Global Warming vs. US National Security

Mackubin T. Owens

August 1, 1998

Record-breaking heat has begun to put “Global warming” back in the news. The report by government scientists that there was a significant spike in the Earth’s temperature during the first five months of 1998 has led to a call for swift Senate action on the treaty to limit “greenhouse gases,” negotiated last December in Kyoto, Japan. At Kyoto, the Clinton Administration committed the nation to a plan reducing US greenhouse gas emissions to a level 7% below that of 1990, essentially returning the US to 1979 levels.

Despite recent concerns, Senate consent to ratification remains in question for at least three reasons: first, skepticism about the scientific assumptions upon which the treaty is based; second, the likely adverse economic consequences of the agreement; and third, Kyoto’s national security consequences. Unfortunately, this last issue has generated little discussion.

The most potentially dangerous national security consequence of the Kyoto Protocol is the very real diminution of US sovereignty that results from granting international bodies the power to impose regulations and burdens on American citizens without the approval of Congress. A case in point arises from the accord’s ambiguity when it comes to greenhouse gases generated as a result of military operations and other related national security activities.

The federal government is the largest single user of energy inside the United States, and the Department of Defense (DOD) is the largest user within the federal government, accounting for 70% of the government’s total. Accordingly, DOD is a likely source of emissions reductions if the Administration is to achieve the level to which it agreed at Kyoto.

But according to an internal DOD memo subsequently made public, reducing DOD fuel usage by 10 percent, a not unlikely target, would have a significant impact on unit readiness of US ground forces, steaming time for US Navy ships, and flying hours for the aviation components of all the services. The memo states that in the event of such a reduction, it would be difficult for the American military to meet the requirements of the US national security strategy.

The Administration has sought to defuse the controversy by pointing to the Protocol’s exemption of multilateral military operations “pursuant to the United Nations Charter,” and claiming in testimony before Congress that all US military operations in the current security environment would thus be exempted. Administration witnesses have even gone so far as to claim that such controversial operations as Grenada and Panama would have met the standard for exemption. All of this is questionable. And in any event, all domestic military operations, including training and the operation of facilities would count against the US limits.

The Kyoto Protocol generates at least five potential dangers to US national security policy. First, the treaty’s ambiguity and the Administration’s subsequent lack of clarity and candor in congressional testimony make it easy for pressure groups, both domestic and international, to hamstring US military power. They could do so by subjecting to scrutiny every movement of US military forces, whether in support of US security obligations abroad, or training exercises at home, arguing that greenhouse gas use was improperly accounted for.

Second, these same ambiguities make it conceivable that foreign governments and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) could sue US military forces for violating the Kyoto limits in either an international court or even the courts of a foreign country. Because the US military operates globally, it is particularly vulnerable to this sort of legal action.

In this regard, the Administration’s claim that the exemptions for multilateral military operations covers all conceivable uses of the US military is either naive or disingenuous. Domestic reaction to the use of military force is frequently harsh, even in the case of such clearly multilateral operations as Desert Shield/Desert Storm. Foreign reaction is even harsher. What could critics of US military policy during Grenada, Panama, and the Gulf War have been able to do had the Kyoto Protocol been in effect at the time?

Third, unless the administration or Congress denounces the unacceptable aspects of the Kyoto Protocol and precisely clarifies the circumstances and conditions under which greenhouse gas emissions may be counted against its national limit, the US may find itself required by customary international law to adhere to the Protocol, despite the fact that the Senate has not given its consent to ratification. In any event, it is likely that new bureaucracies, both domestic and international, will proliferate and seek to establish constraints on the legitimate exercise of US power.

Fourth, there are no enforceable mechanisms to ensure compliance. Indeed, some argue that the Protocol is inherently unverifiable. The practical result would be that, while it would difficult, if not impossible, for the US to verify compliance by other nations, the US always would be expected to err on the side of compliance. This was the case with arms control during the Cold War when verification mechanisms, though far from perfect, were far superior to those of the Protocol.

Accordingly, fifth, the US would be penalized for being a global military power. In effect, Kyoto imposes a greenhouse tax on the US military presence that underwrites global security and prosperity, which can only serve to weaken its influence.

Short of rejecting the Kyoto Protocol outright, defense and foreign policy experts agree that, at a minimum, three steps must be taken to minimize Kyoto’s impact on US national security. First, Congress and the Administration must clarify how the Protocol will treat military operations.

Second, the Senate should insist on a blanket exemption for US military operations, including those that are unilateral, before it even considers giving its consent to ratification of the Kyoto Protocol. The House has taken an important first step, passing an amendment offered by Rep. Ben Gilman (R-NY) to the 1999 Defense Authorization Bill that exempts US military operations from the US’s Kyoto emissions limits. The Senate should follow suit in conference, and the President should accept the conference language. Finally, the military must be protected against legal action, domestic or international.

The fact remains that the science upon which the Kyoto Protocol is based is too shaky to justify the very real dangers that the agreement poses to US national security.

Mackubin T. Owens is an Adjunct Fellow at the Ashbrook Center for Public Affairs at Ashland University.