Ship Happens! How the U.S. Navy is adapting to and fighting climate change.

The U.S. Navy has made substantial headway combating and adapting to climate change


Recognizing the Threat

As global temperatures rise, ice sheets melt, and sea levels rise, no organizations are more affected than those whose business requires them to operate on the world’s coasts and seas. As such global warming is of paramount importance to the United States Navy. Furthermore, the Navy itself also contributes to the problem. The Pentagon is the largest consumer of fossil fuels on earth and the Navy composes just over a third of that consumption.1 As the Navy will both be greatly affected by climate change and also significantly contributes to the global carbon footprint, it has both the incentive and power to act to reduce global carbon emissions.

First, the Navy set out to determine how global climate change would affect their operations. The 2014 Quadrennial Defense Review states, “…climate change may increase the frequency, scale, and complexity of future missions, including defense support to civil authorities, while at the same time undermining the capacity of our domestic installations to support training activities.”2 As a result of these eventualities, the Navy instantiated Task Force Climate Change (TFCC). TFCC divided the potentially affected lines of business into the following categories: plans and operations, training and testing, built and natural infrastructure, and acquisition and supply chain. A full recounting of their findings is beyond the scope of this article, but is included in Reference 3.  In summary though, climate change will require increased resources in the arctic as more natural resources are exposed and conflict erupts, lost training time, degradation of access to ports from flooding and erosion, and increased supply chain complexity3. The direct effects described above are relatively quantifiable and generate great cost for the Navy. The indirect effects, such as increased conflict over scarcer natural resources, are much harder to predict and quantify, but potentially have far greater financial cost and certainly a greater human cost.

Developing a Plan

Based on the findings of TFCC, the Navy developed a roadmap to combat climate change. This was first delineated in the 2010 report Climate Change Roadmap (CCR) and modified in the 2014 Climate Change Adaptation Roadmap (CCAR). First, the CCAR required a survey be performed of all coastal installations. Those that were deemed at risk were assigned to have a more thorough vulnerability assessment which is still on-going. Based on the results of these detailed surveys, infrastructures modifications will be made (i.e. levees, breakwaters, etc…). Next, the task force conducted a review of existing policies relevant to geographies likely to be affected by climate change. Fifty eight documents were identified and are now undergoing revision. Finally, the Navy evaluated their supply chain and identified areas where additional stockpiles were required. Many of these actions are still on-going, but the framework has been instituted to address the identified vulnerabilities from climate change.

Walking the Talk

All of these actions, so far, do not address the issue of carbon emissions from routine operations though. In order to address their own carbon footprint, the Navy partnered with CDP. CDP is a non-profit organization that runs a “global disclosure system for investors, companies, cities, states and regions to manage their environmental impacts.”4 By bringing their substantial purchasing power to bare, the Navy was able to pressure its suppliers to take a more environmentally friendly approach. For their own fossil fuel consumption, they set up a framework to minimize their emissions. They evaluated and recertified every fossil fuel burning ship and aircraft to use biofuel. Their approach to this was conscientious and they required that the fossil fuel not require any engine modification, no performance reduction, did not take any land from food production, and that it was cost effective. Once they had addressed their two largest contributors to carbon emissions, they sought to “go off the grid” and make all Navy ground installation energy independent. They signed the largest alternative energy deal a federal agency has ever signed. This deal gave energy companies the incentive and capital to develop green energy plants in order to supply Navy installations. Finally, they even addressed small issues, like switching traditional lightbulbs to LED. This simple change can lead to a 20,000 gallon annual fuel savings on a destroyer.1 It is both economical and good for the environment. All of these actions are helping achieve the goal of having half of all energy requirements met by alternative sources by 2020.

The Navy provides an example of how an organization dedicated to being good stewards of the environment can use its power to elicit change. They have been able to reduce their own carbon footprint significantly, encourage others to do the same, and are in the process of altering their strategies to adapt to changing environmental conditions. They achieved all of this at a net cost savings. Other organizations can do the same.

Word Count: 788 (excluding footnotes)




1 Excerpts from Secretary of Navy Ray Mabus Address to CDP. (

2 Quadrennial Defense Review. (

3 Climate Change Adaptation Roadmap. (

4 CDP Homepage. (


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Student comments on Ship Happens! How the U.S. Navy is adapting to and fighting climate change.

  1. I’m impressed that the Navy was able to make such a dramatic, sustainable change to its operations. I imagine this required an incredibly large investment, but you mention it this was achieved at a net cost savings – do you know if the Navy did this cost / benefit analysis prior to initiating these sustainability efforts? I’m also curious to see the percent reduction in Naval carbon emissions resulting from these efforts.

    1. I tried to find that reduction, but couldn’t. I’m guessing because it’s not that impressive. I think they would advertise it more if it was something impressive.

  2. The Navy has a ton of ports – in essence, a bunch of seaside property. I wonder if they’ve assessed the property risk as sea levels rise, and what their investments are going to need to be in order to keep their ports functional. Assume this will be a much larger investment than LEDs / fuel switching on ships, with little to no payback beyond being able to continue operations.

    Also wonder if, given nuclear subs are basically the only recently-built application of nuclear power in the US, if the Navy has / will do anything to push towards nuclear 2.0?

    1. I actually really wanted to discuss this in my article, but just didn’t have room. The problem with Navy nuclear is they’re all pressurized water reactors. They’re inherently safe, but incredibly expensive. There are a number of new technologies that are also passively safe, but don’t require the expensive materials to maintain high pressure. The problem there is the extremely long lead times for regulatory approval. I actually think clean nuclear is the future. It’s too bad there’s so much political stigma associated with it.

  3. Amazing to see what the American Navy has been doing!
    Do any of these changes you mentioned stem from proprietary Navy technologies? Can private companies learn from the Navy or buy tech so that they can achieve similar results? Also, can the US share some of these practices with their allies? If I’m not mistaken, ships are major CO2 emitters and the world would greatly benefit from reduced ship emissions.

    In addition to that, I also would love to hear more about nuclear alternatives and how they compare to other clean energy sources.

  4. Bravo. I am impressed by the Navy’s leadership as one the leading fossil fuel consumers to set such high standards in lowering carbon emissions, by relaying the efforts to their supply chains as well as leading by example. It seems though a lot of the battles have been a win-win scenario for the Navy. I wonder what factors will matter when the decision comes to a choice between cost and performance, and if those factors will differ significantly vs. other arms of government or corporations.

  5. What an insightful post! I think the most interesting piece is that the Navy has thought about the indirect effects of climate change, specifically conflicts that will arise as a result of more scarce resources. The other really interesting facet you brought out is just the sheer scale of the Navy. It intuitively makes sense that a small change carried out across such a massive organization would have a massive impact, but putting the actual numbers out there really makes it an eye-popping fact.

    The other great part about what the Navy is doing is that they’re demonstrating the cost savings that come along with being more conscious of the environment. That will set a great example for the rest of the world.

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