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Military v. Climate Security: U.S. and China Worlds Apart

The Chinese are spending 1/6th as much as the U.S. on their military and investing twice as much on clean energy technology

Jan 11, 2011

WASHINGTON—While China is already boasting “All aboard!” on a network of sleek passenger trains that zip 200 mph and beyond between major urban centers, the United States is still fussing about where to install a single high-speed rail line for a proposed California project.

That’s just a snapshot of how this country continues to lag behind its Asian competitor on the clean technology front.

Can America ever catch up? Yes, says Washington research fellow Miriam Pemberton. But it means taking a $100 billion-dollar bite out of the defense budget annually.

But prospects for that look dim. Many key leaders in a Republican-majority House have declared the Department of Defense off limits—even as they claim to be wielding hatchets for slicing away “waste” to lift the country out of economic doldrums.

An inside-the-Beltway defense contractor who asked to speak off the record told SolveClimate News in an interview that Congress won’t be lopping significant amounts from the defense budget anytime soon. And even if it did, that money would not be redirected toward a clean technology deficit.

“The idea that we will whack the Department of Defense to make the Department of Energy robust is a fantasy,” he said. “DOD might be cut some. The question is, what happens to that money? I can’t see those resources going toward DOE. That shift will not occur.”

Chasing China’s Investment Numbers

But Pemberton, who researches demilitarization issues for the Institute for Policy Studies’ Foreign Policy in Focus project, says Congress is missing the big picture.

If the effects of climate change are indeed so dire, she asks, then why shouldn’t defense dollars be redistributed toward DOE and other federal outlets such as the Environmental Protection Agency, the Department of Labor, the Department of Transportation and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration that can play integral roles in avoiding these impending disasters?

Endowing those agencies with more cash to shrink carbon footprints, launch green jobs and advance clean technologies could mitigate the chaos of severe floods, droughts, heat waves and rising sea levels that climate scientists are predicting and witnessing. That could lessen the U.S. military’s concerns about having to tamp down unrest caused by climatic events worldwide.

“By cutting the defense budget we would be substituting the green (technology) race for the arms race started by Sputnik,” Pemberton said in an interview. “It’s a way of keeping up with the Chinese and saving the planet.”

Pemberton isn’t just speaking off the cuff. Her intensive research has compared U.S.-China expenditures—and her arithmetic is jarring.

Calculations she cites in an October report titled “Military vs. Climate Security: The 2011 Budgets Compared,” reveal that the U.S. climate change budget has more than doubled—from $7 billion to $18 billion—since 2008. Military spending in that same time period has risen from $696 billion to $739 billion. For every dollar spent on climate in 2008, the U.S. spent $94 on the military. That will drop to a $41: $1 ratio this year.

“Obviously, this is progress,” Pemberton said, but it isn’t enough to stay competitive. The Chinese are spending one-sixth as much as the United States on their military and investing twice as much on clean energy technology. For every dollar China spends on climate, between $2 and $3 goes toward its military.

“The extreme tilt in our budget toward military spending is leaving us way behind in two of the major growth markets of the global economy,” she said, referring to solar and wind technologies. “For the sake of our economic health and competitiveness … (and) security, we need to tilt the other way.”

No Robbing Peter to Pay Paul

As the country’s most prolific energy user, U.S. military leaders know it’s incumbent on them to innovate to contribute to national security by lowering their massive emissions profile.

“I agree with the secretary of energy (Steven Chu) that this is a Sputnik moment,” former deputy undersecretary of defense Sherri Goodman said in an interview. “I have no doubt that the military will be part of leading the revolution that allows us to rise to this challenge.”

Budget cuts might be on the agenda at DOD, she said, but handing out those dollars elsewhere within the federal government is illogical.

“I do not think it makes sense to rob Peter to pay Paul,” said Goodman, now general counsel to CNA Corp., a Virginia-based nonprofit research institution. “It’s very important to maintain the readiness and preparedness of the military.”

Keeping the Stimulus Going

Pemberton was one of 14 members of a Sustainable Defense Task Force formed at the behest of Massachusetts Democratic Rep. Barney Frank. In cooperation with Reps. Walter Jones, R-N.C., and Ron Paul, R-Texas, and Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., the coalition of liberal and conservative defense experts explored how to reduce the federal deficit by paring the defense budget without compromising security.

The June report presented a series of options that together could save up to $960 billion between 2011 and 2020. Proposals outlined in “Debts, Deficits, and Defense: A Way Forward,” cover the full range of Pentagon expenditures, including procurement, research and development, personnel, operations and maintenance, and infrastructure.

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