Following a recent report on the U.S. military’s greenhouse gas emissions, Sharon E. Burke wants to set the record straight. She is a senior advisor to New America, where she focuses on international security and Resource Security, a program that examines the intersection of security, prosperity, and natural resources.  Burke served in the Obama Administration as the assistant secretary of defense for operational energy, a new office that worked to improve the energy security of U.S. military operations. Prior to her service at DoD, Burke held a number of senior U.S. government positions, including at the Department of State in the George W. Bush Administration, and was a vice president and senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security. She is a member of PCAP’s National Advisory Committee.

The US Military’s Fuel Profligacy in Context

Brown University Releases a Misleading Report
National Guard fueling up for Hurricane Florence relief efforts, photo by Sgt. Brian Calhoun
June 24, 2019

War consumes and war destroys — lives, money, and resources. As Americans, I think we sometimes have the luxury of forgetting that. We have such a big economy that it masks the money and resources side of that equation and we have not fought on our own soil since the Civil War. Today, there are around 18 million veterans, meaning that less than 10 percent of the population has any direct experience with combat (with the exception of Americans born in other, conflict-torn countries). That’s astonishing, when you consider that the country has been at war about 50 percent of the period between the end of WWI and now, according to this interesting infographic from the Department of Veterans Affairs.

Which is all a long windup to a short critique of a recent Brown University report on the U.S. military’s greenhouse gas footprint. It’s easy to find through a search if you want to read it, but I’m not going to link to it, because while I think it’s an interesting report, it’s also problematic. It is not false, in the sense that the core point — that the U.S. armed forces consume a significant amount of fuel, which means they generate a significant amount of greenhouse gases — is true. The corollary point, that the Pentagon’s energy supply line, both fuel and electricity has the potential to be a vulnerability, is also true. There are small inaccuracies throughout the report, such as claiming that the Department of Defense refuses to report its fuel consumption to Congress, citing a 2004 Financial Guidelines report, with admittedly baffling language. The Pentagon does include requests for the Working Capital Fund (which is how they pay for fuel) in the annual budget request, and the Defense Logistics Agency-Energy publishes energy consumption figures, albeit in retrospect (the 2018 Fact Book is now out). No, the really big problem with the report is that it’s fundamentally misleading.

First, there’s the contention that the Department of Defense is the single largest institutional consumer of energy in the world. That is probably true, though the Chinese military is not exactly transparent about fuel or anything else, but it’s important to unpack what that really means. The U.S. military is not the only large institutional consumer in the United States; American Airlines consumes just about the same amount as the Department of Defense, for example. The commercial airline industry, as a whole, consumes far more.


This report received much news coverage, with many outlets seizing on the comparison to a country, and Sweden, in particular, seemed amusing. Now, I would be a big old hypocrite to call that out, given that I helped pioneer that particular comparison ten years ago, but again, it’s all about context.

US_Sweden.JPGThe U.S. armed forces consume a great deal of fuel in large measure because the United States consumes a great deal of fuel. It is the United States itself that is the world’s largest consumer of fuel; the Department of Defense accounts for around one percent of total U.S. energy consumption. The military is a microcosm or a reflection of our national greenhouse gas footprint, not the cause of it. Moreover, it is not the military per se that consumes the fuel, but the mission that requires it. If you don’t like the military’s greenhouse gas emissions, your real complaint is with the politicians who send them to war, which is an entirely different point.


There’s a core reason this is important, in my view, and why I’m taking the time to object to what is otherwise an interesting report. There’s an implication in this piece that somehow, we can point the finger at the Pentagon — as though they are a big part of the problem when it comes to climate change. With so few Americans serving in the armed forces, that may further suggest it is someone else’s fault, and someone else’s burden to carry. This is not true: each of us is contributing more to the problem by getting on an airplane than the U.S. armed forces are by driving fuel-guzzling tactical vehicles (which, after all, do not travel very many miles in any given year). This report conflates anti-war sentiment with climate change, to the detriment of both. Don’t get me wrong: the Department of Defense should do more to improve its energy security. Even more important, the United States should be fighting fewer wars and devoting just as many resources to building peace as we do to building weapons. But that will not stop runaway climate change: only civil society can do that.