The Military Can Lead on Energy Innovation and Environmental Justice, Starting in Georgia 

Agent Orange application

By Sherri Goodman and Monica Medina

While our nation’s first priority must be to tackle the COVID crisis, we must also address the challenge of climate change and the opportunity of the energy transition in a way that creates more jobs and improves health and safety for more Americans. Today, our military, in Georgia and around the country, has the opportunity to lead by example as we tackle the climate crisis and create the energy innovation economy that will bring the United States back into global leadership while also addressing environmental justice domestically.

We hope this week Georgians will elect leaders who will fight for our military communities that have borne the brunt of these hazards. We know that the Democrats, Jon Ossoff and Rev. Raphael Warnock, want to lead on environmental and racial justice for Georgia.

From rising sea levels to dangerously high temperatures, here at home servicemembers’ safety and training are increasingly impacted by climate change. The Department of Defense (DOD) ranked Fort Benning in Columbus as the number one base for heat-related illness cases from 2014-2018, and more soldiers are suffering and dying from heatstroke in this decade than ever before.  Additionally, DOD identified other climate-related threats as a serious cause of concern for military readiness, from frequent flooding at Kings Bay Submarine Base in St. Mary’s and Hunter Army Airfield near Savannah, to wildfires at Fort Gordon in Augusta. These threats also affect the economic stability, health, and wellbeing of the families and the communities that surround and support these installations.

Environmental degradation posed by both toxic pollution and climate change endangers not only service members, but also our military families and communities. Like in most of the United States, environmental justice is racial justice – Georgia is no different. Columbus, home to Fort Benning, is 45 percent Black; Hinesville, where Fort Stewart and neighboring Hunter Army Airfield are located, is 46 percent Black; and Augusta, the home of Fort Gordon, is 57 percent Black. Studies show that communities of color on and off base are disproportionately affected by exposure to a wide range of toxins and chemicals used around these bases – from air pollution to water contamination.

The military is both a victim of climate change and responsible for causing hazardous pollution. In military communities, rotting and moldy base housing, toxins in the drinking water, and the use of cancer-causing “forever chemicals” such as PFOA/PFAS (named as they persist almost forever in human bodies and the environment) are not uncommon. These chemicals harm those who sacrifice to keep Americans safe, putting at risk military families and especially the vulnerable in these racially diverse communities. In recent years, these issues have received little attention, and the military should ensure they are not responsible for harming these host communities.

We know that progress is possible with dedicated leadership and smart policies.  At the end of the Cold War, under the leadership of former Georgia Senator Sam Nunn, the Senate created the Strategic Environmental Research & Development Program (SERDP) to help transition DOD research to advance solutions for the military’s most pressing environmental and energy challenges. The responsibility to carry out this program rested on Sherri’s shoulders as the first Deputy Undersecretary of Defense for Environmental Security. She oversaw the military’s efforts to create better clean-up methods for contaminated bases and to improve energy solutions. During Sherri’s tenure, our military went from being an environmental laggard to widely recognized as an environmental and clean energy leader. Monica was raised in Georgia and attended college on an Army R.O.T.C. scholarship — during her time in military service, Monica helped to start the cleanup of the Army’s chemical weapons storage sites across the country and saw first-hand the benefits to those communities.  And during Monica’s time in DOD during the Obama administration, she helped usher in a policy to recognize and care for service members and their families who had been harmed by exposure to agent orange.

These pollution issues are hardly new to the military.  Twenty-five years ago, Sherri issued the Pentagon’s first and only environmental justice policy. It was designed to address the disproportionate impacts of pollution on low-income and communities of color around military bases. It prioritized dialogue between the military and base communities to clean up pollution, and ensure clean drinking water and healthy neighborhoods. This policy needs to be updated for the twenty-first century, incorporating new and existing climate risks and harmful chemicals affecting defense communities. DoD ought to revive this policy under its new leadership.

Today, clean energy innovation opportunities for our military are greater than ever before.  For example, the Marine Corps Logistics Base in Albany GA has deployed one of the military’s first renewable energy microgrids and installed a large-scale solar facility to both improve energy security and increase renewables. As the nation’s single largest energy user, the military can work with the Department of Energy (DOE) to develop new energy technologies, from microgrids and hydrogen fuels, to renewables that will help the military and our nation build back better.   We can leverage veterans already leading in the clean energy economy, creating well-paying manufacturing and electrified transportation jobs. Our military and its communities – leveraging both DOD and DOE – will help the U.S. regain its competitive edge and global leadership on climate and clean energy solutions.

Georgia, with its many military bases, stands to benefit from both Presidential and Senate leadership that understands that climate and clean energy are an urgent opportunity. Our defense readiness depends on sound and thoroughly implemented environmental and energy policies. Now we have elected a President who will prioritize the health and safety of service members, and the communities on whom they depend.  But we hope that this week Georgia will elect two Senators who will continue to fight to ensure our military leads by example in pursuing environmental justice, clean energy, and sustainable military communities.

Sherri Goodman is the Former Deputy Undersecretary of Defense for Environmental Security, and Monica Medina is the Former Special Assistant to Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta and Co-Founder and Co-Publisher of Our Daily Planet

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