Energy and climate change are large factors in U.S. defense, experts tell Senate panel

"I'm often asked if I believe in climate change, and I tell people, 'No. I don't believe in climate change. I'm convinced by the evidence that climate change is happening.' What I believe in is American ingenuity," Titley said. "We really can fix this problem."

E&E Publishing: Climate Wire

Lisa Friedman, E&E reporter
Published: Wednesday, July 23, 2014

From Iraq to Ukraine, fast-shifting energy needs are changing the face of international security, experts told Congress yesterday.

Testifying before a Senate Foreign Relations Committee panel, current and former defense leaders put climate change squarely at the center of security operations, arguing that rising seas and fiercer storms must be taken into account when planning for America's military future.

Some acknowledged that models remain unsettled about precisely how global warming will affect different parts of the globe. But they also dismissed arguments that such unknowns make efforts to prepare for climate change irrelevant.

"As far as the science of climate goes, we don't know everything, but we know an awful lot. If the intelligence community could tell us as much as the climate community has told us about the next 30 years ... we'd give them medals of freedom," said David Titley, a retired rear admiral in the U.S. Navy now serving as a member of the CNA Military Advisory Board.

"We don't wait for 100 percent certainty to tackle any issue. If you wait for that on the battlefield, you'd be dead," he said.

The hearing -- which featured a sharp exchange over President Obama's climate priorities between a member of his administration and Wyoming Republican Sen. John Barrasso -- comes amid growing expectations that a new global climate agreement will be completed in 2015. At the same time, battles over oil, natural gas and renewable energy are heating up multiple parts of the globe.

Sen. Edward Markey, the chairman of the Subcommittee on International Development and Foreign Assistance, Economic Affairs, International Environmental Protection and Peace Corps, said that with Russia wielding natural gas as a weapon against Ukraine, the ISIS rebel group capturing Iraq's oil fields and droughts sparking conflicts in places like Syria, the discussion is "timely."
'Real wars' are fought over energy

"Energy is a factor in almost every country that we're reading about in the newspapers today. I think it's important to step out and give focus to these issues," Markey said.

Calling climate change and energy security the two major factors in the modern era "that act to strain the strands of stability until they snap," he criticized those who would take a wait-and-see approach to acting on the threat of rising global temperatures.

"We fight trade wars over automobiles and computers ... but we fight real wars over energy," he said.

That didn't convince Barrasso, the lone Republican in attendance. He described it as unfathomable that Secretary of State John Kerry would declare climate change one of the most "fearsome" threats to security when instability is rocking so many nations.

"While the rest of the world is looking at the U.S. to lead ... the administration is focused on climate change. Why? Because according to the White House, the world is tranquil," he said, mocking a recent press statement declaring that Obama has brought "tranquility" to the global community.

Barrasso noted that the United States has spent $7.5 billion on international climate change between 2010 and 2012, saying his constituents find it "wasteful and irresponsible spending at best." And in a tense exchange with Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense Daniel Chiu, Barrasso cited a Pentagon-commissioned report that notes climate models cannot accurately predict the future.

"Why should we then spend billions of defense dollars?" he asked. "Isn't this just wasteful spending based on faulty models? ... Aren't we just betting our scarce national security dollars on a risky bet?"

Chiu, who appeared ready for the questioning, pointed out that the same study also says the military must consider the possibilities of various climate impacts and ensure that the country is prepared. He noted that the military has already moved to adapt much of its infrastructure, like protecting water supplies, and is starting to think strategically about how climate change may affect the frequency of disasters that may require military relief efforts.

Chiu then agreed with a separate study Barrasso cited that found the primary causes of conflicts are political rather than environmental, before adding, "but I do believe that a lot of politics can be driven by the effects of climate change."

The initial agreement, though, was all Barrasso needed to declare distance between Secretary of State John Kerry's contention that climate change is "the world's most fearsome weapon of mass destruction" and the Pentagon.

"But you're agreeing the primary cause of war is political, not environmental," Barrasso informed Chiu without inviting a response.

Former skeptic repents
Mary Hutzler, a distinguished senior fellow at the Institute for Energy Research said green policies in Europe from renewable energy subsidies to the carbon markets have been a disaster and warned against the United States' following those paths.

"Europe's policies in these areas have failed," she said. "They have enacted green energy laws that needed huge subsidies. Their electricity prices increased, they've lost jobs, and they've had to amend these laws," she said.

But Titley likened mounting greenhouse gas emissions to a garbage problem that must be cleaned up.

"For the past 150 years, we've just been dumping the trash out in the road, and nobody's picked it up," he said. "We've done tremendous things with fossil fuels. Just look at the tremendous things it's given us. But the unintended consequence is that it has jeopardized the very foundation we've built on."

A former climate skeptic who led lawmakers yesterday through his journey to a climate advocate, Titley said he is confident that the United States can reduce emissions while expanding security and the economy.

"I'm often asked if I believe in climate change, and I tell people, 'No. I don't believe in climate change. I'm convinced by the evidence that climate change is happening.' What I believe in is American ingenuity," Titley said. "We really can fix this problem."