The U.S. military is the single-biggest institutional source of carbon pollution on Earth. But the Pentagon would like you to know that it could absolutely be part of the climate solution.
“Once we start to understand that we can’t opt-out of climate change in anything that we do—it’s just a fact, a reality of how we think about the future—then we can start to really get in front of and be productive” Kathleen Hicks, the Pentagon’s second-in-command, told CNN.
Hicks said $750 billion per year is being poured in lithium-ion batteries, with China dictating most of the flow of money. That, she said, poses “a significant national security challenge” to the U.S. She was even more transparent in an interview earlier this month with Military.com, saying, “part of what we are trying to do on the Defense Department’s side is raise the national security flag to indicate our interests in that,” with “that” being more U.S. mining for metals used in batteries.
Decarbonizing the military is certainly an option. The Department of Defense has hundreds of thousands of vehicles, ranging from sedans used on bases to Humvees used in combat. Then there are all the fighter jets, drones, submarines, aircraft carriers, and more—all largely reliant on fossil fuels. In many cases, these vehicles are wildly fuel-inefficient.
Hicks said the military will need to go electric, with a possible stop along the way in hybrid electric territory for heavy-duty vehicles in battle due to charging logistics. But, she said, “If we don’t follow and be part of the solution, we will be left behind and our vehicle fleets won’t be able to be supported.”
Would an EV Reaper drone dropping biodegradable bombs be a step in the right direction? Uh, sure, I guess if that’s your thing.
Perhaps, though, a faster way to decarbonize the military would be to consider shrinking its budget and putting it to use elsewhere. The Pentagon’s annual budget is $740 billion, a number that neatly mirrors what Hicks pointed to as the battery industry’s global spend. Why not take some of that budget and plunk it into mining and battery R&D for starters? And while we’re at it, why not take a few more billion and put it into programs that will use clean energy technologies to make Americans more safe and secure at home?
Expanding public transit would allow people to move more freely and lower dependence on cars, which kill tens of thousands in accidents and thousands more due to air pollution in the U.S. alone. Ensuring people have more energy efficient dwellings would also allow people more comfortable lives and freedom, especially for low-income households that spend a disproportionate amount of money on utility bills. These are but two examples, but there are countless ways to prioritize spending more on batteries and other tools to decarbonize the U.S. in ways that meaningfully improve people’s lives rather than greening-up the military.
Yet “national security” is like a magical term that instantly unlocks money. Sen. Joe Manchin voted for the $740 billion for the Department of Defense in July, saying that the “military must be prepared to defend our nation from threats at home and abroad.” On the Build Back Better Act, which the White House says includes $550 billion in climate funding over a decade, Manchin has worked to winnow it down at every turn.
“I will not support a bill that is this consequential without thoroughly understanding the impact that it will have on our national debt, our economy, and, most importantly, all of our American people,” Manchin said in a statement earlier this month. (Apparently the defense budget gets a pass since Manchin has voted to plow an estimated $9.1 trillion into it over his time in the Senate.)
It’s not like the military has a record of failed investment of all those billions or anything (cough, F-35, cough).
“The United States can do a lot to help this world problem, but it can’t do it alone,” Hicks said in her CNN interview.
That’s very true. But there’s a real risk to letting the military dictate so much of U.S. priorities, particularly around climate change. The country already spends more fortifying the border than on climate aid, a move that’s akin to bringing a hammer to solve a problem that demands a sewing kit.