Economic security and the environmental impacts of protecting America’s energy resources present both operational issues and broad policy concerns to the Department of Defense. 

The U.S. Armed Forces were not designed to protect us from disease, natural disaster or other associated environmental difficulties, but the military must be prepared to operate in these environments to defend America’s national interests.  In a recent CNN op-ed Sharon Burke highlighted a new GAO report that outlined the challenges that climate change poses to America’s military.  She commends existing DOD initiatives on reducing emissions but faults the military for not doing more to make sure U.S. military personnel, equipment, and associated basing infrastructure are capable of dealing with the consequences of global climate change.  She also assigns responsibility for these shortcomings to the “many military men and women [who] are reluctant to jump into what appears to be a widening partisan gap on this issue” and argues that “just as defense professionals would not let differences of political opinion on Iran or the rebalance to the Asia-Pacific region stop them from taking prudent steps to plan for the defense implications of both, they should not shy away from climate change.”

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I agree with Ms. Burke.  This is why I believe the work being done by the military to educate future leaders on key energy, economic, and environmental policy issues is vitally important. 

Although there is no political consensus on humanity’s role in climate change, consensus is not a necessary factor for the military to train for future operations in areas affected by climate change.  Disasters such as Hurricane Katrina, the Haitian earthquake, and the Japanese tsunami demonstrate the cost of being unprepared.  The logistic requirements for fossil fuel storage and transport, specifically in non-contiguous battlefields, hinder the military’s agility and flexibility and represent a critical vulnerability when trying to sustain expeditionary forces in austere conditions. From the Navy’s investment in biofuels, to the Army’s and the Marine Corps’ experimentation with solar powered battery chargers, the Department of Defense is beginning to recognize and mitigate the operational risks associated with fossil fuel dependence. Aside from the military’s investment in ‘green’ infrastructure and sustainable technologies, the Army’s greatest investment should be training a future generation of leaders to conduct operations in the context of environmental change.

One way this is happening is in the Department of Social Sciences at the United States Military Academy (USMA) at West Point through a Congressional Simulation Exercise (SIMEX) focused on energy policy that actively explores the Army’s relationship to climate change. The SIMEX requires cadets to draft, debate, and attempt to pass a comprehensive energy reform bill.  Cadets role-play elected members of the House of Representatives, interest group lobbyists, journalists from various media outlets, and presidential advisors.  They are required to think critically and creatively, while developing a law-making strategy and debating the merits of energy policy among their peers.  Cadets focus their efforts on four policy areas including the environmental impacts of expanded fossil fuel use, the costs and benefits of sustainable energy investment strategies, the viability of a national carbon emissions cap and trade system, and basic budget and funding mechanisms for their choices.  Additionally, cadets prepare for the exercise by participating in lectures concerning the science of hydraulic fracturing, the patterns of commercial electricity use, and the ethics of environmentalism. 

The SIMEX creates the opportunity for instructors and cadets to generate critical institutional ideas and sensitizes the current and future leaders of the Army to the challenge of climate change. While these simulations do not directly impact national policy or Pentagon plans, they are affecting the cadets’ and faculty’s modes of thinking while also incorporating key policymakers and senior Academy staff into the energy reform discussion.  Just last year, staff members of the House Armed Service Committee along with West Point’s Superintendent, Commandant, and Dean all attended a SIMEX.  The cadets also benefited from several former senior government officials including: Jason Bordoff, current Director of Columbia University’s Center on Global Energy Policy and former Special Assistant to the President and Senior Director for Energy; and David Sandalow, Inaugural Fellow at the Center on Global Energy Policy, Columbia University, and former Under Secretary of Energy (Acting) and Assistant Secretary for Policy & International Affairs. These experts mentored individual cadets role-playing presidential advisors and provided an overview of the White House’s approach to climate change to all of the cadets and faculty engaged in the SIMEX.

In a world affected by increased environmental uncertainty, John Podesta and Peter Ogden explain (in a 2008 The Washington Quaterly article), “as the world looks to the US for assistance with greater frequency and when disaster strikes in places where the US military could be greeted with some hostility, the difficulty of executing relief missions will become increasingly complex and dangerous.”

However climate change may challenge the U.S. military, these cadets and faculty members are the very officers that the Pentagon’s top brass and other national policymakers will rely on to conduct disaster response operations.  When the study of energy and the environment is incorporated into the training and education of leaders at all levels of the military, as with the SIMEX, we are better prepared as a nation to face the challenge of climate change. Military officers at every level fulfill their role as servants to the nation by understanding the political decision making process, the formal institutions of the American government, and perhaps most importantly, the role the military plays in a democratic society. It is through a focus on education, training, and exercises like these that a new generation of Army officers will be best prepared to jump into the climate change debate in a responsible manner. 

Scher is an Infantry officer currently teaching American Politics, Policy and Strategy at the United States Military Academy.  He earned his MPA from Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs and has deployed to both Iraq and Afghanistan Disclaimer: This article is an unofficial expression of opinion; views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of the Social Sciences Department, the U.S. Military Academy, the Department of the Army, the Department of Defense, or any agency of the U.S. (or any other) government.