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Military leaders are increasingly connecting the dots between energy, climate and national security issues. We’ve reported here before on the U.S. military’s push to go green with solar, biofuels and other renewable technologies.
Across the pond, defense leaders in the United Kingdom have also made energy and climate a top priority. Rear Admiral Neil Morisetti is the United Kingdom’s climate and energy security envoy. He’s speaking this afternoon at a public forum on energy and security issues hosted by the University of Minnesota’s Institute on the Environment.
Midwest Energy News spoke with Morisetti on Thursday before his visit to Minnesota. The following is a transcript of our conversation, with slight edits made for clarity and conciseness.
How and when did you first start to think about energy and climate change as national security issues?
I think there’s been a growing awareness and their relationships over the last five or six years. A report was written in 2007 by CNA, a Washington-based think tank. Their military advisory board did a piece on climate change and the impact on national security. Subsequently they’ve done some work on energy as well.
There are a number of issues that will impact our secure, sustainable and affordable supplies of key natural resources — energy, water, things that we need for economic prosperity. In the case of energy [those issues may include] supply and demand, geophysical events, Arab Spring, issues today around the Strait of Hormuz, the outcome of natural disasters and events like Fukushima last year.
There’s also a recognition that the consequences of climate change can increase the risk of instability in those parts of the world that are already suffering from stresses, parts of the world where we’ve seen conflict. It’s a belt the size of the equator up through the tropics. It runs around though Africa, Asia, South America, and it’s a part of the world where we get our oil and gas. It’s where the trade routes and particularly where the energy routes run.
As the head of the British military said at the end of last year in a keynote speech, his greatest fear about national security is about not having economic growth and prosperity. The point being, in all our societies, key to our security and well being, as opposed to simply national borders, is economic prosperity. With that in mind, in both our countries, in the 2010 QDR defense review here and in the UK’s strategic defense security review in the same year, we started to factor in these issues of the impact of climate change as a threat multiplier, as a risk multiplier, not least as it impacts on sustainable supplies of energy.
What are some of the ways in which our energy choices affect national security today?
[The U.S.] imports somewhere in the region of a billion dollars of energy every day, coming in from parts of the world that we have seen instability, where as a result prices have gone up. We saw it in Libya last year. We paid about an $18 a barrel premium. We’re seeing it with issues in Iran today, but also Libya’s production isn’t back yet. It’s down in Sudan. It’s down in Yemen. It’s down in Syria. And all that is doing is pushing the price up.
We need to be more energy efficient, to make better use of energy that’s in our own countries. I know you can say there’s lots of oil and gas in America, but these are global markets and the price is only going in one direction, as you can see from the price of gas at the pump. This morning’s New York Times was talking about how $5 a gallon gas isn’t far away. But even if you just use the resources in your own country, your oil and gas, the challenge of course is because it’s a global market and the supplies are sent to those who pay the most, you’re still paying a high price.
A new relationship with energy is what we’re trying to achieve, and that’s the same in the military. We’ve always used a lot of energy. It’s a big component of our expenditure. We’ve had to develop energy strategy, because if we don’t we won’t be able to afford to deliver some of our military outputs that are so essential.
How are national security leaders around the globe responding to these looming, emerging challenges?
I think there is a growing awareness around the world. I was just in India two weeks ago and energy security is right at the top of their agenda as well. They need energy for their growth and economic development, and the risk to that, from a variety of sources, means they’ve got to think about their energy policy. It’s the same in other countries.
We need to be more efficient. We’ve been looking at how we optimize performance of equipment. For example in the UK, with one of our fleets of helicopters we’ve worked on the engines to get 25 percent better fuel performance. The way we use equipment [such as] generators, to make sure they’re more energy efficient.
But also we’re making use of renewables. Today in Afghanistan, Marines and soldiers are using roll-out solar blankets and photovoltaic cells when they’re deployed away from their main bases to charge batteries for their radios, as opposed to having to carry around lots of spares. And in the big operating bases we’re making use of renewables as well; not just solar but geothermal and others as well, to generate power and reduce the number of convoys we need from either the north or the south, which are vulnerable to interception and disruption. We’ve regrettably lost lives doing that, and there’s a high fiscal cost as well of getting the fuel into theater.
Are we doing enough? What else should military leaders be doing to either avoid or adapt for these scenarios?
I think we’ve started the process. We clearly need to do more. I think we’re now focused on doing more. If I speak for the UK, we’re now looking at energy as a commodity and factoring that into our thinking with our new equipment programs. In the wider context of climate change, we’re beginning to understand how we can help other government agencies, departments and organizations in building capacity and developing resilience in those parts of the world where climate change is going to have its greatest effects and perhaps increase the risks of conflict and instability. An example of that might be helping a country’s coast guard develop the ability to patrol their economic zone off the shore in order to look after resources, whether it be fish or minerals.
What gives you hope that our militaries are up for these challenges?
Have a look at the Department of Defense website and see all the things they’re doing today. It’s an organization that’s fighting a number of conflicts, it’s under budgetary pressure, and look at the amount of effort that’s being put into addressing these issues. What’s impressive is the fact you have an energy strategy that recognizes the importance of energy and the need to address it; also the amount of research that’s going on, whether it’s in biofuels or battery storage. A lot of it is on a public-private basis, not just from a military context.
I think at the end of the day, many of the benefits that we accrue in the military will also be open eventually to wider society, in the same way that we’ve seen it with GPS, the Internet, solar panels, from defense and space programs.
Any other key points you plan to make during Friday’s event?
It’s very tempting if you’re in North America or northern Europe to say that these issues of instability that are perhaps accentuated by the impacts of climate change doesn’t affect us because it’s a long ways away. It’s important that we understand we live in a globalized world; that what happens a couple hundred thousand miles away is just as important by the indirect effect it has as events happening much closer to home.
What we’ve got is a global problem which requires pursing a global solution. In doing so we will gain opportunities and benefits. I talk about it from a defense perspective. We’re doing all the work on energy because it improves our business model. We’re more effective doing our job. We reduce risk, and we reduce our costs. I think most people, whether they’re in the commercial sector or government or as private individuals, should try to achieve that in their use of energy. It’s about opportunities as well as challenges.
Rear Admiral Neil Morisetti will speak today, Friday, March 2, at University of Minnesota’s Institute on the Environment public forum on energy and national security issues. The public forum will take place from 3 to 4:30 p.m. in the lobby level conference room of the Cargill Building, 1500 Gortner Ave., St. Paul.