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Climate Change Shaping Navy Plans

Continuing with the green theme at this week’s Naval Energy Forum in McLean, Va., Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Gary Roughead said there is no denying the link between fossil fuel use and global warming.

While one expects climate change to be discussed at a forum devoted to finding ways to improve the Navy’s energy efficiency, it was still a bit of surprise yesterday to hear the CNO link carbon emissions to rising sea levels so matter-of-factly.

Perhaps my surprise is a sign of being so tightly enmeshed in the Washington D.C. political circus that one forgets climate change denialists are now a fringe element and that responsible parties have moved on to addressing the consequences of a real threat.

The Navy has set up a climate change task force to examine rising sea levels and other implications of a hotter planet on future naval operations. Roughead said the Navy expects littoral areas, site of current and future naval operations, to change “markedly” as sea levels rise. Global weather patterns are also changing due to deforestation in parts of the Pacific which will lead to larger and more damaging storms.

Global warming is opening previously icebound sea lanes in the Arctic, although it will be decades before transportation becomes profitable and danger free for shipping companies, he said, as there is still a lot of ice in the northern reaches. Nevertheless, “as we begin to think about going north, it requires different ship designs, ice hardening, the environmental systems, heating and air conditioning, to operate in that area, need to be different.” There will definitely be a race for resources on the Arctic sea bed and the Navy must plan accordingly for that new theater of operations, he said.

Echoing comments made earlier in the day by Navy Secretary Ray Mabus, Roughead said the Navy must become more energy efficient as rising fuel costs are cutting into his operating budget. All future shipbuilding decisions must factor in a ship’s lifetime operating costs, he said.

I asked him if that calculation will change the number of nuclear powered vessels in the fleet. Not necessarily, he said, as nuclear power plants are “very expensive to build, very expensive to maintain and very expensive on the human capital side.” With some vessels, “you are solidly in the nuclear side” when platform lifetime operating expenses are calculated. With smaller ships, such as the Littoral Combat Ship, he hopes for advances in non-fossil fuels to bring down operating costs.

He worries about losing nuclear power plant operators to the private sector. “Leaders of some of the major nuclear manufacturers and operating companies tell me that: ‘When we grow we know where we’re going to get our operators and maintainers, and that’s the U.S. Navy.’ So that drives the cost of people up.”

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