Can the Marine Corps Beat Climate Change? "Sir Yes Sir!"

Sometimes a hierarchy is just what you need

By Paul Rauber

October 13, 2018


Can the U.S. military do for environmental protection what it did for racial integration? It certainly has that potential. Unique in American society for its size (enormous) and structure (the original “command and control”), the armed forces have the muscle to enact sweeping change—once they set their minds to it. Former Sierra senior writer Marilyn Snell captures that battleship-changing-course moment in her new book, Unlikely Ally: How the Military Fights Climate Change and Protects the Environment (Heyday, 2018). Sierra spoke to her near our Oakland office. 

Sierra: How did a writer for Sierra come to write a book about military policy?

Marilyn Snell: In 2005, Bart Semcer, a Southern California field organizer for the Sierra Club, contacted me. He’d been working with environmental groups in north San Diego County to create a nature preserve, and the marine corps base at Camp Pendleton had gotten involved because they needed a buffer zone between them and the development crunch around the base. At the time we were in the middle of two wars and I just didn't want to give the military free PR, so I avoided doing it. But Bart bugged me mercilessly, and I decided to go down there and see what was going on. I spent two or three days at Pendleton with Major General Michael Lehnert, who was commanding the base. And I found out that he was changing the way the marines looked at environmental stewardship.

Camp Pendleton is the last bastion of untrammeled nature between the LA metropolis, the San Diego metropolis, and all the bedroom communities to the east. It’s 195 square miles of what California looked like a hundred years ago, 80 percent of it undeveloped. It's got 17 miles of coastline and is the major installation for ship-to-shore training on the West Coast. And it also has 18 threatened and endangered species that—by law—they have to conserve and protect.

What I found was that the base was practicing robust stewardship when it could have gotten away with doing the bare minimum. For example, Pendleton has the largest colony of the California least tern left in the world. In the 1970s, when it was placed on the endangered-species list, I think there were only 19 pairs on Pendleton and 225 pairs left on Planet Earth. It wasn't just Lehnert, but by the time he left his command in 2009, there were over a thousand pairs on the base alone.

On the buffer zone issue, Camp Pendleton had jumped into the fray on the side of the conservationists. They threw down some money in addition to organizational and leadership skills. Lehnert was making it real at Pendleton, and as regional commander of Marine Corps West, his ethic permeated other installations as well. 

Many Sierra readers will assume that the military is mostly concerned with blowing things up. What’s the Defense Department’s interest in sustainability? 

During the Afghanistan War, the brass started quantifying the casualties associated with protecting fuel-supply lines, and it was something like two deaths per 50 convoys. They started to understand that dependence on fossil fuels had a direct impact on their troops. They began doing things like providing solar panels on forward operating posts. James Mattis, who is now secretary of defense, called on the Pentagon to untether the military from fossil fuel. Because he got it. 

Overall, of course, the military does not have a good reputation when it comes to environmental stewardship, particularly when it comes to toxics. But one Southern California army base, Fort Irwin, is a standout, and it's all because of leadership. There's a loophole in the law that allows military bases to openly burn toxics, but Fort Irwin made it a policy not to use it—they do it right. There’s a wonderful woman named Justine Dishart who’s the head of hazmat in their environmental division. “We have our OCS team out there every day,” she told me, making sure, for example, that units rotating in from around the country documented all the toxic substances they brought. "What does OCS stand for?" I asked. "Well," she says, “our team is out checking shit every day.” 

Between the environmental movement and the military, who has more acronyms?  

That's a toughie, but I think the military does. At Miramar Naval Air Station, I was talking to the head of their energy department about their work with the National Renewable Energy Lab to do a micro grid. I was a little nervous, and when I referred to the lab, I pronounced its acronym “Nay-ral,” like the National Abortion Rights Action League. I saw the look on his face and understood that that was probably not right. For future reference, it’s pronounced “En-rel.” 

I understand that your book actually broke some news about how California put limits on the amount of renewable energy its military bases can generate.

It's true! Commanders and operations directors at various bases kept telling me that they wanted to generate more renewable energy to improve their energy security, but that there was a piece of legislation that capped how much they could produce. I asked a California energy expert about it, and he said there was no such cap. But it piqued his interest. Three days later he emailed and said there was some language that had been stealthily inserted into an omnibus bill that had absolutely nothing to do with energy issues that placed the cap of 12 megawatts on the amount of renewable energy that military installations could generate. Miramar alone needed 14 megawatts to offset its onsite needs, and Pendleton needed twice as much. 

The people responsible for the cap knew that I was writing about it. My book went to press in May. In June, they again inserted language into legislation, this time to lift the cap. It's crazy. It's also infuriating that this kind of really important public policy is being decided in backrooms in Sacramento without any public input whatsoever.

Your book takes place in the Obama era, when there was strong support for renewable energy and sustainability efforts. What will happen to these initiatives now in the age of Trump? 

That's a really good question. I asked the commanding generals, and they all said we're still committed. But I wanted a reality check, so I went to somebody who had been really involved with the Department of Defense in the Obama administration and knows that culture really well. I said, please just give it to me straight because I don't want to make an idiot of myself. And they said that they believed that there has indeed been a change on the “uniform side,” as they say, and that there really is an understanding that climate change in particular is a national security issue. They may be more subtle about it now and say "resilience" rather than "renewable energy," but it's ingrained in the culture now.

Why is that?

A lot of military people are hunters, so they have an appreciation of nature from that. Plus, it's a command and control world. If a commander with an environmental sensibility wants things done on base, the order comes down and you don't ask questions. You execute. In the marine corps, the attitude is, I may not have thought about this on my own, but the order comes down and we're not just gonna do it; we're going to do it better than anybody else.