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Energy Awareness Month - Commentary: Energy dependence, climate change remain leadership challenges

WRIGHT-PATTERSON AIR FORCE BASE, Ohio -- As a clinical neuropsychologist who has studied the intricacies of how the human brain operates for the last 20 years, it still remains fascinating to observe the difficult process of change, even when negative consequences and facts are within clear view. For example, the negative effects of driving under the influence of alcohol, smoking, and obesity are abundantly clear; unfortunately, many people continue to engage in these behaviors.

America's enormous energy appetite and the insidious encroachment of climate change are two issues that are also impacting all of us, and calling upon us to make significant changes in order to adapt; but this change too is coming very hard.

March 2012 will be known as the hottest March on record since record-keeping began in 1895. In the first three months of 2012, more than 15,000 warm records were broken, which was a surprise even to those who study climate trends. A May 2009 report with a military advisory board of 12 retired generals and admirals noted climate change and its threat to national security, proposing that "climate change, national security, and energy dependence are a related set of global challenges." These same concerns are noted in the Quadrennial Defense Review 2010, the four-year path for the military.

Our current Secretary of Defense, Leon Panetta made similar comments last month when he spoke at the Environmental Defense Fund reception.

He said, "In the 21st century, the reality is that there are environmental threats which constitute threats to our national security. For example, the area of climate change has a dramatic impact on national security: rising sea levels, to severe droughts, to the melting of the polar caps, to more frequent and devastating natural disasters all raise demand for humanitarian assistance and disaster relief. "

Mr. Panetta mentioned the reality of environmental threats. Seeing reality as clearly as possible is how society advances and evolves. It's one of the first steps in the change process and it can be very difficult because research shows that it takes more evidence to change a belief that is already established than to form a new belief. With regard to our energy use, moving away from fossil fuels toward renewable and alternative resources appears to be a daunting task because it requires people to change their minds. This is the challenge of leadership.

Through education and leadership, we can transform the way people think about energy which will influence our decisions that have long-term impacts on the environment, and on future generations. One leader in the conservation movement stated that the commitment to "going green" is a mile wide, but an inch deep. It appears as though it's time to dig in and to borrow a quote from Winston Churchill, "It's not enough that we do our best, but do what is required."

One step in doing what is required is to have "power down" weekends like military personnel are doing at other installations. During three- and four-day weekends, the entire base population makes a concerted effort to shut off all unnecessary electronics -- one base saved $77,000 during one long weekend. What if all military bases made "powering down" the standard practice for each and every weeknight and weekend? What kind of an impact would that have on our military budget? Wouldn't this perhaps influence everyone's behavior when they returned to their homes every evening?

A leader at another base said she never walks into a room where a light is on because the culture has changed, and people turn off power when it's not needed. In a recent book by the Texas billionaire T. Boone Pickens he said he had to "break ranks" with geologists about climate change. In a telephone conversation I had with him three years ago, he further stated, "I'm not going to sit around and wait to see if it happens. It would then be too late to respond." Similarly, "You're either part of the solution or part of the problem; we cannot continue business as usual," a retired Navy vice admiral said in his call for Americans to rethink their energy issues. These examples highlight "breaking ranks" and how leadership can help guide others toward solutions.

Many Americans are now seeing the need for solutions in light of our unprecedented climate change, as well as our declining oil supply. Using energy more efficiently and creating new energy options will require strong leadership throughout every level of government, involvement from the private sector, and from every American.

Mr. Panetta further stated, "We have to be able to have the potential to transform the nation's approach to the challenges we are facing in the environment and energy security. We've got to look ahead to try to see how we can best achieve that." Looking toward the end of the fiscal year, shouldn't at least 50 percent of end of year funding be funneled toward more energy efficient solutions? Teddy Roosevelt once said that "in utilizing and conserving the natural resources of the Nation, the one characteristic more essential than any other is foresight."

We have a precious opportunity to follow the wisdom and learn from distinguished former military leaders who had the foresight to lead us in the direction toward many of the new energy-efficient changes that our Air Force is considering and many that are already in use. There are bound to be many challenges as a new generation of ideas evolves, however, these new perspectives will allow us to power our planet more efficiently and respectfully.

Jeffrey Immelt, the CEO of General Electric stated, "What we lack in the U.S. today is the confidence that is generated by solving one big, hard problem -- together."

Tackling energy dependence and climate change both qualify as big, hard problems that will require sustained effort and sacrifice from all of us, with the goal of a more sustainable future. While it would be nice if the Civil Engineering Directorate could tackle these problems for us, these issues are too complex and far reaching to be addressed without everyone's involvement.