Department of Climate Defense

Department of Climate Defense

The U.S. military is one of the world’s top consumers of fossil fuels. But it has also done pioneering research on climate change, revealing how deeply connected climate disruption is with other forms of social and political turmoil. Michael Kazin interviews climate scientist and longtime Pentagon official Jeffrey Marqusee.

The military consumes about the same amount of aviation fuel per year as one of the major airlines. Photo courtesy of Air Combat Command United States Air Force.

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What will it take to stop and reverse climate change? On the left, we emphasize actions by ordinary citizens whose protests, educational work, and organizing seek to compel governing and economic elites to do the right thing for the rest of us. But not every powerful institution is resisting the truth about the damage being done to the planet. Surprisingly perhaps, the U.S. military has proven itself more open to addressing the climate crisis than Republican politicians who swear over and over again that the men and women who serve in uniform can do no wrong.

Jeffrey Marqusee, the former executive director of the Office of the Secretary of Defense’s Strategic Environmental Research and Development Program and a fellow leftist, discusses the Pentagon’s views on climate change and what it has done to mitigate it.


Michael Kazin: Jeff, can you tell me about your career at the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD)?

Jeffrey Marqusee: I was there for about twenty years. During most of this time, I headed two programs, which were the major funding programs for research on environmental issues relevant to the military. I was a senior executive right under the political appointees in the Clinton, Bush, and Obama administrations.

Kazin: When did Pentagon officials begin to see climate change as a problem?

Marqusee: If you go back to the mid-eighties, the Department of Defense was not subject to any federal, state, or local environmental laws. But then things changed, and the military, at least domestically, had to abide by the regulations and began to create environmental programs.

Kazin: I assume their primary concern was military effectiveness?

Marqusee: Yes, military bases are often in locations subject to the Endangered Species Act and other environmental regulations. Officials were finding that they couldn’t do what they had always done and sometimes even had to stop training exercises to abide by the rules. They began to realize that if they maintained their landscape and the species on it, they wouldn’t be hindered by those regulations. They could also avoid using hazardous materials common in tanks, aircraft, and ships and so operate more effectively. For example, the hazardous materials in a stealth coating on a fighter plane can slow up how long it takes to coat that aircraft, or de-coat it, by days and days.

Kazin: At what point did you switch to working more on climate change as opposed to environmental protection more generally? How open were people in the military to that?

Marqusee: There wasn’t much attention given to climate change in the Department of Defense throughout the Clinton administration and most of the George W. Bush administration. But in 2007 my colleagues and I decided to start a research program to understand what its impact might be on military endeavors. We first decided to tackle the impact of hurricanes and rising sea levels on coastal installations. This happened at the end of the Bush administration. We had no political support for it; we did it very quietly. But we reached out to commanders of such bases as the naval installation in Norfolk, Virginia, and one in San Diego.

One commander told me, “Oh, great, I’m glad someone’s looking at this because I don’t know how to do it, nor do I have the resources.” This was a surprise to us, we thought we’d get a hit or miss and some people might not like it. But these guys were seeing day-to-day nuisance flooding and the occasional extreme event, which could knock out their ability to respond.

Kazin: So military officers were more open to recognizing the danger and acting on it than were Republicans in Congress?

Marqusee: The military does tend to be politically conservative, but most officers are not that partisan. When I worked with generals and admirals, particularly at the two-, three-, and four-star levels, they have to be approved by the Senate, so they’re very attuned to politics and they take their cues from the civilian leadership. That civilian control is integral to our history; it’s a good thing.

Kazin: What’s occurred in the years since Obama was elected?

Marqusee: In his first term, the senior civilian and uniform leadership in the military slowly began to realize that climate change was serious. The Navy began to see the rapid decrease of ice coverage in the summer; senior people began to understand that they will have a new ocean, the Arctic, to defend. And they have to make decisions today on how many icebreakers they’re going to want over the next fifty years. The political leadership appointed by Obama had a large impact. The Quadrennial Defense Review that came out in 2010 reflected the shift in policy. For the first time the Secretary of Defense with support from the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff explicitly recognized the national security implications of climate change. It had an entire section titled “Crafting a Strategic Approach to Climate and Energy.” It went on to recognize the critical role of the programs I ran. For me it was gratifying to see how our investments that started quietly three years earlier had helped shift the policy of the Department.

Kazin: Did you have enough resources to have an impact?

Marqusee: Well, the defense budget is so big that an environmental group within the Department can have significant resources that are still akin to rounding errors. But in the last two years since I left government, funds were cut from $60 million to $50 million. And now, with the Republican congress, anything that’s being done at the Department of Defense on climate change has to be described as “how to operate installations with increased resiliency and greater effectiveness” and avoid politically charged terms like “climate change.” This is not a shift in how the Department invests but rather just the words being used.

Kazin: The military uses a huge amount of energy. Has there been an attempt to cut that back in a serious way?

Marqusee: The military consumes about the same amount of aviation fuel per year as one of the major airlines like Delta or United. The DoD uses more than 90 percent of all petroleum used by the Federal government and the fuel consumed by the DoD alone constitutes over half of the energy consumed by the Federal government. And the amount of waste can be incredible. For example, the Iraq invasion in 2003 was supposed to be over in sixty days. So when the military went in with massive forces—“shock and awe”—they were told not to deploy mobile kitchens because Bush and his people promised we were not going to be there long enough. So they relied on MREs—ready-to-eat meals—which had to be manufactured and transported from the United States. For the same reason, they didn’t worry about building long-term housing for the troops. Everything got built ad hoc, which led to a massive waste of energy.

Kazin: Do you worry that treating climate change as a national security threat might lead to the greater militarization of American society and other countries in which U.S. troops are deployed?

Marqusee: I don’t think that’s a realistic possibility. There are advantages to recognizing the national security connection. I think it’s true that you have to plan for climate change in the long term. As a society, we’re not very good at that kind of planning, so this is a huge challenge. Also, I sat in on a number of meetings with leaders of developing nations in the Pacific. The military plays a much larger role in their societies than they do in Western democracies. Having information flow between the U.S. military and those militaries helps improve the emergency response to future threats, since they don’t have the infrastructure or the money to be doing their own analysis or research. In one meeting, I sat next to a three-star Vietnamese general and thought, “Oh boy, our world has certainly changed since the ’70s!”

Kazin: So the militaries in other nations were also sensitive to climate change?

Marqusee: It varied from country to country. In the Seychelles, an island nation near India, they have just one jet, but they’re going under. Other islands, particularly in the Pacific, have an immediate problem. Its having an impact on their water supply and many other critical resources.

Kazin: What about climate engineering—attempts to cool the earth through artificial means?

Marqusee: In places like the Seychelles and in the NGO world, there’s a lot of discussion about it. Personally, I think it’s not a smart investment; it’s so fraught with uncertainties. And at the Pentagon, it’s not a major concern.

Kazin: It sounds like you had a lot of respect for the seriousness and perhaps the public-spiritedness of people you worked with at the Department of Defense.

Marqusee: Well, the political appointees tend to be a mixed bag. But most of the career folks want to be part of a public mission. They don’t get the same satisfaction from working in corporate America, and that tends to change the nature of the dialogue. Rightly or wrongly, the military is the most respected institution in the country and that enables its personnel to make some headway on changing attitudes about climate change.

A guy I know is a senior person in the Army in charge of energy issues. His job is to motivate and set standards for the Army to reduce its energy use and shift to cleaner sources. He told me, “One reason I’m doing this is that I know the enlisted guy who’s managing energy at a fort in the middle of the country. He goes home to his rural town where he’s an extremely respected man. If he tells people there, ‘climate change is real,’ and ‘it has an impact on our nation,’ he’s going to change people’s minds.” And the military does have a culture of long-term planning; it doesn’t run like a business, it’s not trying to make quarterly profits.

But the flipside of that is a lesson I learned over and over again: in very large bureaucracies, people will justify decisions based on the bureaucracy’s self-interest and not the broader interest, and become blind to the truth. It doesn’t matter if you’re the military or the Catholic Church or a Stalinist state.

Kazin: But it sounds like that happened less with climate change.

Marqusee: It varies. I met Michael Lehnert a couple of times, a Marine Corps general who’s retired now. He was in charge of all the West Coast installations. Prior to that assignment, he was head of Guantánamo. When he left the military, he wrote articles blasting Guantánamo as a national disaster. The Sierra Club’s magazine ran a long story praising the environmental stands he’d taken when he was head of Marine Corps Installations West. He told me he realized that both he and the Sierra Club recognized the same threats—uncontrolled growth, suburban development, strip malls encroaching on his training fields, which caused light pollution and sound pollution and damaged vulnerable species. So he was a very strong environmentalist. You get really interesting individuals at the senior level. Now, I have a biased sample since I tended to gravitate toward people like him.

Kazin: Your politics are on the left, and you worked at a high level at the Department of Defense for twenty years. Did you ever hear anyone questioning that, did anyone ever say, “Oh, Marqusee, we can’t have this socialist working at the Pentagon”?

Marqusee: Well, obviously my friends in the department knew my politics. But even political appointees of the Bush administration really liked me and thought I was effective. I have stayed in touch with most of the political appointees I worked for through three administrations and they still seek my advice. I always tried to lay out for them what the pluses and minuses of a particular policy would be.

But the Bush administration, more than the Clinton or Obama ones, did try to influence what we did on environmental issues. The Bush White House set litmus tests for who got named to the Scientific Advisory Board of the Strategic Environmental Research and Development Program, which I was on. We had people they wouldn’t approve purely because of their politics, not because of their professional reputation—even people nominated by the National Academy of Sciences. At times during the Bush years, industry would get more say on environmental issues than they would in other administrations. I was at meetings where the lobbyist for General Electric would say, “DoD, won’t you go to the White House for us and say, ‘This regulation on dioxins is way too onerous and it’ll hurt you as well.’” I would tell my political bosses, “One, I think the science is not determined on that. Two, if I were to make a list of the twenty top environmental issues you want to spend political capital on, this wouldn’t even be on the list. It’s on GE’s list because they’re worried about money. We shouldn’t do it.”

Kazin: Did you ever face a conflict between your political views and the duties of your position? For example, did officials ever ask you how the military could use energy more efficiently in Iraq so the invasion would be less costly?

Marqusee: Early in my career, before I joined the Department of Defense, I worked for military think tanks. I did face that conflict during the first Iraq War, and that’s what made me change fields. But at the DoD, the research I did was rarely tied to an operational issue, to the mission itself. Ironically, leading up to the Iraq invasion in 2003, I heard more criticism about it inside the Pentagon than I heard in my very liberal town of Chevy Chase. After the invasion went sour, in the military’s own academic journals, there was a lot of skepticism too. Colonels and other officers accused senior four-star generals of having failed in their responsibility to speak truth to power. So the military has a lot of internal criticism within its own ranks, which doesn’t get publicized. People who have family members who get wounded or killed believe they have to support their own. Politicians won’t do it.

Kazin: Early this year, the Department of Defense issued a new policy on how to handle climate change. What do you think of it?

Marqusee: It’s titled, “Climate Change Adaptation and Resilience.” It’s a strong and well-thought out policy, the outgrowth of many years of work and discussions across the Department. It commits the Pentagon “to address the impacts of climate change in order to maintain an effective and efficient U.S. military.” This includes:

  1. Identification and assessment of the effects of climate change on the DoD mission.
  2. Taking those effects into consideration when developing plans and implementing procedures.
  3. Anticipating and managing any risks that develop as a result of climate change to build resilience.

The DoD recognizes climate change is real, it is serious, and it will impact its mission. Now it will be the DoD’s responsibility to adapt to these changes. One of the Department’s strengths is that when it establishes a goal and direction it can act decisively and bring significant resources to bear on the problem.

Jeffrey Marqusee is Chief Scientist at Noblis, Inc. Michael Kazin is co-editor of Dissent.