Dave Belote was sleeping on his cot at Camp Victory in Iraq early one morning in 2004 when he awoke to the sound of deadly mortar rounds exploding on base a scant 50 yards away. Suddenly, it clicked: "It would be a really good thing to stop paying people to shoot at us," he thought.
"Those mortar shells we paid for indirectly, through our addiction to oil," the retired Air Force colonel told ClimateWire.
"A lot of these terrorist organizations, al-Qaida and others, big chunks of their funding come from Middle Eastern dictators. So they're all petrodollars," he added.
Today, Belote is vice president of federal business at Apex Clean Energy Inc., where he promotes the adoption of renewable energy on military bases and public lands. Prior to Apex, he served as installation commander for Nellis Air Force Base, where he oversaw a 14-megawatt photovoltaic solar project, and as executive director of the Department of Defense Siting Clearinghouse at the Pentagon, where he helped clear 229 of 249 renewable energy projects that had been blocked by DOD.
"Market-based, smart renewable energy solutions are good for everybody," Belote said. "As they build American energy independence, it does a triple bottom line for the United States of America: It's better for the long-term health of the country and the planet, better for our national security, and it's creating jobs."
Belote was one of 12 veterans recognized as "Champions of Change" by the White House this week, just ahead of Veterans Day, for their work in advancing clean energy and combating climate change. The celebration comes as the Obama administration continues to roll out its greenhouse gas reduction plans, including new regulations on existing power plants and a target to double wind, solar and geothermal power generation by 2020.
National security is one of the justifications for the administration's climate agenda.
"Taking smart steps today to reduce carbon pollution; to invest in clean, efficient sources of energy; and to prepare for the impacts of climate change are economic and security imperatives for the United States," Nancy Sutley, head of the White House Council on Environmental Quality, said in honoring the veterans.
Top DOD officials also pointed to links between climate change and national security this week after lying low on the issue for about a year following congressional battles over the Navy's biofuels program (Greenwire, Nov. 6).
Speaking at the White House, Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz said security and climate are also top priorities at his agency, which oversees clean tech development and nuclear nonproliferation.
"We should remember that climate change has very important implications for national security and for our armed forces -- for example, as a threat multiplier in unstable parts of the world, which in turn can link to terrorism [and] to nuclear terrorism," he said.
Another battlefield conversion
Drew Sloan, who served as an Army officer in Iraq and Afghanistan, similarly sees climate change as a driver of geopolitical instability.
Sloan was recognized as a Champion of Change for his work as a sales executive with the energy efficiency and smart grid software company Opower. In helping electricity consumers better understand their energy usage, Opower has saved customers more than $333 million on their energy bills and achieved an estimated 4.3 billion pounds of carbon dioxide emission reductions. Sloan is also a founding member of the Truman National Security Project campaign called Operation Free, a coalition of veterans and national security experts campaigning for comprehensive clean energy reform in America.
While on deployment, it struck him that the resource disparity between the U.S. and Afghan communities could lead to a security crisis.
"I thought, 'How are we ever going to win this war? How are we ever going to change these people's lives when we're so distinct from them? How are they actually going to change and grow if they don't have access to electricity?'" Sloan said.
But electricity by any means wouldn't make the issue go away. Having studied climate science in graduate school, he realized that if Afghan or other developing communities sourced their energy from fossil fuels in the same way the U.S. and other developed nations have, it would magnify the effects of climate change. And although the U.S. is wealthy enough to adapt, those most affected by climate change will be those least prepared to deal with it, he said.
Victims could face a multitude of challenges, from lost income to forced migration. It's not a great leap to see how this could stir up discontent, Sloan said.
"I think that's one of the bigger issues around climate change, the idea that there are millions of people out there that are going to be resentful of America because they're not going to be able to adapt to climate change and they'll squarely, and perhaps not incorrectly, blame us for their change in lifestyle," he said.
For many other veterans, the link between climate and security is more direct.
Robin Eckstein, currently a member of Operation Free who served as a truck driver in Iraq, saw firsthand how a reliance on fossil fuels made the military vulnerable. Fuel convoys are frequently subject to enemy attacks. Meanwhile, forward operating bases burn through the fuel almost as fast as it can be delivered, she wrote on the White House blog, putting American lives in constant danger.
When refueling isn't routine
It was during a routine refueling stop that the USS Cole was bombed in 2000 and Elizabeth Perez-Halperin lost her good friend Lakiba Nicole Palmer. A total of 17 sailors were killed in the attack, for which al-Qaida claimed responsibility.
Perez-Halperin was deployed in the Adriatic Sea when she got word the USS Cole has been bombed. With a father who served in the first Gulf War and having seen how a reliance on fossil fuels put her friend's vessel at risk, she decided to work in renewable energy when she left the armed forces in 2006.
Today, Perez-Halperin runs the firm GC Green, which gives veterans the skills they need to work in the green economy. Many people who served in the armed forces already have technical backgrounds -- whether it's in electrical work; heating, ventilation and air conditioning; or construction -- and need only minimal training to work in the clean tech industry, she said.
"I think what veterans bring is their motivation, that military DNA to get the job done, along with specific training," Perez-Halperin said.
GC Green recently received a grant to continue training veteran entrepreneurs and plans to open a new veteran clean tech training center late next year. Ultimately, she hopes to open a second training facility named after her friend Seaman Palmer.
All the White House honorees have an experience from the front lines that led them to work on clean energy and climate change solutions. One of the recipients, Adam Cote, accepted his award this week from Afghanistan, where he continues to serve in the Maine Army National Guard with the 133rd Engineer Battalion. In the United States, Cote serves as co-founder and CEO of Thermal Energy Storage of Maine, which is weaning the state off 300 million gallons of heating oil by switching homes to run on electric thermal storage units rather than oil- and gas-fired systems.
Climate change is still often treated as a political football. But for many who have served in the military, it's treated as a threat like any other, said Belote, the retired Air Force colonel.
"If you believe the job of DOD is to respond when the nation needs it, and you see the huge culture change in the DOD on how energy is the military's lifeblood, then we have to protect and build and diversify all of our resources," he said. "That means putting solar on a base, that means using wind power when you can get it, that means deploying with all manners of energy sources that you can protect and use."
Belote added, "For us, it's nonpolitical. For us, being people who came from that world, as veterans, it's a mission accomplishment thing."
Reprinted from Climatewire with permission from Environment & Energy Publishing, LLC. www.eenews.net, 202-628-6500