Panetta warns climate change having 'dramatic impact' on national security

Climate change has had a direct effect on national security, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said this week.

Panetta told an audience at the Environmental Defense Fund that climate change has raised the need for humanitarian assistance and disaster relief, hitting national security in the process.

“The area of climate change has a dramatic impact on national security,” Panetta said. “Rising sea levels, severe droughts, the melting of the polar caps, the more frequent and devastating natural disasters all raise demand for humanitarian assistance and disaster relief.”

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Panetta spoke to the Environmental Defense Fund on Tuesday at an event honoring the Defense Department for advancing clean-energy initiatives.

In recent years, the Defense Department and the services have spearheaded a number of alternative-energy initiatives and seemingly embraced environmentally friendly practices on the battlefield.

President Obama effectively put the Pentagon at the forefront of an ambitious alternative energy strategy during the State of the Union speech in January. The Navy and Air Force have already spent billions to integrate biofuels into their fleets of fighter jets and warships.

Marine Corps combat units in Afghanistan are using mobile solar panels to recharge batteries for their night vision and communications in the field. Solar power is also helping to run a number of Marine Corps combat outposts in the country.

But the Pentagon's adoption of environmentally sensitive practices was driven more by the department's dire fiscal situation than politics, Panetta said on Tuesday.

DOD spent roughly $15 billion to fuel its fighters, tanks and ships in 2012, the Defense chief said. The Pentagon spends $50 million on fuel each month to keep combat operations in Afghanistan going, Panetta added.

As oil prices continue to skyrocket, the department "now [faces] a shortfall exceeding $3 billion of higher-than-expected fuel costs this year," according to Panetta.

In order to dig its way out of that financial hole, DOD has no choice but to look to alternative fuel technologies. Pentagon officials plan to invest more than $1 billion into developing those technologies in fiscal 2013, he said.

However, Republicans on Capitol Hill have taken issue with that decision, arguing the department will be sacrificing needed much-needed combat systems in favor of alternative energy work.

In March, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) claimed the Navy's ongoing biofuels work was devolving into another "Solyndra situation."

During a March 13 hearing of the Senate Armed Services Committee, McCain compared the now-bankrupt solar-energy company, into which the White House sank $535 million in loan guarantees, to Navy-led efforts in alternative energy.

Rep. Randy Forbes (R-Va.), a member of the House Armed Services subcommittee on Seapower and Projection Forces, took Navy Secretary Ray Mabus to task in February over the service’s plans.

“Shouldn’t we refocus our priorities and make those things our priorities instead of advancing a biofuels market?” Forbes asked at the time.

Before Mabus could respond, the Virginia Republican took a clear shot at the secretary: “You’re not the secretary of the Energy. You’re the secretary of the Navy.”