By Chris Mooney and Julia Whitty
The latest cover story of Mother Jones magazine — and, relatedly, the latest Climate Desk Live briefing, occurring this Wednesday in D.C. — are focused on one of the “good news” energy stories that we don’t hear often enough: How the U.S. military in general, and particularly the Navy, are taking the energy challenge head-on for good, strategic reasons.
The piece begins, memorably enough, with environmental correspondent Julia Whitty’s gut-tightening high speed landing on-board the USS Nimitz. A 1,092 foot aircraft carrier, the Nimitz was involved last summer in the “Great Green Fleet” demonstration, in which five ships and 71 aircraft were operated using biofuel blends or nuclear power. As Whitty reports, the Defense Department uses over 12 million gallons of oil daily in its operations. About a third of that use is attributable to the Navy. That makes thinking about the global energy future — and where affordable fuel is going to come from in the future — a national security necessity.
As Navy Secretary David Mabus, a biofuels champion, has put it, “Too many of our platforms and too many of our systems are gas hogs.” In particular, the lesson of past oil price spikes has been a telling one — Navy fuel costs can rise by dollar amounts in the billions because of market fluctuations. That’s a reality impossible for strategic planners to ignore. So while Washington fights endlessly over climate and energy, the Navy just starts solving problems.
Whitty’s piece goes into great depth about how the Navy has, historically, been an energy and navigational technology innovator. This is not the first time: the Great Green Fleet descends from Teddy Roosevelt’s “Great White Fleet,” which back in 1907 sailed around the world in newfangled ships made of steel and powered by coal. Before that, there were those who resisted (yes) switching from sails to steam engines. The Navy was on the right side of that fight, too.
The most important point of Whitty’s article is that when the Navy moves — and it is moving — the rest of the world follows. It is such a massive institution — the Great Green Fleet exercise required a government purchase of 900,000 gallons of 50-50 biofuel blend — that when it demands innovations, the civilian world and industry quickly come to heel, asking for their orders.
On Wednesday in D.C., the Climate Desk Live will focus on Whitty’s article and the significance of the Navy’s transformation, featuring the author herself and three additional speakers: Dr. David Titley, the retired naval officer who led the Navy’s Task Force on Climate Change, Capt. James Goudreau, director of the Navy’s Energy Coordination Office, and Dr. D. James Baker, who is the former administrator of NOAA, the current director of the Global Carbon Measurement Program of the William J. Clinton Foundation, and the co-author of a new report on the relationship between weather extremes and national security. You can learn more about the event at these links — and watch a live stream if you can’t attend in person.
Chris Mooney is a science and political journalist at Mother Jones. Julia Whitty is an award-winning author and a former documentary filmmaker.