Why Climate Change Isn’t a Sputnik Moment

Military technology can’t innovate us out of this one.

Earth seen from outer space
Any targets, goals, or agreements to combat climate change will ultimately depend on a transformation of the world energy system.

Photo by Alexander Gerst/ESA via Getty Images

This article originally appeared in New America’s Weekly Wonk. On Thursday, Jan. 15, Future Tense—a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State Universitywill hold an event in Washington, D.C., titled “How Will Human Ingenuity Handle a Warming Planet?” For more information and to RSVP, visit the New America website.

Here we go again. Another year, another inconclusive climate change summit. The grim reality haunting the talks that recently wrapped up in Lima, Peru, is that any targets, goals, or agreements will ultimately depend on a transformation of the world energy system. That’s going to require a massive amount of innovation. For the United States, it’s only natural to look for help from one of the historically great sources of innovation: the U.S. armed forces.

For the past half-century, the United States has fielded the most technologically sophisticated military force in the world. You can credit that, in part, to the shocking 1957 launch of Sputnik, which was enough to spark decades of defense technological innovation, spearheaded by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. DARPA, which began funding high-risk, high-payoff technology projects in 1958, has become the symbol of U.S. defense technology innovation. The beloved (and revolutionary) Internet is a direct spinoff of the computer network that then-ARPA invented for its own purposes. And it’s not just the Internet. The spillover of many other military technologies into the civilian sector, ranging from nuclear energy, the space program, special materials, and global positioning technology, has transformed our daily lives.

We’ve seen, in only a few years, a rapid revolution in information technology. In contrast, progress when it comes to low-carbon energy technologies has remained slow. Should we turn to the military to help speed things up?

It’s not an unreasonable question. Given that climate change will undoubtedly affect U.S. national security interests and shape U.S. military missions, because of the inevitability of related instability and humanitarian challenges, it certainly has a stake in the innovation mission. What’s more, as the single largest consumer of fuel in the United States, the Department of Defense’s actions on energy can affect (albeit at the margins) greenhouse gas emissions (not to mention reduce the department’s huge energy bill). Finally, even as shale and tight oil are dramatically cutting U.S. dependence on imported oil, we remain tied to the global market, in all its volatile glory.

That connection is one that tends to provoke those thorny military challenges, from Iraq to Russia.

It may be unreasonable, however, to expect the kind of transformational energy technology innovation that is needed to mitigate climate change to come from the U.S. military sector—for a few reasons.

Most of them have to do with the way the military uses energy: Seventy-five percent of DOD’s energy use is liquid fuels for military operations. That means the Pentagon’s top priority for that energy is going to be to fight wars, not to save on the electricity bill or lower greenhouse gas emissions or even to promote innovation. And, in fact, this “operational” energy use is exempt from federal energy and emissions targets. This is sensible: No president is going to tell the American people he can’t send troops to defend the country or respond to a natural disaster because it would violate energy targets.

And while it’s tempting to leverage DOD’s scale to promote energy innovation, that’s going to be tricky in an era of tight government budgets. Improvements in energy use at military bases or in operations have to compete with weapons, platforms, and personnel for investment dollars. In the absence of a compelling military need, that will be a tough sell. So, for example, the call of some experts for the U.S. defense establishment to lead the way in deploying small modular nuclear reactors, or SMRs, for electricity generation at military bases, as part of an effort to reinvigorate the U.S. nuclear energy industry and reap some climate change benefits, is likely to go unheeded. Or unfunded, at any rate.

Perhaps the most critical question is whether there is an overlap between what the military needs to do for itself and what climate change requires in the sphere of energy innovation. The answer is a qualified yes.

Last year, U.S. armed forces consumed more than 4 billion gallons of fuel, and electricity-intense operations, with unmanned aerial vehicles, for example, are sharply rising. U.S. adversaries are already able to target military fuel and electricity supplies with computer viruses, IEDs, and suicide bombers, and future adversaries are likely to have far more sophisticated, longer range, and more deadly cyber and precision weapons. If history is any guide, there is no reason to believe supply lines will be off the table as a target. The U.S. military has a compelling reason to innovate for more resilient, more secure, and lighter energy supply lines, whether that means more efficient engines, microgrids, or solar power for remote combat outposts. Maybe SMRs would even make sense in some places in that context.

The cautionary note is that there is still no guarantee DOD will see it that way, nor that military energy innovation will cross over into civilian use. The Internet has become ubiquitous in the global economy, but stealth, not so much. In other words, the answer for the right kind of energy innovation may more appropriately lie in civilian research and development.

When the National Academy of Sciences, 10 years ago, pondered ideas for invigorating U.S. energy science and technology, it proposed creating a civilian version of DARPA in the energy sector, called ARPA-E. The idea was basically to boost the commercialization of energy technologies through seed funding. Without a climate change equivalent to Sputnik, however, the scale of effort is unlikely to match requirements. ARPA-E, which is housed under the Department of Energy, has an annual budget of little more than half of DARPA’s budget in 1958 and less than a tenth of DARPA’s budget today. This needs to change, but the nail-biter is whether the climate change’s “Sputnik moment” will come in time to make a difference.