Lawmakers ask Biden to make sure DOD follows climate rules

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The Pentagon has said it will not seek an exemption to the climate goals.

More than two dozen lawmakers sent a letter to the president on Friday urging him not to exempt the Defense Department from an executive order signed last month that’s intended to cut greenhouse emissions and ease the climate crisis.

The order, which President Joe Biden signed Dec. 8, allows agencies to seek exemptions from requirements in cases where pursuing the goals set by the administration would hurt national security. The Pentagon has said that it does not intend to request any exemptions and is committed to reducing emissions. 

“There’s some reporting out there as well suggesting that DOD is exempted from the president’s executive order requirements around federal sustainability. Just to say, that’s actually not accurate,” said Joe Bryan, the Pentagon’s chief sustainability officer, said at a Center for Climate and Security event this month. “The department is fully committed to the objectives in the sustainability executive order. We’re moving aggressively in many sectors because we think this is the right thing to do…By no means is the department exempt.”

Still, the 28 Democratic members of the House and Senate who signed the letter worry that such exemptions might be sought by the Defense Department, which is the top energy consumer in the United States and accounts for more than half of federal government emissions. 

“We will neither achieve the reductions necessary to avoid the most catastrophic effects of climate change nor meet our economy-wide obligations under the Paris Climate Agreement while ignoring the climate impact of the U.S. military,” the letter says. 

The order sets multiple goals for federal agencies, including using 100 percent carbon pollution-free electricity by 2030, purchasing only zero-emission vehicles by 2035 and cutting greenhouse gas emissions levels by 65 percent by 2030. It allows agency leaders to exempt activities or personnel from the requirements “when it is in the interest of national security, to protect intelligence sources and methods from unauthorized disclosure, or where necessary to protect undercover law enforcement operations.” Vehicles used in combat support, training and spaceflight can also be excused from the requirements. 

The Pentagon has not announced any intention to use this authority to exempt anything from the order, according to John Conger, a former Pentagon comptroller.

“I have heard no plan or no announcement or no indication that they intend to request that exemption,” Conger said. “If you listen to DOD, they want to achieve the goals in the executive order.”

The exemption, he said, is just making sure there are no “accidental implications” on national security. Like the lawmakers, “DOD wants to see these goals accomplished. The president wants to see these goals accomplished. I think everyone is on the same page.”

Erin Sikorsky, director of the Center for Climate and Security, agreed that the lawmakers’ letter could represent both a misunderstanding of the executive order and a push to make sure the Pentagon to follow through on the goals set by the president, adding that operating in a more efficient manner is good for the Pentagon’s mission as well as the planet.

“I do think within the Biden admin we’ve really seen a step change from the Pentagon and DoD in their willingness to step up on climate security issues,” she said. “It may be a past understanding of how the Pentagon approaches these issues that’s coloring some thoughts.”

National security agencies released four documents in October that detailed how global warming will lead to increased geopolitical tensions, more instability driven by strained energy and food infrastructure, and additional need for humanitarian and military aid as people seek to escape climate impacts. Climate change is also expected to strain international alliances if countries begin to argue about who is responsible for the world’s problems and who is not acting quickly enough to solve them.  

The Pentagon also released a Climate Adaptation Plan in October that lays out how the department can continue its operations in spite of the changing climate.

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