By Mark J. Spalding, President of The Ocean Foundation
Coverage of the First Global Conference on Oceans, Climate, and Security — Part 2 of 2


This conference and the institution that organized it, The Collaborative Institute for Oceans, Climate and Security, are new and rather unique. When the Institute was founded, it was 2009—the end of the warmest decade in the last few centuries, and countries were cleaning up after a series of record storms had hit communities along the Atlantic, the Pacific, and the Gulf of Mexico.  I agreed to join the Council of Advisors because I thought this special intersection where we are talking about climate change and its effect on oceans and security was a new and helpful way to discuss how threatening the health of the ocean is also a threat to human health.

As I noted in my previous post, the conference looked at many forms of security and the emphasis on national security was very interesting.  It has not been part of the vernacular in ocean conservation, or even public discourse, to hear the arguments for supporting the Department of Defense in its efforts to mitigate its own greenhouse gas emissions (as the biggest single user of fossil fuels in the world), and prepare for climate change to ensure its ability to maintain combat and other missions in support of our national security worldwide.  The speakers were a diverse group of specialists in security, the oceans, and the relationship of shifting climate patterns to economic, food, energy, and national security.  What follows are the themes emphasized by the panels:

Theme 1:  No Blood for Oil

The military is clear that the priority should be to bring an end to fossil fuel resource wars.  Much of the world’s oil resources are in countries very different from ours.  The cultures are different, and many of them are directly opposed to American interests.  Focusing on protecting our consumption is not improving relations in the Middle East, and in turn, some argue that the more we do, the less secure we are.

And, like all Americans, our military leaders do not like “losing our people.”  When just less than half the deaths in Afghanistan and Iraq were the Marines protecting fuel convoys, we need to find another solution to moving our military resources around the planet.  Some innovative experiments are really paying off.  The Marine Corp India Company became the first such unit to rely on solar power instead of batteries and diesel generators:  Reducing weight carried (hundreds of pounds in batteries alone) and hazardous waste (batteries again), and more important, increasing security because there were no generators making noise to give location away (and thus not masking the approach of intruders, either).

Theme 2: We were, and are, vulnerable

The 1973 oil crisis was triggered by US military support for Israel in the Yom Kippur war.  The price of oil quadrupled in less than a year. It was not just about access to oil, but the oil price shock was a factor in the stock market crash of 1973-4.  By waking up to being held hostage by our appetite for foreign oil, we responded to a crisis (which is what we do in the absence of proactive planning).  By 1975, we had put together the Strategic Petroleum reserve and an energy conservation program, and begun to look at miles per gallon use in our vehicles.  We continued to explore new ways to get at fossil fuel reserves, but we also expanded the search for alternatives to independence from imported energy other than clean hydropower from Canada.  In turn, our energy path leads us to today when the 1973 crisis that created a serious drive for western energy independence is coinciding with efforts to reduce fossil fuel use for independence, security, and climate change mitigation.

We remain vulnerable to price—and yet, when the price of oil drops down to $88 per barrel as it did this week—it gets close to the high cost (about $80 per barrel) of producing those marginal barrels from tar sands in North Dakota and deepwater drilling in our ocean, which are now our primary domestic target. Historically, when profit margins get that low for major oil companies, there is pressure to leave the resources in the ground until the price goes back up.  Perhaps, instead, we can think about how to leave those resources in the ground by focusing on less environmentally destructive solutions.

Theme 3:  We can focus on Defense and Homeland Security

So, over the course of the conference, the clear challenge emerged: How can we harness military innovation (remember the Internet) in its search for solutions that require minimal retrofitting and maximize immediate utility at scale in seeking to develop more civilian appropriate technology?

Such technology might include more efficient vehicles (for land, sea and air), improved biofuels, and application of appropriate renewable sources such as wave, solar and wind energy (including decentralized generation).  If we do so for the military, the military experts say our armed forces will be less vulnerable, we will see an increase in readiness and reliability, and we will enhance our speed, range and power.

Thus, some of the military’s efforts – such as fielding the Great Green Fleet powered by algae-based biofuel – has been a long time coming and was intended to reduce our vulnerability to having the oil spigot turned off again.  It will also result in an admirable mitigation of a substantial quantity of green house gas emissions.

Theme 4:  Jobs and Transferable Technology

And, as we focus on security, and making our homeland (and its military) less vulnerable, we have to note that the Navy does not build its own ships, or their propulsion systems, nor does it refine its own bio-fuels.  Instead, it is just a big, very big, customer in the market.  All these solutions that are designed for the military to meet its requisition demands will be industry solutions that create jobs.  And, as this technology that reduces reliance on fossil fuels can be transferred to civilian markets, we all benefit.  Including the long-term health of our ocean – our biggest carbon sink.

People find the scale of climate change overwhelming.  And it is.  The power of one is hard to believe in, even if it’s there.

Doing something at the level of consumption by the Department of Defense is a meaningful scale that we can all envision.  The big innovation will result in big mitigation and big reductions in the military’s fossil fuel related risks, and in ours.  But this meaningful scale also means that it will be worth developing the technology we need.  This is market moving leverage.

So what?


So, to recap, we can save lives, reduce vulnerability (to fuel cost spikes or loss of access to supplies), and increase readiness.  And, oh by the way we can accomplish climate change mitigation as an unintended consequence.

But, because we are talking about climate change let’s mention that the military is not only working on mitigation.  It is working on adaptation.  It frankly has no choice but to respond to changes in ocean chemistry (dropping pH), or physical oceanography (such as sea level rise), based on its own long-term research and monitoring.

The US Navy has a hundred year data set on sea level rise that shows that sea level is rising.  It has already risen a full foot on the East Coast, a bit less on the West Coast, and almost 2 feet in the Gulf of Mexico.  So, they are grappling with those obviously coastal Navy facilities, and how will they deal with sea level rise alone among many risks?

And, how will the mission of the Department of Defense change?  Right now, its attention is shifting from Iraq and Afghanistan to a focus on Iran and China.  How will sea level rise, combined with increased sea surface temperature driven storm events and thus storm surges create risks of large numbers of coastal dwellers who become displaced refugees?  I bet the Department of Defense has a scenario plan in the works.