Vice Admiral Dennis McGinn (Ret) On Global Warming & National Security--An Open Left Interview

by: Paul Rosenberg

Sun Nov 01, 2009 at 13:00


This past week, the Senate Environment & Public Works Committee held three days of hearings on global warming (Day 1,
Day 2, Day 3), with a wide range of panels.  While much of the testimony was simply an advancement of lines of debate that have been heard for over a decade, there were some relatively new developments, particularly in two panels on Wednesday
, one dealing with adaptive strategies and thinking, the other dealing with the national security implications of global warming.  Arguably the most compelling and knowledgeable testimony and followup comments on the national security panel came from Vice Admiral Dennis McGinn (Ret) (written testimony here), who has twice served on the Military Advisory Boards for the reports on global warming from the Center for Naval Analysis.

In his testimony, Admiral McGinn stated:

We are just beginning to emerge from one of the most serious global financial crises of our lifetimes. This understandably focuses our attention on near term fiscal issues. However, after several years of examining climate change and the United States' energy use, it is clear to our Military Advisory Board that our economic, energy, climate change and national security challenges are inextricably linked. And it is also clear that our past pattern of energy use is responsible, in a significant way, for our economic situation today. For these reasons, we must take a long range, comprehensive view to develop effective national policies and make real and positive changes to the ways in which we power America. A business as usual approach, continued over reliance on fossil fuels, or small, incremental steps, simply will not create the kind of future security and prosperity that the American people and our great Nation deserve. The time to act, and act boldly, is now.

I interviewed Admiral McGinn on Friday, in order to get a better understanding of how the military has come to see global warming as a major national security concern, and what we all can learn from their perspective.  The complete interview transcript is on the flip.

Paul Rosenberg :: Vice Admiral Dennis McGinn (Ret) On Global Warming & National Security--An Open Left Interview
Open Left:  I first want to ask a few questions about the long-term background of how you came to testify.  So let me take a moment to frame this, to make my questions more clear in context, and you can feel free to roam once it's laid out.

The issue of global warming began to emerge almost simultaneously with the end of the Cold War, and there were some environmentalists who early on made the connection that this was our next great national security challenge.  But it's one thing for environmentalists to see things this way.  It's quite another for military leaders themselves to reach a similar conclusion-and to speak out about it.

In your testimony, you said that the board you sit on found that "our economic, energy, climate change and national security challenges are inextricably linked."

Can you tell me how you first came to see global warming as a national security threat, how this awareness has spread throughout the military community, how the awareness has changed or evolved over time?  

Take those one at a time. First, how you first came to see global warming as a national security threat?

Vice Admiral Dennis McGinn:  Sure. I and the other 11 members of the Military Advisory Board all came from different backgrounds, all four services, literally centuries total of service in uniform in combat, war,  peace, etc. and we came from these diverse backgrounds together with the common experience  [interruption]

We came from four different services, all different backgrounds, specialties in the service, so  we all had a common culture, if you will,  of being able to deal with somewhat ambiguous information form time to time, and be able to come to some conclusions to take prudent actions, based on indicators, trends and warnings.

And during the course of probably 15 or 16 months of study, preceding both military advisory reports, we were exposed to a tremendous amount of material, written material, experts, economists, climate scientists, folks form politics, environmental community, a very broad and diverse background.  Technical folks, people from energy industry, etc.  

And basically came to the conclusion and consensus depicted in the two reports.  

The one in 2007, called "Climate Change and the Threat to National Security,"  and then the one in May of 2009, just this year, called "Powering America's Defense: Energy and the Risks to National Security."   So it wasn't any "Aha!" moment.  This understanding occured over time.  It was, particukarly in the case of the second report, in the context of the global recession. That's why we realy had to consider how did the economy relate to the challenges of energy security and climate change as they related to national security....

"To the extent that we can, we prevent the effects of climate change. But where we can't prevent, where things are in that way, we have to mitigate them, where we can neither prevent nor mitigate we have to adapt to them. And the sooner start doing this, the more options you have available, and the less expensive those options are.  And I think that's right in the military principle, that guiding military principle of avoiding harms way whenever you can. Take prudent measures now, so that you don't have to take extraordinary measures later on, just to be able to survive."

OL:  How about before that, before you came to serve on the board?  Had you thought about this at all before then?  Was it something you had thought of but hadn't focused on?

VADM McGinn:  Well, Personally, I have been concerned about the link between energy and national security for literally decades. I remember as a young Lt., in the Navy during the 1970s oil embargo, you know, the lines at gas stations, shortages, I really made the connection, you know energy is so critical to our national security not just in the military sense, but in an economic and a quality of life sense, that we really need to be taking a look at how we go about getting energy, and I've always been concerned about the progress that we were making, or lack of progress, in achieving some sense of robustness or flexibility to not be dependent on foreign oil, especially.

So, I had a chance in, oh gosh, 1990-91, to be on a Chief of Naval Operations strategic studies group for a year. We talked to a lot of smart people there, the Chief of Naval Operations at the time said, "Hey, I want you to take a look at the future security environment out 20 years, and tell me what the trends are. And take a look at not just economy politics and diplomacy, and the military aspects of national security, but look at environment, look at religions, look at technology, just as broad a swath as you can possibly come up with. And that also exposed me personally to a lot of smart people.  I learned a lot more about energy, the environment and other factors that were kind of non-traditional, if you will, when you normally think about military strategy.

After that, as more and more was written, I was pretty much focused on national security. And energy, but as more and more was written from fairly credible sources about global warming, I started to take a harder look at that.

Initially, when I first heard about it, I said, "Gee, that's..." I was very skeptical of it.  I just thought, you know, you take a look at what inputs into the air in terms of greenhouse gases, carbon or whatever, it just really doesn't make sense. Then I started looking at data, and started considering that world population, and the per-capita use of fossil fuel is just going up enormously, and I was able to visit with a bunch of scientists, analysts, and had some interactions with colleagues at the Joint Global Change Research Institute at the University of Maryland, associated with Pacific Northwest National Lab. And I really took a look at some of the models they were using. Took a look at the IPCC report, talked with people that were associated with National Academy, and I just came to the conclusion that this is real.  And while we may not know precisely in terms of effect, how it was going to affect our national security, it was going to have an effect on our national security.  So that's how I personally came to where I am now.

"I think the approach has to be one of recognizing that there is this inextricable link between the economy, energy and climate change, and security, and to recognize that you have a large complex problem, it requires large complex solutions. You can't just incrementally do this."

OL:  Next, how this awareness has spread through the military community?

VADM McGinn:It has in many different ways. Informally, people in the military are pretty smart and well-read, for the most part. As the subjects of energy security and climate change have been more and more widely reported, they just started to question on an individual basis how it affects their mission.  

Institutionally, there've been a couple of key catalysts.

One was in the 2008 Defense Authorization Act. The Department of Defense-and by extension the services-were directed to take a look at the effects of climate change and energy security onroles, missions and installations. And that process is under way.  The Quadrennial Defense Report will be delivered to Congress by the Secretary of Defense, probably in February of next year.   And that has caused a lot of formal internal analyses, and discussions and that has thrown off a whole bunch of better understanding, institutionally by the services and various agencies in the DOD.

The other factor, though goes to the business of national security and energy.  2008 was an unbelievable year for defense budgets, for example, well, for family budgets.  For the United States economy Because we saw oil spiking as high as $140 a barrel.  We spent, I think it was $386 billion went out of our economy for oil to be imported into the country.  Every time oil goes up by 10 bucks a barrel, it costs DOD anywhere between $1.5 and $2 billion, for every $10 increase.  So you can imagine the terrible effect that had on DOD and service budgets that were trying to execute during the year.

This has been something that, the Department of Defense and the services have trying to deal with: "What can we do to try to be more energy efficient? Because it costs less to save energy and to do other things." So people really got it in terms of national security and energy security. As I said, as the climate change factor came in and people saw the ways in which we see energy security, that level of sophistication is rapidly growing now.

"I think the clock is running on climate change. The clock is running as the energy supply demand curve will get more and more divergent. As I say in my testimony as well.  You know, when the recession's hopefully beginning to end, and when we start getting really recovered, we're going to be subject to very. very high volatility of fossil fuel prices. It's going to go inexorably up."

OL:  Finally, how the awareness has changed or evolved over time?  You've touched on that somewhat, but if there's anything more you'd like to add to that.

VADM McGinn: I think it's really come very, very rapidly along this overall awareness as individuals in the national security community, and the institutions, the services, the agencies, have really, really come along. I think the latest two IPCC roports were pretty definitive. People looking at things like the National Intelligence Assessment  by the CIA last year, which used a lot of the work that we had done in 2007 and 2009, in the Military Board reports, [from] CNA. I think that the overall debate in Congress has really raised awareness.

A couple of examples of how far we need to go, I would cite two conferences.  One held in August convened by Commandant of the Marine Corps, General James Conway, was called the "US Marine Corps Energy Summit".  And said, 'Hey look, we're in a place like Afghanistan, we have to lighten the load on our expeditionary forces.  We are having to truck in so much fuel, water,  and other critical supplies, but mostly fuel and water, we've got to take a different look at how we can reduce that load so that we can be more flexible, more combat effective, and less vulnerable to attacks on our convoys.'

He actually deployed energy audit teams over to the combat theater of operations and they're reporting back, and those reports are being analyzed and acted on, by the Marine Corps, ways that they can reduce some of that load on the expeditionary force of fuel and water.

The other conference I would cite was on the 14th and 15th of this month, the Department of the Navy held the Department of the Navy.. Naval Energy Forum.  The commandant of the Marine Corp, Jim Conway, the CNO Chief of Naval Operations, Gary Roughead, and Secretary of Navy, Secretary Ray Mabus all gave terrific speeches in which they talked about the role and missions of the Navy and Marine Corps. In the context of energy security and climate change. In fact, I'd recommend the Secretary of the Navy's speech to you, as citing some very explicit and far-reaching goals for the Department of the Navy that are going to happen over the next ten years..

"At what point does the pain get so bad that we have to do something about it? What I'm saying is that if we act boldly now and take large measures, because we recognize it's a very complex problem, and it's a large problem, it's getting worse every year we delay action. If we do things now, we can look back in ten years or twenty years and say, 'Boy, are we ever glad we did that.'"

OL:  It's long been a precept that the best battle or the best war is one you don't have to fight in order to win.  I believe that goes all the way back to Sun Tzu, if not farther, who said something about that.  To what extent is that sort of thinking involved in military thinking about global warming and its threat multiplier aspect?

VADM McGinn: That's a great insight you have, and I agree with it entirely. It's a big driver. To the extent that we can, we prevent the effects of climate change. But where we can't prevent, where things are in that way, we have to mitigate them, where we can neither prevent nor mitigate we have to adapt to them. And the sooner start doing this, the more options you have available, and the less expensive those options are.  And I think that's right in the military principle, that guiding military principle of avoiding harms way whenever you can. Take prudent measures now, so that you don't have to take extraordinary measures later on, just to be able to survive.

OL:  In your testimony, you went on to say, "A business as usual approach, continued over reliance on fossil fuels, or small, incremental steps, simply will not create the kind of future security and prosperity that the American people and our great Nation deserve. The time to act, and act boldly, is now."

The tendency in Washington is to go the other way, to water things down in the name of "pragmatism".  Do you see a danger in that?  Is it really pragmatic?  And-on the flip side-is there a particular significance and value in taking a national security perspective?

VADM McGinn: I'll answer the second one.  I think the national security perspective is very, very powerful.

It has to be carefully considered by the folks in Washington, both in the Administration and on the Hill. Because, for years, for decades it seems to be the dialogue-I'll oversimplify this, but-between environmentalists on one side accusing big business of ruining the globe for our generation and future generations, to come. And on the other side the business community saying the environmentalists all have this idealistic world, but you can't do that, and simply forget about the economy, and our economy and how we achieve that.

And it's been this back and forth tension. So enter some folks with a perspective that considers both of those aspects, but adds to it the real dangers posed by a business-as-usual approach, in terms of both production of greenhouse gasses as well as continuing reliance on fossil fuels.  So, I think the approach has to be one of recognizing that there is this inextricable link between the economy, energy and climate change, and security, and to recognize that you have a large complex problem, it requires large complex solutions. You can't just incrementally do this.

I think the clock is running on climate change. The clock is running as the energy supply demand curve will get more and more divergent. As I say in my testimony as well.  You know, when the recession's hopefully beginning to end, and when we start getting really recovered, we're going to be subject to very. very high volatility of fossil fuel prices. It's going to go inexorably up.

At what point does the pain get so bad that we have to do something about it. What I'm saying is that if we act boldly now and take large measures, because we recognize it's a very complex problem, and it's a large problem, it's getting worse every year we delay action.

If we do things now, we can look back in ten years or twenty years and say, 'Boy, are we ever glad we did that.'

We can do that now.  We can look back at 1999, for example, or 1989,  and say, 'If we had only done X, Y or Z we would be in so much better shape, from an overall national economy and national security perspective than we are now.'  So that was the driving rational behind my statements that you read.

"I use the example of one of the minority witnesses and I testifying as a Navy Admiral and an Army general 100 years ago probably, we would be opposing the transition from sail to steam in the Navy and from horses in the cavalry.in the Army to the internal combustion engines.   But never-the-less we were able to do that. Thank goodness we were. Were at a similar point now."

OL:  One of the minority witnesses in your panel argued the opposite perspective, saying that long-term projections were uncertain, so we should focus on short-term approaches instead, leading back to an argument for the dominance of cost-benefit analyses.  What would you say in response to that?

VADM McGinn: I would say that if you take a short term view and there are problems that have long-term consequences, you're going to have to face them sooner or later.  You can't simply confine your time horizon

This goes right to the heart of the military planning process.  We build ships, for example, that are intended to be around 40 or 50 years, you know, combat vehicles, airplanes that last for decades. We have to be anticipating namy many years out in the future.  And to the extent that we can help shape that future security environment, by prudent measures now-and it isn't simply short-term cost-benefit analysis to solutions, we need to apply cost-benefit and risk to it, but the time horizon can't be confined to the next fiscal year, or even five years.  We have to think beyond that, because it takes a long time to change.

We did not get in this position of fuel dependence on fossil fuels and the amount of greenhouse gases that are being emitted overnight, and we're not going to get out of it [overnight].  But we have to dothings now with a far enough out time horizon that we recognize the things that we do now are going to have a substantially exponential positive or negative e4ffects up there in the future.

A good example of this would be oil drilling. Could we drill more oil domestically, off-shore and oil shale, what have you. Yep. we could do that. and it would require an investment of money, an investment of political capital, if you will. Cost to the environment, potentially, or risks certainly, if not costs. And, oh by the way, cost to extract oil from places that are harder, which is going to drive the price of the oil up. It's not free.  

So, we could do that. And we'd be paying a tremendous opportunity cost for all the political capital, all of the money, all of the time and attention that we would be devoting to try to increase the runway a little bit for continued business as usual approach to reliance on.oil and fossil fuels.  But eventually it's going to run out and what are we going to do then?

And what will we be wishing we had done when we reach that point of diminishing returns that we didn't do because of the opportunity cost of good old, just drill everywhere we can.

That is a short-term solution, Just drilling for more oil, domestically.  It's very short term.

OL:  Another minority witness argument centered around the need for jet fuel and other high-impact energy sources in order to maintain fighting capacity.  As a civilian, this sounds like a very muddled argument, akin to confusing strategic and tactical thinking.  But I'd like to know your opinion from a military perspective.

VADM McGinn:Well, we certainly rely heavily in the military on fossil fuel and on jet fuel, maybe, bunker fuel, etc. But once again, just like we have to consider overall in the nation, are we weeded to that forever?  Is there a different way?

I use the example of one of the minority witnesses and I testifying as a Navy Admiral and an Army general 100 years ago probably, we would be opposing the transition from sail to steam in the Navy and from horses in the cavalry.in the Army to the internal combustion engines.  

But never-the-less we were able to do that. Thank goodness we were. Were at a similar point now, where we can't say with any ;level of confidence, 'gee, there's always going to be enough oil to power our defense in the way we have for the past hundred years, or certainly the last 80 years. So we've got to look for different ways of doing it.

One example would be, potentially, bio-based jet fuel. There's a lot of research that's going on with algal-based fuel.  The Navy is doing some work. The Air Force has been doing work for years, and until you get the kinds of legislative mandates that will not just the Department of Defense, but the civilian aviation industry, take a look with investments and scale up those initiatives, it's not going to happen in any significant way. So I think the contention that because we are so heavily dependent on petroleum-based products now to power our military that we always will, that's just illogical...

"I think we've got to get over this notion that we can't do anything related to climate change legislation until we have some sort of guarantees that others like China and India have got to do something. That's not leadership."

OL:  Finally, I'd like to ask, how much progress do you think has been made in alerting people to the national security dimensions of global warming-among policy makers, and among the wider public, and what can be done to accelerate this awareness?

VADM McGinn: I think the awareness is growing. I don't think it's as sufficient as it needs to be yet to produce the kind of legislative mandates--putting a kind of price on carbon that we need to--but I do think it is growing, both in the public and in our elected officials. You see it manifested a lot at the local and state level.

I do a lot of traveling around the country, over the past several months. Places like Iowa, Indiana, Missouri, California Alaska, South Carolina, Florida. Kansas, just all over these various places having interactions with people in open forums, and the awareness of this national security thing is becoming like, 'I hadn't thought about it like that.  I thought it was just like environmentalists, and business and all of that.'  So it's starting to really take off and opportunities like having the witness panel on national security this week [before the Senate Environmental and Public Works Committee] is another way to get elected officials at the federal level, in the Congress, becoming more and more aware.

That was the third time I testified on this subject, and there have been many others as well as myself testifying on it.  Back in July, I was before the same EPW Committee.  And then earlier in July, I testified over at the Foreign Relations Committee on the same essential challenges. So it's growing, but it needs to progress further down the road.

The other thing I would say is its frustrating in a sense, because in many areas there is so much agreement between various parts of the political spectrum-on the need to do things. Some weighing in more heavily on energy dependence or energy insecurity, others on climate change, some are in the middle, a little bit of both,  but there's so many, shall we say,  policy prescriptions that could be put in place that would satisfy a fairly large majority of not just elected officials, but Americans, that we need to do it.

There's a tremendous fear of changing things in a time of economic downturn, but in some ways that's the best time to do it.  Create new jobs, I've seen a lot of very credible studies on the economic benefits of clean technology.  In fact, during the hearing, Senator Boxer cited-released, I believe on the 26th-that talked about the potential for clean technology, depending on what kind of legislative mandates came up. And take a look at any incremental, relatively small incrimental changes to the job base, if you will, if you stick with fossil fuels, compared to clean technology, I think it's like a factor of 4 or 5  to 1 in favor of investments and directed policy mechanisms in clean technology

OL:  I always like to end my interviews by asking a person what question haven't I asked that I should have? And what's the answer?

VADM McGinn: I think you've been very thoughtful, Paul.  I think you did a really good job taking a look at the testimony and all the witnesses, clearly.  I just think I've said pretty much what would be on my mind.

OL:  I just always want to give a chance, because I know the feeling when something pops up, and you want to say it and it's not really the right place to say it, so that was sort of a free shot, if there was anything that had surfaced that maybe you thought of and went and said something else, that if there's any lingering thoughts like that.

VADM McGinn: Well, I would say that one thing-and I addressed this briefly in my testimony-and that has to do with the role of the US as a global leader. I think we've got to get over this notion that we can't do anything related to climate change legislation until we have some sort of guarantees that others like China and India have got to do something. That's not leadership. That's basically risk aversion. And what we need to do is decide what makes sense for our nation and make some calculated assumptions of how the effect of those policies on other nations. Like China and India and Europe, and other key players on the international stage.

So, I would say we have key role to play as a leader, and we shouldn't shy away from it.  We shouldn't be afraid of 'Well, gee, we can't do it because if we do it they might not do it.'

If we don't do it, if we don't assume that role of leadership, some visionary and bold policies related to climate legislation, and energy security legislation, they're not going to do it, and they're going to blame us. 'Well, we didn't do it because the United States didn't do it.  And look at them. They're the folks that  use 25% of the oil in the world every year, and have only at the best 3% of known reserves.'

That's not leadership.  

So it's leadership by example. It's leadership by the United States in which we're not just talking the talking about climate change, but we're walking the walk ourselves, for our own national purposes. And others are going to see that it's in their national purposes as well, and we're going to have a much better chance for the kind of international cooperation based on the United States as leader and as partner than if we just confine our views to the near term, and confine our views to the extent of our borders.

OL:  Thank you very much, this has been very informative.


Tags: , , , (All Tags)
Print Friendly View Send As Email

Excellent work. (0.00 / 0)
I'm blogging from Beirut and as interesting and beautiful as it is here, I get my sense of 'home' from OpenLeft. Thanks Paul. I'm definitely going to check out Dollhouse.

These interviews (4.00 / 1)
are a great addition to OL. Excellent work.

Politics is the art of the possible, but that means you have to think about changing what is possible, not that you have to accept it in perpetuity.

great interview (0.00 / 0)
thanks Paul

I should've said 'another great interview' (0.00 / 0)
the grayson interview was great too

[ Parent ]
USER MENU

Open Left Campaigns

SEARCH

   

Advanced Search

QUICK HITS
STATE BLOGS
Powered by: SoapBlox