Globalist Analysis

The U.S. Military and China as Environmental Soul Mates

Is an unlikely bond forming between the United States and China when it comes to the environment?

Creating a new economic model.


  • With the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff emphasizing that "Saving Energy Saves Lives," we see a vision similar to that of China's top policy leaders.
  • The U.S. Department of Defense and the People's Republic of China both understand that a "systems thinking" approach is key.
  • Thousands of American soldiers have died transporting fuel and water in combat. Energy dependence on hydrocarbon fuels remains a tactical and strategic vulnerability.
  • The U.S. Department of Defense and the PRC both understand that hydrocarbon fuel dependency is a grave weakness — and both are determined to become energy independent.

In the United States, it is the Department of Defense (DOD) that is leading the national government’s efforts in clean energy demand and utilization — on the grounds of common sense and energy security.

Unlike the American public, the military is on the front lines of wars designed to safeguard national security.

Thousands of American soldiers have died transporting fuel and water in combat. Energy dependence on hydrocarbon fuels remains a tactical and strategic vulnerability for all nations — despite the fact there are “low-hanging fruit” alternatives available and even though the means exist by which proper investment could reap the difference between winning and losing, living and dying, peace versus war.

Why is the U.S. military in the lead? The autocratic model that defines its internal structure allows for tasking with little interference, hence a better chance for success — or destruction — depending on the policies. This is true of most armies, and also a few nations — specifically, the People’s Republic of China (PRC).

This then gives us one of the world’s most curious pairings of reform-mindedness. The U.S. Department of Defense and the PRC both understand that hydrocarbon fuel dependency is a grave weakness — and so are actively investing money and resources into creating avenues to become energy independent. Both understand that a “systems thinking” approach is key and that “energy security” is the great pivot.

Thanks to President Obama’s recent Presidential Memorandum of Understanding between the DOD and the Department of Energy, which fast tracks new clean technologies, a clear path emerges for the DOD to drive the new energy economy, as it still has money to spend and the will to make it work.

Under the Office of the Secretary of Defense at the Pentagon, the Operational Energy Plans and Programs (DOEPP) office is the focal point for energy budgeting and funding, with a multi-billion dollar budget at its disposal. DOEPP is bringing a sustained focus on energy aspects of combat capability as a means of supporting the operational mission from an energy perspective.

Using a similar command-and-control approach, China has triggered meaningful reform through its massive investments into renewable energy technologies within its 11th Five-Year Plan ($181 billion investment) and 12th Five-Year Plan (between $700-800 billion).

Intentionally or not, it aims at a new economic model of sustainable growth. With manufacturing capabilities firmly established in China, the country now has the means to manufacture products and systems to begin supplementing their current energy infrastructure, and eventually replace the outdated system entirely.

According to Han Xiaoping, president of the Far East Wind Power Corporation, China’s priorities are to develop nuclear power, wind power and hydropower. Specifically, the goals will also include large-scale projects such as revamping China’s auto industry to begin manufacturing new-energy vehicles.

The entire society will begin shifting away from hydrocarbon fuels as demand is met through the implementation of alternative energy resources.

Is a United States-China collaboration possible? My own experience working with both sides continues to show me that impossible things are actually possible if there is shared understanding.

Here, the situation is one of relevancy. Clean energy infrastructure can create jobs and markets all over the world. It also supports sustainable life.

If we continue our current “growth” trends, we will have perpetual wars over the last dregs of hydrocarbons. It is in the interest of a continuation of agreeable life that a new path emerges.

As a member of the mostly DOD “Energy Consensus” network, I worked for four years as Senior Communications Specialist for the DOD-initiated “The Energy Conversation,” a 29 government agency and department collaboration on energy literacy. On the Chinese side, I have served as an advisor to The International Fund for China’s Environment (where I currently serve on the Board of Directors).

In November 2005, I led a three-week international clean energy delegation, meeting with Chinese mayors, business leaders, provincial government leaders and NGO and Chinese Government Planning and Reform Commission members to discuss energy projects, diplomacy and forward-looking strategies to develop international clean energy partnerships and alliances.

On my return to Washington, D.C., I briefed then-Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld. Motivated by the facts that China and the rest of the world were moving forward using our own innovations (technologies invented in America but unable to develop further without subsidies to compete against oil and gas), he responded by initiating the Pentagon’s leadership to address the energy issues at play for DOD. So began an earnest agenda to face the facts of our energy insecurities.

Five years later, the Pentagon Energy Security Event in October 2010 was a groundbreaking energy leadership coming-out party for the military.

It culminated with technology and policy demonstrations from all services — the very top leadership of four-star officers stood up and showed their support for a shift towards alternative energy technologies and platforms utilizing these energy resources in order to enhance operational security.

With Admiral Mullen, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, specifically emphasizing the point that “Saving Energy Saves Lives” and that our Forces need to think holistically, we see a vision similar to that of China’s top policy leaders. And with DOEPP in place and fully funded, guided by the very smart leadership of its director, Sharon E. Burke, energy will now enjoy a level of attention by DOD officials that heretofore was lacking.

Ultimately, what is created is a new kind of “theater” — the construction of a sustainable energy infrastructure that combines the existing resources of an environment with minimal dependency on hydrocarbon fuels. This is the first step towards building a durable “peace economy” that is based on the robust diversity of the myriad of renewable technologies that we need to power the world and that the world now demands.

These models require collaboration and cooperation with other nations to be successful. The United States and China can work together in a broad range of clean technologies that create sustainable prosperity. Indeed, it is in this kind of partnership that we will help stabilize relations between the two nations and build a positive shared vision.

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About Nora Maccoby

Nora Maccoby is an energy strategist and an award-winning filmmaker based in Washington, DC.

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