I feel the need, the need to cut carbon emissions. Photographer: Alberto Pizzoli/AFP/Getty Images
I feel the need, the need to cut carbon emissions. Photographer: Alberto Pizzoli/AFP/Getty Images

U.S. conservatives make at least two arguments against action on climate change: We don’t have enough conclusive evidence to prove it is happening, and even if we did, the cost of cutting our carbon emissions would be too high. The U.S. military has been quietly rebutting both those arguments.

Start with the issue of uncertainty. Rather than endlessly debate whether climate change was real and would worsen, the military made a priority of dealing with it starting in 2010. It's protecting naval bases against flooding, using less water in areas prone to drought and preparing for more power failures. The result is that bases use less electricity and are better able to withstand extreme weather.

Climate Change

The rationale for that approach is straightforward. "We look for indicators, warnings, reasons to take actions that are prudent," said Dennis McGinn, the Navy's assistant secretary for energy, installations and environment, at a congressional hearing in May. The alternative is "to completely place a bet on one particular certainty happening."

The Department of Defense has also demonstrated that cutting carbon emissions can be done sensibly. It's using more alternatives to oil, making its vehicles more efficient and designing lighter-weight equipment. It's getting more employees to work remotely, more often. It has gotten rid of unnecessary vehicles, and replaced more of those that were left with smaller vehicles or ones run on electricity. And it has issued stricter energy standards for new buildings.

The military frames those efforts in terms of saving money and reducing its dependence on vulnerable supply lines, not dealing with climate change, but the result is the same. The department's domestic greenhouse-gas emissions fell 9 percent from 2008 to 2012. The military's goal is a 34 percent reduction by 2020.

Those cuts are the accumulation of many small achievements. The amount of petroleum products used by military vehicles fell 20 percent from 2005 to 2012, according to a department report, with a 30 percent target by 2020. The use of alternative fuels increased 128 percent from 2005 to 2012. (By contrast, alternative fuel consumption nationwide increased 23 percent from 2005 to 2011, the latest year for which data is available.) The amount of energy used per square foot of building space fell 19 percent from 2003 to 2012.

Those changes aren't enough, by themselves, to make a meaningful dent in the country's overall carbon emissions -- even though the military uses $20 billion of energy a year, more than any other single U.S. consumer. Rather, its efforts matter because they underscore two principles crucial to the debate over climate policy.

The first is that old habits can change, quickly, and without compromising performance. If the U.S. military can reduce its carbon footprint without sacrificing its mission of protecting the country, it's worth asking whether dire warnings about the costs of reducing carbon emissions in the broader economy are overblown.

The second lesson is that it's folly to wait for perfect information on climate change. As a group of retired military officials argued in a report earlier this year, if you wait until you have 100 percent certainty, something bad is going to happen. There's no reason not to apply the same logic to U.S. climate policy more broadly.

Of course, unlike the military, the federal government can't impose wide-scale changes by decree; it needs to win public support. That starts with convincing voters not to let the perfect be the enemy of the good, and that the costs of action don't need to be crushing. The military is showing both points to be true.

To contact the senior editor responsible for Bloomberg View's editorials: David Shipley at davidshipley@bloomberg.net.