A spate of Pentagon reports and intelligence studies made headlines this summer for their common conclusion: Climate change is a real threat to national security.
Sounds like reason to get serious about reducing carbon emissions. But are America's armed forces heeding their own word on the perils of climate change?
On the surface, yes. The military has set a goal of cutting its greenhouse gas emissions 30 percent by 2015, after a 2007 executive order by President Bush required federal agencies to reduce their energy intensity. The pressure is also on from an internal aim to get 25 percent of electricity from renewables by 2025.
According to Tad Davis, the Army's Deputy Assistant Secretary for Environment, Safety and Occupational Health, the military is fast developing a holistic strategy for greening its energy use.
"We're looking at ways we can reduce consumption, increase accountability, seek more renewable sources of energy, and look at technologies that may give us better use of energy down the road," he said.
Ashton Carter, the Pentagon's head buyer of weapons and technology, agreed, telling a Center for Naval Analyses event earlier this year that cutting energy consumption and increasing efficiency are among his top priorities.
But it's a massive carbon bootprint to shrink.
As the nation's biggest consumer of energy, the Department of Defense spent $20 billion on fuel in 2008, with $7.7 billion of that on aircraft fuel alone. The military accounts for a full 80 percent of the federal government's energy demand and more than 1 percent of the national total.
Most carbon-cutting efforts in the armed forces haven't been around for long. The DoD's first annual sustainability report was released in the fall of 2008, and it wasn't until last month that the military started using a standardized measuring system to gauge its emissions with carbon tracking software from the firm Enviance.
At the same time, preliminary measures in several military sectors do signal a step in the greener direction by one of America's largest polluters. For instance, Army bases have found that they can cut energy use 45 percent in hot-climate war zones like Iraq and Afghanistan by spraying tents with specialized foam insulation.
Just last month, the Marine Corps called energy experts into Afghanistan to conduct the first-ever energy audit in a war zone, as part of an effort to cut back on fuel costs in the supply chain and energy consumption on base.
Within the U.S., other bases have greened their operations by using recycled building materials, leasing small electric vehicles for on-base transportation, and in some cases even building wind or solar installations that provide energy to the base. According to recent reports, the US Navy is preparing to test the use of biofuels in fighter jets, and the Air Force has already taken steps to lighten the loads carried on bombers and other planes.
Adding a further boost to the military's green plans, Obama's stimulus package allotted $300 million to the Department of Defense for research into renewables and efficiency.
For the military, reduced fuel consumption and increased energy efficiency have implications beyond just cutting costs and averting climate change—they can also save American lives. More than three-quarters of U.S. casualties in war zones today are caused by improvised explosive devices that often target supply vehicles, and the army has estimated that every 1 percent less fuel consumption means 6,400 fewer soldiers in fuel convoys.
There's the bigger picture, too: According to the Pentagon, climate change is likely to disrupt already-unstable regions, creating the potential that increased US military engagements will be necessary to protect the security of America and its allies.
Robert Durant, author of The Greening of the US Military, says the alignment of carbon-cutting improvements with military objectives is the military's single strongest impetus to go green.
"In areas that directly affect the military's mission and directly affect folks on the battlefield, the military tends to respond to that," he said. "To the extent that it's directly related to what they're doing in a positive way, they're going to be gung-ho about it."
Still, the military has a long way to go before its limited first efforts become a comprehensive sector-wide strategy. As of yet not much has been done to make fighting vehicles more fuel-efficient by reducing their weight or improving their design, since lighter vehicles are said to be more perilous to the safety of US troops.
And though the Army began construction Aug. 17 on a state-of-the-art research facility where it will test hybrid-electric, fuel cell, and other alternative vehicles, plans to demonstrate and widely deploy hybrid technology are still in early stages.
"There's not an institutional commitment" to cutting emissions, Durant said. "What you're seeing now is a little more commitment in the areas where it's central and where money can be saved, but it's still not there across the board. For it really to work, it has to be part of the DNA of the organization," he said.
The Department of Defense escaped compliance with some environmental laws under Bush, and military activities will be exempt from an executive order under review this week, in which Obama is expected to call for federal agencies to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions 20 percent within a decade.
So though some efforts are underway, the nation's fighting machine may not erase its carbon bootprint for a time to come.
"It a halting, patchwork kind of success," Durant said. "Critics can point to problems that are still there, and by same token, the military can go to various bases and say, 'Hey, look what we're doing.'"
(Photos: President Obama tours a solar array at Nellis Air Force Base/Official White House Photo by Pete Souza; Military convoy/Senior Airman Eric Harris/Wikimedia Commons)