Defense secretary nominee James Mattis may turn out to be the greenest person in Donald Trump’s Cabinet.
In an incoming administration loaded with high-ranking fossil-fuel promoters and climate-change skeptics, Mattis stands out as one of the military’s most vocal advocates for weaning the armed services off traditional energy — including his George W. Bush-era plea for researchers to “unleash us from the tether of fuel.” The retired Marine Corps general has also joined other military planners in identifying the potential upheaval around the world from climate change as one of the biggest security threats facing the U.S. in the coming decades.
Mattis has not said whether he would continue that agenda as the Pentagon’s top civilian leader — especially given the president-elect’s dismissal of manmade climate change as a Chinese-inspired “hoax.” But people who have followed Mattis’ career say he can be counted on to speak his mind, both inside the administration and to the Republican lawmakers planning to dismantle President Barack Obama’s clean-energy agenda.
“I don’t think Congress is going to get in the way of someone as respected as Jim Mattis [trying] to help move America to back away from fossil fuels,“ said Paul Eaton, a former Army general who served in Iraq and serves on the board of advisers of the liberal group VoteVets. For greens, Mattis may be a rare ray of hope that the coming administration won’t completely walk away from clean-energy initiatives.
“The military has led the way on the transition to clean energy, not just because it is a solution to the national security threat that is the climate crisis, but because clean energy helps solve mission-related problems for our armed forces,” said John Coequyt, the Sierra Club’s director of federal and international climate campaigns. “Our military makes decisions based on what it takes to succeed, so as clean energy has gotten more affordable and more accessible, we aren’t worried that there will be any regression.”
On the other hand, Trump certainly didn’t pick Mattis for his views on climate change, which the president-elect has downplayed as a potential security threat. “The biggest risk to the world, to me — I know President Obama thought it was climate change — to me the biggest risk is nuclear weapons. That’s — that is climate change,” Trump told The Washington Post editorial board in March.
Trump’s team and Mattis did not respond to requests for comment.
Mattis’ support for shifting away from fossil fuels was crystallized in Iraq, where he commanded the 1st Marine Division during the 2003 invasion. His forces regularly outran their fuel supplies, slowing their advance. During the subsequent occupation, moving fuel tankers around the country to U.S. forward operating bases was one of the military’s most dangerous tasks.
In 2005, as commander of Marine Corps Combat Development Command, he instructed Navy researchers to find ways to improve the efficiency of military vehicles and otherwise reduce the strain that energy put on supply lines. His “tether” plea, found in the 2006 Future Fuels assessment, soon showed up in energy-related research reports and presentations throughout the military.
Obama embraced that goal as well, leading to initiatives such as the Experimental Forward Operating Base, in which Marines tested technologies like solar blankets to power their batteries, as well as a biofuels initiative to develop renewable fuels for aircraft and ships.
In 2010, when Mattis was commander of the U.S. Joint Forces Command, he signed off on the Joint Operating Environment, which lists climate change as one of the security threats the military expected to confront over the next 25 years.
“From economic trends to climate change and vulnerability to cyber attack, we outline those trends that remind us we must stay alert to what is changing in the world if we intend to create a military as relevant and capable as we possess today,” Mattis wrote in his foreword.
But Republicans have scorned the Pentagon’s Obama-era green policies, including a 2012 commitment by the Defense Department that it will generate 25 percent of its power from renewable sources by 2025.
“When we distract our military with a radical climate change agenda, we detract from their main purpose of defending America from enemies like ISIS,” Rep. Ken Buck (R-Colo.) said in a statement earlier this year, as he pushed to block a directive requiring the Defense Department to consider the impacts of climate change in its decision-making.
For the military, though, green-energy initiatives have focused less on addressing climate change itself than on improving its ability to wage war.
“That sort of stuff gets tethered in with the climate portfolio, but the DOD, the uniform military, has usually been pretty good about separating out the reasons why you do things,” said Andrew Holland, a senior fellow for energy and climate at the nonprofit American Security Project.
Jim Morin, a member of the Truman National Security Project, predicted that Mattis would continue to focus on reducing the armed forces’ dependency on fuels and energy sources that constrain it.
“It’s nice that it overlapped with Obama administration’s goals of reducing greenhouse gas emissions, but everything that was done was done for reasons like supporting the war fighter and enabling victory on the battlefield,” said Morin, a veteran of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. “I think Jim Mattis will be protective of those efforts and want to see that continue.”
Conservatives who oppose government support for renewable fuels don’t typically stand in the way of operational improvements for the military, but they have fought efforts they perceive as driven by a green political agenda. Those include a biofuel procurement plan for the Navy and Obama’s 25-percent renewable energy requirement.
Republicans have sought to use the National Defense Authorization Act to block pieces of this agenda. Sen. Jim Inhofe (R-Okla.) tried to block the Navy’s biofuel program in 2012, and Rep. John Fleming (R-La.) has tried to stop a 2013 executive order requiring federal agencies to prepare for climate change and a 2015 order requiring agencies to plan for sustainability.
Those executive orders are a waste of time and taxpayer money, Fleming said in a statement, saying they “put our country at more risk as the president would rather focus on ‘going green’ than on real, credible threats.”
Conservatives say their complaint is about White House environmental policies compromising the military’s mission. That means Mattis may face less resistance if he chooses to pursue green-energy policies for military reasons alone.
“If President Obama leaves office and they’re singing the same tune, that’s fine,” said Nick Loris, an energy and environment economist at the conservative Heritage Foundation. “It’s not the use of renewables that’s the problem here, it’s the mandate from the Pentagon.”
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