Energy, climate and the military

Nevada’s location gives it a role

While physicist Maureen McCarthy introduced him, Lee Gunn was miked up by a technician at a gathering of the National Security Forum of Northern Nevada.

While physicist Maureen McCarthy introduced him, Lee Gunn was miked up by a technician at a gathering of the National Security Forum of Northern Nevada.


A paper, “Energy Security in Nevada” by Maureen McCarthy, can be read at

Retired U.S. Navy vice admiral Lee Gunn never mentioned Donald Trump during his remarks to the National Security Forum of Northern Nevada last week. But Trump was present between the lines of his speech nevertheless. He was in town to talk about the “linkage between energy and national security.”

On coal, Gunn said, it is a mistake to “support and sustain a dying industry.”

At two international conferences he has attended recently, he said, the delegates from other nations spoke about their work in the energy field. And they asked, “What the heck is happening in the United States?”

He praised state governments and the U.S. Conference of Mayors for their leadership in continuing to enforce in their jurisdictions the COP 21 climate agreement signed in Paris. More than a thousand mayors have signed onto that effort.

He said, “It would be nice to have federal leadership on this right now.”

Although the U.S. government’s executive branch is headed by a climate change denier, the Pentagon is one of the most active and aggressive agencies in dealing with the problem. After Gunn retired from the Navy, he joined the Center for Naval Analyses, a nonprofit corporation that does federally funded research and development for the Navy and Marine Corps. Previously called the CNA Corporation, it is now CNA Analysis & Solutions and has four divisions—education, energy, water and climate—that give it a leading role in planning the military response to climate change and “assured” electrical power.

Gunn’s remarks to the Reno group were wide-ranging, raising some issues about which the public has seldom heard. He said the nation’s electricity system works well given the fact that it wasn’t designed. Rather, it is a patchwork of systems. In the early days of electricity, he said, lines were stretched to a county line and then stopped there. It would be picked up by another jurisdiction months or years later.

That system is pretty vulnerable, he said. The leading source of attacks on power facilities is—squirrels. There are also more than 200 annual incidents of what he termed “mischief”—non-political attacks on such facilities. As an example, he said, 17 rifle shots were fired at the Metcalf transformer station near San Jose on April 16, 2013. The Silicon Valley and its region was without electricity for half a day, and the Metcalf station was shut down for half a year because of the damage to the transformer. Power companies, he said, do not keep spare transformers on hand because they are so expensive, and it takes months to build replacements.

One exotic issue the public knows little about is that the U.S. power system is vulnerable to an electromagnetic pulse attack. He compared it to the Sept. 1, 1859 “white light” solar flare that lasted about five minutes, the impact reaching Earth the next day and lasting two days, lighting up the northern hemisphere with green, blue and red auroras, killing and injuring telegraph operators. Telegraph lines caught fire. Teletypes scorched paper, printed gibberish and continued to function for hours after being unplugged.

Gunn said he does not know whether the United States can wield an EMP as a weapon because he had no need to know when he was in the Navy, but the Pentagon believes Russia has such a weapon, and “right now there is no solution.”

An EMP attack “absolutely could … take down the United States,” he said.

In December, the Air Force released a report that received greater attention overseas—the London Daily Mail called it “shocking”—and said the U.S. is largely unprepared for such an attack, that it could eliminate all electricity, kill 90 percent of the people on the East Coast and lead to chaos worldwide. North Korea, Russia and Iran have been developing such weapons, the report said.

Few facilities that need to be protected against an EMP with “hardened” exteriors are so outfitted, Gunn told the Reno audience.

Boeing is working on developing an EMP weapon for the United States and is also developing aircraft that can ward off EMPs—each of which is expected to have the price tag of an aircraft carrier—including a new Air Force One. Trump has said several times that he is working on reducing the cost for the new Air Force One, but a transportation trade website has said Trump’s “assertions have repeatedly proven to be hollow and now it is becoming clear that the program’s price tag has actually leaped considerably.”

Other, more familiar threats to the system are just as difficult to manage. Drought can reduce the electricity produced by hydroelectric generation, and the West has experienced two long, major droughts in the last 30 years.

There were issues Gunn raised without seeming to realize they are hot buttons in Nevada. Fracking and the drone killings have drawn criticism in the state. Gunn spoke of the need for both. Both state and federal Nevada legislators have introduced language to curb fracking. And drones—which are guided to their human targets from Creech Air Force Base in Nevada—have been protested and picketed at Creech.

Gunn said Nevada’s location and the progressive approach of its state government to renewable energy issues deserve praise.

In an interview the day after his speech, Gunn said the best protection the U.S. has against an EMP attack is the “disincentive” other powers have to use such a weapons. If Russia employed one against the United States, he said, it would cripple Russia’s own financial system, which is interlocked with the U.S. East Coast financial sector.

He was also asked if the military community has dealt with climate skepticism in its ranks as other sectors of society have. He said there were climate skeptics when the military first started coming to grips with the problem, and there still are. But he said the military’s task was made easier because climate change itself had to be dealt with, and military officials could avoid the whole issue of whether it is caused by humans.

That’s a matter for policymakers, who must decide whether to try to reduce climate change. The military must cope with its already present effects.

For instance, coastal military bases in the U.S. and overseas locales like Guam must cope with rising water levels that threatened to submerge existing facilities at 128 sites in the United States and around the world. Thus the Pentagon can move ahead with dealing with the effects of climate change and leave its prevention to other agencies.

Gunn: “The first question that they needed to answer was ’Is the climate in fact changing fast enough so that the national security apparatus will have trouble keeping up?’ And they spent a while satisfying themselves that, yes, the scientific evidence was sufficient to convince them that not only was it changing quickly, it was going to continue to change quickly. And there were going to be effects that the military had to deal with in organizing training and equipping and in organizing operations as well.”