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How the Biden administration's climate goals align with the military

A MARTINEZ, HOST:

The Department of Defense did something new this week. For the first time ever, it hosted an energy expo in the giant courtyard right in the center of the Pentagon. It was like a trade fair for renewable tech. NPR's Quil Lawrence stopped by to see how the military's mission is aligning with the Biden administration's climate goals.

QUIL LAWRENCE, BYLINE: Deputy Secretary of Defense Kathleen Hicks moved quickly along the tents at the expo, asking questions about the hydrogen-powered drone or the giant autonomous tractor that serves as a remote-controlled power station and the hybrid electric tactical vehicle.

KATHLEEN HICKS: What's the charge time on something like this?

LAWRENCE: Hicks asked about fuel efficiency.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: What this does is save about 75% fuel when you're idling.

LAWRENCE: But the conversation quickly turned to tactical.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: So...

HICKS: Does that also help in survivability - heat signature, noise...

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: So it will for silent watch.

HICKS: ...Sort of staying quiet?

LAWRENCE: Silent watch - troops can be hiding out using all their high-tech surveillance equipment silently instead of letting the diesel truck idle noise give them away.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOTOR RUNNING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: And you just heard it power on. That was great timing.

LAWRENCE: Right on cue for contrast, the engine kicked in to recharge the battery.

HICKS: How often is it cycling?

LAWRENCE: The Biden administration has instructed the Pentagon and all federal agencies to prioritize climate change. But Hicks says that does not distract from the military's main mission of fighting wars.

HICKS: That mission alignment, the war fighter purpose and the view of climate as a national security challenge are fully aligned in cases like this.

LAWRENCE: Hicks mentions the KC-135. That's the tanker that refuels jets in midair. A new design that makes it just 5% more fuel efficient means fewer dangerous missions to fly and a longer time in the air and cost savings.

HICKS: So for that KC-135 example, we're looking at cost savings of $35 million a year and also, by the way, 125 kiloton reduction in greenhouse gas emissions.

LAWRENCE: Cutting greenhouse gases may be mentioned last, but the military does seem sold on the dangers of climate change, says Elizabeth Field with the Government Accountability Office.

ELIZABETH FIELD: Whether it is a training exercise that has to be postponed or an installation that is completely shut down for days or for months because of a severe weather event, it's becoming increasingly real to them. And so I don't think there's a lot of selling that has to happen, but there may be some real challenges when it comes to capacity.

LAWRENCE: Field says the GAO is looking into whether the Pentagon has the capacity to look away from the immediate conflicts or natural disasters or the next war to make long-term changes as sea levels rise and weather gets extreme. Deputy Secretary of Defense Kathleen Hicks says there has been a cultural shift, but it's clear that any changes here at the Pentagon need to be...

HICKS: Good for the climate - but more important than anything here in the Department of Defense is essential for our war fighters.

LAWRENCE: Quil Lawrence, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Quil Lawrence is a New York-based correspondent for NPR News, covering veterans' issues nationwide. He won a Robert F. Kennedy Award for his coverage of American veterans and a Gracie Award for coverage of female combat veterans. In 2019 Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America honored Quil with its IAVA Salutes Award for Leadership in Journalism.