000 terrorist attack on the USS Cole, while on a refueling stop in Yemen, was a tragic reminder of the convergence of oil, instability, terrorism and the need for ever vigilant forward presence by Americans in uniform.

And our nation's dependence on oil - not just foreign oil - reduces our leverage internationally and limits our diplomatic options. We simply do not have enough oil resources in this country to ever meet our growing demand or to shield us from the volatile price spikes and shortages in a global market.

Using too much

Even accounting for the recent discovery of deep sea oil reserves in the Gulf of Mexico, America controls only 3 percent of the world's oil supply while we consume 25 percent of the oil produced every year. Making the assumption that fuel is going to be available and affordable whenever and wherever we need it leads to a fundamentally flawed strategy. It will neither be available nor affordable.

The growing divergence of supply and demand curves for global oil dictates ever-greater scarcity and ever increasing cost. By remaining dependent on oil the United States will continue to be entangled with unfriendly rulers and undemocratic nations - simply because we need their oil. And we cannot produce enough domestic oil to change this dynamic. That is just a short-term solution that simply continues our harmful addiction to oil. We need to recognize that we cannot drill our way to sustained prosperity and security - we have to wean ourselves from our reliance on oil, starting now.

Economically, we are in the midst of a severe financial crisis, and our approach to energy is a key part of the problem. We are heavily dependent on a global petroleum market that is highly volatile. In 2008, we sent $386 billion overseas to pay for oil - a good deal of it going to nations that wish us harm. In the last year alone, the per-barrel price of oil climbed as high as $140 and dropped as low as $40. Just a $10 change in the per-barrel cost of oil translates to a $2 billion increase in the Pentagon's energy costs.

This price volatility is not limited to oil - natural gas and coal prices also saw huge spikes in the last year. While coal and natural gas resources may be plentiful, they are increasingly difficult to access, and have associated impacts that are expensive. As we begin to recover from the current global recession, the price of energy will inexorably go up and with it, the risks to our nation's economic and security future.

Hummer, be gone

There are those who say we cannot afford to deal with our energy issues right now. But if we don't begin to address our long-term energy profile now, future economic crises will dwarf this one. The market for fossil fuels will be shaped by finite supplies and increasing worldwide demand, the volatile cycle of fuel prices will become sharper and shorter, and without immediate action to change our energy profile, the national security risks, economic and military, will worsen.

Every single day that goes by, we are more vulnerable to very real threats to our energy supply: a major hurricane in the Gulf of Mexico, Iran closing down the Strait of Hormuz, terrorist actions against major oil production facilities, or an oil embargo by OPEC.

Using the most reasoned and fact-based military judgment, members of the CNA Military Advisory Board concluded that we must transform the way our country produces and uses energy. Diversifying our energy sources and moving away from fossil fuels is critical to our future energy security. This will inevitably mean moving to more renewable sources of energy, greater efficiency and to a significantly reduced dependence on fossil fuels.

As the largest single user of energy in the country, the Department of Defense can play a leadership role. As one of my colleagues on the Military Advisory Board quipped, "America, we gave you the Hummer when oil was cheap; now we're taking it back!"

Algae-powered jets

By addressing its own energy security needs, the Department of Defense can be an incubator for new energy technologies and help transform U.S. energy use. Initial steps are already under way.

One example is the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency's recent multimillion dollar investments in the research and development of liquid fuels derived from algae and other non-food crops.

Last month I toured several centers of excellence - promising algae-to-oil start-up companies. These are not pie-in-the-sky ventures. Rather, they are on the verge of a significant production scale-up, using algal oil to be sent to existing refineries, which currently process only crude oil. This is significant. It means that a whole new fuel derived from algae could use the existing oil processing infrastructure.

Military aircraft are already conducting successful flight tests using bio-based fuels. Think what such a change could mean for the energy security of the Air Force, which burns approximately 2.4 billion gallons of jet fuel a year, the single largest user in the world, followed closely by many of the large commercial air carriers.

There are many other examples where the military is making significant progress in both energy efficiency and using new sources of clean, renewable energy to improve mission effectiveness. In Iraq and Afghanistan, spray foam insulation on tents has cut the need for diesel generator sets used for air conditioning by as much as 60 percent. Portable solar panels are increasingly being used to recharge the multitude of batteries our soldiers and Marines rely on for mission electronics.

The Army is assessing the viability of using highly efficient fuel cells to power the electronics in combat vehicles and forward operating bases, greatly reducing the need to keep gas-guzzling engines and diesel generators idling.

All of the armed services have embraced energy efficiency technology and building materials for military construction at their bases, increased the number of hybrid and electric powered vehicles for logistics, and many installations are developing solar, wind, geothermal and biomass sources of renewable energy to reduce reliance on the electrical grid and save money.

Collectively, these initiatives help to shape a rapidly growing national clean technology market using the Defense Department's buying power, as well as with applicable research and development efforts that can "spin out" commercially viable new energy technology from defense research centers, as well as to "spin in" private sector-developed energy capabilities, including those in operational prototype configurations, that meet emerging military needs.

While this may not answer all of our future energy needs for America or for our military, it is clear evidence that major change is underway. Remember that less than 10 years ago the iPod didn't exist and 20 years ago, few folks had cell phones, satellite radio or GPS devices.

Clean technology - energy efficiency, pollution abatement and renewable energy - is a fast growing multibillion-dollar global industry. Those countries which invest in research, development and deployment of clean technology early, will have a key competitive advantage and be less dependent on others for this technology.

Silver buckshot

Those who delay action will be more dependent on, and therefore more vulnerable to, those who move early. The greater our delay in taking action, the more limited and expensive America's energy options become. While there may not be a "silver bullet" to meet the challenges of energy and climate change facing our nation, there are a lot of "silver buckshot" technologies, which we can use to scale up and create an economically viable portfolio of energy choices.

The Department of Defense can play a key role to achieve the end state - a transformation of the way we generate and use energy. But America needs a truly national effort. We require visionary leadership by our elected officials, at all levels of government, to create long-term policies which encourage free market capital investments to develop and deploy sustainable, low-carbon energy technology. Most importantly, we need the full awareness, commitment and participation by all Americans, as citizens and as consumers, to recognize the need for change and to help make it happen now.

These challenges are certainly daunting, particularly at a time of economic crisis. But we do not need to exchange benefits in one dimension, energy security, for harm in another, climate change. In fact, while carefully considering these interlinked challenges, it is clear that great and transformational opportunities lie ahead for America and that the best approaches to energy, climate change and national security may be one in the same.

As my airliner flew out over Tampa Bay and the gulf after my most recent visit, I once again marveled at how beautiful the coast of Florida still remains. For the sake of America's future national security and prosperity, and for generations to come, I hope they remain that way. The future is ours to make.

Vice Adm. Dennis V. McGinn, USN (retired) is a designated naval aviator, test pilot and national security strategist. He has served as director of the Air Warfare Division in the Office of the Chief of Naval Operations; the Commander of the U.S. Third Fleet; and the deputy chief of Naval Operations, Warfare Requirements and Programs in the Pentagon. CNA is a not-for-profit research organization which serves the public interest by providing in-depth analysis and results-oriented solutions to help government leaders choose the best course of action in setting policy and managing operations. CNA's Military Advisory Board (MAB) consists of 12 two-, three- and four-star retired admirals and generals, representing all four services of American armed forces.

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Climate change will cause drought, flood, extreme weather events, crop failure, acidic oceans, fishery collapse, starvation and disease.

That will cause conflict over scarce resources and mass migration by people in search of security and the essentials of life.

Which will lead tosustained natural and humanitarian disasters on a scale and at a frequency far beyond those we see today.

When populations get desperate, the likelihood of military conflicts goes up, and the more instability, the more likely and greater the pressure to use our military.

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Energy and national security - Fuel for thought

The Air Force is the single largest user of jet fuel in the world, burning 2.4 billion gallons a year.

A $10 rise in the price of a barrel of oil translates to a $2 billion increase in the Pentagon's energy costs.

In 2008, we sent $386 billion overseas to pay for oil - a good deal of it going to nations that wish us harm.

America controls only 3 percent of the world's oil supply while we consume 25 percent of the oil produced every year.

A whole new fuel derived from algae could be processed at existing refineries.

Spray foam insulation on tents in Iraq and Afghanistan has cut the need for air conditioning by as much as 60 percent.