Military v climate spending: How China outguns the US on clean energy

China is spending 1/6th as much as the US on its military and investing twice as much on clean energy technology.

While China is already boasting “All aboard!” on a network of sleek passenger trains that zip 200 mph and beyond between major urban centres, the United States is still fussing about where to install a single high-speed rail line for a proposed California project.

That’s just a snapshot of how this country continues to lag behind its Asian competitor on the clean technology front.

Can America ever catch up? Yes, says Washington research fellow Miriam Pemberton. But it means taking a $100 billion-dollar bite out of the defense budget annually.

But prospects for that look dim. Many key leaders in a Republican-majority House have declared the Department of Defense off limits—even as they claim to be wielding hatchets for slicing away “waste” to lift the country out of economic doldrums.

An inside-the-Beltway defense contractor who asked to speak off the record told SolveClimate News in an interview that Congress won’t be lopping significant amounts from the defense budget any time soon. And even if it did, that money would not be redirected toward a clean technology deficit.

“The idea that we will whack the Department of Defense to make the Department of Energy robust is a fantasy,” he said. “DOD might be cut some. The question is, what happens to that money? I can’t see those resources going toward DOE. That shift will not occur.”

But Pemberton, who researches demilitarization issues for the Institute for Policy Studies’ Foreign Policy in Focus project, says Congress is missing the big picture.

If the effects of climate change are indeed so dire, she asks, then why shouldn’t defense dollars be redistributed toward DOE and other federal outlets such as the Environmental Protection Agency, the Department of Labor, the Department of Transportation and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration that can play integral roles in avoiding these impending disasters?

Endowing those agencies with more cash to shrink carbon footprints, launch green jobs and advance clean technologies could mitigate the chaos of severe floods, droughts, heat waves and rising sea levels that climate scientists are predicting and witnessing. That could lessen the U.S. military’s concerns about having to tamp down unrest caused by climatic events worldwide.

“By cutting the defense budget we would be substituting the green (technology) race for the arms race started by Sputnik,” Pemberton said in an interview. “It’s a way of keeping up with the Chinese and saving the planet.”

Pemberton isn’t just speaking off the cuff. Her intensive research has compared U.S.-China expenditures—and her arithmetic is jarring.

China spends twice on clean energy compared to the US

Calculations she cites in an October report titled “Military vs. Climate Security: The 2011 Budgets Compared,” reveal that the U.S. climate change budget has more than doubled—from $7 billion to $18 billion—since 2008. Military spending in that same time period has risen from $696 billion to $739 billion. For every dollar spent on climate in 2008, the U.S. spent $94 on the military. That will drop to a $41: $1 ratio this year.

“Obviously, this is progress,” Pemberton said, but it isn’t enough to stay competitive. The Chinese are spending one-sixth as much as the United States on their military and investing twice as much on clean energy technology. For every dollar China spends on climate, between $2 and $3 goes toward its military.

“The extreme tilt in our budget toward military spending is leaving us way behind in two of the major growth markets of the global economy,” she said, referring to solar and wind technologies. “For the sake of our economic health and competitiveness … (and) security, we need to tilt the other way.”

As the country’s most prolific energy user, U.S. military leaders know it’s incumbent on them to innovate to contribute to national security by lowering their massive emissions profile.

“I agree with the secretary of energy (Steven Chu) that this is a Sputnik moment,” former deputy undersecretary of defense Sherri Goodman said in an interview. “I have no doubt that the military will be part of leading the revolution that allows us to rise to this challenge.”

Budget cuts might be on the agenda at DOD, she said, but handing out those dollars elsewhere within the federal government is illogical.

“I do not think it makes sense to rob Peter to pay Paul,” said Goodman, now general counsel to CNA Corp., a Virginia-based nonprofit research institution. “It’s very important to maintain the readiness and preparedness of the military.”

Pemberton was one of 14 members of a Sustainable Defense Task Force formed at the behest of Massachusetts Democratic Rep. Barney Frank. In cooperation with Reps. Walter Jones, R-N.C., and Ron Paul, R-Texas, and Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., the coalition of liberal and conservative defense experts explored how to reduce the federal deficit by paring the defense budget without compromising security.

The June report presented a series of options that together could save up to $960 billion between 2011 and 2020. Proposals outlined in “Debts, Deficits, and Defense: A Way Forward,” cover the full range of Pentagon expenditures, including procurement, research and development, personnel, operations and maintenance, and infrastructure.

Green technologies are starved for those savings, Pemberton said, especially now that similar funding provided via the Obama administration’s $787 billion federal economic stimulus package is drying up.

“We need that kind of investment every year,” she said about cash infusions she refers to as the public investment component. “It can’t be a one-time thing.”

These priorities include: boosting global warming research, green job training, tax credits for clean energy, and research and development into energy technologies; promoting energy efficiency; and making long-term commitments to renewable energy sources, public transportation and electricity transmission lines.

“What we proposed in the summer of 2010 really has become common ground of all of these deficit reduction proposals,” she said. “The common denominator is that $100 billion in savings per year are possible with no sacrifice in security.”

In a report titled “Military vs. Climate Security” that Pemberton released in August 2009, she argued that $1 billion spent on manufacturing weapons creates 8,555 jobs. An identical investment in mass transit would create 19,795 jobs, or in weatherization or infrastructure would create 12,804 jobs.

“If climate change is the major security threat the military says it is, no amount of military greening will be enough to reverse it,” Pemberton said. “Only wholesale measures to curb emissions across our own economy—and the world’s—will do the job.”

Earlier this month, Defense Secretary Robert Gates announced that he is following a White House directive to slice $78 billion from the Pentagon budget over the next five years. However, those are cuts to projected spending, Pemberton pointed out, meaning the budget will still grow but just by not as much as initially proposed.

The United States continues to spend more on the military than the countries with the next 15 largest military budgets combined, according to an op-ed financial journalist James Ledbetter published in The New York Times Dec. 13. In addition, the U.S. military also releases more heat-trapping emissions than any other institution worldwide.

Climate security is an enormous defense concern, Goodman said, and has prompted efforts to shrink the Pentagon’s carbon footprint. That list of advances includes electrifying vehicle fleets on military installations and flying aircraft with biofuel. As well, she said, Marines in Iraq and Afghanistan are weaning themselves of fossil fuels by deploying solar panels and light-emitting diode (LED) technology at patrol bases.

She also stressed that the DOE and DOD have an agreement allowing DOE to test energy innovations at military sites, pointing to active partnerships with the Philadelphia Naval Shipyard, the Army’s Fort Carson and Nellis Air Force Base in Nevada. Collaboration such as this can accelerate the movement of energy advances from the government to the private sector.

“I think the Department of Defense’s commitment to this is real,” Goodman said. “It’s important that this type of investment be seen like the investment DOD makes to improve readiness and the importance of its weapons systems that increase the security of the nation.

“We know that China is moving rapidly ahead with innovations in all types of energy,” she continued. “With increasing access to resources globally and as the global challenges increase, the United States needs to remain competitive in all of these fields.”

But Pemberton maintains that the country will lose valuable time if it waits for energy innovation to trickle down from the Pentagon to the private sector.

“Military priorities are always going to be military security,” Pemberton said. For instance, she added, DOD would be interested in a renewable energy grid to serve the needs of military bases, not as a practical, energy-saving advance for the entire nation.

“DOD sees stabilizing the climate as a byproduct and a side issue,” she said. “They should be required to be concerned with how their investments are working for the rest of us.”

Pemberton is encouraged by the December announcement that General Electric is investing $50 million in a joint venture with CSR Corp. Ltd. of China to build high-speed trains for projects in Florida and California.

Executing final production and assembly here instead of in China allows the partners to meet “Buy America” standards mandated by the Obama administration for states to qualify for federal stimulus funds for high-speed rail systems.

While such collaboration is a nod in the right direction, Pemberton noted, China is providing the beacon with the financing, expertise and ingenuity to help these advanced trains thrive on U.S. soil.

Not being able to finance or build mass transit independently, she emphasized, is just one example of how this nation has let its potential role as a clean technology innovator whither.

“It’s glaringly clear that we have neglected what should be a core part of our infrastructure,” Pemberton said. “Instead, we’re intent on funding and manufacturing weapons systems.”

* This article by Elizabeth McGowan also appears on Guardian at

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