The San Antonio chapters of the Citizens Climate Lobby, the Environmental Defense Fund, and the Greater Edwards Aquifer Alliance held a panel discussion Saturday about how fossil fuel dependence affects national security — and how the military is primed to lead the transition into clean energy.
The gathering began with a screening of “The Burden,” a short documentary by Roger Sorkin. The film’s opening scene centers on a U.S. cargo plane flying over the Hindu Kush mountains. It touches down on icy, white-washed terrain, and military personnel begin to unload its cargo: barrels of jet fuel used to run the equipment at a forward operating base in Afghanistan's Paktika province.
Convoys had previously transported the fuel by road, but that made them more vulnerable to attack.
“This is the lifeblood for this combat outpost here,” a commander on the ground says. “If the fuel ran out here, they’d be sitting ducks.”
According to the film, the U.S. military is the world’s largest institutional consumer of oil, and spends hundreds of billions of dollars each year protecting the world’s oil transit chokepoints and stabilizing oil-producing countries.
“The Burden” frames the consumption of oil as a national security issue, arguing that the military adds to the energy burden while absorbing the impacts of climate change, whether that means responding to sea-level rise or performing additional disaster relief operations.
The ‘Real Cost’ Of Energy
At a meeting on San Antonio’s far west side, District 7 Councilwoman Ana Sandoval, Air Force Lt. Gen. Ret. Dirk Jameson, and James Morin of the Truman National Security Project, discussed the relationship between energy sources, climate change, and national security.
Morin, a former Army captain now based in Austin, said watching fuel convoys in Iraq and Afghanistan helped him understand the military’s reliance on oil.
“I think it's impossible to serve in Iraq and Afghanistan without fully realizing and understanding the cost of our energy,” he said. “You just see how intense of an industry it is. How much it forces us to get along with countries we wouldn't otherwise have to get along with.”
Fuel transportation presents its own dangers, Morin added.
“It became an extremely lethal vulnerability, because we were having to transport that fuel on roads that are lined with roadside bombs,” he said.
On a larger scale, he said, fuel dependence has climate impacts — namely sea level rise and increasingly powerful storms — which often require humanitarian intervention by the military.
“As we have more and more storms, there are more costs to that in terms of military resources, to the point now where it’s every two weeks the military and the Department of Defense is getting a request to support some kind of humanitarian operation overseas or at home,” Morin said.
Last year, the Department of Defense provided support during hurricanes Maria, Irma, and Harvey, among other operations.
For these and other reasons, Morin said, the military has begun to tackle fuel efficiency, move toward cleaner energy sources, and deal with climate-related threats to military readiness.
Equipment fuel cost is now a key performance indicator in military procurement, and the Department of Defense has taken steps to shore up its installations against extreme sea states, wind and flooding.
Jameson is a former deputy commander in chief and chief of staff of U.S. Strategic Command, who now works for the American Security Project, a DC-based think tank.
“I would go forward and try to dispel a myth: that the climate change response from the Department of Defense over the past 20 years was driven by a political appointee somewhere, or an elected official,” he said. “I believe the military has been responding to analysis.”
Local Approaches To Climate Change
Sandoval said “The Burden” was “sobering to watch for someone who is part of the leadership of the city that calls itself Military City, USA.”
Sandoval, who graduated from Stanford with a master’s in civil and environmental engineering, said city staff is now working on a climate action plan.
"The plan is to identify measures that we can implement as a city, whether it's carpooling, energy-efficient buildings, etc. That's about half of the pollution,” she said. “The other half has to do with how we get around.
“I firmly believe that some of the strongest actions can be taken at the local level. I think that communities lead...and countries follow them.”
Carson Frame can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @carson_frame
CORRECTION: The photo caption has been updated with Lt. Gen. Dirk Jameson's proper title.