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Why transitioning off fossil fuels strengthens our national security

Lee Gunn
Lee Gunn

Fourteen years ago, during the George W. Bush administration, the CNA Military Advisory Board — a group of retired three- and four-star flag and general officers from the Army, Navy, Air Force, and Marine Corps that studies pressing issues of the day to assess their impact — released our first report on the national security threats from climate change. Representing three dozen of our nation’s most senior military leaders, the board concluded “climate change acts as a threat multiplier for instability in some of the most volatile regions of the world.” We also determined that less demand for fossil fuels like diesel and jet fuel would make our combat forces more effective and less vulnerable in the battlespace. Too few U.S. leaders heeded those warnings and recommendations in the intervening years, but now that seems to be changing.

Through the Obama and Trump administrations, the admirals and generals of the CNA Military Advisory Board have continued to raise the flag about the national security imperative of reducing our reliance on fossil fuels. Our dependence upon fossil energy threatens military operations, puts our diplomatic power at risk, and accelerates the national security impacts of a changing climate. It even opens the door for adversaries to make economic gains at our expense in the emerging global market for advanced energy.

The twin emerging national security threats of climate and energy are already having profound impacts on the U.S. military. We have faced increased demands on our expeditionary forces to respond to regional conflicts in places including Iraq and Syria and the resultant refugee crisis in the Middle East and Europe.

At home, our National Guard and other military resources are increasingly called upon to respond to emergencies that scientists say could be made more common and severe by climate change. These include extreme wildfires in California, hurricanes in Puerto Rico, and the catastrophic failure of energy supply during the February storm in Texas. Climate-related crises that repeatedly demand the attention of U.S. forces put our national power at risk.

I was honored to return to Nevada (via Zoom) a couple of weeks ago to deliver a presentation to the National Security Forum of Northern Nevada on the national security imperative of transitioning off fossil fuels to renewables. My colleague, Mr. Tom Morehouse, and I discussed the critical need to ensure resilient energy sources for U.S. military installations and operational forces both at home and abroad.

For more than two decades the U.S. Departments of Defense and Energy have focused in improving mission capability, readiness and resilience through installation of local microgrids based on renewables, advanced storage capabilities, and intelligent power controls. I want to commend the State of Nevada for leading the charge on renewable energy development and diversified transmission. These actions will strengthen the state and contribute to our national security.

Nevada has the opportunity to transition off natural gas, which currently accounts for 66 percent of the state’s energy, by developing and exporting a wealth of homegrown renewable resources. Today, nearly 86 percent of Nevada’s energy supply is imported from other states. With the aggressive bipartisan actions being proposed by the governor and the Nevada Legislature, Nevada is poised to reverse course and become an exporter of solar and geothermal energy.

Public-private partnerships such as the Nellis Solar Array have reduced the base’s carbon dioxide emissions by 24,000 tons a year and saved the Air Force over a million dollars a year in energy costs. Cost savings and reliable energy are vital to our national security. The Nellis Solar Array should be a model for resilient energy military installations around the country and abroad.

Investments in renewable energy also create good jobs for Nevadans. Nevadans working in renewable energy, energy efficiency, grid modernization, energy storage, clean fuels and vehicles earned a median hour wage of nearly $24, over $4 an hour more than the national median wage. Nevada is creating a robust renewable energy workforce that supports local economies and contributes to our national security.

President Biden is advancing a bold climate and energy agenda to transition the United States off fossil fuels by 2050 through investments in robust, reliable and affordable alternative energy infrastructure. For the last two decades, the Pentagon and the services have demonstrated their ability to move the needle on energy transition through the development and deployment of new, emission-free technologies. DoD also recognizes the economic advantages of building an energy workforce for the future.

Nevada is at the forefront of creating jobs and know-how needed to address the national security imperative of ending our reliance on fossil fuels. The close relationship that the state has with the Departments of Energy and Defense and the U.S. military means that Nevada’s workers are not only renewable energy pioneers, but also national security partners.

Lee Gunn is a retired Navy vice admiral and vice chair of the CNA Military Advisory Board.


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