Over the past 25 years, a Department of Defense program has supported environmental research and produced new sustainable technologies that saved money through key advances in energy efficiency and resiliency, groundwater cleanup methods and weapons systems performance. Today, the Strategic Environmental Research and Development Program, or SERDP, is taking important steps toward preparing military bases and their surrounding communities for the impending effects of climate change.
In 1990, Congress — led by Senators Sam Nunn, D-Ga., and Al Gore, D-Tenn. — created SERDP to bring the vast research and development capability of the U.S. defense establishment to bear in addressing defense environmental challenges. A few years later, I became the first deputy defense undersecretary for environmental security. I learned quickly that SERDP-supported research, no matter how promising it appeared in the lab, was unlikely to be of practical use (cleaning up contaminated bases, helping commanders comply with air, water and waste laws, etc.) unless we could demonstrate, validate, win regulatory approval for and get these technologies into production and use.
We were ultimately able to bridge this “Valley of Death” thanks to the Clinton administration’s focus on environmental technology as a “bridge to a sustainable future” and an organizational shift that elevated my office within DoD’s acquisition, technology and logistics efforts. With our new demonstration and validation program — clumsily called the Environmental Security Technology Certification Program, or ESTCP — we modeled the processes used to get weapons systems technologies through demonstration, evaluation, validation and, ultimately, into production and use.
We aligned our goals with those of the military services and their community end users. We watched successful programs engage regulators and relevant private-sector companies all along the way. And we used these lessons to create ESTCP as a companion program to usher environmental technologies from SERDP’s early stage R&D, through approval and certification, and out to the real world for use.
For more than a quarter-century, this approach has supplied the U.S. military with advanced sustainable technologies that improve military performance, save money and reduce health and air pollution risks. For example, alternatives to chrome-plating aircraft components and new chemical agent resistant coatings for tactical vehicles have saved hundreds of millions of dollars and reduced waste, health and environmental risks. Other SERDP technologies have vastly improved how groundwater and unexploded ordnance are cleaned up, saving billions of dollars from conventional methods.
Even once “intractable” pollutants, such as chlorinated solvents and perchlorate, are yielding to new ideas and technology. Of course, SERDP hasn’t done this on its own. Over the years, more than 500 private companies have helped with nearly a thousand demonstrations. Through it all, the program has enjoyed crucial and bipartisan congressional support.
In the past decade, nearly 100 of these demonstrations have concerned clean-energy technologies that reduce cost and improve energy security, including secure microgrids, efficient integrated buildings and on-site energy generation. Sixty of these demonstrations are currently going on, with another 25 slated to launch in 2020. Many use DoD facilities.
Now DoD is turning its attention to climate risks: specifically, building resilience in natural and built infrastructure on bases and in surrounding communities. Mission-critical DoD installations face numerous climate-related risks, from sea-level rise at the Naval Academy and Norfolk to flooding at Offutt to drought reducing water supply at multiple bases in the west. Utilizing SERDP research, DoD is developing a tool to assess the climate vulnerability of 60 locations for each military service. Just as SERDP created an energy test bed at DoD facilities to test advanced energy concepts, now is the time to create a climate-security test bed.
SERDP is already turning its focus to the topic. The program recently released a call for projects that address “infrastructure resilience to climate and weather extremes over the lifetime of building and infrastructure system function.” Selected projects will receive funding and kickoff in 2021.
The call for proposals acknowledges that new military infrastructure must have climate-resilience measures designed and built in. These could include ways to better integrate natural infrastructure solutions into the built environment. Some of the climate technologies allow for improved prediction of the impact of various climate perils, such as flooding, heat and fire, on specific assets, such as drydocks or aircraft hangers, within time frames that military planners can make better future planning decisions. A climate-security test bed will also be useful for testing methods to supply electricity and drinking water to troops under changing climate conditions.
While this funding proposal will undoubtedly foster new climate solutions, it is only a start in an area that deserves greater investment in the future. Recent defense bills have recognized that climate change is a national security threat and called on DoD to develop a holistic strategy to guard against the mounting damage from extreme weather events that we have already begun to experience. DoD is newly directed by Congress to develop military installation resilience plans (MIRPs). When we clearly have the foresight to better predict and plan for this coming climate disruption, we have a responsibility to prepare and plan toward infrastructure and base resilience.
Today, it’s easy to forget that, 25 years ago, DoD was known more for being an environmental laggard than an environmental leader. A climate-security test bed could be a piece of ushering in a new era of climate security and environmental security leadership for the department.
Sherri Goodman is a senior fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Center and the Center for Climate & Security. She served as the first deputy undersecretary of defense (environmental security). She is also the founder of the CNA Military Advisory Board on Climate Change, Energy and National Security, and the co-founder of the new International Military Council on Climate & Security, whose World Climate Security report will be released in February 2020.