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 August 2008 

Lt. Gen. Lawrence P. Farrell, Jr., USAF (Ret)Global Warming, Security and Energy: A Relevant Intersection

August 2008

by Lt. Gen. Lawrence P. Farrell, Jr., USAF (Ret)

This month’s issue of National Defense covers a hot topic — global warming and its relation to our security.

Of great relevance to this debate is a Center for Naval Analysis study that was directed last year by former deputy undersecretary of defense Sherri Goodman. I was a member of the Military Advisory Board for that study, which was ably led by retired Gen. Gordon Sullivan, a former Army chief of staff.

The advisory board reviewed the literature and received presentations from a number of scientists. The group also evaluated numerous papers and studies on the science of global warming. Realizing the controversial nature of the scientific debate, and recognizing that none of the panel’s members were climate scientists, we decided to accept the fact of global warming and to investigate the effects accompanying this phenomenon. Another goal was to determine how these effects could drive human conditions that would result in situations requiring a military response. Thus the title of the study: National Security and the Threat of Climate Change.

The study touched on one finding that bears some additional work, part of which is now underway in a CNA follow-on study: Using DOD Buying Power to Develop Smart Energy Solutions and Reduce Climate Threats. The original report found that “climate change, national security and energy dependence are a related set of global challenges.” There are three intersecting sets of interests. The military is interested in more efficient and renewable forms of energy on the battlefield. Senior military leaders such as Marine Maj. Gen. Richard C. Zilmer is on record as favoring renewable energy sources, and Marine Gen. James N. Mattis famously has said, “release me from the tether of fuel.”

Those worried about global warming and the role of carbon call for more renewable, less polluting sources of energy. Those concerned about the energy situation in general favor a combination of reduced demand and a basket of renewable and alternative energy sources. The point is that all three groups have a confluence of interests in the development of new energy sources: alternative forms that are renewable, and in many cases less polluting than the present forms of energy — for both fixed installations and transportation.

The rub is how to get from here to there. There is a role for the federal government to invest in technologies that would help change how we generate, distribute and use energy. This requires some lead time and focused investment, but there’s no more margin for delay. We must start now. The United States needs to further exploit solar, geothermal and wind power, and must enhance its national distribution system.

The government clearly has to be a major partner and a leader in this effort.

There is an obvious transition involved. More petroleum production is necessary in the short term to move prices lower and guarantee access as world demand continues to ramp up. Also, nuclear power needs to play a bigger part. This could be considered the “greenest” of solutions to energy needs and a transition to new uses of energy for transportation and fixed facilities.

Then there is the critical question of what to do about coal. It currently supplies more than 50 percent of the U.S. fixed electrical generation needs, and will continue to do so for the foreseeable future. There is a big push to mitigate greenhouse gas emissions from coal plants by capturing and sequestering the carbon by-products. What most people don’t realize is that the carbon by-products of the electrical generation process are quite large in volume and weight, and not easy to dispose of. Rather than simply trying to truck it away or pump it underground, we need to investigate the commercial potential of the carbon by-products, such as making cement bricks out of fly ash.

So far, there is little national leadership on this particular issue. Before we become too far gone on cap-and-trade and carbon taxes, we ought to understand the by-products issue and investigate the commercial potential of recycled carbon. Coal has the potential also to be converted to liquid fuels, but, again, the carbon issue must be addressed in some fashion.

One can envision an energy future when renewables and nuclear play a much bigger role in fixed-installation generation, overland transportation is transitioned to a more robust fixed grid through hybrid-electric and other alternative fuel vehicles, liquid fuels come from a variety of sources, and petroleum becomes just a regular commodity, rather than a “strategic” commodity, as was noted by former CIA director James Woolsey.

All aspects of energy — where we get it, how we generate it, how we use it — are at the heart of everyone’s concern. We need concentrated technology development, top-down leadership, redirected buying practices by the federal government, and overall big-time investments at the national level.

This has got to be one of the very top issues for the next administration.

Please email your comments to lfarrell@ndia.org.

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