New Army climate strategy splits the parties

By Shawn Zeller
Posted February 8, 2022 at 6:58pm

The Army announced on Tuesday quantifiable goals for making its bases, vehicles and training exercises greener in the face of climate change, and congressional reaction fell sharply along party lines. 

The “United States Army Climate Strategy” sets objectives such as 100 percent carbon-free energy by 2030 on all of the service’s 130 installations around the world. It envisions deployment by 2050 of all-electric tactical vehicles, such as trucks. What’s more, the strategy document says, all Army training exercises and simulations “must consider climate change risks and threats by 2028.”

The strategy manifests a reversal, under President Joe Biden, of the federal approach to climate change, something former President Donald Trump openly questioned. The divide between the parties on the Defense Department’s spending on climate-related initiatives will grow more intense in a few weeks, once a new National Defense Strategy and a fiscal 2023 budget request become public. Both documents are expected to reflect stronger focus on the issue than usual.

Partisan split

Democrats, in statements to CQ Roll Call, welcomed the change in Army strategy.

House Armed Services Chairman Adam Smith, D-Wash., said the Army's proposal “marks another important step in the Biden-Harris administration’s whole of government response to the climate crisis, which I have repeatedly described as the existential threat of our time."

Donald Norcross of New Jersey, who chairs the House Armed Services Tactical Air and Land Forces panel, which oversees most Army programs, said climate change “increases the risk of conflict over natural resources, causes destabilizing mass migration due to extreme weather events, and changes the terrain upon which the Army could be asked to operate. We need our military planning, technology, and capabilities to reflect this reality.”

By contrast, the top Republican on the House Armed Services Committee, Mike D. Rogers of Alabama, tweeted that the strategy is "a waste of Department resources."

Tom Cotton of Arkansas, the top Republican on the comparable Armed Services panel in the Senate, told CQ Roll Call in a statement that the Army’s initiative is a distraction at best. 

“First, the Biden administration used troops as critical race theory lab rats,” Cotton said. “Now, President Biden wants to turn the Army into a climate change task force. Time and money spent indulging Democrats’ political goals is time and money lost in the fight against America’s enemies — and our enemies know it.”

James M. Inhofe of Oklahoma, the top Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee, told CQ Roll Call he will carefully oversee execution of the Army’s strategy, especially its costs and any cuts in forces to pay for it.

“This new proposal seems like another effort from the Biden administration to focus our military on everything except its primary mission: defending our country,” Inhofe said by e-mail. “The Army’s top priority should be securing the capabilities needed to operate and win in contested environments, not adhering to arbitrary bureaucratic deadlines.”

Thomas Spoehr, a retired Army three-star general who is now an analyst with the conservative Heritage Foundation, said some of the Army’s climate goals are reasonable, while others may prove too costly.

Spoehr told CQ Roll Call by email that it seems “incongruous the Army published a climate strategy at the same moment that Russia has 80 battalion tactical groups across the border from Ukraine threatening aggression.”

A greener Army

The Army’s strategy document frames its climate goals as informed by its martial mission. 

In the document, the Army says that, while fighting and winning wars are its reason for being, fulfilling that mission requires preparing for the effects of climate change. It also requires that the Army — with its $740 million annual U.S. electric bill — do all it can not to make the problem worse, officials said in the document.

“Climate impacts will disrupt Army activities, displace individuals and communities, and increase the frequency of crisis deployments,” the strategy says. “The Army must prepare for potential consequences including energy and water scarcity; damage to installations and infrastructure; displacement of and disruptions to operations, supply chains, and logistics; and imperiled Soldier health through exposure to airborne irritants like smoke and dust, disease vectors, and temperature extremes. In addition, the land on which the Army trains and operates may be altered, limited, or constrained.” 

Also on Tuesday, Army Secretary Christine Wormuth told an online think tank forum that the service needs to think, as it renovates and builds facilities, about the greater likelihood of droughts and wildfires near bases in the Southwest or about the greater frequency and severity of hurricanes and tornadoes elsewhere. 

She also said green vehicles can be beneficial on the battlefield.

“That can have some real operational advantages as well, where our vehicles have lower [heat] signatures and aren't making as much noise, for example,” Wormuth told the Center for a New American Security audience.

Last month, Oshkosh Defense, a major Army vehicle contractor, unveiled a silent hybrid electric version of the Joint Light Tactical Vehicle, which is replacing the Humvee. 

Wormuth also said warming is making the Arctic a more contested region and, as a result, American soldiers need to be ready to train and fight there. 

“We are looking at making sure that we are doing more training and that our soldiers have the kinds of equipment they need to be able to operate effectively in the Arctic or in other areas – such as in the Indo-Pacific, where they might be in cold mountainous terrain, for example,” Wormuth said. 

'Existential' threat

The Army strategy document describes the “end states” the service wants to achieve in becoming more “resilient and sustainable.” 

As for greenhouse gas emissions, the goals are a 50 percent cut in net emissions by 2030, compared to 2005 levels, and net-zero emissions by 2050.

The other thrust of the effort is to “proactively consider the security implications of climate change” in all the Army does.

The Heritage Foundation’s Spoehr said goals such as carbon-neutral electricity generation on Army bases within a decade and a fully electric tactical fleet by 2050 would cost money above previously planned budgets. 

“The sole factor by which tactical vehicles should be judged is their combat capability, not their method of fuel,” Spoehr said. “Today all electric or hybrid vehicles cost more than traditional ones, and it is not clear where that money will come from in an Army whose real buying power has gone down by 10 percent in the last four years.”

Meanwhile, on Monday, 18 Democrats wrote a letter to Defense Secretary Lloyd J. Austin III, urging the Biden administration to realign its forthcoming new defense strategy and its fiscal 2023 budget priorities to account for the impact the changing climate has on Americans’ lives, global security risks and the readiness of U.S. military facilities. 

The letter was spearheaded by Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, an Armed Services member, and Rep. Barbara Lee of California. 

"By treating the climate crisis as the existential and national security threat that it is through the National Defense Strategy, DoD can maintain national security and military readiness, avoid billions of dollars in damages and save millions of lives,” the lawmakers wrote.